Saturday, March 11, 2006

Sounds of Silence

I think it was around six o'clock this morning that I started to wonder if I was cracking up.

That was around the time the phone in the bedroom rang, and I answered it. It was Sam, and he was calling to find out how I was doing. Pretty thoughtful guy, that Sam. I'm doing all right, I told him. Being alone isn't getting to me in the least. And that was when I realized that I was talking out loud to a person I didn't know, on a phone that doesn't exist, in a room all by myself.

Shit, I had some weird dreams last night. And now they're calling me up to see how I'm doing? I pulled the covers up and wondered if there was any point in trying to go back to sleep. Probably not. Aside from a trip to the bathroom five hours earlier, I'd been asleep since seven the evening before.

Aside from the call from Sam, I haven't spoken to anyone since my wife called to let me know that she and the girls had arrived at my brother's house safe and sound. Doctor's orders. I'm supposed to avoid physical contact with other people for forty-eight hours, following the radiation treatment I took yesterday to wipe out what's left of my thyroid cancer.

I have loads of people I could call, but I haven't bothered yet. I expect I will this evening, before Sam calls back to check on me again.

There are some kinds of silence I like. There's the expectant kind, like my daughter has just before she opens a birthday present; the pause-for-breath sort, like my wife had between contractions when our daughter was born; and there's the after-the-storm sort, when the sun comes out and you can listen to the birds start singing again, and watch the grass dry, one blade at a time.

Then there's this loud, oppressive sort. Sometimes it seems positively malicious, like there's a massive weight pressing down upon your chest, slowly forcing your soul from your very body so it can devour you. All you want to do is run and hide, behind the noise of an iPod or TV set, in mindless chatter with another human being.

The thing about this sort of silence, though, is that it's patient. It's been at this for years, and it knows that it can wait longer than you can. Sooner or later, the TV program will end, the iTunes will run out and the chatter will grow still. Even getting phone calls from Sam seems better than dealing with this sort of silence. It's a lonely sort of silence, and it's perfectly miserable.

You know how they say misery loves company? It's not true. Misery doesn't want company. What it wants is for you to be miserable too, so it does what it can to pull you down, into the silence, where it waits with that backward smile for the chance to lock you into your own private hell.

I remember the first time I got trapped in that silence, way back in college. It had me sick for over a week, and it wasn't until I reached out to a friend and asked her to pray for me that I got better. The last time I was trapped there, it was from the overwhelming grief of losing a child. I never would have survived, except for the love and support of friends who pulled me out, and who pulled my wife out, so we could pull each other out the rest of the way.

Today, I took my wife's keyboard downstairs, where I'm teaching myself to play the piano, and I practiced playing "Holy, Holy, Holy." It's a beautiful hymn, even when it's played badly, and hearing those familiar notes shakily accompanied by own voice was enough to remind me of a connection I have with someone far greater than myself, and with a silence filled with far more comfort and presence than the kind that lurks in waiting for us.

I used to think that the silence of God was a disappointing, or even frustrating thing. Often, I admit, I still do. I wish that just once when I pray, I could hear him respond clearly like he always seemed to do when people talked with him in the Bible. He comes across like a positive chatterbox with prophets like Isaiah, and even if Job heard God speak from a whirlwind, at least he got some beautiful poetry out of the deal. It seems like when I pray, all I get is the static at the end of one of God's LPs, where the needle just moves back and forth in its groove and waits for someone to put a new record on.

But a few months ago, it hit me that God isn't just silent; he's listening. He's listening with all his heart to what we have to say. He's not just hanging on our every word, he's listening beyond those words to the aches and griefs we feel but don't know how to share. He listens because he alone knows what it means to be shattered along the width and breadth of humanity. That's a deep, beautiful silence.

It's a silence I want to share. Today, at least, I want to listen back. I want him to tell me the burdens he carries that make him cry for grief, to tell me the things that make him laugh, and the delights he has that teach the stars to sing and dance for joy. I want him to share his heart with me and know that, for once, I'm actually going to listen, even though I don't have a chance of understanding all that he has to say.

I remember a scant four weeks ago, when we were hit with two feet of snow. School was canceled, the roads were closed, and for the first time in ages, I could stand outside and not hear car horns, squealing brakes or the other noise of a city. My daughter and I stood and listened from the sidewalk as the wind sighed and the snowflakes delicately crunched together.

"What is it?" she asked me. "I don't hear anything."

Exactly. Silence is a beautiful thing.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

In the Shadow of Death

I'm dying.

