Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Two Deaths & A Book About Teens With Cancer

He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” - Job 1:21(NRSV)

It’s very strange reading a book about teenagers that are dying, while going through the death of two people in your life. I just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, a book about teenagers with cancer, some with cancer that is easily treated, others with terminal cancer and little hope for survival. Reading about teens contemplating their own deaths at the fault of their own mutated cells, made going through two recent deaths a learning experience.
The first death I was prepared for, my friend Michael’s mother had a heart attack on Christmas and fell into a coma, I was hopeful for her recovery, yet prepared for her death. The second completely caught me off guard, my friend Jennifer Stanford, died in a car accident. It is a very different thing to bury a parent, and to watch a parent bury a child. Something about children burying their parents feels more natural. In the book, the main character who has terminal cancer constantly wonders about life and death and the meaning of it all. As I sat in a room for the visitation of Trisha Heath, I wondered alongside Hazel, “Why do the good die young and the corrupt live on?” I wondered why God allows Bernie Madoff to live comfortably, while good people struggle to get by. I wondered why this mother of three was dead at 59 and Scott Peterson, a man that killed his wife and unborn child is still alive and comfortable in California, fighting for his right to live. I wondered why Jennifer Stanford was killed in a car accident, while so many drunk drivers recklessly endanger others’ lives and survive their crashes.
And I wondered about Hazel, and Augustus Waters, and Isaac, and the other fictional teens in this book whose stories reflect the realities of living cancer patients. I wondered why God made our bodies prone to improper mutation that could end up killing us. I wondered how families I know like the Moores, the Onstotts, and many others who have fought cancer together and have come out on top. Why do they survive while others who fight just as hard die?
“Funerals are for the living.” said Hazel, and she is so right. As a kid I went to the funerals of my grandfather, two aunts and one uncle. I am well acquainted with how funerals go, and I must confess this: I hate funerals. I hate how they make people more sad, instead of hopeful, I hate how pastors turn eulogies into sermons about being a good Christian - instead of celebrating the deceased. And as a person prone to empathy I hate how much I cry at them. But I go to them, not because I loved the deceased, but because I love the living people they have left behind, because the funeral is for the survivors, not those that have died. I go to them to cry with other people that are crying, to hug the man that never hugs, but needs one because his mom is dead, to comfort that woman that I have never met before who is weeping uncontrollably. I go to meet family members I probably won’t see again until someone else dies or gets married.
The funeral for Mrs. Heath was an interesting one, I had never gone to the funeral of a Caucasian person before, all of my family, like me, is Black. So this funeral was new, yet at the same time very familiar. There were still the people that were horribly under-dressed, the people on their phones the whole time, and the people, like my brother, who cracked jokes to lighten the mood. One thing I found the most interesting is how much sadder this funeral was than the ones for my family. The pastor was so somber you thought he was shipping her to Hell, the room was lit dimly so it looked depressing. This is not how Christians are supposed to be buried. We have hope for resurrection, something I feel needs to be taught in churches far more often.
One thing I will take away from this experience, besides the acknowledgement of how short life is and many other cliches, is gratitude. Life and death are not fair, but I am thankful for both of them. Some people live long a fruitful lives and get to have three children and a loving husband; some people only live long enough to graduate college; some people die within hours of birth; some do good; some have nothing but wicked deeds attributed to them. Life is unfair, but death is the great equalizer, no matter how much money one does or doesn't have, no matter gay, straight, or bi, White, Black, or Beige, we will all return to dust. We have all been blessed with the gift of life, and the bittersweet gift of death, what we do with this gift is important. The Lord will keep giving, and the Lord will keep taking away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.