Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; there simply is no other way. And it is my prayer, as I wade through my grief in whatever words may come, that my pain will not produce bitterness or doubt in the hearts of those reading, but rather a renewed sense of hope. My broken heart and my attempts at rationalization are ugly, they’re harsh, they’re unpleasant, but they have a purpose: to bring glory and praise to the name of the Lord. So I plead with you, as you read this post and subsequent entries, do not assess a sentence or even a paragraph as a complete idea that can stand on its own; instead, view them as required entities in a progression toward an undeniable conclusion: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.
Shortly after Kailen’s passing, her parents and I were sitting around a fire, airing out our grief and letting it drift toward the stars along with the smoke. We talked, we laughed, we cried – hard, and eventually, we were silent. The September night was crisp and there was a slight breeze rustling the wind chimes.
I had laid my head back and closed my eyes when Kim, Kailen’s mom, broke the silence. “Throughout all this,” she said, “I’ve sometimes wondered about the different ways parents lose their children. Nothing could ever lessen this searing pain—I know that—but if I were forced to choose between losing her instantly in some sort of trauma, or losing her slowly, as we did, I guess I would choose what we experienced. Words don’t express how much I hate the sheer war-like torture you two endured, or how quickly I would have given my own life for hers, but I’m thankful for the moments we did get. I’m thankful for the time together. I’m thankful we got to say the things we wanted and needed to say.” Jeff, Kailen’s dad, considered the statement and agreed. Those three years, despite being subhumanly torturous, had given us time to cherish her, care for her, and try to find some minute level of peace amid the crisis.
Meanwhile, I had opened my eyes and was very busy staring off into the nothingness. The night sky was magnificent –saturated with seamless swaths of stars above, the fringes stained with cobalt that faded to black, the far eastern rim still clinging to the final vestiges of sun-inspired fuchsia –but the colors are now lost somewhere in my memory. I don’t remember the magnificence all that well; the finer details have blurred into lazy, useless ambiguity.
I remember the nothingness. I remember my nothingness.
For me, the answer wasn’t quite as simple. I wish to God that it was, that I could just accept the fact that He gave us 2,144 days together, 1,097 of which came after a death sentence diagnosis of Stage IV breast cancer, but I cannot accept it. It wasn’t, isn’t, and will never be enough.
I’m currently sitting in Phoenix, Arizona, staring out at a perfectly blue sky; it has been 17 days since she died and I am no closer to accepting it now than I was that night by the fire. My wife is dead. Is she with Jesus? Absolutely! Is she out of pain? Praise Jesus, she is! But for me, here, strangled by and wrapped inside this pernicious nothingness, she is gone. I cannot hold her, or kiss her, or make her coffee, or whisper how much I love her into her ear. Those moments have vanished, like smoke drifting to the stars.
So have I answered the question yet? Would I have rather lost Kailen by way of some dreadful, instantaneous trauma or by the insidious mechanism by which it actually happened? Two weeks ago, I thought I had it solved. The solution was suddenly very obvious: If Kailen could have lived normally and healthily until the very moment of her death, assuming it would have occurred at precisely the same time, I would choose the trauma. Sure, she would be gone in an instant, stolen away by the hands of some greedy thief from the Great Beyond, but there would be consolation – those 1,097 days would have been spent living, not dying.
To put it plainly: I would have lost her just the same, but felt as though I’d had her longer.
My descent into calloused madness would not have happened.
