A few months after Uncle Cricket’s funeral, my cousin Thurman’s wife was diagnosed with a rare breast cancer, already in its advanced stages.
“There is nothing we can do to save her,” the doctor told my cousin. Still, we all believed a miracle would happen, that we would inevitably get the call: Hallelujah, the cancer is in remission.
But last March, Lanna died on her 40th birthday. I recalled attending her and Thurman’s wedding 20 years earlier; meeting their two children for the first time; and watching Lanna, during my trip to DeRidder just a few months before, dance like a little girl, a fairy, from room to room as she showed me around the new home that Thurman had built for them from the ground up. She served food and flat-ironed her niece’s hair. She clapped for us as my cousins and I sang quartet songs and her husband strummed his guitar. No one would have dreamed that she was dying.
I spoke to Thurman the morning after Lanna died. Driving to work, I could barely hear him; his voice, muffled and whispery, was nearly drowned out by the traffic whizzing by me, the rain hitting my windshield, the wipers dragging across the glass, and the static disrupting our phone lines.
These are the phrases I did hear:
“I’ve been sitting by her side for two months, Sand.”
“She saw a woman sitting in a chair and she got so frustrated that I could not see her. She kept saying, ‘Look, look! She’s right there! Can’t you see her?’”
“She woke up at midnight and I told her, ‘Happy 40th Birthday!’ ‘For real?’ she said, and then she smiled and went back to sleep.”
“Sand, I’ve been doing research on this form of cancer. You have to learn about it, tell all of your friends about it. It was too late for Lanna. Educate yourself on this cancer.”
I considered my cousin’s generosity, but what right did I have to know what was slowly deteriorating inside me when it had been too late for Lanna? I pray to live out a long life, to carry out a purpose to its fruition. In a dream this morning, a verse of song came to me, “This life is not the only reason.” Yet, in Psalm 39, David writes:
“Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is nothing before you.
Each man’s life is but a breath. …
Look away from me, that I may rejoice again
before I depart and am no more.”
A month after Lanna was buried, weeks after a tsunami and earthquake destroyed lives and land in Japan, my friend Antoinette and I felt hollow as we continued with plans already underway: a shared birthday bash that was supposed to celebrate turning 40 and moving into what Carl Jung coined the “afternoon of life.” Yet with death on the loose, I fought to keep my tongue from pushing out the “what is the point” question. Even so, my heart yearned for a moment to “rejoice.”
At the birthday party, we asked friends and family members to share their talents, their gifts, their passions on stage. My friend Tonya ministered through sign language to the song, “God’s Favor,” placing her right forefinger on her chin each time the chorus sang “God’s favor,” and running the fingers of both of her hands over her upper torso when the verse ended with “is more precious than life.”
What, then, is this— God’s favor? The fact that it is more precious than life insinuates that it continues after life here has ended, after we are asleep. I know there is something beyond this realm, and while I have dabbled in and listened to friends discuss without shame their acceptance of this truth through other mediums—astrology, reincarnation, Buddhism, Greek deity—I risk being separated from them through a definitive Christian belief. Since I was a girl, I had believed that I could “earn” God’s favor, that I could live in a way that would send his blessings raining down on me, or not. Today, I know there is no thing I can do to equal his love, mercy and forgiveness; that has already been given to me by his grace, his purifying blood, his sacrifice.
But even though many of us believe this, we forget. At times, we seem so lost, my mother’s generation and mine. So many unfulfilled dreams, divorces, sickness and disease. Separated by miles and philosophies. But love, allowing ourselves to be loved divinely, reconnects us to our own hearts, the hearts of others and our Creator.