When I was still a pre-teen (I'm not sure when, but I think in Portland, Texas, around 1969 or so), I remember not the time but the experience of hearing the hymn "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand and Cast a Wishful Eye." I think it was the boisterous melody and rhythm that caught my attention, along with the lyrics which I could easily understand. I also remember some kind of visual of a storm over a body of water, dark and menacing. There were no music videos in those days, so I must have been looking at some sort of children's hymnal with illustrations. Maybe I was at a children's choir rehearsal or "Intermediate Training Union" (you Baptists may remember that terminology). I remember deciding to learn that song, and I still have an echo of that memory each time I hear or sing it today.
Recently, reading from Henri Nouwen's In Memoriam, I was reminded of that hymn again. The short book begins by telling of the warm reunion with his mother when she was terminally ill, and the blessing and joy of being together. He was reminded of the many ways in which her faith and faithfulness had anchored him and held their family together. But after their initial time of gathering, he describes a dramatic change that happened in his mother. She became less able to communicate. She had moments of obvious struggle. She seemed no longer at peace, but often disturbed, fearful. She seemed to him to be in a fight against whatever evil, temptations, and doubts that she had suffered during her life. He interpreted these days as a final battle as she prepared for the end of her life, a storm through which she was having to pass.
I thought through her last days. From March to July 2013, there were many ups and downs with treatment and constant pain. She was committed to do all that she could to keep living with us, and for the most part she pressed through whatever came, asking for help that she needed from us. There were times when she became discouraged by the pain, but we kept seeking answers and trying to find a way to getting better. Our family trip in May was for her a great triumph and celebration. There was only a short time remaining, but none of us knew that. We kept looking at houses in Austin, hiring inspectors, thinking about how to fit all five of us in a house together, and even negotiating a contract. At the same time, the cancer was doing its own work. When our house-buying plan collided with the tumors' deadly growth, the time was nigh. The doctors diagnosed the situation, and we learned there were no more medical solutions available. We made the transition to hospice, and Everly lived less than one more week.
During that week, she did not have the same kind of struggle that Nouwen saw in his mother. She was very vocal with her fear initially that she would be deserting us when we need her. But her trusted friends shouldered their priestly role in granting her absolution, reassuring her that she had done all that she could do and all that God would expect of her. They told her they would make sure her children never went hungry or had no place to lay their heads. And she received this grace and began to rest.
If she had the kind of struggle about which Nouwen writes, it was during her first month after the diagnosis in 2012. Already very sick, and considered potentially beyond help from medical intervention, she entered the hospital and received her first dose of chemotherapy. Anyone who was following her story through this illness remembers that the first treatment almost killed her. In that first crisis, she fell deeper and deeper into a stupor. Her body became weak. She could not eat and had to be fed through a tube. She slept constantly, and emerged to waking dreams and hallucinations. She sometimes awoke with fearful concern about some matter from work or from our family life, needing to give one of us instructions on what we needed to take care of, urgently. Sometimes these troubled conversations dealt with some relationship or other matter about which she believed she had done wrong and things needed to be set right. I know I was not the only bedside companion who served as her minister in that time of trouble. Perhaps, during that time, it was the stormy Jordan she saw before her, and she felt her need to face the dangers head on and get herself ready for that crossing.
She came out of that initial sojourn in the wilderness with a new outlook on her life. She took on the disciplines needed to regain her strength and to resist deterioration. She talked of the peace she had made with her career and her previous years of hard work toward a powerful mission. She considered what she wanted her remaining years to count for. And through many ups and downs, she made them count as much as possible toward the goals of taking care of her family and reminding us of the beautiful life we had shared and would keep on sharing.
