Love & DeathMy Journey through the Valley of the Shadow
Beacon PressCopyright © 2008 Forrest Church
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-8070-7293-6
Introit........................................................ixPART I: The Journey1. A Life That Did Know Death..................................32. The Death of a Friend.......................................73. Father and Son..............................................124. My Teachers.................................................215. Lifelines and Lifecraft.....................................326. Trapdoors...................................................427. Attending Our Own Funerals..................................508. Bringing God Home...........................................579. September 11 and the Sacrament of Grief.....................6010. Love, Death, and Easter....................................69PART II: The Destination11. The Diagnosis..............................................7712. Bedside Manners............................................8513. Unfinished Business........................................8914. Beating the Odds...........................................9815. Words to Live By...........................................10616. The Death Sentence.........................................11417. Where Is God?..............................................11818. Life after Death...........................................12619. Saying Goodbye.............................................13120. Love after Death...........................................136A Closing Prayer...............................................141
Chapter One A Life That Did Know Death
I didn't live with death as a child, but it was a constant visitor to my home. My earliest memory-doubtless fabricated from later stories, but real nonetheless-is of my mother, Bethine, nursing my father, Frank, through what everyone then thought was terminal cancer. I was a toddler at the time, so the image is surely one fragment of a patchwork quilt of collective memory that also found me lovingly passed back and forth between the arms of my parents' friends and those of my great-aunts during much of my early childhood.
We returned to Boise, Idaho, from Palo Alto, California, when I was two, my father in recovery and our tiny nuclear family tucked snug into a tiny house on Logan Street, where I popped tar bubbles in the driveway on hot summer days and roamed the neighborhood with my friends, playing Indians and cowboys. As the eldest of our little band, whether as a chief or cavalryman, I was killed in these mock battles less often than they were, but death was certainly the centerpiece of our play.
When I was five, my parents sold our house to help finance my father, Frank Church's, campaign for the U.S. Senate, and we moved in with my maternal grandparents. It was there that I witnessed my first death, that of my grandmother's father, Alexander Burnett, from emphysema at the age of ninety-five. Before he entered his death throes, my grandfather, Chase Clark, and I would visit him occasionally in his one-room cabin on the outskirts of Boise City. The two men would play pinochle as I took in the strange smells and sorted through the oddities of this laconic old man's house. As I remember, and my memory is as undependable as the Idaho weather, his three major food groups were tobacco, baked beans, and whiskey. The two men played in silence. He called me chatterbox.
During the final two months of his life, Alexander Burnett and his enormous oxygen tank moved into my grandparents' home, where he took up residence on the living room couch. Every day he grew weaker and, if at all possible, quieter, and then, one sunny afternoon, passed away surrounded by the family. The musty tang of his death is as vivid to me today as the smell of morning coffee. It was the most natural thing in the world.
Every Christmas, the entire, relatively small, Clark/Church family gathered at my grandparents' house for a week of festivities. Apart from a younger, crippled, cousin and her baby brothers, I was the only child for years, until my brother, Chase, joined the family when I turned nine. My little cousin, who suffered from a severe genetic case of muscular dystrophy, took over my great-grandfather's couch. She, too, we all knew, was dying, if in her own sweet time. One Christmas, her couch was empty. Death had paid another visit to our home.
I was raised as much by my grandmother as by my mother, who accompanied my father around the state for two years between the time I was five and seven as they ran together for the Senate. Jean Clark raised me attentively and well. She took me on Sundays to her Presbyterian church and tucked me into bed every night, where she taught me to say my prayers. "God bless Mommy. God bless Daddy. And you, Mom Mom, and Pop Pop," and-to postpone the inevitable-as many more blessings as I could tack to a single litany: Lala and Smoky. Chris. Jimmy. My guppies. The sun and the moon.
"That's enough, dear."
Like millions of other children, to close my prayer I would then repeat words once passed down to her and to her parents before her: "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."
Gently my grandmother would smooth and kiss my forehead. "Sleep tight, dear. Don't let the bedbugs bite."
What a curious notion of comfort, to haunt children to sleep, interjecting specters of death and biting insects. I wasn't haunted, of course; I was lulled, in the spirit of that famous lullaby: "Rock-a-bye, baby, in the treetop, / When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. / When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, / And down will come baby, cradle and all."
It's difficult to imagine a panel of modern childcare professionals stamping its seal of approval on this ancient verse or on the prayer my grandmother taught me, not to mention her playful goodnight warning. Yet, something deep is at work here. The coupling of night and sleep with death and danger is not accidental. These old-fashioned bedtime runes spring from a time when death and danger were embraced as so intrinsic to human experience that parents unselfconsciously prepared themselves and their children for them every sundown. In this respect, the words do carry a powerful implicit message. By definition, life is precarious. The most protective mother, cradling her child, sometimes cannot prevent the bough from breaking. No matter how hard they try, or how often they are reminded, sleeping children cannot keep bedbugs from biting. And when, like a thief in the night, death pays a visit, we cannot pray that the door be bolted or the window shuttered, only that the Lord may keep our soul.
