“Today is the twenty-ninth of August 1988, and since the twenty-third of June, the second of two days when I wanted to die, I have not wanted my earthly life to end, have not wanted to confront You with anger and despair,” writes Andre Dubus. (This would be the writer Andre Dubus II, father of the now better known novelist.)
He says this in the title essay of his book Broken Vessels. I’d pulled it off the shelf to find a quote to give a young writer I was helping. It recounts his life, which is filled with loss. Some losses were his fault. Others, especially the loss of his legs when he’d stopped on a dark road to help a disabled brother couple, and was hit by a careless driver, the exact opposite. He’d pushed the sister out of the way. The car crushed both his legs and he eventually lost both. He wrote the essay two years after getting hit, and he lived eleven more.
God’s Sometimes Lethal Ways
“I receive You in the Eucharist at daily Mass, and look at You on the cross,” Dubus continues, “but mostly I watch the priest, and the old deacon, a widower, who brings me the Eucharist, and the people who walk past me to receive; and I know they have all endured their own agony, and prevailed in their own way, though not alone but drawing their hope and strength from those they love, those who love them, and from You, in the sometimes tactile, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes lethal way that You give.”
He doesn’t end there. “My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me; but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life that remains after the losses.”
I loved the passage and had used it in an article on gratitude, published on Thanksgiving, not knowing that three-and-a-half months later I’d find myself without warning begin six months of watching my sister die of cancer. I read the article again the next Thanksgiving. We’d a lovely day, with our two youngest at home and a beloved friend over for dinner, and a game of Scrabble sitting by the fire afterward.
It was easy to feel grateful, full of steak and wine and pie, with family and friend, and dogs, and a lovely fire on a cold night. And then I thought of my sister, who is dead, and died disappointed and in pain, and felt how shitty life can be, and how hard won can be the feeling of gratitude.
Then My Friend Went into Hospice
Later on the morning I found the passage, dashing into the library to use the copier, I ran into a friend. He told me a third friend — a former student from twenty years ago — has gone into hospice because the cancer had spread into her spine. A gentle woman of famous kindness, she would be leaving a husband and a fourteen-year-old daughter.
It’s easy to be a little dramatic about death when you’re not the one who’s dying, or close to someone who’s dying. I love this passage, because Dubus sustains his hope through the inevitable pain. I didn’t know what it would mean for my friend, and her husband and daughter, to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life remains after the losses.
I didn’t know what it would mean for my sister. Or for me. I found it meant one thing right away. To make my time with my sister count, because the news she was dying was the first loss death brought us. And since then, to pray not just for the dying but for those who love them, because what remains is our ability to lighten their burden by asking our Father to care for them.
David Mills is the editor of Hour of Our Death. His last article was “On Easter Monday, We’re Back On Holy Saturday.” His other articles for Hour of Our Death can be found here. The article he mentions was Thank God For Life, Even When It Feels Like a Gift You Didn’t Want.
The picture appeared on Pixabay and is used under a creative commons license.