I don't mean that her 15 months, minus that first month-plus of hospitalization, were constant sunshine. Everly certainly had fears and worries. She was a worrier, but not to despair. And she did not handle pain well. Many of you have heard her say honestly, "I'm a wimp." She did not like to get stuck for an intravenous tube. She did not like any treatment that made her burn, or get chills, or get poked or prodded. But that part of her life was not so different from before we had to face cancer. Of course, every time we had to get a new CT Scan and reevaluate her progress, there was anxiety. When the news was not as good as we hoped, there was disappointment and concern. I'm not trying to sugar coat things, but I think it is accurate to say that Everly did not face that kind of struggle against her potential dying as a constant overwhelming problem after the beginning. She was not resigned to die, but she was not terrified by it either. When she looked back at her experience of making it through those terrible days in 2012, she would tell us stories and share insights as one who had been through a great ordeal. She spoke as one who knew something beyond what most anyone had known, having approached the brink of death, looked into it, turned back from it, and rededicated herself to a life worth living. I think you will forgive me if at times I sound like I'm writing hagiography, but what I want to say is that she had faced something, had passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and she did not need to repeat those experiences and lessons again. She already had learned that even there, God is with her.
So as I look at her last days in July 2013, I don't see intense dread. She became upset sometimes as she dealt with losing control over her body, growing too weak, too tired, too foggy-brained to act independently. But these were flashes and passing moments. It was difficult to speak, but she would suddenly enter a conversation with perception, instructions, and even jokes. It was hard to swallow well, and she would cough as one who felt she would choke, then rest again. Mostly, she was at peace with her children and all of us who cared for her around her.
I think we saw more of this struggle toward the end in the prolonged illness of Everly's father, Herbie. His struggle was longer and painful in a different way. He observed himself slipping into dementia and losing the strength from his athletic body. He was exhausted but could not sleep peacefully. The waking dreams were deep struggles for him. I am not talking about his character or trying to say Everly did better. I am merely describing a difference in the progression of mind and body. Herbie's illness incited his brain in different ways than Everly's, stirring partial memories and robbing him of awareness of the loving people around him. He feared being left alone and called out for Marie, his wife, at all hours. He found himself running a race or fighting an enemy when he was simply in bed with family standing by. He had fought so many battles, solved so many complex problems, trained his body and worked hard for so many years. As that slipped away from him, he continued to fight and run.
What Nouwen learned, and what we learned from Everly and Herbie, is that our loved ones struggle. Even when they have hidden it from us so well, they have had their struggles throughout their lives. Some of those struggles come back to them as they take account of their lives and look ahead to what may remain. Herbie was grateful for such a rich life, for the devotion and love of his marriage, for three talented and intelligent children, and for so many friends and young people with whom he had shared that life. He hated to see that go, and the progress of his disease elicited his will to fight. But some joys persisted through it all: especially loving to be with Marie and eating ice cream. Everly's illness took a different path. But with both of them, we could honor their struggles and rejoice with their joys.
Herbie had been very clear about his approaching death while he was still able to communicate, before the strokes took his clear speech away. He had had a good life, and he was ready to die. It hurt him deeply that Everly's life would be cut short, while he might live on after having already lived a full life. Like any parent, he would rather have taken her place so that she could live on. Long before he died, he had "cast a wishful eye to Canaan's fair and happy land." And as we numbered Everly's last days, she also faced with a willing heart that she was "bound for the Promised Land."
I think that in writing about this, both Nouwen and I are striving to be honest, to tell the truth. Dying often is not, as many of us hope and imagine, an easy slipping away. It is not only having family together and saying good-bye. It is also a struggle to let go of the only good that we have known and to face the ways that we did not live in every way as we had aspired. I can't think of any more appropriate way of handling our grief over Everly than being honest about our living and being honest about our dying. We get so focused on our own experience of our loved one's death, and that is to be expected. What Nouwen did, and what I have tried to do here, is also to collect and put together the clues we have of what our loved one went through. We can't say we know it with certainty, especially those periods when they were not able to speak to us about it. But we can take what they did say, and what their convictions have been, to see through a glass darkly, until that time that we see face to face in "one eternal day where God the Son forever reigns and scatters night away."
No chilling winds or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore.
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death,
Are felt and feared no more.