Early yesterday morning, my beloved Aunt Linda lost her battle with ovarian cancer. She was a gracious woman of deep Christian faith. In these last two weeks, she looked death squarely in the eye and dared it to do its worst.
Years ago, my grandfather also died of metastasized cancer that had spread to his brain. As I watched and waited for him to die, Death became manifestly real to me. I wept when my grandfather died. And from that day on I hated Death with visceral passion.
After my grandfather’s funeral, I tried to put into words both my hatred for Death as well as my certainty that Death fights a losing battle:
To the Cancer in His Head
You split his skull to kill him, but make him alive instead
You parasitic thing, you fault of Adam;
Sneaking, growing, like mice through walls,
Scratching, gnawing, conquering.
You eat to kill, but your silent breath only recreates.
Your curse lifts the Curse, your bondage sets him free.
Your death makes him wholly alive.
By killing him, you murder only yourself.
He shall have life, but you, Death: you will die.
The last line comes from John Donne’s famous sonnet, which tumbled around in my head through my grandfather’s sultry, interminable, final days:
Holy Sonnet X
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Death comes to us all. But for Christians, death is the first resurrection. When death comes near, let us weep as Christ did at the tomb of Lazarus.
But let us also look Death in the eye and defy it to do its damnedest. When Death undoes us, we are made anew.
Death, thou shalt die.