Reflecting back on my grandmother and her simple faith, I sense that many of us today have lost something precious. Not dogma, not a rule book, but a sense of life that did know death, that accepted all-too-human as human enough, and led to a reconciliation of human being with human love, weakness, failure, and loss.
My grandmother was remarkably ordinary, by no means a saint or a sage. She knew her share of suffering, but it was essential to her worldview. An upbringing in relative poverty. The loss of her first child. A near-fatal illness as a young woman, with a long convalescence. In many ways, her life was hard. Yet my grandmother appeared to have found something we all seek. She had made peace with life. She didn't demand more than life was likely to offer. I can't imagine her ever confusing wisdom with knowledge. As long as everyone in the family had more to eat than they wanted and the weather cooperated with her plans, she seemed fully content. When her plans were thwarted, she accepted that too. Deeply religious yet in no sense conspicuously pious, she never preached and rarely judged another, at least not openly. She took life as it came and died at the age of ninety-six.
I remember her nursing her father at home as he lay dying. I remember her knitting through the pain of her own acute arthritis and helping her drug-addicted sister make it from bed to table. I remember her teaching me to pray. What I don't remember is her ever complaining that life was unfair.
I admit I romanticize my grandmother. Though she lived until I was thirty-five, I never really knew her thoughts or fears. Accepting her lot as a caregiver, without ambitions beyond those assigned to most women of her time, she displayed a passivity that I may have confused with contentment. Given how strong she seemed and yet how quiet she was, I expect that she might have been a very different woman had she come of age today. Yet, my grandmother did appear to have understood one important thing about life that many of us resist acknowledging. She seems never to have questioned that life, by definition, is a struggle, with suffering its frequent cost and death its final price.
Chapter Two The Death of a Friend
From my late teenage years into my early twenties, I romanticized death. I would die young, I decided, dramatizing my otherwise innocuous life with a punctuation mark that would somehow wrest my felt passions into a memorable story. This certain knowledge added poignancy and an element of mock derring-do to my philosophic ramblings. I was drawn to heroes who died young: the American journalist John Reed, who died in Russia after covering the Russian Revolution; Keats, Shelley, and Byron, the great Romantic poets, whose phosphorescent lives and thoughts lit my adolescent imagination; and then Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., whose deaths tore the hearts from an entire generation of seekers. My imagination was vivid, but not vivid enough to envision a long life, running its course and fading with a sigh. For death to be momentous, it had to punctuate, dramatically and memorably, a young, vital life cut short in its prime. Perhaps a tragic death, which would require nothing more onerous than being struck down before I could hammer my life's promise into a modest fulfillment, was the only way I could think of to compete with my famous father, who rose to the United States Senate when he was thirty-two years old.
As sung and storied by nineteenth-century Romantic poets, death represents the consummation of the heart's unrequited longing. John Keats, though a young man, fell "half in love with easeful Death." And so he sang his song to death, consecrated in the perfect voice of a nightingale:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy!
Having prepared the way so eloquently, Keats, in his death at the age of twenty-five, became a symbol for his fellow Romantics. Clearly he was at peace with death, more so than he was with life itself perhaps.
Nowhere is this Romantic obsession with death captured more tellingly than by Richard Wagner. In the "Liebestod" (Love-Death) from his opera Tristan and Isolde, Isolde expires in ecstasy on Tristan's corpse. Anticipating Freud, Wagner saw death not as the final frustration of desire, but as desire's fulfillment. Given that, short of death, our desires can never be fully satisfied, in the Romantic adolescent mythos death alone promises redemption-in Wagner's words, "the highest bliss ... the bliss of quitting life, of being no more, of last redemption into that wondrous realm from which we stray the further when we strive to enter it by fiercest force." Interpreting his own text, Wagner asked (and answered), "Shall we call it death? Or is it not night's wonder world, whence -as the story says-an ivy and a vine sprang up in locked embrace o'er Tristan and Isolde's grave?"
Once we survive adolescence, to make peace with death is (for most of us) not to celebrate it as Keats or Wagner did, but rather to accept it as the fated end of every earthly journey, coupling such acceptance not to desire's fulfillment but to life's completion.