I would not have seen the look on my Beloved’s face when the diagnosis came; I would not have had to leave her drowning in her courageous tears as I shut the door to my office to go study for some stupid exam; I would not have had to stifle my own sobs as I watched her gorgeous hair get chopped from her head and pile in heaps on the floor; I would not have watched as her body dwindled down to a malnourished skeleton beneath the weight of chemotherapy – not once, but five times; I would not have awoken in the middle of the night to the sounds of her teeth chattering, a violent side effect of pain and the toxins being pumped into her veins; I would not have sat in a waiting room as her colon was cut from her body, nor seen the look of sheer repulsion as she realized she would have a bag of poop sewn to her side for the rest of her life; I would not have had to swallow my grief when her ovaries were surgically removed from her body, thereby officially shredding and burying any hopes we might have had of ever having children of our own; I would not have had to reassure her that I still thought she was the most beautiful woman God had ever created after her left breast was taken away along with everything else; I would not have had to look her in the eyes after her oncologist told us she likely only had months left; I would not have had to wipe away her tears when she said, as sweetly as ever, “well, at least I’ll maybe make it to Christmas”; I would not have had to physically subdue her when the pain became too much for her to move; I would not have seen her walk with a cane; I would not have seen her beautiful eye swell shut due to cancer that had spread to the orbital bone; I would not have heard her cry out in agony; I would not have held her in my arms on her birthday – her last birthday – and heard her say, again, as sweetly as ever, “All I wanted was a normal birthday breakfast”; I would not have had to catch her as her body seized and nearly fell to the floor; I would not have had to hold her head in my heads, stare deeply into her eyes, and beg her to hear my voice, to please come back to me one more time; and I would not have had to tell her it was okay to go be with Jesus after it spread to her brain; I would not have had to lie and tell her I was going to be okay after she went; I would not have had to construct flimsy coping mechanisms in my mind, telling myself life would go on after she died, that maybe it was for the better; I would not have had to make the decision to forego any additional treatment.
I would not have had to hold her hand, my tears dripping onto her face like little streams of sorrow, and watch her die in my arms.
So, I scream, give me the damn trauma! Give me the instantaneous option. Give me 2,144 days of normal, full life with my Beloved. Or, for the love of all that is good and decent and merciful, let me die instead.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple either. After days of meager attempts at intellectual rationalization, I arrived at another, deeper conclusion: had she died in a car accident at 5:00 pm on Tuesday, September 15th, 2015, after nearly 5 years of normal marriage, maybe even after having a few children, I would be no less slain by her absence. Though what we experienced was akin to a fatal car crash that lasted 3 years, I cannot, with any rational surety, say that my pain would be any less if that crash had lasted only a few seconds. Why? Because the endgame is the same.
My wife is dead. And I remain, tethered to earth, consumed by coils of nothingness.
Do I derive comfort from knowing she is physically present with Jesus? More than I could ever describe. But, like C.S. Lewis, who also lost his wife to cancer, I have questions.
In A Grief Observed, which is more or less a composition of his daily journaling after his wife’s death, Lewis writes these words: “Why should the separation (if nothing else) which so agonizes the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs? ‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become generous the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why?”
Much like the scenario Kim pondered that night by the fire, these questions do not have earthly answers. Would it have been better for Kailen to die suddenly? I don’t know. Why did God allow us to suffer the torrents of torture? I don’t know. Why did my wife get cancer, agonize for 3 years, then die in the precise manner all the doctors said she would? I don’t know. Why didn’t God intervene? You got me.
But why am I still here? I actually know that answer: To suffer righteously, to grieve properly, and to bring about an eternal weight of glory. It seems, to me, a shallow solution, and quite frankly, it doesn’t satisfy. But it is the only solution. It is the only answer that fills the nothingness with something, even if that something is pain.
As before, I will finish this post with a few passages from my daily journal. But before I go, I want to reiterate that Jesus Christ is still Lord.
I’m suffering; so did He. I feel alone and forsaken; so did He. I crave Heaven; so did He.
Until my next post, may the peace of Jesus Christ fill you to the fullest extent. Whether I want to or not, I will continue this journey. I hope you’ll join me.
As our battle became more and more difficult, I completed a process that had begun on September 13th, 2012 – the day you were diagnosed: I drove my emotions into a pit buried deep inside myself. My heart was breaking with every inhalation, my brain nearing rational collapse with every exhale. It was in those moments, as I began to callous over completely, that I began praying this prayer:
“Jesus, help me to feel and experience pain like a human, but to fight as if I were not.”
I’m beginning to understand that having it all comes paired with a great risk: what if you lose it?
It is not fair.
We did things right.
It is not fair.
This grief – I’ve found it to be a contradiction of contradictions. I yearn for the pain to leave, and yet beg it to stay; I want to live life to the fullest, and yet find myself being drawn even more greatly to death; it is absolutely impossible that you are no longer here on earth, and yet even more impossible that you are.
What does it mean that the most exciting thought of my day is this: someday, I’ll die.
I miss you, beautiful. I love you.