James Altena on Looking Death in the Face of a Friend
When my dear friend Jan Coward died of cancer in October 2006, he was not conscious and went peacefully; my hand rested upon his arm as he drew his final breath. It was the first time I had seen someone die.
My father’s death (of colon cancer) had been quite sudden; he died within two days of entering the hospital for the last time, before I could even book a flight to see him. Since he was cremated, I never actually saw him dead. Although I detest the artificiality and tackiness of many “viewings,” I found that not being able to see in death a loved one known in life exacts a great psychological toll, for the death then never seems entirely real. Full closure is not always made; an unhealed wound may remain.
My good friend Greg Randolph was without warning felled by a heart attack at age 38. I came home from a trip out of state to a message on an answering machine with the stunning and brutal news. As he was by that time already buried, I had no chance to see him.
Both my mother and my beloved friend Betty Berbig (a second mother to me for twenty years) died after long and slow declines. With my mother, I was blessed to keep vigil at her bedside in her last few days, but was asleep in a motel room at the actual hour of death. A phone call summoned me; I went to her bedside and kissed her brow, now at peace, one last time, in a genuine and final leave-taking.
With Betty, for several months I had been flying from Philadelphia to Chicago every few weeks for one to three days, to spend several hours each day at her bedside in the nursing home and tend to her affairs as her power of attorney. The few hours between the first phone call summoning me to her bedside and the second telling me of her death did not leave me time even to book a flight. But in her case, with senility afflicting her final months, I had already long prepared for and grieved that moment, and in her final decline I had, in a sense, almost seen her die.
An Awful Honor
But with Jan, I witnessed death directly. Suddenly diagnosed with advanced lung and liver cancer, he chose to take only palliative treatment for pain and immediately entered a hospice.
His decline was shockingly sudden; within a week he could hardly carry on a real conversation, and within five he was dead. At the last visit my wife and I paid to him, he could not speak, but extended his hands for us to help him out of the bed, from whence he tottered over to a chair, sat silently for some minutes, and then beckoned us to return him.
In his last few days, Jan fell unconscious and was moved to a special room for those about to die, where family and friends could stay with him around the clock. Jan had no immediate family in contact with him, and so it fell to me and a few other loyal friends to keep vigil.
The awful honor of the final moments fell to me, to a friend of Jan’s named Alan, and to our church organist (Jan had long been the parish cantor). Alan and I sat on either side of Jan, our hands holding his arms, as the breaths grew ever more short, shallow, and infrequent. Finally, his larynx made a few rapid motions in succession, and the next breath did not come.
I had now witnessed Death directly. Not having before seen him directly, I previously had had mingled thoughts of him. By the faith I profess, I know he is the enemy of mankind. And yet, I have also thought of him as, in a way, kindly too. Though he is the wages of sin, he also unwittingly releases us from earthly sorrow and toil to eternal and blessed reunion with the Father, a view reinforced by the peaceful passings of my mother and my friend Betty after long suffering.
But with Jan it was very different. In a little over a month I saw Death take a man of vitality, drain him, reduce him to a shell, and then steal him away from those who loved him. It brought home not just the shock of Death, but his cruelty as well.
At first, I halted before the seemingly black, implacable immensity of Death—so powerful and so great before weak, frail mortals, who vainly imagine themselves to hold such great power and wisdom, and yet are so utterly helpless against the ancient foe who takes everyone for his prey. And indeed, so much of the power that man fancies himself to have is only the power to deliver his fellow man to Death.
A Sham & a Cheat
But now, having witnessed Death, I have a very different view. His supposed and vaunted power is but a sham. Death is naught but a cheat—a mean, petty, sneaky, cowardly, cozening, little cheat, a pilferer and sharper of the meanest rank. If I were to choose but a single word to describe Death, that word would be “spiteful.”
For Death is envious of Life. He has nothing, absolutely nothing, to offer, being himself but the shadow of nothingness. And what does Death seek, after all? At Satan’s bidding, to condemn his victims and carry them off. And yet, he cannot. For all he can lay hold on is the body, not the immortal soul, which passes for judgment into the hands of God, to be endowed with a new body, glorious and immortal.
And the body decays to ashes and dust, so that Death has not even that. Reduced to its primordial powder, the body filters through the bony fingers that vainly seek to grasp it, back to the earth from which God formed it, so that in the end Death has and holds—paradoxically, ironically—nothing. In his own grasp, Death holds only himself.
Death is thus reduced to seeking to terrify by a feeble lie: the lie that the mortal body is all there is, or somehow most essential to what we are. He thus mostly seeks to terrify by suffering—not just physical suffering, but the greater suffering of separation and loss. In the latter lies what little pretense at power he has, for we tend to fear Death in proportion to the suffering we anticipate from his coming.
But even there, Death is reduced to sterility and helplessness, to the empty gesturing of an incompetent mime. For we who believe in Christ sorrow, but not as those who have no hope. Having trampled down death by death, Christ has opened to us the gates of life everlasting. Jan, and Betty, and Greg, and all who die in Christ, are not dead, but alive for evermore. Unwillingly and rebelliously, Death does God’s bidding, and not Satan’s.
When the loss of Jan was still fresh, I burned with terrible anger at Death—not at the fact of death, but at the lie Death perpetuates, by which he makes all suffer. But as I came to know that Death is a feeble and passing lie, that anger passed, as all mortal things pass, into the keeping of a loving God who puts it far from me.
Even so, one day he shall use Death himself to put away death from me and grant me life eternal in Christ Jesus, in the glorious company of redeemed sinners like Jan.
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