Life doesn’t get much better than when you feel invincible. I can climb any mountain. Tackle any issue that arises and resolve it. A life that seems indestructible, to say the least. Always an answer and always a way to correct, fix, or do whatever we need to do in order to make it feel unbreakable and intact. That is, until it isn’t, and eventually, it really isn’t and we’re often left wondering how to make sense out of a life that seemed, at times, larger than life on this earth, when questions always accompanied with the right answers and at least on the surface, all seemed right. Again, until it isn’t. It becomes the surest test of our lives when we are finally confronted with questions that no longer have answers and life no longer seems neatly packaged the way we expected.
For the past several days, and I suppose weeks at this point, I have found myself, along with my family, sitting in an Intensive Care Unit at Geisinger Medical Center, not only staring at my father but staring at machine after machine and test after test without any answers. It seemed that I knew more about the people around my father than I did about his own situation, often reflecting on the past several months of my own life where it seemed as if there were no answers, once again hearing the words to trust the unknown and answers do not easily come. Within the layers of unknown, of course, comes the inability to trust as our minds wander to the worst of situations, even the possibility of never having an answer and all any of us can do is sit there, stare, laugh, of course, and wonder how everything would unfold.
It seemed, at least at face value, that the people around him faced much worse. There was the gentleman in the next room whose family had to face the inevitable that death finds a way to penetrate through life at times. There was Grace, on the opposite side, who all we ever knew of was that she wanted out of bed but was confined. I’m sure for her it was an unlimited life at one point and now confined to a bed, seemingly beyond her will of wanting to leave, whatever that meant for her. There are others, of course, with no names, and all we can ever do was imagine their story. There may be no more sad, though, than the others sharing ICU who never seemed to have a visitor and walking an already lonely journey all by themselves. Maybe they had no family. However, there’s always the possibility, as it is with all of us at some point, when death seems to knock, even if it’s not the great finality, that some just can’t handle to look at it square in the face, often still living with the illusion that life is impenetrable.
How we handle death or even the thought of death determines a great deal of how we live our lives. It can be the ultimate loss in having to let a person go or the acute deaths we face in relationships, through sickness, through our loss of independence, an identity we clung to, or whatever the case may be for us. The harder we cling now is the greater the challenge we face when we are called to face the ultimate reality. It’s easy for me to say that life and death are inseparable. Death happens in the room next to my father but not in ours. Death happens to the one with incurable cancer and given weeks or days to live. Our minds have a way of playing tricks on us telling us that it will never happen to me, certainly not in this way or that way, but all we do is protect ourselves from what we know is inevitable and the only thing that we have absolutely no control over in and with our lives.
Yet, the two are intertwined and simply sitting with questions that don’t seem to have answers or answers that never seem to come quick enough is a confrontation with death itself, in our own way, and God knows we all have our own way of dealing with that reality. It’s when we try to separate the two that we allow fear and the doubt to consume our lives when death and suffering are simply teaching us lesson after lesson of letting go and opening doors to the new life that is promised beyond our fear and anxiety of what seems and feels like total separation. We do ourselves no favors when we abandon death, but rather, simply push off the inevitable to another time.
Don’t hear me wrong; none of it is meant to be morbid as we reflect on the greatest mystery of life and death. All I’m saying is the way it feels in the moment, as an absolute shattering of a relationship, is simply in the moment and the longer we cling to the pain of the situation and the unknowns that accompany it the longer we prevent ourselves from living more fully and learning the lessons that the mystery is summoning within us. I am by no means an expert. I sat there with my family this week wondering as well and awaiting answers. Time and time again, though, I felt the push from within to trust knowing full well that others accompanying my father in ICU were facing the ultimate test of letting go where as for others, like ourselves, it was a momentary pass and yet invitation to embrace the fullness of mystery, life and death, and to trust that there remains something and someone bigger than ourselves at work without getting caught up in our own helplessness and endless questions.
It isn’t easy, especially when it’s a parent or others we are close to, and yet it’s moments like these that remind us of what is most important, none of which are having all the answers nor having a neatly packaged life. If we live as people of faith we aren’t meant to have all the answers but rather allow ourselves to fall into the messiness of life, a life which is closely accompanied by death and everything in between. I’ve thought a great deal about the others whose stories remain a mystery, who lie in that unit without a visitor and who’s story may never be told. Maybe we can’t always embrace the totality of the mystery but there are signs everywhere that point us to this reality if we only allow ourselves to sit quietly and trust what still remains unknown.