In full panic after diagnosing herself online with a terminal illness, the Rev. Catherine Caimano took the nudge Jesus offered, pondering anew the brevity of our days and the opportunity to live them without fear.
A few weeks ago, I found a lump on my neck.
It was small and hard and a little tender. By morning, it was actually bigger -- and quite painful. So I did what anyone would do: I Googled “painful lump on neck.”
I didn’t sleep at all that night.
Instead, I lay there, curled in a fetal position, eyes wide open, convinced that I was going to die in the next several weeks from some rare form of cancer that is very painful and disfiguring. At some point in my “dark night of the soul” -- more like a night of hypochondria, actually -- I did try to remember my faith.
I imagined Jesus with me at the keyboard looking up medical terms, but he was just as freaked out as I was. But even as we were both losing it, even while I at least was lost to blind fear, I could tell that he wished I was doing something -- anything -- other than this.
Every life has an end. Somehow this fact surprises people, which is in itself surprising, since death is the one thing that should not surprise us at all.
Truth is, the fact of our death is the fundamental fact not only of our earthly existence but also of our faith, the backbone of everything that we truly believe is real.
Like it or not, how -- or even if -- we think about death, specifically our own death, will determine whether our days will be filled with fear or joy, denial or adventure. Inevitably, the certainty of our death will shape how we live.
Sitting in front of my computer at 3 a.m., convinced my time had come sooner than I’d planned (and isn’t that almost always the case?), I took the nudge that Jesus offered. What does my death mean for my life? What does it mean for my faith?
Because I am a priest, I have probably been around death more than most people today. Which, I realized, made my panic even more surprising.
As I considered my pending demise and the questions Jesus raised, I thought about the many people I have been with in their final moments of life. I realized anew the holy privilege that it is to have attended so often the death and dying of others.
There was Karl, a 72-year-old man who refused a heart transplant (“They are for young men,” he said) and consequently contemplated his death for almost a year before it came.
We sat together weekly, talking about everything from church gossip to whether he was scared about what came next. Once, I asked him where his relationship with God was in all of this, and he said, “Young lady, I reckon I am Episcopalian enough not to believe I have much of a relationship with God.”
But he was joking, and we spent a lot of our time together planning his funeral in great detail. Everything from how long the eulogy would be (not long, he insisted) to the seating arrangements at the reception. And we prayed. A lot.
I remembered the heartbreaking death of a very young girl with cancer.
Her parents, both doctors, knew exactly what the odds were. When her prognosis worsened, they simply checked her out of the hospital and took her home. They did not want her to die attached to machines. Instead, they filled her room with balloons and stuffed animals, ate ice cream for every meal, and sang to her until the end.
And there was Maria, a teenager who died violently.
Her extended family of 30 or so, from babies to her aged abuela, filled the hospital waiting room with mournful crying and joyful singing, all the while praying the rosary in Spanish. That was another sleepless night. I was with them through it all, struggling with El Padre Nuestro, but finally, by dawn, getting all the words right.
No one wants to think about death, not the death of our loved ones and most certainly not our own.
But when circumstances force us to do so, we often find beyond our grief and sadness the core of what is true -- love is indeed the strongest force there is.
This is the essence of the resurrection. It is what we receive every time we come to the altar for bread: Jesus faced his own death and left the tomb empty so that we may experience true life, beyond even our fears of death. We know that love lives beyond even death.
It is this fact, not whether we have lived a good life or an accomplished life, that is the good news when we have to face our own mortality.
I have been in rooms alone with those who at the end had either outlived their friends and family or simply had none. I have attended the last breaths of men in hospitals whose names nobody knew, people with neither identification nor history, and said prayers that only God would hear.
I have stood by open graves long after all the mourners have dispersed, waiting, as my profession requires, for those who cover them with dirt to complete their work. We never leave a body alone. We never stop believing that the resurrection makes each life holy and precious.
This, in the end, is why facing the fact of our own death, if only occasionally, can be what truly allows us to live. Fortunately, life affords us ample opportunities to look ahead if we only will.
As theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written, every sickness, even a hangnail, is the intimation of death. It’s certainly true for me.
Turns out that the lump on my neck was an infected bug bite, from which I soon recovered. As trivial as it now seems, that minor -- and mostly imaginary -- ailment led me to ponder anew the very real brevity of my days and the opportunity to live them beyond my fear.
Whatever we think about our death, we will also think about our life.
If we are filled with fear of death, we will live a fearful life. But if we believe that death has literally been overcome by love in the resurrection of Jesus, then we are free to live more fully, with more love and less fear.
Life is a miracle.
Death is not the end.
Maybe the judgment we face is not how we have lived but if we have lived. We will all die, but will we all live?
We proclaim that we are alive with Christ even in death. Will we let fear and darkness have the last word while we live on this side of the grave?
Every hand I have held as it has grown cold has given me an answer to that question.