At 26, I lost a peer for the first time. Stupid cancer. I wasn’t prepared for how much that was going to shake me. Before that, death had been something relegated to grandparents and the occasional parent of a friend in tragic circumstances. This was shocking.
Linus was a friend I had lost track of for some time after high school, but when handed a diagnosis of a matter of weeks to live, he’d reached out to people for a reunion, and we’d all responded. I couldn’t imagine not responding. I hadn’t meant to lose touch; life had just happened. My family had moved away after high school, and I’d gone through college and graduate school, new places, new friends, and a time when keeping in touch was much harder than it is today with the internet and Facebook. Even email was new when we left high school, and not something everyone had for a while. It was a different time.
After that span of years, there was the same old Linus. The friend who insisted I go dancing immediately after my best friend had dumped me and my grandmother had died, on the same day. The friend whose name had been synonymous with laughter. The friend who had the ridiculous idea of going for tacos after midterms even though it was only 10:15 in the morning, buying one giant Dr. Pepper, and seeing how many of us could take turns using “one per customer” free refill coupons before they’d call us out, even if that meant each of us had to down a gallon of the stuff and stop three times on the way home to go to the bathroom. The sugar high was insanity, giggling until we all cried and tried not to pee a little.
Well, that friend had grown up to be a state trooper, giving back to the community and still very much loved by everyone who knew him, everyone with a story to share, everyone laughing as they were told aloud. We’d always known that he’d be doing something for others, but with his gigantic personality and impeccably pressed school uniform shirts, we’d always predicted he’d be a politician, kissing babies and shaking hands with the president, that permanent smile on his face and infectious laugh.
And there we sat, packed into his living room, talking about jobs and apartments and life today. Knowing he had so little of it left. It was hard to know what to say. We were stunned and in disbelief – he was so physically present, it was hard to imagine that he could slip away from us at any time. It seemed shallow to complain about a job I didn’t love when he was facing a death sentence. He was the same as ever, all of us laughing as he shuddered at the idea that they might have messed up his diagnosis and he’d have to start getting up for work in the mornings again. He said now he could finally run for office, now that he wasn’t so tied up with work. Laughter through tears.
We planted a tree. He suggested if he miraculously recovered maybe we’d all come back and dig it up together.
How did he do it? Face death and just laugh?
Why not me, I wondered. I wasn’t doing anything important. I was sitting in an office not doing the type of work I’d hoped for when I was in school, why hadn’t God chosen me instead? We needed him. No one needed me. I was angry that I couldn’t just switch places with him. I was angry for his family and for his coworkers, and for all of us. I was angry at cancer, at life, at death, and while I was at it I was angry with my dad who once casually remarked that statistically not everyone in our graduating class would live until the ten year reunion. Why did he have to be so right all the time?
When he died the world seemed very dark indeed. Even as we faced the wake, seeing, as was his final wish, that he lay in his casket holding a business card stating that he was running for state representative, the laughter came. But with it was the heavy heart of losing the bright sound of his laughter that ought to have accompanied this final gag.
I wondered, was this the other shoe, dropping? Everyone in our country had been dealt a horrific blow by the attacks of September 11, 2001. It felt like the evil in the world that we all witnessed that day, had been driven home on a personal level, and now there wasn’t anything to do but despair, and think that Linus was too good for this world – only, why, with darkness all around, had we been robbed of that light? We sang This Little Light of Mine at his funeral. I couldn’t choke out a single word. I wanted to. I knew he’d want us to smile. He’d asked for a dance floor at his funeral, for crying out loud. This guy wanted a party when he was being remembered. Only, he wasn’t there to lead the dancing. What were we to do? I knew he had always found ways to help me shine my own light on the worst days of teenage angst. I knew he’d want me to keep shining. But I hurt so much it smothered.