Melodramatic, but true. I've been slipping noticeably for the past week. I spend a longer stretch each day feeling as though I have just woken up, and even the simplest actions are accomplished through a fog of weariness. I drift through the day like a ship searching for port. The captain rouses from his slumber to cry "Weigh anchor!", but by the time the deck hands have laid sluggishly to their tasks, the ship has gone adrift again and no harbor has been secured.

Dying. It's not supposed to be like this. Death should come suddenly and without warning, like a gunshot from behind at the theater; in the heat of the moment, fighting for king and country; with meaning, in a bray of last words that comforts the grieving and makes sense of death's waste and brutality; or death should come shamefacedly, humbled by the grace and dignity of the one it unworthily claims.

Death should never come skulking, in the piece-by-piece manner of crows picking carrion apart on the highway. Not when you're still young and healthy.

Healthy is what I am -- young, healthy, and dying. I can feel it in the way my body is no longer able to warm itself. I can feel it in the way it is easier to fall asleep each night and harder to wake up each morning. I can feel it in the naps I need in the middle of the afternoon just to last until nighttime. Slowly and inexorably, my body is running down, and when the process has finished, I will go to sleep and I will die.

Close curtain, exit stage right. No applause please, there will be no encore tonight. The show has ended and the remainder of its run has been canceled.

Dying. My spirit scoffs and my mind dismisses it, but my body knows a different truth. I can feel in my very bones what is happening, feel the final corruption of my flesh slowly encroaching, hear the steady grind of my mortality growing ever louder. This is the fate that awaits us all.

This is my death, and I'm grateful for the sacred grace that lets me see it coming before its time. Five short days from now, a doctor will give me a pill. This pill will destroy the last of my cancer cells, and once they are gone, I'll be given a second chance. I'll be able to take my thyroid hormone pills again, and as a renewed vitality surges through my body, my life expectancy will swell from mere weeks into decades. In a matter of days, I'll be myself again.

But not, I hope, my old self. I hope instead that I'll be wiser. For the last two weeks, I've had the rare gift of sitting on an island, watching as its edges crumble ever-faster into the sea, and knowing that there is nothing to fear, because all soon will be as it was. How many others can say the same?

Life is a fragile thing, made of sheerest gossamer. All that it took to bring me to this point was the removal of my thyroid, an organ I never thought of before last October, the size and appearance of a used wad of tissue. Small wonder that the ancients imagined death as nothing more than an old woman cutting a skein of yarn.

I hear from time to time of others who were reminded of their own mortality, and learned to live more in the moment. They stop and smell the flowers, they watch more sunrises and they catch more sunsets.

That hasn't been my experience at all. Instead of being taken with the fertile wonders of God's creation, I have been ashamed of the barrenness of my life. I am shamed by the cemetery on my hard drive, by row after row of shallow graves filled with the tiny bodies of stories I miscarried because I have lacked the discipline to create as God intended I should.

The writer within me hears the hour of his own deadline approaching, and he cringes. The story is not ready. Give me an extension, he cries, and the writing will change to a nobler theme. The second deadline will not be squandered.

I have also been shamed by my failings as a father. I snap and growl at my daughter in frustration, and I teach her to love Dora the Explorer more than her own parents, but before she goes to bed, my daughter rushes in where I am writing to give me a kiss goodnight.

She never used to do that.

The father within me cries for mercy beneath the weight of his own Father's chastisement. Forgive me, he cries, and she will better know by my example the wonders of your love.

Most of all, I have failed as a follower of Christ. I have sworn time and again to live as he would, but each year finds me burdened with a bigger collection of movies I don't watch, more books I don't read, and more things I don't need. Each year finds me more changed by the world than the world has been changed by me.

Meanwhile friends of mine are hit by stray bullets from somebody else's culture war, the American church takes the side of the mighty, and all I do is to sit on the sidelines and say, "It isn't right," over and over again.

No one should live like that.

When I was a child, my life stretched before me, a vast shore as unending as the world, and as ripe with possibility. Now I am thirty-five, and if I am fortunate, more years remain ahead of me than lie behind me. Because of my brush with cancer, I am aware for the first time of how badly eroded that shore has become.

There are great things I have wanted for years to accomplish for God -- stories I have longed to tell; truths I have wanted to teach through my actions; and people I have yearned to touch so they might experience the awesome reconciliation that Christ brings between us and God, and between us and one another. Some tasks I have begun, but most are woefully incomplete.

Time will not wait for me to complete that work at my leisure. Beyond the crumbling desolation that for now only temporarily encroaches upon my sullied flesh, I perceive the deeper rumble of true mortality as it also draws near. When the ticks of that watch run down, there will be no second chances to finish what I was meant to do.

I am dying, and so are you. Make haste, and work while there is still light.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.