when we say goodbye | life goes on

i’ve been thinking and talking about and working on a book idea for the past few years, since finishing called: my journey to c. s. lewis’s house and back again.

death and grief and the long process of saying goodbye is, unfortunately, part of our story. and in the wake of so many painful conversations, i’ve been sitting with a question: why are we so bad at talking about something that touches every person, something so central to our christian narrative? and what resources does the christian tradition offer to help us do better?

i plan to share some excerpts here, as a way of saying thanks for following, friends. here’s a sneak peek at when we say goodbye: the final taboo.

• • •

“life goes on,” a man tells me in a matter-of-fact voice from the bart platform early one morning, so early the sun is still in bed, eyes closed. his salt-and-pepper hair is shorn close to his head. his blue fannel is worn out, unbuttoned, over torn blue jeans, with one knee peaking out.

i’m on my way to washington state at the time, to see my grandfather. after a routine check up, my grandfather’s doctor found a lump on his chest and another on his spine.

“cancer, most likely,” she told him, confidently.

after several years of living with parkinson’s disease, my grandfather was a pale reflection of the man i had grown up with. the man who had shown me how to float on my back in the pool (“you can do this as long as you need to,” he’d told me, “until help comes”); the man who would pull metal baskets full of dungeness crabs into his boat from the bay, seawater spilling out the sides while the pointy legs scampered over arched shells; the man who would often work on house projects from sun up to sun down; now stutter-stepping his way around the house, catching himself on walls, or crumbling to his knees with a loud thud.

i hate parkinson’s.

when the doctor said she was sure it was cancer, we all assumed she knew what she was talking about. we questioned whether it was worth putting grandpa’s beleaguered body through radiation treatment.

but when she said “cancer,” grandpa wanted a second opinion. he ordered a scan and the report came back clear. we were all stunned. i booked a last-minute trip home to see his electric grin in person.

that’s when I met the blue flannelled man on the railway platform in the early morning dark.

“where you off to?” he asks me, the only other person on the lonely concrete platform.

“i’m heading to washington, to see family,” i tell him. “you?”

“funeral,” he says. “for my father.”

he tells me about the lump found in his father’s body, and the terminal diagnosis that followed. hospice had been called.

“two months,” he says, looking straight ahead in the dark. “they told us we had two months.”

“then they phoned me, five minutes after i had left him, to tell me he was dead.”

“i’m so sorry,” i say after a pause, giving his words room to breathe.

the eerie timing of our paths crossing, amidst our inverse experiences, leaves me unnerved. the still darkness setting makes the exchange even more dreamlike.

“life goes on,” he says.

the fluorescent lights overhead give his shorn hair a glowy sheen. his haircut, his blue flannel, his torn jeans, and especially his words, everything about this man is matter of fact.

death is matter of fact.

“life goes on,” he says. and i wonder what he means by it.

for whom? i think to myself.

the bart tram pulls up to our feet, right on time. the sliding doors open and we take our seats. sliding south toward oakland, i steal glances at the man. i watch him watching the sun come up.

• • •

there’s a scene in one of my favorite movies where a middle-aged mother and her adult daughter are sitting in a couple chairs in their front yard. the adult daughter has just received word of her 19-year-old son’s unexpected death.

“he’s in God’s hands now,” the boy’s grandmother tells her adult daughter.

with swollen eyes and a disgusted look, the grieving mother asks the question on all of our lips: “he was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?”

i like to think hayley was in God’s hands the whole time. dancing at God’s fingertips at times, perhaps, but never completely out of reach.

where is she now? it’s a question our five-year-old daughter asks from time to time.

is hayley closer to God’s heart now? is she further?

i think she’s home, wherever that is on God’s body map. i think she’s right there in the folds of God’s neck, breathing God smells.

i think she’s at God’s lips, tasting God tastes. i think Hayley’s in God’s bosom, at rest.

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