I’ve been thinking lately about time. It’s been seven weeks since my mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Seven weeks. We don’t know how many days or weeks we have left with her, but unless there’s a miracle in the works, it’s not long. Too short, in fact. She’s on her way, and we’re not ready.
But we’re never ready to say goodbye to people we love, are we? As Bahá’ís, we’re taught that death is “a messenger of joy.” That belief helps when a loved one is dying. At least it helps me. I like to think she’s going to an awesome party that the rest of us aren’t cool enough to be invited to. But it’s still hard. We still want more time.
When we started delving into her diagnosis, I was struck by how little time people with pancreatic cancer get once they find it. The vast majority pass away within a matter of months. What do you do with the knowledge that you likely only have x number of weeks or months to live? It’s a question I’ve pondered a lot.
But the jarring truth is, none of us knows how much time we have left here. Not one of us. And now I’m seeing that one of the blessings of terminal cancer—if you can see any of this as a blessing—is that you do have time. Some people die of heart attacks or strokes or aneurysms or accidents without warning. At least with terminal cancer, you know. You have time to see people, to say the things you need to say, to take care of the things you need to take care of, to come to terms with your life and death. We all have some time to process this, at least a little bit. It’s fast, but it’s not immediate. Time is a gift, no matter how much we’re given.
And does the amount of time really make much of a difference when it comes down to it? We measure time in days and weeks, months and years—but that’s not how we measure a life. A life is measured in family and friendships, in acts of kindness and service, in moments of beauty, sincerity, laughter, and love. And Judy has had all of those things in spades.
The other night, she said, “People sometimes ask me, because I’ve never smoked or drank and live a healthy lifestyle, if I ever ask, ‘Why me? Why did I get cancer?’ But the way I see it is, ‘Why NOT me?’ You know, we’re all going to die sometime.” She isn’t sad or angry. She’s grateful for the amount of time she’s been given, for the wonderful life she’s had. It’s awe-inspiring.
There is so much beauty, even in the tragedy of all of this. Seeing the goodness and love this woman has put out into the world being washed back over her by those who’ve known her is beautiful. Watching her siblings come and share stories of her childhood, watching her mother tenderly push her around in her wheelchair—even watching them have to leave, one by one, all swallowed up by their grief—is beautiful.
Grief is nothing but love, when you think about it. If grief is love and God is love, then God lives right there in the heart of our grief. And that makes grief breathtakingly beautiful.
This snippet of time we have left with her has been filled with so much beauty—sadness and grief and laughter and love and gratitude all jumbled up together. Judy has lived a beautiful life. And she is dying a beautiful death. We should all be so blessed.