September 26, 2016

Sometimes It’s Just Plain Hard

Editor’s Note: One of the things that makes the Internet Monk such a strong community is our desire to be real at all times. Sometimes that reality takes us to painful places. Denise Day Spencer, the wife of the late founder of Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, relates her experience with her husband’s death. Be forewarned: This is not an easy read. There are graphic details of a dying person’s last days. But we will not yield from our attempt to be real. After all, Jesus only deals in reality.

By Denise Day Spencer

I’ve been reading and hearing lots of death stories since Michael passed away. I’ll share a few anonymous examples.

First, one that I heard long ago but will never forget. “Jim” was dying of cancer at home and had been in a coma for days. One evening he regained consciousness. His wife was thrilled. She called the two adult daughters, who arrived with their young families. Wife, daughters and grandkids all piled up together on Jim’s bed. For a couple of hours they enjoyed a joyous time of holding one another, saying “I love you” and sharing their goodbyes. Finally Jim’s eyes closed. He sank back into a coma and died later that night. But the family will be forever grateful for that gift of precious time they were given.

Then there was “Sam.” Also dying of cancer and unresponsive, Sam suddenly opened his eyes wide and focused his gaze on a spot near the ceiling with an expression of wonder just before passing on. His daughter was there and later said to me, “I don’t know if Daddy saw Jesus or an angel, but I know he saw something.”

Another man I heard of took the guesswork out of it. Before he died he said “Jesus” three times. His wife takes comfort in her belief that “Matt” was ready to go and is now with his Lord.

“Jesse” was another man who had been unconscious as his wife watched his condition deteriorate. She at last whispered to him that she didn’t want him to suffer any more, and she told him to “run to Jesus.” He opened one eye and smiled before dying shortly thereafter.

“Dana” never opened her eyes, but before she passed she managed to reach up to touch her beloved husband’s face one last time as she had so tenderly done often before.

These are beautiful stories, one and all. Tales of hope in the midst of tragedy. Memories that bring consolation to the bereaved. And I’m getting tired of hearing them. Can I say that out loud? “Why?!” you no doubt gasp in horror. ‘Cause Michael and me, we got nuthin’.

Michael’s illness was just plain hard. I’m not complaining; it could have been a thousand times worse and I know that. Yet from the day he got sick in late November until he died on April 5, he never again had even one good day. His life became throwing up in a bucket or trying to sit perfectly still so he wouldn’t throw up. My life became driving him to medical appointments in the dead of winter through rain and sleet and snow and fog and sometimes all of the above. I’ll condense the story for your reading enjoyment. Michael got worse. Life got harder. Then he died.

As hard as his illness had been, I secretly harbored a hope that there would be some kind of tiny payback at the moment of his death. Perhaps he would see Jesus or an angel (or the Virgin Mary?). Maybe there would be some sign of his readiness, some indication of peace and joy as he passed into the next life.

But just as cancer had treated Michael harshly, death showed him no kindness. The disease had been relentless. No remission, no respite for either of us. Likewise, there was no beauty in his passing, even for a fleeting moment. Death was ugly and it claimed him unceremoniously. He struggled to breathe, and fought harder as the day wore on. After the hospice nurse administered morphine it seemed to take forever for him to grow calmer. The breaths still came in labored gasps, his jaw dropping at an odd angle. His eyes were half open but unseeing. At some point I noticed that his lips were blue and I dared to lift the sheet. His entire body was mottled as his circulatory system slowly gave out. I touched his face. I held his hand. The family gathered around. We watched as the raspy gulps of air became shallower…and slowed…and stopped.

Where were the visions? The angels? The heavenly music soundtrack? Michael fought a hard fight and he died a hard death. And that was that.

I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I was angry at God. Not only was my 53-year-old husband much too young to die in my humble opinion, but he was a Christian. Not only that, but he was a minister who had given his whole life to sharing the gospel. Not only that, but HE WAS THE INTERNET MONK , for crying out loud! Lord, are you listening?! Was it too much to ask that there be something — anything! — lovely in his death? I wanted that for him, and I wanted it for me.

