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.
Iâ€™ve been reading and hearing lots of death stories since Michael passed away. Iâ€™ll share a few anonymous examples.
First, one that I heard long ago but will never forget. â€œJimâ€ 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 Jimâ€™s bed. For a couple of hours they enjoyed a joyous time of holding one another, saying â€œI love youâ€ and sharing their goodbyes. Finally Jimâ€™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 â€œSam.â€ 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, â€œI donâ€™t know if Daddy saw Jesus or an angel, but I know he saw something.â€
Another man I heard of took the guesswork out of it. Before he died he said â€œJesusâ€ three times. His wife takes comfort in her belief that â€œMattâ€ was ready to go and is now with his Lord.
â€œJesseâ€ was another man who had been unconscious as his wife watched his condition deteriorate. She at last whispered to him that she didnâ€™t want him to suffer any more, and she told him to â€œrun to Jesus.â€ He opened one eye and smiled before dying shortly thereafter.
â€œDanaâ€ never opened her eyes, but before she passed she managed to reach up to touch her beloved husbandâ€™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 Iâ€™m getting tired of hearing them. Can I say that out loud? â€œWhy?!â€ you no doubt gasp in horror. â€˜Cause Michael and me, we got nuthinâ€™.
Michaelâ€™s illness was just plain hard. Iâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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. Iâ€™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. TheÂ 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 shallowerâ€¦and slowedâ€¦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.
Iâ€™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 onlyÂ that, but HE WAS THE INTERNET MONKÂ , for crying out loud! Lord, are you listening?! Was it too much to ask that there be something â€” anything! â€” lovely in his death? I wanted that for him, and I wanted it for me.
Four days later I went to the funeral Â home to pick up Michaelâ€™s cremains. I drove home with the box labeled, â€œWarning. Contains human remainsâ€ on the floorboard of the passenger side. That night I transferred the boxâ€™s contents to the lovelyÂ wooden urn I had purchased from the brothers atÂ 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 â€œashes,â€ but itâ€™s more like gravel, really, or perhaps a mixture of fine gravel and sand. The cancer had so ravaged Michaelâ€™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. â€œHe is not here.â€ 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 ofÂ â€œhuman remains?â€
That was when I remembered the second part of the verse. â€œHe is not here. He has risen as he saidâ€¦â€ (1)
In that moment I realized that the hardness of Michaelâ€™s death was a reminder thatÂ 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 â€œthere shall be no more curse,â€ for â€œâ€¦on either side of the river [is] the tree of lifeâ€¦â€ (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.]