I found myself in my old hometown yesterday. I don't get there much anymore and usually when I get there I'm in too big of a hurry to look around. But yesterday I had a little time and an urge to look around. Eventually I found myself in the cemetery of this town of a thousand residents. I remember walking around there as a kid, sometimes as part of a geneology project and other times just looking around. Yesterday though, became a kind of walk through my childhood. I visited the graves of many people whom I may or may not see in heaven, but I remember them in life. I saw the grave of my elementary and middle school principal. Across the path was my grandfather's burial site and the grave of my aunt who died at the age of five months.
As I walked, I became aware of so many people who had passed to the back burner of my mind. The guy who ran the meat packing store. The lady who worked at the bank. My uncle's dad. One of my good friends from elementary school. A lady who used to drive my bus. Plenty of other relatives, including some I never really met.
As I walked, I realized there was one grave I'd never visited but had to be out there somewhere. She was my first "girlfriend." (We were in kindergarten -- how "in love" could we be?) We were good friends all through school. I had a crush on her on and off for years. She was a big encouragement to me, helping me to develop some confidence. During our senior year, we each took short trips to visit some colleges. I went with three other guys and we had fun over the next three days, seeing four different campuses in addition to downtown Indianapolis at night. She started off for a campus visit with a friend in a VW beetle about the color of a yellow tennis ball. The two of them drove about 30 minutes to the Interstate, then as they tried to merge into traffic an 18-wheeler all but crushed the beetle. My friend was taken to the hospital in a coma.
I visited her in the hospital many times. We were encouraged to talk to her, as the nurses kept saying that she heard what we said. When I went off to college about nine months later, she was still on my mind but I stopped visiting. I felt like my presence was causing her mother so much pain, hearing about the things her daughter should be doing. I kept praying.
She finally died in 2001, shortly after the Twin Towers fell. She had been in a coma for 22 years. Her parents had cared for her the entire time. She had spent some time in various hospitals but eventually was brought home where she was cared for by her loving parents year after year. When I saw her again in the casket, I would have never recognized her. She looked nothing like her old pictures.
While pacing around the cemetery yesterday, I finally found her grave. There was a beautiful stone with her senior picture etched into it. On the reverse was a beautiful quote from St. Francis. Then I looked to the right and saw another stone with the same last name. It was for her parents. Her father was still alive, but I had forgotten that her mother has passed away almost a year later. She had given so much of her life to care for her daughter that her health was horrible and her heart was broken. As I looked at the stones together I thought to myself, "This is the way we were taught to live." We're called not to live selfishly, but to live to love God completely and to love others as ourselves. My friend's mother had not wasted her life caring for 22 years for a daughter in a coma. She had followed scriptural instructions of caring for her daughter.
I often wonder what my friend was going through in those 22 years. Would she have preferred death? Should it matter if she did? Is it God's decision to take life or ours? I pray that God was able to do some incredible things for her during that time. I am positive he did not desert her.
A friend asked me about the Terri Schiavo case. He wanted to know why people wanted her to be starved to death, or why they wanted her dead, period. My best guess is that we see ourselves in the face of the less fortunate. In our limited understanding, all we see is a body driven by very little mind. We see that someone like Terri is not in control of anything; she is at the mercy of others. When many people see themselves in that situation, their reaction is fear. They fear living in a debilitated state. They fear not having control. They fear it so much that death seems preferable. And what an interesting choice that becomes for the non-believer. They would rather take the uncertainty of death over the observed certainty of living a life out of their control. Isn't that an amazing statement about the incredibly strong drive of self? But if a decision to remove a feeding tube becomes a personal fight to be able to retain control of one's life, it ceases to be about life itself. . . only about self.
I don't pretend to know everyone's motivations for their opinions. I only present what I've seen in observing some people. My conclusions aren't meant to broad-brush, but to help me understand this whole case better. I certainly feel for my friend's mother and father. At the same time I also have great admiration for them. I also greatly admire Henri Nouwen, who gave up his university teaching position to care for people who couldn't care for themselves. Yet I also understand the pull of selfishness, in not wanting to give our lives to serve others. Still I know what the Bible tells us to do for other people and I know how dangerous selfish desires can be to my relationship with my Creator and Savior.
God has allowed this stuff to perkolate in my mind since I first drove into the graveyard yesterday. And I think I am even more grateful for the gift of life, yet more aware that my life is not my own. I have been bought with a price. My undying praise and thanks to the One who bought me, and thanks as well for continuing to shape me into His image.