Mortality Meditations

Death was a terror. At night, he mocked a little boy who, unable to sleep, weeped at the thought of being stolen away before becoming a jet pilot. He tried to swallow a drowning teen into the darkness of the Deep, through the boil of crashing waves. He declared himself in the rapid beeping of heart monitor alarms. He lended extra weight to human hands that pressed a rabid man hard into a hospital bed, strapping his arms down as one does to a madman. He ripped into that man’s mind: hallucinations of falling backwards into rainbow tide pools over and over and over and over while a monstrous crab shrieked, “YOU’RE DYING, YOU’RE DYING. IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.”

Someone yanked me from those hallucinations. My world was changed. I’d passed between physical and metaphysical dimensions, then got spit back out again. Deaf, I heard only the hallucination’s echoes, while all around me family and doctors strategized for a second life through lung transplantation.

One night, Jehovah Rapha — The God Who Heals — shattered the reverberations to assure me death was not what I thought. He invited me into His peace and I entered it; peace was not relief of death, but defiance of its sting.

Death As a Source of Life

Confronting death leads to joyful living. Death is still very much an enemy resulting from the world’s brokenness, but Christ destroyed its power on the cross to give us hope that we can live beyond our mortal bodies. To honor that, I choose to live defiantly, fervently, and beautifully, knowing this earthly life is short. I share the peace I found through God, in reflection of Job 33:19-30:

“Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain
    with constant distress in their bones,
so that their body finds food repulsive
    and their soul loathes the choicest meal.
Their flesh wastes away to nothing,
    and their bones, once hidden, now stick out.
They draw near to the pit,
    and their life to the messengers of death.
Yet if there is an angel at their side,
    a messenger, one out of a thousand,
    sent to tell them how to be upright,
and he is gracious to that person and says to God,
    ‘Spare them from going down to the pit;
    I have found a ransom for them—
let their flesh be renewed like a child’s;
    let them be restored as in the days of their youth’—
then that person can pray to God and find favor with him,
    they will see God’s face and shout for joy;
    he will restore them to full well-being.
And they will go to others and say,
    ‘I have sinned, I have perverted what is right,
    but I did not get what I deserved.
God has delivered me from going down to the pit,
    and I shall live to enjoy the light of life.’

“God does all these things to a person—
    twice, even three times—
to turn them back from the pit,
    that the light of life may shine on them.”

God delivered me from the pit, so I enjoy the light of life. Through my faith, I have overcome the limitations and restrictions of death, and have embraced the liberty and empowerment of living in spite of death.

Practicing Death

Daily, I meditate on my mortality to make myself unafraid. Many people avoid thinking about death because it makes them uncomfortable; maybe that avoidance is why they are uncomfortable. Early Christian Romans carved in art, trees, and statues memento mori — “Remember that you must die.” Remembering we will die at any moment humbles, creates urgency, prioritizes, builds gratitude.

Recently, I sat on a cliff edge, deaf, to watch black, immense waves roll beneath night fog. As the weight of the ocean rose and toppled in silence, I reflected on both the colossal power of God and the dark nights of my past. I heard myself sob again, “Mama, mama!” from the soiled hospital bed. I heard again the war drum pounding ribs as surgeons prepared me for surgery. I heard the tearing of flesh and cracking of those ribs while I slept, so close to death.

I remember the God who tore me out from the chaos, making me stronger each time. To be grateful, I must remember what He saved me from. I try to live like tomorrow won’t happen, sharing God’s peace with others and choosing refreshed attitudes each morning.

One day, though, I will pass from this Earth. I think I will know when it’s time, and go down in acceptance rather than with fight.

It will likely be sooner than most peers. Then again, the average butterfly lives only two weeks and we don’t call their lives ugly.

The Ultimate Hope

Stations were set up round the sanctuary for Ash Wednesday: areas to record Lent vows, to stare into a mirror while reflecting on origins and promises, to take communion, to receive the marks of ash on the forehead.

At the section for meditating on mortality, I lit a candle and gazed at the flicker licking air. I felt the Spirit of Truth tickle my spine, then a whisper in my mind: “Remember, from dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

But there will be a day, loved one, when I rise again from dust to see a new Earth, a new Heaven. The Author of Life — the Alpha and Omega — wipes away my tears. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

And in that day, I will know that, truly, my old enemy is slain.