When I was young, I thought death took courage. I was wrong. Dying may take courage, but death requires little courage at all. It is love that requires courage, because the people we love most may die before we do. Dare to love and we instantly become vulnerable, a word that means "susceptible to being wounded." Our mother struggles for life in a hospital, or our son risks his in a distant land. At such moments the courage to love is nothing less than the courage to lose everything we hold most dear. Love another with all our heart and we place our hearts in jeopardy, one so great that the world as we know it can disappear between the time we pick up the telephone and when we put it down. Love is grief's advance party.
Every time we give our heart away, we risk having it dashed to pieces. Fear promises a safer path: refuse to give away your heart and it will never be broken. And it is true, armored hearts are invulnerable. We can eliminate a world of trouble from our lives simply by closing our hearts. Yet the trouble from which we are liberating ourselves is necessary trouble. We need it as we need breath. Since the most precious and enduring lifework is signed by love, to avoid the risk of love is to cower from life's only perfect promise.
We do not and cannot possess the ones we love, for we hold them on loan. This hard truth makes the courage to love also the courage to lose. It speaks most eloquently when everything we cherish is in jeopardy, when our expectations for the way life ought to be are interrupted and challenged by death.
Dalton Denton was my closest friend at Stanford. During the middle of our sophomore year he died of pneumonia while on a skiing vacation at Vail, Colorado. He had been out on the slopes just the day before. That morning he felt a little tired and somewhat congested, so he stayed in the cabin while his friends skied. When they returned home later in the afternoon, Dalton was dead.
Dalton was a blithe spirit, serious about life but not at all somber. He was tremendous fun to be with, and we spent almost all our free time together. He introduced me to scotch and Beethoven, two habits he had picked up at Exeter. I suppose that he was the closest thing to a sophisticate I had ever encountered. We were dorm mates in our freshman year. Together we pursued -he successfully, I not-two striking girls, both actors, who were themselves best friends. More than once after an all-night conversation, Dalton and I saw in the dawn.
A week before he died, I told Dalton that I did not believe I would live past the age of twenty-five. This romantic, melodramatic flourish didn't impress my friend. He simply said, "Lighten up, Church. You've been reading too many existentialists. Besides, six years from now is a fantasy however you cut it. Today's the day. Don't ruin it."
He was right. And then he was dead.
For weeks, I could hardly function. Only after he was gone did I realize how much I loved him, how achingly I needed and missed him. I would walk down the street and hear people blathering on about nothing and go temporarily out of my mind. I remember once stopping and hitting a wall so hard that I almost broke my hand. With Dalton gone, life was both raw and without meaning. Only death seemed real.
Dalton's death was my first real moment of awakening. Initially, I awakened only to life's emptiness. As if to punish myself further for his death, I vowed to leave school, a notion quickly scotched by my father. But the emptiness remained.
What I know now about love and death, but didn't know then, might well have helped me negotiate my pain over Dalton's loss. Love and death are allies. When a loved one dies, the greater the pain, the greater love's proof. Such grief is a sacrament. Sacraments bring us together. The measure of our grief testifies to the power of our love.
Grief can be avoided. The logic is simple. Distance yourself from profound attachments. Attachments are risky. Lock the door of your affections. Board your windows. Armor yourself. Hunker down safe within your garden. Follow your bliss to some other level. Transcend the tyranny of the ephemeral, where pain, suffering, and grief attend our days. Even dream about death as the solution to life's pain. To the extent that these strategies work, they do so by parching the love from our hearts.
We can be crippled by grief, of course. There is such a thing as pathological suffering, which is any suffering that closes us off from others rather than connecting us to them. You can drown a soul with tears. This is not what I am talking about. I am talking about emptying ourselves that we may be filled, losing ourselves that we may be found, giving away our hearts even though they surely will be broken. And when they are, remembering that pain is a sign of healing, not only physical but spiritual pain as well.
Dalton's death was a turning point in my life. I had been playing games with death, relying on my own pathos to create a personal context for meaning. Dalton proved that death is far more real and love far more essential than I had imagined either to be.
He taught me something else as well, more important and abiding. We cannot protect love from death. But by giving away our hearts, we can protect our lives from the death of love.
Chapter Three Father and Son
My most intimate lesson of love and death came with the death of my father, almost a quarter century ago now. I learned that my father was seriously iii shortly before Christmas of 1983. He was losing weight and strength rapidly. We felt it might have something to do with a diabetic condition that was diagnosed shortly after he left the Senate. (Frank Church served Idaho in the U.S. Senate for twenty-four years, from 1957 to 1981.)
During the week before Christmas, my father went through a series of extensive but inconclusive tests. His condition was worsening, though the doctors could not determine the cause. When it became apparent that my father would not be able to travel, my first wife, Amy, and I immediately flew to Washington, where we found him weak but in good spirits. We returned to New York just in time for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services at All Souls. It was to be the first of more than a dozen such trips over the next three months.