When I was 13, I bore witness to the death of my great-grandmother.
Slowly, she curled up into herself in those last moments. She was in her late 80’s and so her wrinkly, dry skin held her together like an old leather saddle left in the sun on horseback. Her last breath was ragged and soft. I touched her hand before her soul departed, perhaps hoping to hold onto the last piece of life she could give to the world around her. There were numerous family members circling her bed, including my own grandmother who would pass away a few years later. The air smelt still, pungent, and sad. I felt stuck; I couldn’t look, but I also wasn’t able to look away. I knew this woman, she was family after all, but I did not know her well. So, my heart grieved her life with a kind of distance that is both awkward and strange.
It was the first time that I had seen life leave a human being.
It was a haunting moment.
It was humbling too, reminding me that despite the pervasive differences soaked in the human experience, all of us must wrestle and reconcile the inevitability of our mortality. That is a weighty topic for a young teenager, but in many ways, I was ready to engage with it. I asked (and journaled) about my own life. What would I stand for? What was my purpose? If my life would end someday, what would I want people to remember?
If nothing else, I knew then that life was precious.
Three weeks ago, I had to face the reality of death again, but in a very different context.
As I’ve become an adult, I have learned that death, though bringing about the same outcome, looks different in the life of each person. Some individuals, like my great-grandmother, die in hospice of old age. Other deaths come more unexpectedly, through accidents or painful diseases. Other times, a person suffers for long periods of time, unsure when the end of their life may come.
As it happened, I was visiting a friend and professional contact of whom I had connected upon launching the Denver location of The Women’s Bakery in January 2015.
We laughed more than we talked when we first met, and I knew she would be a positive resource for me as I began to build my professional life back in Denver. With more than 20 years of experience in the legal arenas of business and finance and active involvement for women’s issues in the community, I respected her insights, opinions, and ideas. As 2016 unfolded, we met three times: all for wine. Over deep red merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this woman shed light on what her life had been like and how she had woven her career into the other areas that life offers us.
There was no wine during my most recent visit.
This woman had cancer and she was dying.
Months ago, after we sipped wine on a summer afternoon in the urban enclaves in one of Denver’s trendy neighborhoods, I emailed her about getting together again. Radio silence ensued. Eventually, she responded to my emails and invited me to her mother’s home, where she was now staying, to talk.
I knew it was serious when I saw the long, lingering tubes at the front of the house, connecting to a plethora of oxygen tanks. I knew it was serious when I saw that all her long, bold, red hair had fallen out. I knew that this woman would not continue to live when she looked me in the eyes and admitted to herself and the world that her battle would be coming to an end.
I sat on a chair across from her, silently praying that I would be able to show her all the love, comfort, and dignity that I possibly could. I was scared.
We spoke for 49 minutes.
“I’m so sorry this is happening. How are you getting through this?” I meekly asked.
“Friends. Family. Normal things. I am trying to stay connected as I can. It keeps me grounded. And since the diagnosis, I have been able to talk more openly with people in my life than I have in years.”
Her diagnosis was just a couple of months ago. And, the most recent CAT scans told their own story: she would be dying soon.
“Wow. Why do you think that is? How can you feel free to talk with people in your life like that?”
She hesitated, but only for a moment.
“It’s about healing. And there’s been a lot of it. Take my mom. We didn’t talk for years. And with this, we have reconciled and acknowledged where we have both been wrong over the years. Situations like this bring experiences like that about.”
In an effort for true empathy, I mentioned a difficult conversation I had coming up with some people in my own family.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what is it about?”
I told her the truth. I told her everything.
And she smiled. Slowly. And then, she spoke words that I can still hear echo softly in my heart,
“Be patient. Love well. You are being exactly who you are supposed to be. But remember the journey you have traveled in this experience – others must take it too. Remember to have compassion on those that may not understand. You’ll see. Love is bigger than you think.”
I nodded. I felt encouraged. I was relieved.
I handed her an old black cardigan and a reading light.
She pushed me further in conversation.
“You are a woman of faith. Have you always loved Jesus?”
I was honest about that too.
“I’ve been a Christian for a while. 10 years, maybe. But only in the last couple of years have I understood what it is to be free of the rigidity and system of religion. I didn’t know that loving God was inherently a relationship. But when I knew that I was free from perfection, acceptance, and proof of worth because of Jesus’ love, my life changed. When I discovered that knowing God is far more of a relationship, I began to be free of my own fears.”
She seemed to agree willingly and quickly, “Fear. I think religious systems promote this more than anything. And let’s be real, we all probably need a savior. From fear, and, I think, from ourselves.”
I pursed my lips in soft agreement.
“You’re right. That’s the crazy thing; modeling a life like Jesus is far more radical than a lot of churches like to admit. Recognizing the impact of real, living grace is powerful. It’s not about following a set of rules. It’s a changing of heart. It’s a transforming of a mind. Jesus has provided me the freedom to love God, myself, and others. I can’t really describe it.”
I must have described it well enough.
One week before her death she sent me a short email.
“Dear Heather, thanks! I also wanted to let you know that I consider our conversation to be the time I accepted Jesus as my savior! Like I said, we all need one. I already treasure our friendship!”
My mouth dropped and I cried.
I took her wisdom as I’ve entered difficult and important conversations in this season. I’ve held tightly to her word: compassion. It’s a word that has been repeated to me, time and time again, and so I suppose that’s what I’m learning: compassion creates pathways for healing and growth. It’s painful, but my, it’s necessary.
I learned of her death while driving late last Friday afternoon into the southern range of the Rocky Mountains. I pulled over. I exited my car, holding on the ledge for balance, and breathed in the chilly air with a new kind of heaviness.
Death had taken her early. Still, she left me (and I presume many others) with advice and hope to keep going.
We never know what life might teach us. We don’t know what death can teach us, either.
What I do know is that each person on this planet, friend, enemy, foe, colleague, neighbor, or the annoyingly slow driver ahead of us can teach us something. We are all teachers. We are all students.
I miss this friend of mine. I miss her quirky-sassy attitude. I mourn all the lives that are lost early. And I hope, fiercely hope, that we don’t take for granted the people around us for this very reason. As I learned when I was 13, life is fragile. Beautifully fragile. May we see it, and may we know it.