Tuesday, November 27, 2007

my brush with mortality

On Friday I confronted my mortality. Of course, we all think about death from time to time. As you know if you've been reading my blog, I've been thinking about it a lot recently. This is mainly because we recently received the devastating news that Steve's father has liver cancer, which is enough to bring anyone face-to-face with the possibility of life-threatening illness.

A few weeks ago, after hearing the news, I told Steve that there is only one thing which really terrifies me: not death itself, but leaving our 4 young children without a mother and with the scars of losing me during their childhood, and coping with the grief of knowing I would not being able to watch them grow up. At least, I may be able to watch from heaven - who knows? - but surely it wouldn't be the same as holding a child on your lap, stroking their hair, reading them a story.

I have recently had some gradually worsening lower abdominal pain. And this just after having read a Good Weekend article about how these vague kinds of symptoms should be investigated in case they are ovarian cancer. When the pain became more persistent, it was clear I needed to book a date with my GP.

Of course, I also took refuge in that modern source of medical misinformation, needless anxiety and terrifyingly gross-me-out medical photographs, the internet, which told me what I already knew: that lots of minor conditions could cause this kind of pain, the least likely of which was ovarian cancer, but that this was a possibility.

Now, I've used the internet for medical (dis)information before - most memorably at 3:00 am during my last labour, when I became convinced (incorrectly) that I had been struck down with some terrible labouring woman's infection (can't remember exactly which one at this point, but it seemed very real at the time, as these things often do at 3 in the morning.) And always there is a little rational voice somewhere at the back of my mind, telling me how ridiculous I'm being. But this time the voice was silent.

So last Friday I made an appointment to see my doctor after a visit to the hairdresser. I was driving the car with tears streaming down my face, doing my best to stop crying so I could see the road and escape instant death of another kind, as well as prevent the social embarrassment of arriving for my hairdresser's appointment with red-rimmed eyes (I avoided the first successfully, but not the second.)

What astounded me was that these were tears of grief, not fear. I was amazed to discover that, at the deepest level, I am not scared of death at all, even for the sake of my children. Which is not to say that I wouldn't experience terror if I was suddenly confronted with a knife-wielding maniac, or dread if I was lying in hospital waiting to die, but at the deepest level I was feeling trust rather than fear. I was able to say to God "Your will be done" and actually mean it, even if every fibre of my being was crying out against it.

You see, after all these years, I know God. I don't mean that in a boastful way, I mean that through experience I have found him to be absolutely trustworthy. I know his faithfulness, his love, and his dependability. I know (although I have doubted it at times) that he is not capricious, and he doesn't enjoy inflicting pain. I know that he holds each member of our family in his hand, and that he will not allow any suffering to come to any of us which is not necessary for our growth or his glory, both of which matter more to me, in the last assessment, than our comfort and happiness.

And even more remarkable to me was the realisation that this inner certainty was not from me. I generally think of my inner states as products of my strength of character or things I have done: programs I have followed, actions I have taken, attitudes I have adopted. But on Friday I learnt that trust in God in the face of death, and joy in God in the midst of grief, are in no way human, they are supernatural. The peace and joy we sometimes feel when confronting our deepest anxieties and fears are not from us, they are from his Spirit working within us. They are not from us, they are from God. Praise be to his name.

Which is not to say we can't prepare for suffering. We can read books that will give us the kind of big view of God and his dealings with us which will help us to keep trusting him whatever happens (the one which has most impacted me is Don Carson's How Long O Lord.) We can read, memorise and meditate on the Bible, until it soaks into us, and is there whenever we need it, springing up from within (the passages I keep coming back to are Ephesians 1:3-10, 1 Peter 1:3-9, Romans 8:28-39.) We can learn to argue ouselves out of despair and discouragement (like the writers of Psalm 22, 42, 73.) We can live for God, and learn to trust him, through years of getting to know our heavenly Father. From these truths working within us, will come peace and joy in times of trouble, the fruit of God's Spirit speaking to us through his Word.

Of course, none of this is a miraculous panacea for grief, for Christians are not exempt from sorrow and pain. I know the harsh reality of discovering I was desperately ill would be far worse than my vague fears. If the worst came to pass, my grief at leaving my family would be absolutely terrible: knowing that I wouldn't be there to welcome Steve home and enjoy his quiet company, to help Lizzy become a young woman, to exclaim as Ben describes his latest imaginary world, to laugh at one of Thomas' quaint sayings, or to hold little Andrew close in my arms. And I don't even want to think about the grief and life-long issues that my family and friends would be left to deal with, although I know God would be with them - and me - through it all.

But I also know, from reading about the experience of Christians in the midst of excruciating pain and loss, that there is a joy in God, a delight in his glory, a trust in his love, and a hope in heaven, which go beyond human doubt, fear and sorrow, and which can co-exist with agony and grief. I think I don't often glimpse them because my troubles are so often imaginary or trivial. But they are there, deep down, gifts of God's Spirit, for any Christian who finds themselves in need.

BTW (that's By The Way for you SMS philistines - of which I was one only a few months ago) the doctor declared me clear on the cancer front (as far as you can know from poking and prodding in search of lumps) and concluded (after much poking and prodding and waiting for me to say "ouch!") that I may have uterine fibroids, a benign and treatable condition. I'm having an ultrasound in a couple of weeks.


sandra j said...

Thanks, Jean.
i'd add Hebrews 12 and Lamentations 3 to your list as well!

Rachach said...

Thank you for your wonderful words. They are a real encouragement to me as I have been worrying about how I would cope with severe suffering myself and feeling like my faith is weak. Thanks for teaching me that joy, peace and faith are gifts of God.
And that piece on your mothers was so beautiful, it made me cry!

Jean Williams said...

Thanks for your comments, I was feeling pretty vulnerable about this post, also a bit ridiculous worrying so much about something unlikely, as if it heralded my impending death! So it was good to know I encouraged you, Rachel. And thanks for those passages, Sandra, Heb 12 is also one of my favourites, and Lamentations 3 blew me away. And as another friend said, I was writing about my fear of the unknown, and it's encouraging to know that God has changed the way I respond to death, even when I wasn't looking.

Anonymous said...

thank you for this among several other posts! your commitment to submitting to God's providence with joy, and deliberate growing through trial are a great example to me. thank you for investing in the vulnerability of honesty!