I didn’t know which I hated more: death or the love that made it so excruciating. It was one of those seasons of deep wrestling and at various points, I had been tempted to believe that everyone would be better off if we just loved one another less. I had seen all the risks of love become a reality. I had seen that love made the pain of loss cut so much deeper. And I sincerely wondered if it was worth it. For several weeks I had watched a mother in a rickety armchair pulled up to the bedside of her 15-year-old son, her hand intertwined with his as they both rested their eyes, night after sleepless night. It was a beautiful and heart wrenching picture of just how intertwined his whole life was with hers. His dad would pace throughout the night, worry lines now etched into his kind and gentle face. Each day that passed, the news only got grimmer and yet, their love seemed to only grow stronger. From my chair at the adjacent bed space, I could only steal glances. It physically hurt to look upon something as powerful as a parent’s love, mingled with something as fragile as a human life. It felt like watching two high-speed trains barreling towards one another, Love and its great enemy: Loss. I needed to cover my eyes; brace myself for the dreadful impact. It actually seemed like the most foolish thing in the world – how we love people who are perishing. And we all do…we all are. Why would anyone subject themselves to such inevitable pain? How could it be worth it?
Yet, even as these desperate thoughts ran through my mind something inside of me rejected the notion entirely. It’s only foolish if self-preservation is the goal. I could hear a thousand truths at war with my heart: There are treasures much greater than comfort to be found in this life. Lean in. Endure this momentary pain. I could sense that a great mystery was unfolding here. Something tragic and beautiful and undeniably holy was taking place and though I wanted to stand up and close the curtain, walk out of the theatre, make it all go away, I knew deep down, I could not miss this.
As the weeks passed, I ached for words to comfort, for a touch that healed, for news that offered hope. But no amount of longing could give me the power to muster up any sort of remedy; all I could do was show up and be present- with my empty-hands and breaking heart. There were nights, I’ll admit, I actually wished his parents loved him less. I thought it would make this more bearable. But for two months there would be no reprieve. Without exception, every day I showed up to work, I was always assigned the room right next to his – even as he moved beds throughout our unit. The tension that ensued as I confronted love in the face of suffering, and my own human-limitations was gut-wrenching and faith-testing. But it was exactly in this wrestling that I uncovered something remarkable.
One night, after months of peering through the window of this hauntingly mesmerizing story, after months of offering a weak smile through the glass whenever our eyes met, his dad walked past my chair like he had every night before. But unlike any other night, on this particular night, he stopped in his tracks, retraced his last few steps, and stopped right in front of me. My heart started racing. I had been fighting to keep my distance. I had watched other nurses pour themselves into his care and embed themselves in his story…mostly from my safe vantage point across the hall. I would occasionally peak in and say hi if I was feeling especially brave. I would ask the dad how they were doing, hoping maybe someone had forgotten to tell me that this family I was so desperately rooting for had turned a corner. I hated every interaction that I entered into with nothing to offer. As the outlook was seeming worse and worse, I was feeling increasingly small and helpless. But now he was standing right in front of me. He looked me in the eyes and the weight of the pain furrowed in his brows nearly broke me.
“You know, I think we’re nearing the end of our stay here…” he began. I nodded solemnly, my face and heart filled with pain. “But I have to tell you… since our first night here, every time I looked out this window and would see you sitting here, smiling…I don’t know” he trailed off…”it’s always given us hope.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “No matter what happens…you nurses, all the doctors….” he paused. “We have experienced our worst nightmare, but have never once been alone.”
He looked down and took a deep breath. A breath filled with the weight of sorrow and worry and loss. He sighed and I could see the heaviness escape from his body for just a moment before the next breath took it all back in. He looked up once more. “So I just wanted to say thank you.”
I was speechless. I blinked and stared at him. Tears welled up in my eyes. I wanted so badly to have something profound to say. Or some good news…of healing or a cure. I wanted to proclaim that he would be ok. That stories like theirs don’t end in tragedy. So many longings, so many sentiments, so few words.
“It’s been an absolute honor.”
We nodded at one another before he made his way back to their room. I was stunned. These parents had walked the dark and heavy road of grief and fear and loss with such courage and grace…and as they stood here, nearing the end of this long, excruciating chapter, they had a love that had stood the test of time and the fires of hell and emerged all the stronger. The words of 1 Corinthians 13 came to mind. Love is patient, love is kind…it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
There. That last one. Love endures all things. And it did. It does.
The next time I came into work, a new patient with a different mommy and daddy sat behind the glass of that room. Days, weeks, months have passed and I still think back to that exchange. I think of all the people I have met, all the lives and stories that have intersected mine. It’s hard to believe the impact that a single human heart wrapped in flesh with a set number of days to live out on this earth can have on the lives of those around them. I know this family’s story will forever be a part of mine. And I am so humbled when I think that I was able to be a part of theirs.
And I think this is what it all comes down to. It’s not about having the right words, or the power to heal or make right or fix. It’s about being present. Having the courage to let your breaking heart keep another’s company. It’s this beautiful vast overlapping of lives and loss and all the hard things but all the good thing too, and if we do it right, if we lean in despite our fears, if we show up and brave the storms together, the cost will be great, but the reward will be greater. Because here’s what I’m learning: this world is not a beautiful place overcome by brokenness and death. It is a dark and painful place overcome by light and love.
All this time I had been grasping for hope and life and peace and joy; anything but this devastating, selfless, heart-shattering love on display for all to see. But as it turns out, these abstract things we spend our whole lives pursuing – all the good things– are waiting on the other side of the pain and suffering we seem to spend our whole lives avoiding. And to think, had I let my fear of suffering have the last word, I would have missed out on my breath-taking view of this grand gesture of love.
And what a grand gesture it was. Where else can love defy loss but in the face of death? And how else can hope triumph over despair but in the midst of grief? And when else can the selfish inclinations of a man’s heart be overcome by something as selfless and reckless as Love, but in this broken, fleeting life? And who else can tear through the veil of this all encompassing darkness but a Light that bursts forth in this valley of death?
The more I’ve reflected on this experience, the more I am convinced that Love, not Death, got the final word in this story. And herein lies hope: it can have the final word in yours too. By this we know love, that He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers – 1 John 3:16. We are each uniquely nestled in different places and seasons of darkness to bear the burdens of our fellow sufferers and to bear witness to the beauty that grows when we persevere long enough to allow it- because, we have a Savior who goes before us in suffering and death, love and life. There are still moments I falter, but I truly believe that to avoid suffering is indeed the far greater risk.