This morning when my alarm went off, my bedroom was filled with the dull grey of an overcast sky. The house was chilly, so I decided to stay there beneath the covers for a bit longer than usual. I reached for my iPhone so I could do my customary early-morning scan of my email, getting a sense for what would face me when I “officially” started work a bit later in the morning.
One of the first emails I read was news of the death of a man I cared deeply for. He was about my parents’ age and had suffered with pancreatic cancer for the last year and a half. The email was from his wife, a dear woman who wrote beautifully of her husband’s last moments. “Our family has had quite a week. Mike struggled with pancreatic cancer and metastasis into his lungs over the last year and a half. Now, Mike struggles no more.”
After going to the emergency room last week because of intense abdominal pain, the doctor discovered damage to his intestines and kidneys caused by chemotherapy and radiation. Kathy wrote, “The doctor asked Mike about removing the IVs and changing the focus of his care to comfort. Mike was very aware of his situation, and told the doctor, ‘Yes, please, and how soon can you remove them? Can I have a piece of chocolate?’ At 3:00 PM Sunday the IVs were removed and Mike was informed he could have some chocolate. At 8:15pm Sunday, our dear Mike passed away.”
I read through Kathy’s email several times, and as I did, I thought about the last time I saw Mike. He and Kathy had been at IAM’s Encounter in March, and I had spoken with them briefly a few times. Since then, Mike and I had emailed back and forth several times, me checking in on his condition and him writing candid responses about his latest prognoses. We knew his time was short, but I had not expected this email. It seemed to happen so fast.
As I usually do when I hear sad news, I tucked it away and went about my morning. I generally do not react to very bad news right away. When my grandmother died, I was on tour with a theater company, playing a lead role in a children’s musical. I learned of her death moments before going on stage. My performance that day was no different from any other. It was not until that evening that I began to “feel” the effects of her passing, and it really was not until days later, after singing at her funeral, that I cried for her loss.
The same was true of my grandfather’s death. I received the news and remained quite stoic as I sent emails to my boss and co-workers informing them that I would be away from work for a few days, made my travel plans, flew to Michigan, picked up my rental car, greeted family, sang at his funeral, and played cards with my relatives that evening. It was not until I was sitting on the airplane to go back to New York that I cried for the first time.
So this morning, I read the email through, thought about Mike, and then continued about my morning routine. I poured a cup of coffee, read two chapters from the Bible (Mark 5 and 6), began thinking about the day ahead. I returned a call to my aunt, fed the dog and cat, washed the dishes in the sink, and tidied up the house a bit.
An hour and a half later, I was at my computer and I opened Facebook. One of the first posts in my news feed was my friend David Taylor’s announcement of the birth of his first daughter. “I am so in love with this little girl I think I might pop. Here’s Ruby Blythe Marie Taylor’s Facebook debut. Chunky-cheek yum yum. Born 10:46 pm on Sunday, September 11.” Ruby was born two hours and thirty-one minutes after Mike died.
Both of these events took place on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. That was the day that millions of people were going about their days when their routines were immediately disrupted. At that time of day ten years ago in New York City and Washington, DC, many were checking email, pouring a cup of coffee, reading the Bible, on the phone with a relative or friend, feeding their pets, cleaning up their kitchens, tidying up their homes, and suddenly everything changed. Of course, the events of 9/11 were a surprise.
Not so with Mike and Ruby. Mike’s death was anticipated. So was Ruby’s birth. One with sorrow, the other with great joy, and as I sit here holding these two pieces of news in my heart, I am feeling the reality of the “now and not yet” more than ever before. Richard John Neuhaus described what I’m feeling right now quite well:
“On the one hand, we have come to Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem. On the other, we have here no lasting city but seek the city that is to come. This is frequently described as the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ of Christian existence. Christians live ‘between the times’—meaning between the time of Christ’s resurrection victory and the time of its cosmic fulfillment in the coming of the promised Kingdom. All time is time toward home, time toward our true home in the New Jerusalem.”
