Steve and I had been friends for only a year and a half when he asked me to drive him home from Missouri in our sophomore year of college, so he could sit vigil to watch his father die. Jim, Steve’s dad, had cancer. What type, I couldn’t have told you. But Steve had confided his father’s illness early in our friendship, death’s shadow already following us around, even as teenagers.
When we arrived, after a drive from Chicago to central Missouri, Jim was reclining in a hospital bed in the living room, his daughter, son, and wife nearby. I felt immediately out of place, even as Steve’s mother fed Steve and I dinner at the wooden table, mere feet from the dying man. All I could think to do, as the family circled the bed afterwards, a hospice nurse in the corner, was to rinse and stack the dishes inside the washer.
In the background of my scrubbing, Jim wheezed. I had never seen anyone die, not even close. I tried not to stare, but I found it hard not to notice his ashen skin, dry lips, sunken fingers. I left that evening, drove the six hours back to my dorm room, and heard the next day that Jim had passed.
Only later did I learn that the day of our drive and vigil was All Saint’s Day.[i] All Saint's Day is a Christian liturgical celebration that honors the bond between all saints, the living and the dead. That felt a fitting day for his death, as Jim was a reverend in the Methodist denomination. He also wrote, like me and Steve. He contributed a column entitled, “Walking with a Sick Man,” to his local newspaper, seeking ways to expand his pastoral ministry to the end of his life.
At age 19, I saved the last article he’d written, prescient that it might mean something to me someday. When Jim published it, just two days before his death, he had suffered for four long years from the invisible disease.
The article describes how he’d recently woken in the middle of the night to an image of a scan where he’s given the “all clear.” He imagines the celebrations with his family and congregation, and what else he might do with the time, now that the cancer has been defeated.
But he uncovers a strange emotion in tandem with his joy in the imagining: regret. He realizes he has caught a whiff of the prize at the end, like his son’s Labrador, Scout, nose to the ground. He wrote, “…My eye sees something on the horizon; …there’s this scent in the air that is more enticing than anything I have ever smelled; and I am aware that I am hot on the trail.”
Only later would I understand the ambivalence his family must have felt, reading those words.
A year and a half ago, a friend of mine named Keith succumbed to cancer. This time, I was thirty, 11 years out from Jim’s death. This time, I knew well the details of Keith’s cancer: stage 4 soft tissue cancer, unusual in a 34-year-old man. He was a rock climber with a young wife, a toddler, and a son on the way.
He, too, loved Jesus, and believed until the end that he might receive the “all clear,” the scan that might give him the years to witness his son’s first steps, or to drop his daughter off at the first day of kindergarten. Instead, he, too, died.
In 2017, around the time of Keith’s diagnosis, I noticed a blind spot in my right eye, a dark ring at the center. With my left lid shut, I could no longer read the minute text on the pages of my Bible; I could no longer discern street names on the green signs; I could not see the green of my own iris clearly in a mirror, nor my daughter’s ring of yellow circling her blue eyes, nor the growing number of teeth emerging from my son’s gums like shoots from the thawing spring dirt. No matter where I looked, the cloud remained.
Before this, I had never even had a cavity, and doctors tended toward boredom as they examined my chart. Sure, I had been declared near-sighted, like my parents, at age 14, just in time to receive straight A’s throughout high school, but beyond that, I seemed to have inherited the genes of the fittest of the fit: both my parents were alive and disease-free, and both my grandmothers lived past their eighties, some of my relatives even gracing the mid-nineties.
So perhaps, I might be excused for wondering, who in the hell loses their vision at 29? Answer: the same people who die at 34, who leave behind widows, who fight in wars they do not believe in, who waste away in prisons for beliefs deemed inappropriate.
What I had yet to understand was the call of Christ to “take up the cross and follow.” To “come and die.” That to “live is Christ and to die is gain.” At 29, I had thoroughly imbibed the lie of my immortality, that any flicker of doubt that might disillusion me, I rejected.
Then the diagnosis arrived, a month later: I had contracted a rare disease, with no treatment and no cure. A stray lesion had grown in the center of my retina and had scarred and destroyed light receptors there. I had not understood my fragility before that; I had not understood that my retinal cells were irreplaceable, that losing them would mean blindness.
These days, my vision loss has graduated to a disability. I am not dead (though I have my share of survival’s guilt whenever I spend time with Keith’s widow), but I now understand that my body is decaying, day by day. Death lingers.
Perhaps that’s why I feel hope on days like All Saint’s Day and on days that remind me of Jim's death. He knew that this life would not endure, that these bodies will fail, and still, he had hope. He hoped for himself, and those he left behind. By his example, I, too, believe that in eternal life, a life without end, life in the presence of God. Jim, if you’re listening, pray for me, that I’d believe it evermore.
[i] My friend Steve, a musician, wrote a whole album about All Saint’s Day and his father’s death. Check it out here: https://store.youngestsonmusic.com/album/all-saints-day.
Liz Charlotte Grant writes essays about science, faith, psychology, and the arts from her home in Denver, Colorado, where she lives with her artist husband and their two kiddos. She was awarded a residency from the Collegeville Institute in 2019, and has essays published or forthcoming at Christianity Today, the Huffington Post Personal, Good Letters (Image Journal blog), the Curator Magazine, Fathom Mag, Dappled Things, and Geez Magazine, among others. Currently, she is pitching her first book, a memoir about losing vision in one eye and reckoning with the healing power of God (represented by Chip MacGregor of MacGregor & Luedeke). Follow her at LizCharlotteGrant.com and on Instagram @LizCharlotteGrant.
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