Four days later I went to the funeral  home to pick up Michael’s cremains. I drove home with the box labeled, “Warning. Contains human remains” on the floorboard of the passenger side. That night I transferred the box’s contents to the lovely wooden urn I had purchased from the brothers at St. Meinrad. Have you ever seen human cremains? I was surprised at how heavy the box was when I first picked it up. People say “ashes,” but it’s more like gravel, really, or perhaps a mixture of fine gravel and sand. The cancer had so ravaged Michael’s body that I pictured him simply crumbling into this small mound of rubble.

Then I had a thought. I wish I could say I heard a loud voice in the room or a gentle whisper in my ear. But it was just a thought, a memory. “He is not here.” Well, of course not. Michael was faith and doubt, joy and anger, wonder and intelligence and fear and giftedness and insecurity and love and so, so many more things. How could all that possibly be contained in a plastic bag of  “human remains?”

That was when I remembered the second part of the verse. “He is not here. He has risen as he said…” (1)

In that moment I realized that the hardness of Michael’s death was a reminder that it is not supposed to be this way. Ever read the first three chapters of Genesis? Man was created for life, not death. But we live in a fallen world, and the cherubim still guard the tree of life with white-hot swords. Our only hope is a Redeemer who has conquered death itself and has risen as he said. He will deliver us to a new world, a world where “there shall be no more curse,” for “…on either side of the river [is] the tree of life…” (2)

In those first days and weeks after Michael left me, all I seemed to be able to recall of him was his grueling illness and his grim death. Little by little, memories of his life are returning. I want to remember him vibrantly alive, teaching and preaching and writing and podcasting. Talking and laughing and eating and studying. But whenever my thoughts turn to the starkness of his passing, I will remember: We may be born to die, but we were created to live.

Live well, Michael. Live now and forever.

(1) Matthew 28:6

(2) Revelation 22:3a & 2b

[This post was originally published on Denise’s blog. You can read it here.]

Comments

  1. May the presence of the Lord be near you now, Denise, in the hands & feet of Jesus through brothers, sisters and all of who live for Christ and love you and your family. Michael was that to many folks. I’m glad those memories are surfacing again. The Spirit of Christ in all of you was present to him at the time of his passing, and although you may not have sensed Michael’s awareness of the very nearness of Godself to him and to you, his very ability to let go of this mortal life for the immortal, to entrust himself into the hands of God who is Love, is truly God’s gift. As did Michael, may we all not hold on too closely to that which is temporal and go safely into the arms of our loving Lord who redeems our mortal lives from the Pit and crowns us with eternal lovingkindness! As did your family and you, may our love for and presence with those who are dying encourage them to trust in the Loving God who is eternal. Release. Redemption. Relief. Rejoice! Jesus Christ is risen, indeed! We will arise in Christ, too!

  2. Ellen Jervis says:

    I don’t know how you managed to write about this with such beautiful and profound clarity so soon. It must be a God thing in you. I shall keep close to me forever your words as they relate to me and my memories of my late husband and his passing some eight years ago. IAs I read your words I wish I had been given the same courage to write them. What you have written you have written for so many I hope you know this. They are a gift. I especially want to thank you for the following: “whenever my thoughts turn to the starkness of his passing, I will remember: We may be born to die, but we were created to live.”

  3. Yes, you are right Denise. Death is Death, life is life, and we become use to hearing Cinderella stories and it hits hard. And sometimes I think people’s emotions work so overtime that they do a lot of reading into those “last moments” –
    I haven’t read all your comments here (once I saw that there were 98 of them) I just want to tell you that suffering always hurts and I am sorry for your hurt and you are not alone. I am thankful that God is known to be close, even when we don’t feel or don’t see; may your walk of grief and faith be rich and only bring you to the feet of Jesus. May we continue to compare our lives to Him and not others

  4. Vicki in NC says:

    I am late to this dirge, but I want to let Denise know I’ve been thinking of her and praying for her. Hers and Michael’s experience mirrors that of my and my dearly departed husband, who died 49 days after his diagnosis at age 44. No angels, no choruses, no visions; nothing but the sting of illness and pain of death. I’m nearly 5 years out now, so things are better…but I never thought I’d live through those first two years.

    Thanks for telling the truth, Denise, as much as it hurts.

  5. Vicki in NC says:

    Also, my husband was not a believer so my only hope is that His wide wings of mercy somehow swept my man’s heart into His arms in those last lucid moments.