I couldn’t seem to get my footing. It bothered me so much, yet I didn’t feel I deserved to grieve. I was the one who hadn’t kept in touch all that time. Would it have been easier to just find out that a classmate had died in the quarterly school newsletter than to open myself up to a rekindled friendship and then a heavy loss? No, I decided, it was a reminder of the good in the world, the way he’d turned out to be just the same as ever, the way we’d all surrounded him and lifted him and each other up, the way he set the example for living even when he was dying.
You grieve in your own way, and you keep going day by day, one foot in front of the other, and you integrate your losses somehow. But it is never easy. You spend a lot of time jaded. You have a lot of life going on in there, and a full range of emotions, but this uneasiness plays like static somewhere in the background, and clouds how you feel about life. The sun rises again slowly, as much as we’d like an on-switch.
Four years later, I “graduated,” so to speak, from my grief. I had an a-ha moment. A moment when it was finally okay. Not good-okay, because life didn’t somehow become fair all of a sudden, but when you read about all those stages, the denial, anger, bargaining, depression… acceptance-okay finally came.
I’m kind of glad I recognized my moment, because I can give credit to a good friend for that moment. I know a lot of it was time passed. Time I put in sludging through feeling like crap. One person can’t transform grief for you. How I wish they could. But for me, it was the words of my dear friend Pastor Steph Smith, on Easter Sunday, speaking to her congregation where I was visiting, that made me aware of my acceptance. Being aware of your acceptance is hard in it’s own way – letting go of the normalcy of darkness can be a strange feeling. You might feel like you’re betraying the person you’ve lost. But hopefully you know that your light needs to shine, because that’s what it was put there for.
I was holding my very squirmy toddler on my lap, so the fact that I heard a word Steph said was a miracle in itself. But I think I was meant to hear her words. I will paraphrase what I remember:
Who gets excited about some things like cake or going on a ride? Everyone, right? Not just kids. Who sometimes says, “ME FIRST!” Mostly kids – adults have hopefully developed a little more patience. Now who sometimes gets a little nervous about something, like a diving board or a really tall slide, a new job or opportunity that you know might be good but you don’t know if you’re brave enough? Do you still say “ME FIRST!”? Some of us maybe have a friend who will go first, that one really brave friend who will try anything because they just aren’t scared. How about at the doctor’s office, does anyone say “ME FIRST!” about getting a shot? No? If you know something is going to hurt, no one really ever says “ME FIRST!” – there are just some things that no one is going to volunteer for. Well, that’s what so special about Jesus on Good Friday. Jesus said, “ME FIRST!”. He said he was going ahead and would prepare a place for us, yes, but he also said he was going to handle the pain and the dying first. And what’s even better than that is that he’s told us he’s going first, so that we don’t have to. He’s taking that pain from us, and for us, so we don’t have to hurt anymore.
I got to thinking about Jesus and his “ME FIRST!” campaign. I don’t know what made me think of Linus laughing in the face of death, but I could see that he was a “ME FIRST!” friend too. A person who wasn’t afraid to push me to laugh in moments when I wanted to cry, when my other friends might have thought I was too brooding or stressed to be any fun. A friend I’d want at the bottom of a tall scary slide to catch me, a friend I’d want cheering for me from the far side of the bridge, a friend I’d hope would be the welcome committee at the proverbial pearly gates, if that’s how things looked on the other side. He would have the party ready and in full swing.
In that moment, a feeling: I’m not scared when it’s my turn, because my friend went first. So did Jesus, yes, and I’m thankful… but admittedly he’s a little harder to know. In this case, I have to accept the idea that God makes Himself accessible, and visible, to us through each other.
With the idea that my ME FIRST! friend was going to be standing at the door someday, I was able to accept. All that time I was looking for an answer to WHY WHY WHY??? here and around me. I was clouded by grief and couldn’t see the long view. I was too burdened by the heaviness to remember, Faith, duh. Or maybe I logically remembered, but didn’t actually feel it, and it took all that time. Now, I don’t know how someone could bear loss without faith, even if slow in coming, even in its own time – faith as an action, not a thing, as though we could simply possess it. I’d be giving out free refill coupons to friends on faith if that were the case, because I know how desperately needed they are. Then we’d all giggle until we had to pee a little, and it would be easy.
