On the Fragility of Life


I’ve never forgotten a moment at my father’s visiting hours. I’m standing in front of Dad‘s casket, greeting people and shaking hands, receiving condolences and pleasantries from people, some of whom couldn’t stand my father. It’s a small town; I know. But one of his actual friends shook my hand and said, “You know, I don’t know the last time I saw your dad.” He didn’t sound regretful, just matter of fact, like he was sharing the weather forecast. And I wanted to throttle him. Much more than toward the polite people who weren’t all that sad to see Dad go, I felt anger at this man, because, frankly, What the Hell?

Yes, I know. That doesn’t mix well with “God has grace for us.” I never said I was Jesus…and I got over playing God in my early twenties. I’m not still angry at that man. But I remember it because he described a choice that could not be undone. In my eyes, he described a severe failure at being a friend and didn’t seem in the least concerned about it.*

In retrospect, this is what I think was going on for me: I felt grief and conflicted regret for having been an imperfect son, for having failed my dad in some ways and not loved him as I wish I could have. But that guy?

“Huh. Guess I haven’t seen him in forever, and now he’s gone.” Shrug.

I wanted him to feel remorse, as a real friend who didn’t bother to visit his dying friend–my father–in who-knows-how-long?

I hate cliches. I really hate them. When I read a book and the author indulges in cliches, either directly or thematically, I want to vomit. Often, I will put the book down and never pick it up again.

Life is fragile. It’s short and precious and we don’t value it enough until we lose it or face losing it.

Those statements have become cliches. They’re true. They’re also so commonly heard that they ring like the alarm we’ve heard so often we now tune it out. An alarm that we can ignore is useless. But sometimes we need to revive what has become cliched to regain the pointed truth that has grown dull in our ears. The alarm was going off for a reason.

Tuesday, I learned a young man, the son of someone beloved to me, died. He was sixteen.

My chest hurts. I took a walk at 11:30 PM in a heavy snow to pray and breathe. I don’t understand. I don’t know if understanding would help, but I want to understand, maybe just to find another way to hold this.

I want to carry some of the pain for my friend. I prayed to be able to do that. I don’t know if that works. When Isaac died, I thought the pain would kill me. Some moments, I hoped it would. I don’t know if people carried some of my pain for me; I suspect they did. I suspect that the grief would have been unbearable for me and God allowed others to endure some portion of it on my behalf. I can’t prove this, obviously. I can give you Scripture that hints at this, maybe–“Bear one another’s burdens”–but I’m talking about something in the spiritual realm, something supernatural. Yes, we’re going to share meals with those who grieve. That’s measurable and necessary. As I told Kim last night, “When Isaac died, receiving meals didn’t fix anything, but we did eat them.” But I was asking God for more than “Let my friend know that I feel bad, too.”

I’m not a great candidate to carry pain for others in the way I’m describing. I run at near max capacity, pretty much always, whether because I take on too much or don’t have that large of a tank in the first place. Maybe both.

When I asked God that last night, I didn’t do so flippantly or casually. It felt like a moment of “counting the cost,” evaluating what I was getting into before I committed. Maybe, maybe it was even God nudging me to be careful–or certain–of what I asked. Again, I’m describing things I believe, not things I can prove.

Time moves in one direction. I can’t even go back to five minutes ago and rethink the text message I sent. For me, one of the scariest parts of being human is not being able to undo anything. No Control Z. Can I “make up” for things I’ve done or failed to do? Maybe. I can repent. I can turn around and go in the opposite direction. I can resolve today to love someone I have neglected or hated. I can’t un-hate or un-neglect them yesterday. “No man [sic] ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” –Heraclitus

I do believe in grace. I think grace is the only thing that makes Reality, capital “R,” bearable. If there were no forgiveness and no hope of redemption for our sins, our mistakes, our fuck ups, I don’t see how I could face yesterday, much less tomorrow.

Jesus’ love for us is Grace, always. I believe in a love that doesn’t keep score, doesn’t need to be earned, and cannot be earned. I believe that if I screw up or volitionally sin and hurt you today, God can forgive me and bring healing and redemption in your life for what I’ve done. You might not forgive me. But I can still hope–have faith–that God will do good, even out of the evil I have done. That’s one form of redemption.

We aren’t perfect. In fact, we’re wildly imperfect, generous and kind one moment, selfish and defensive the next. We can’t fix how inconsistent we’ve been but we can drive ourselves mad in the present, replaying what we’ve done wrong. Life is hard and sometimes unbearable. These are the only conditions in which we get to love people. We don’t get to wait until we’re perfect or even better at it; we don’t get to wait until life stops being so damned difficult, because if we do, we’ll miss it altogether.

My friend Tom–#SeipelStrong!–is dying, on hospice and in horrible, literally breath-taking pain. He lives far away, so I’m watching him die on updates he posts. I got to become a Cleveland Browns fan with him for a few weeks to show solidarity, to love my friend in a silly yet real way. I’m praying for his healing, but also praying for his peace. Another friend, Kari, describes her cancer as “riding a rollercoaster–and not the fun kind.” She’s one of my heroes in this life, not because she’s flawless but because she’s hilarious and profane and wise and she keeps taking in kids and making them part of her family. I don’t want her to die, but she might. Today, I’m praying for my beloved friend of so many years whose son is suddenly gone. I don’t know how he recovers from his child’s death.

All three of these are incredible people, some of the best people I know–and I know a lot of people. I can’t fix this for any of them. I can tell them I love them–I LOVE you three, so much!–and pray and suffer with them, which feels so insignificant next to what they are suffering.

Death only sounds like a cliche when it isn’t happening to someone you love. Love somebody today. With attention. With time. Make a choice. You have today. You don’t have yesterday–I don’t get another chance to love my dad better. You can’t be perfect, but you can be present. You may carry a little of their pain. That may be all you can do.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2)

*Remember, I was grieving my father’s unexpected death, so it’s entirely possible I was not reading this man’s emotions accurately. Stranger things have happened.

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