Today, my heart is between the times. Sunday in Seattle was one of the most beautiful days I’ve seen. It was sunny and warm, and my husband and some close friends and I went hiking in the Snoqualmie Pass. Climbing the trails, I felt so alive. My muscles felt strong, my skin eager for the warm sun shining down on us. I was walking closely with my husband, whom I love so deeply sometimes the joy of it feels like an ache. When we got to Lake Margaret, the view was stunning, and though the water was frigid, we all took the plunge, coming up from the water with all our senses heightened by the cold, refreshing baptism of a glacier-fed lake.
On Monday, the weather had changed dramatically. The sky was overcast and the temperature was chilly, and a sense of “fall” was in the air. By yesterday, I was feeling it on a very visceral level. Throughout the day, a soft hint of melancholy tugged at my heart, my head aching slightly with the the overwhelming sense of both loss and hope. Loss of the weather I love, loss of sunshine, loss of outdoor meals and warm hikes and leaving the front and back doors open so a breeze could flow through the house. Hope for… I don’t even know what. Just, hope. Perhaps, because I am in Christ and Christ is in me, hope is so much a part of my DNA that even when I can’t articulate what I am hoping for, I am hoping. Perhaps that is part of the miracle of Christ in me: the hope of glory that cannot be driven out by any sorrow or loss or melancholy.
I made a big pot of vegetable soup for dinner and served it with rolls fresh from the oven and lots of soft butter. I kept busy throughout the evening doing laundry and puttering around the house. But when my head hit the pillow, I was grateful for the warmth and coziness of my bed, which means a lot to me especially when the weather is cold. Most nights I lie there, fading to sleep, deeply grateful for the mercy of a warm bed. I am well aware it is a privilege to sleep in a warm bed, while many on earth do not.
And then, today, the news of Mike and Ruby. The sorrow of one, the joy of the other. The reality of death, and the miracle of life. I ache with sadness for Kathy, even as I ache with delight for David and Phaedra. I grieve the passing of summer, and I welcome the delights of fall: fresh bread in the oven, soup simmering on the stove, warm, fuzzy slippers on my feet, bundling up for a walk with my dog, layering up for a hike with my husband, planning recipes for the holidays.
Before we know it, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving in the San Juan Islands, even as Kathy is grieving her first holiday without Mike, and David and Phaedra are delighting in Ruby’s first Thanksgiving. Christmas, too. And while joy will be present in both places, Mike’s passing will coat one household with yearning, and Ruby’s birth will coat another household with enchantment.
And all of this, of course, points me to Jesus – his life, his death, his resurrection, and his return. Mike would want it that way, and so will Ruby, I expect, someday – she has been born to two people who love Jesus and will lead her to love him as well. Mike’s passing is a stark symbol of the way things are now, when death still has permission to exist. For a while longer, death will continue to rob, kill and destroy.
But Ruby is an even greater symbol, because her new life is a profound emblem of hope, the hope of new birth, and life with Jesus now and forever. The tears that are pouring from my eyes as I write this are tears of grief and joy. Yet these tears will one day no longer be needed. The burning in my throat as I choke back tears, considering the gift of Mike’s presence on earth and being encouraged by his joy and zeal for art and beauty and music and sucking the marrow out of life, will be gone, because there will nothing left to grieve or yearn for.
Instead, there will be joy.
Sunday was, as it turns out, a time to be born, and a time to die. It was a time to plant, and a time to uproot. It was a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
I find that every single day, I live somewhere between these two “times.” As Newhaus wrote, “Each world penetrates the other. The present is, so to speak, pregnant with the future to which the future gives birth.” Yet even the darkness of death is not completely dark, because a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Christ is coming, and Mike’s body will not just be restored, but glorified.
As I make my way through the day ahead, I will continue to contemplate these things. I will return email, set up my new office sofa/guest bed, go grocery shopping, write articles, spend hours on social media, send cards. I will make dinner for my husband, plan worship songs for Sunday, and do whatever else needs doing before I go to bed tonight, all the while, my thoughts penetrated by the now and the not yet.
And through it all, a breath prayer will be on my lips, echoing the words of my brother in Christ who prayed two thousand years ago: “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”