Two nights ago I received the sad news that my friend Cathy had passed away from aggressive ovarian cancer. Cathy and I, along with several friends in a group we call our “sacred circle,” shared an annual Christmas dinner just a few months ago. An intensely private person, Cathy, her natural hair grown once more, never told us that the cancer had not responded to treatment like doctors had hoped and it had spread. We celebrated together that night the joy of being in each other’s company and the beautiful gift of friendship –in particular, we celebrated Cathy’s life as she was there, present, with us. Now she is gone. This reality seems incomprehensible.
Recuperating from minor surgery I am unable to attend the funeral of my friend.
Out of this heavy-heartedness I wrote to Suzanne, one of the “sacred circle” friends. Telling her that our circle of friends, as well as Cathy’s family, was in my prayers, I added that, though not physically able to be present, I would be at the funeral in thoughts, prayers and spirit.
At breakfast today, quite out of the blue, my eight year old, who did not know Cathy or that she had died, asked, “Is everything around us alive?”
“What does it mean to be alive?” I replied.
“The milk you used to make the biscuit came from a cow who was alive and the flour came from wheat that was growing, but then you bake it to be a biscuit,” he said. “so does that mean the biscuit is dead or just changed? And…bacteria can still grow on it even though it’s baked so is the biscuit still really alive??” he continued. (Clearly this child does not need caffeine in the mornings to think clearly the way I do!)
His questions caused me to ponder. It was a mystery and could be argued by any skilled attorney for the affirmative or negative. I began thinking of Cathy’s life, her influence in the lives of so many, and her legacy now that she is gone from our daily contact. It drew me back to the words offered by Jesus as recorded in the book of John:
Jesus answered them…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
How can that be? I wonder, yet I know it is true.
The mystery of life –of what it means to be alive –is not a new or foolish question. The natural cycle of death, the hard questions about death and even the importance of acknowledging death’s role in being alive, should not be pushed aside. Are we, like the wheat, really gone when we die?
I received this email from Suzanne tonight concerning Cathy’s funeral:
What a beautiful celebration of a much too short life. From the steady flow of visitors, to the sanctuary filled with family and friends, to the lovely arrangement on the Altar gorgeous with the yellow daffodils that Cathy loved, to the marvelous prayer…to moving Homily, to the final walk behind her ashes, there was so much love and so many grateful hearts filled to overflowing because of her bright spirit and beautiful smile. Thanks be to God for the gift of Cathy[’s] …presence in our lives."
Yes, death is a part of life. Acknowledging Cathy’s death in such a memorial service also acknowledges her singular, beautiful life itself –a life lived fully and in the love and mystery of the God who created her. Acknowledging Cathy’s life and death also means acknowledging that she is now part of something greater that is to come. That mystery that we cannot understand fully, that mystery that escapes our understanding, is still full of truth, even if I do not know how it can be.
So in celebration of the life and death of Cathy today, I cling to these words: …unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Thanks be to God for the mystery of both life and death.