I said goodbye to a friend today. Mitzi Gore had struggled with myeloma for well over a decade. The doctors initially caught it in its last stages and gave her no more than two years to live. She lived another twelve. Since she constructed the illusion of a tough, prickly exterior, she might have joked that her own survival was due to pure meanness. But everyone knows she had a heart of gold.
Although Mitzi could be tough, she was one of the best teachers I ever had. Not in all my years in university and graduate school, but in the school of life.
Mitzi taught me how to make others feel comfortable. People tend to complain. A lot. Society seems to value being rewarded just for complaining enough. You can get free or discounted goods and services for the slightest inconvenience if you complain loudly enough to the right people. We like to talk about themselves, and we don’t mind complaining about our illnesses. In older days of polite society such a thing would have been viewed as crass and uncivilized. Now it seems routine, as if by simply enduring the natural difficulties of life we earn the right to solicit the empathy of others.
Mitzi never complained about her illnesses. Whenever I visited her in the hospital, she rarely mentioned her health problems. The most she ever said was, “Yeah, it’s this or that,” or “It’s just my myeloma kicking in again.” Then she moved on to other things. She asked about my wife, my children. How school was going, how people treated me at work. It’s almost as if she didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable coming to visit her when in reality she was locked into mortal combat with a microscopic killer. Fighting myeloma and regular occurrences of pneumonia. Fighting for another sunrise. But she didn’t want to reveal her struggle because it cause someone else unease.
I learned to make the most of the time we have. In her last week on earth, I visited Mitzi almost every day. Each day I said I would see her the next. It was on a Thursday that I went in to visit her again. We talked for a while, and she made a joke about getting her Bible so she could stump me with some difficult questions. I said that I was looking forward to it. I told her that I would see her in the morning, but some other commitments got in the way and I failed to get to the hospital. That Saturday she slipped into a coma from which she would never awaken. I had made a promise that life did not allow me to keep.
The next time I saw Mitzi, she was unconscious and hooked up to various machines. Barely out of my first year in ministry, I had already seen quite a bit. I’ve seen people hurting. I’ve seen them close to death. But I’d never seen anything like this. Movies on the Lifetime and Hallmark channels always portray people on life support in a sterile, white, and strangely comfortable environment. Reality is much more grim. Mitzi was clawing for life, as she had done for more than a decade. But now she was sedated and intubated. It wouldn’t be long.
When I think about it, it makes me angry. Jesus said that Satan was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). In a society that sees the devil as a clever little man with goatee and a pitchfork interested only in mischief and mayhem, it’s easy to import our views into the text. Satan isn’t a deviant cherub. His very first plan was to murder Adam and Eve by playing upon their pride and goading them into disobeying God’s commands.
We often think of Genesis 3 as a sad story. It is much more. It is a tragic tale of deception and death, of a vicious fiend who hates God with such passion that he would destroy everything made in his image. This cunning engineer of illusion would kill not only our first parents, but the whole human race. Everyone who dies does so because of his villainous hatred of the good. He has killed you and me. Our friends. Our spouses and children. Every cemetery, every tombstone, every graveside service is a monument to his putrescent success. As a murderer he is not only the oldest, but the ablest. As monstrous as we know Hitler and Stalin to have been, they were never anything more than two examples of his more accomplished apprentices. The devil has had a long time to practice his craft.
I looked down at Mitzi, still struggling to hold on. I had no illusions of delivering a golden-mouthed goodbye. I simply spoke from the heart, which is all anyone wants to hear anyway, truth be told. I told her that we’d miss her, and that we loved her. I said that the next time we met, it would be in a far better place than this. Then I said, “Goodbye, my friend.” Goodbyes don’t have to be long and eloquent. Sometimes they are short and simple. The heart knows the difference, and it doesn’t mind.
Goodbyes like this are hard, but they make us grow. Part of me wanted to see the whole scene as one of despair. One life lived with love and loss, finally consumed in the oblivion of death. Part of me wanted to quit ministry altogether. But that it precisely how the Ernest Hemmingways and the Friedrich Nietzsches and all the other prophets of despair would want us to see it: life as a grand but meaningless frustration, born from nothingness and predestined for the abyss. That may be a tale fit for a philosopher of doom, but it isn’t reality.
I had a friend who was taken into the custody of Christ today. She laid her heavy burdens behind her, and she will enjoy the eternal fruits of a life well-lived to the glory of God.
August 20, 2011
Image courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net