An Anniversary of Almost-Death, and a Dedication to Those Who Died

It was one year ago today that I slipped into septic shock. 

It was one year ago today that I slipped into septic shock.

It’s eerie to look at the Facebook posts leading up to that day: a couple had me randomly making mention of “leaving the Earth” and the “rest of my life,” and then you have one of me saying my medical plan had gone awry. I seemed pretty calm.

 

That calm only lasted a few more hours before the psychosis hit me (something I talk about in my last blog post).

Since that time, I have become familiar with death: both in almost dying, and having loved ones die of lung illnesses.

I wrote the following essay the night before I got my call for transplant — good timing. Death was an unavoidable topic. It wasn’t posted yet thanks to the chaos of transplantation and recovery. To keep my thoughts from that night intact, I haven’t changed a word in it.

I dedicate it to Sabrina, William, Alyssa, and Grandma Christine — all beautiful souls who I built mutual support with before they passed from their battles with COPD, Cystic Fibrosis, and lung transplantation.


Jan. 14, 2017

“You almost died.” I almost died? I actually laughed at how crazy that sentence sounded. I almost died? “Whaaat? Whoa!” I almost died? I didn’t know how else to respond to being told that. I almost died? It wasn’t a joke. It was reality. I almost died.

I had spent 23 years avoiding the topic of death, painfully aware of it lurking behind every corner, afraid to meet its eye. Death was frightening. It’d been frightening from the moment I learned of its existence, to the time I started sobbing in church as a kid because I didn’t want to go to heaven (I thought it would be an eternity of listening to boring sermons and singing), to the time I saw the average life expectancy of someone with my disease in my 8th grade biology textbook. Then I’m sitting there in my hospital bed, in June, knowing I finally looked death in the eye. So, that’s how death happens, huh? And I wasn’t so afraid anymore.

Instead, I felt regret. Regret that I had spent the last few months sitting on my couch doing nothing. Regret that I still had sour relationships. Regret that I hadn’t been a better person. Regret that my last conscious words to Kristina hadn’t been more meaningful. Regret when I learned that I had treated my loved ones terribly while hallucinating in the ICU.

I’ve been reading a lot of obituaries. An obituary usually has a sentence or so about the death itself followed by a long detailing of legacies. There are often a couple sentences that attempt to summarize a person’s entire character. It ends with a list of loved ones the person left behind. I read these obituaries and imagine mine, as morbid as that is. What positive legacies do I leave behind? Which adjectives summarize ‘me’? Which loved ones will be listed—will I be married and have children? More importantly, did I treat my loved ones lovingly? I can think of an ideal obituary. I would not have liked what it said if I died in June. Of course, there’s rarely an obituary that says anything but nice things about the person. But the ideal is that those who know the person can read the obituary and say, “That’s them.”

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One of my new favorite books.

Death could strike at any moment. Yes, the lung transplant could save me and add many years to my life. But I’m not out of the danger zone yet, and carrying transplanted lungs is risky in itself. It doesn’t even have to be my disease; I could get hit by a car after writing this. It could be any moment. I want to make sure my last days—whether they are this week or decades from now—are defined by love.

I used to say that it was a curse to live an entire life knowing I will have a relatively premature death — whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, it was always in the back of my mind. Now, I’m starting to think of this slow-burn death as a blessing. I don’t have the irresponsible luxury of being able to think, “I’ll change later.” If I want to be who I want to be, I need to embrace that now is the time to do it.

I want to be a person whose life is led by love. I know that is roll-your-eyes philosophy. The ‘power of love’ is cliché, right? But as someone who is having to confront the idea of death every single day, please believe me when I tell you love really is as important as the poems, songs, literature, religious texts say it is.

I can’t think of death without thinking of love. Death and love mean so much to each other. Even Biblically, love and death are eternally entangled — Jesus’ sacrifice. The great thing is, because of that sacrifice, love has power over death. Because of God’s love, I have confidence in what awaits me on ‘the other side.’ Because of my family and Kristina’s love for God, my death will not sting them as painfully. Because of precious moments where love is on display in my life, I can live joyfully and die joyfully.

This brush with death gave me new life. A second chance. I have a lot of work to do. I can be so much better, and I want to be.