What Makes a Life

What Makes a Life June 20, 2007

I got back into town very late last night (really, very early this morning) having heard the news that a Calvary friend was in the hospital. I knew this was urgent; though he’d been battling cancer for at least a year, we all knew he couldn’t hang on much longer.

I kept thinking of the grief his wife has been bearing as she’s watched him suffer, and so I scrambled around this morning to rush to the hospital, hoping to be of some comfort to them. I finally got there, found a parking place and navigated my way through the maze that is Washington Hospital Center, until I found room 3NE123.

But as I opened the door to his room the housekeeping staff brushed past, just having finished their work.

The room was clean. Antiseptic, really.

The bed was stripped; the floor had been mopped; the bathroom scrubbed. No scent of human suffering here. Instead, the smell of strong cleaning chemicals hit me in the face as I entered.

Every single personal item had been removed; you wouldn’t even know anyone had even been here, much less been laboring through the task of dying.

It was right in the doorway of 3NE123 at that moment that I had the worst sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and wondered again:

What makes a life?

Can this world be mopped up, scrubbed away, stripped clean of a whole life lived?

Just the thought took my breath away.

As I approached the nurses’ desk she was getting ready to call his family to tell them the news. Though I was still a little stunned that I’d missed him—by only just a few minutes—I offered to help.

As we broke the news to his wife there was a long silence on the other end of the telephone.

I braced for her grief.

Instead, her clear, strong voice exclaimed: “Oh, I am so glad he’s out of pain. It was so hard to watch him suffer.”

She continued, and I could hear her smiling, “And, do you know, Pastor Amy, that I got to say goodbye? We got to say goodbye to each other. I’ll miss him so much, but I’m so glad we had such a life together.”

I find myself so very often wandering through holy moments like these, alternately shocked, scared, sad, amazed, humbled, overwhelmed . . . wondering about the larger questions like:

What makes a life?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know whatever the answer is, it wasn’t in 3NE123 this morning. And, I got to thinking, maybe it wasn’t even in the living, breathing human body most recently inhabiting that room.

I don’t know what makes a life, but I’m thinking it could probably be found in a sweet goodbye; in living memories of a life together; in wishing only joy and freedom for one you love, even if it hurts until your heart breaks.

I’ll spend the rest of today and probably a few more days wondering what makes a life, because even though the nurse told me he’d died just a little while before . . . he still seemed alive to her. And to me.

And maybe that’s what makes a life.

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  • Brian Merritt

    Thank you for sharing this. I have had so many similar experiences. You have captured it beautifully.