Unfortunately, we have to earn them.
There have been other losses, both before and since then. Some much more close, and still and always healing on my heart. Grandparents. My in-laws leaving us before they could hold their grandbabies. The too-small baby I held in the palm of my hand on my bathroom floor. Grief emptied me in different ways each time. But because Linus was the first peer, I had to comprehend differently the reality of death touching my generation. As Dickens wrote, “I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim — shall we — or this first parting that there was among us.” Somehow youthful innocence was being destroyed. I was acutely aware of the process of coping with loss because it was a first, new. New, unfair, tragic, harsh, deflating.
The discovery that acceptance would come eventually has been the gift that keeps on giving. It doesn’t dull the pain of loss or make faith easy, but it’s like knowing the light at the end of the tunnel exists, even if the tunnel is only the size of a pinhole on the horizon right now and there’s no way you’re squeezing through anytime soon. Not until you’re much further down-river in this boat with no oars. Not until you are like Alice down the rabbit hole, shutting up like a telescope and wondering what it will be like if you are going out altogether, like a candle. But it is there. And you can look for it. If there was only one distant star in the sky, would it be hard to find? Of course. The sky is enormous. But once you know it’s there, you know what you’re looking for and can find it. And maybe you can’t take your eyes away once you know.
That pinhole. Keep going. The sun will rise.
Having just lost another friend, Sarah, to stupid cancer, I have thought again about the struggle to ever come to acceptance of a life cut short. This feels just as unfair, tragic, harsh, and deflating. Sarah was the kind of person everyone wants as a friend: a better listener than talker, witty, smart, and hopeful, a quiet leader. I need the reminder that at some point I will come to accept, even if I hate it. I know a lot of people in her inner circle who are just beginning the long journey of grief over her loss, who are simply gutted by the senselessness of this, and to whom my heart and prayers are flowing. And the mark she left on us ripples out through many more circles, touching so very many people.
My prayer for all of you is this: that you find faith. Through the clouds, the oppressive darkness, and the sludging through crap, may it come. Faith even like a pinhole, or a single star in the endless black night, until the sun rises again. May you have a “Pastor Steph moment” sometime – of course with your own person, place, or revelation, definitely in your own time. And not too soon, because to wish your grief away would be to diminish that Sarah had ever held your hearts and smiles the way she did; grief is necessary. But may you find a moment at some point when you know that she has just crossed the bridge to make the journey ahead less scary for you. May you find faith and comfort in the promise of a sweet reunion. May you find the faith that she’s your ME FIRST! friend, and may we all grow bolder in living for having known this amazing soul that it hurts so much to lose.
ME FIRST! friends. They are the good in the world. They were ME FIRST! about that too, while we had them, weren’t they? ME FIRST! to run toward us when we were scared or crying, not away because they were afraid to be sucked into our despair with us. ME FIRST! to find big and little ways to brighten our days, with a coffee run, or a punny joke, or a homemade pinata, or just showing up to our lives. ME FIRST! to wear Chucks in a world of pointy shiny shoes. They were the dynamic characters that can’t be written: ridiculous and sage, and spontaneous and thoughtful. The darknesses in every day were no match for the light they shone as they – ME FIRST! – lifted us up.
And they brought out of us the good in the world too, as we surrounded them and lifted them up at the end. Because we couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Because of who they were. And are, to us, for always.
Today, let’s all shine like the light of our ME FIRST! friends for each other, and brave the darkness like they did, and lift each other up, and help each other find the light, until the sun does rise.
It will never be the same, but the sun will rise.
I know it is so very, very dark right now. But the sun will rise.
P.S. Brownie sundaes. Because you can’t shine on an empty stomach, and when facing the bitter, you might need a reminder that there is still sweetness.
P.P.S. You may want to shout, “ME FIRST!” if you encounter someone serving brownie sundaes.
P.P.P.S. There is still sweetness.
P.P.P.P.S. Those extra P.S.’s were for you, Sarah.