July 27, 2015

Death is a Refining Process

  Cancer is an ugly word often associated with pain and suffering. I cannot refute that in the least. However, I have learned that suffering, in its own way, can be merciful, and that death is a refining process.
     I learned this from my mother-in-law. “Kids are for goats” or “I am NOT a guy,” she would blast with her big voice that she would use like a fog horn. My mother-in-law’s voice was big; I mean it was quiet-a-crowd-at-the-Marriot-Center-from-the-middle-of-the-arena-no-megaphone-needed big. It took me a long time to figure out that she was using her voice to hide her pain.  
     Her life was filled with emotional turmoil. Her mother had been married and divorced or widowed several times. Along the way, she had endured unspeakable abuses at the hands of the men whom her mother had exposed her to. Because of her dysfunctional childhood, she had promised herself that she would not put her children through the same suffering that she went through. When she married it was eternally, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. She was going to provide a stable foundation for her children.
However, due to the abuse, unresolved emotional issues plagued their marriage. Neither she nor my father-in-law were the type to share these struggles with their children, but as they got older they could observe these things without a lot of words being exchanged. Little Ben, their first child, went full term, but somewhere in the process of childbirth his cord became prolapsed; he suffocated and died in the process of being born. This sent both of my in-laws’ world into a tailspin from which they never fully recovered. It was just too much for my mother-in-law to handle emotionally, and she slipped into a behavioral pattern that isolated her from the broader spectrum of society.
Her stubborn, no guff, say-it-like-she-sees-it personality came over as harsh and sometimes obnoxious to others. She was either loved or despised; she left little room for neutrality. Even among her children there were many hard feelings due to her hardline, old school, literal interpretations of words and phrases. This was especially so when their friends were the recipients of her corrections. Nevertheless, I loved her, probably because I could see the pain and perceive her determination to see things through no matter how tough things got. Looking back, her dry sense of humor was probably a coping mechanism that helped her deal with her physical and emotional pains. For me, it was always good for a smile, an eye roll, or a shake of the head.
For months, even years, we had noticed that her health was in decline, but she was not one to show her pain, or even acknowledge it. In fact, we came to realize that her mind probably did not even compute what pain was because it was such a constant in her life. In January 2013, we became very concerned about her breathing. Each time she took a breath she sounded like a train climbing up a hill. Whenever we mentioned it to her, she would snap back, “It’s just the weather.” Finally, in July of 2013, she couldn’t breathe, she was in pain, and she was scared; a trip to the hospital led to an immediate prognosis that her right lung had collapsed. When the doctors investigated to see how bad it was, they said that they could not even stitch the hole in her lung; the flesh was so thin that it was like trying to sew wet toilet paper.
It took another three weeks for the full diagnosis to come back…Mesothelioma, a horrible form of lung cancer that attacks the inner lining of the lungs. It has no cure and very little treatment options, even if it is caught early. She was already at stage four, so there was nothing they could do. She was given six to eight weeks to live.
      She made it past the eight-week mark, in fact, she made it past Thanksgiving. Her will to live was strong. As she became less and less able to take care of her own needs, we offered my in-laws a room in our home. They agreed, but up until December they wouldn’t commit to coming. It was not until mid-December before she finally decided that she was ready to spend her final days on this earth in our home.
     In my ignorance, I thought that I was being generous by opening up my home to my in-laws. I was impressed with myself and my “righteous” offer. How arrogant I was. How wrong I was. Thank goodness I did eventually recognize that she was giving us her final gift. I am glad that humility is not always a bitter bite.
     I quickly learned that in her suffering, my mother-in-law had humbled herself. She had, without declaring it to the world, begun a process of repentance that was as real as any that I have ever witnessed. Not the kind of repentance you normally think of when it comes to sin, but the kind of repentance that refines one’s soul, and sets one on the path toward perfection-the kind of repentance that prepares one to enter the presence of God.

     The next four weeks would become one spiritual experience followed by another as my mother-in-law completed her transition. It became apparent to us, in those final days, that the veil had become very thin to her. She had several conversations with individuals that we could not see. One particular incident occurred, just days before she slipped into unconsciousness. I was entering her room. Her eyes were closed. She had a very calm yet intense look on her face, as though she was listening carefully to someone. After this conversation I heard her clearly say, “I forgive you.”  It was as if the purifying process of repentance was coming to a close and in forgiving she found forgiveness herself. She was at peace.
      I cannot say for sure who it was that was addressing her that evening, but I had the distinct impression that it was her mother. It was humbling to realize that while my mother-in-law was suffering through this process, she was being refined. The hard edges of her life were sluffing off her ever-shrinking physical frame. As I witnessed her suffering, I found myself being refined in my own way. My own ability to love was increased, and my understanding of the role of forgiveness was solidified. It wasn’t until then that I realized that death can be a refining process; suffering, in its own way, can be merciful. In her final days, she shared with us the peace that she found in that painful transition as her body became too hostile an environment for her spirit and she let go of her imperfect, worn-out body, and entered into the presence of her loving Heavenly Father.

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