On the Day I Died…
One year ago today, I died.
Not a spiritual, metaphorical death, nor the death of a dream, but a true, physical death.
During a major surgery, I bled out and my heart stopped.
I know this because (spoiler alert) I woke up in the ICU the next day. There were more tubes in my body than I thought possible, not just in my nose and mouth, but also in my neck, chest, and arms. Waking up was startling, but Allison was there, a familiar, albeit abnormally concerned face. As Allison tried to calm me down and keep me from grabbing at my tubes, some nurses entered through the ICU curtain. These weren’t the ICU nurses that had been coming in every 15 minutes to check vitals, these were my surgical nurses – the ones who had been with me through four previous surgeries. I was startled to see them because I’d never had a post-op nurse check in visit, and more, because they were sobbing. They wanted to come visit me and to see if I was alive. I listened as they explained to Allison what had happened during the 7 hour surgery.
They explained that one of my tumors, the grapefruit sized one, had fused to my aorta, and when they attempted to cut it out, my aorta shredded and I bled out. They told us about my heart stopping, about the emergency blood transfusion, and about trying to put my body back together. They told us about my main surgeon losing it on everyone in the room, and how he refused to let me stay dead. I wish I remembered more and I’m simultaneously grateful for the grace that allows me to only recall vague details.
I remember freaking out with the energy of someone who is heavily sedated and I remember Allison holding my hand. I remember snippets of the next several weeks; of losing a kidney, of having to use a walker to move, of one of my surgeons showing up every day just to sit with me, even on his days off. I remember a lot of pain and discomfort, I remember a lot of setbacks, and I remember the day we got to come home. But I don’t remember death.
And I know the stories; I know what’s supposed to happen when you die and come back to life. I’m supposed to see a glimpse of heaven and then I get to write a book and speak about it and retire to Asheville with a hot tub that overlooks the mountains. I know I am supposed to return with this renewed purpose, of all of life coming into complete and perfect perspective. It’s supposed to be heroic and inspirational because if it’s a sin to “waste your cancer,” then I can’t begin to imagine the consequences of wasting death. I’m supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude for my second chance at life like some sort of Ebenezer Scrooge who gets to run into his redemptive Christmas morning.
I didn’t have a “Christmas morning”, and even a year later I barely have running. I have renewed battles with everyday life, with treadmills and yoga mats, with acceptance of limitations, with waiting for the next chapter of post-cancer life to begin. The dilemma with battles is that they sound more victorious than they feel. In truth, what I really have is healing and scars and rhythms of scans and ultrasounds and blood work forever. I have quiet joy and I have lament.
It’s in lament that I have found the clarity of death. It’s in the depth of the overwhelming odds and weeks in the hospital and the painful recovery. It’s in a body that, even one year later, still hurts and functions differently than it was intended. It’s in scars that share stories of survival and it’s in quiet, small victories.
Psalm 77 is (currently) my favorite lament. Read the whole thing, but in verse 19 Asop writes, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” A lot of this journey has felt less like journeying and more like drowning. Like the clouds pouring with water, the depths convulsing and overwhelming us. This day a year ago was full of sentences like, “we were just so afraid you wouldn’t come back” and “I’ve been in a lot of surgeries, but I haven’t been more scared then when we lost you.” Today of all days those words echo in my head. There is such a unique grace in dying and staying dead. There is such ample mercy in dying and getting to live.
But there was and is a path through these tumultuous waters. It’s an unseen path but at some point your head breaks through the waves and you gulp in air. And when you look back you don’t see a path. You don’t see a set of footprints. You see the water. You see where you were. You see where you are. Annie Dillard describes it this way: “There is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer, it is grace.”
When we move through seasons/moments/years of lament, we let go of our control and we wait. It isn’t prayer, but grace that moves us before God. It is grace that we wait and it’s grace that guides our path through the sea. Sometimes we drown and sometimes we get to fill our lungs once again. There is beauty and grace in storms if we choose to see it, if we choose to be fully present in it.
And so today, especially today, I am reminded to be present, not because this is the anniversary of the day of my death, but because I’ve learned this year that it’s in being present that I am led through storms. It’s in being present that we are reminded what grace truly is. It’s in being present that we tell the stories of being led through the waters, of the battles we waged against the waves, of the scars left to remind us that battles can be won and lost. It’s in being present that we truly begin to understand incarnation. It’s in being present that our lament is heard and we get to move through the storm, though the path is unseen, and through the seemingly endless downpour. It’s in being present that we do not find meaning or significance because of our struggles, but are reminded through them of the holy significance that we have always had.
Death is not the end of the story. It wasn’t a year ago, it isn’t today, and it won’t ever be. So take deep breaths of quiet joy, and tell stories of lament. Though the way is unseen, there is grace in every storm.