My Good Friday reflection is on a passage from John's Gospel, Chapter 19. Before I begin though, I want to say that the story I am about to tell is about my friend Jean, who is now deceased. Jean's husband, Matt, has given me permission to tell her story and to use her name. -- Tara
My friend Jean died of brain cancer in the winter of 2013. She had fought a fierce, determined battle against the disease, undergoing chemotherapy, radiation, and other treatments -- some of them quite radical and experimental. Ultimately, despite heroic efforts, Jean succumbed to death. She had lived the last three months of her life at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.
I started visiting with Jean on a weekly basis in the summer of 2012, soon after she had received the devastating news that the tumor in her brain, for which she had undergone treatment, had returned with a vengeance. During our visits, I'd mostly let Jean do the talking; she would express confusion, anger, frustration, and also hope. Most of the time I would just sit and listen.
In the last three months of Jean's life, I visited her every weekend at the Hospice. I would sit next to her bed, read her poetry, hold her hand, and rub her feet. Sometimes, I would just sit there silently.
After time, Jean's consciousness faded and our communication became increasingly one-sided. She stopped talking, and would respond minimally. But, I think she knew I was there, by her side, until close to the very end.
On the second to last day of Jean's life, I was with her at the Hospice, along with Jean's husband Matt, her sister, my family, and two or three other close friends.
While Jean was in a deep morphine sleep, we all sat around the bed and watched: we held vigil. Her breathing seemed shallow and rattly; we knew the end was near. We told stories about Jean and shared memories. We even laughed a few times. I guess at one point we had become too loud, causing the Hospice staff to come into the room and kick everyone out, except for Matt and Jean's and sister.
The next day, I received a phone call from Matt saying that Jean had died that afternoon. There would be a Zen bathing ceremony that night, and would I come? Of course I would.
The ceremony was a gathering of Jean's inner circle -- those closest to her -- around her bed. Jean's body was laid in the bed, bathed, and dressed in a special blouse that she had chosen to wear upon her death. Her face looked smooth and peaceful.
A Zen leader began the ceremony with the striking of a metal bowl, which made a deep, resonant sound. He spoke some devotional words, and people were invited to share their prayers.
Then, everyone who was circled around was invited to dip a cloth into a bowl of water and cleanse Jean's hands or feet, and place rose petals on her body. I remember washing her feet and then placing petals on her forehead. The ceremony then closed in prayer.
There were many long silences, and some tears. Mostly though, I felt a deep, palpable sense of love for Jean in the room; a warm, glowing peace shared by everyone. I felt profoundly honored to be present with Jean, to lovingly bathe her feet, to touch her forehead; to simply be with her at her physical death.
I am speaking about my experience with Jean's death because it reminds me of the story of St. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus on the day of Jesus' crucifixion. The commonality between their story and mine involves the notion of risk, and how stepping out of one's comfort zone -- taking a leap of faith -- is inherently risky. Intrinsic to risk is the possibility of loss; but, also the possibility of gain.
St. Joseph and Nicodemus took Jesus' body down from the cross, laid their hands on it, embalmed it with precious spices, and wrapped it in fine linen. Then, they carried the body to the tomb that Joseph had purchased for himself, and laid Jesus in it.
Both St. Joseph and Nicodemus were rich and powerful men. As members of the Sanhedrin, they were the establishment, respected leaders of the Jewish community, and representatives of the powers in Rome. This is why both men were reluctant to publicly demonstrate their discipleship of Jesus.
Joseph had come to Jesus, when he was still alive, in the cover of darkness. Nicodemus was a follower of Jesus in secret. Each man feared that his devotion to this radical troublemaker would lessen his authority and reputation, and would cause his peers to ostracize him.
Despite the risk of openly following Jesus, St. Joseph acted in an audacious and courageous manner, asking Pilate's permission to take down the body of Jesus from the cross and give it a proper burial. This remarkable act represents a coming out of the darkness, a public demonstration of faith. St. Joseph did what he felt was necessary and right, no matter what the cost, or what the dominant culture thought.
What did I risk in becoming close to Jean during her illness and then death? I, too, have become audacious. I was willing to shed the barriers that protected my inner, secret, emotional core: barriers that said, "Hey, I am cool, tough, and emotionally impenetrable." For much of my life, I had avoided becoming close to people who were going through messy situations -- not wanting to get involved because I feared getting sucked into a vortex of pain and chaos. But, when I learned about Jean's condition, and having a good sense of the odds she faced in battling the most severe type of brain tumor, and the suffering that lay ahead, I made the choice to enter into the chaos and the messiness of Jean's life. I decided to walk with her on this journey.
Terminal illness is an emotionally devastating business for the sufferer, of course; but, also for their loved ones. I saw first-hand what dying from cancer looks like, and the heavy toll it took on those closest to Jean. But, despite the increasing intensity of the medical treatments, the setbacks, and the pain, I continued to be involved. I was there for Jean, providing emotional support for her, until the end. This experience was one of the most meaningful in my entire life.
Jean's death, and participating in her Zen bathing ceremony, was a transformative experience. Being with Jean, especially in those last weeks, and in her room on the last day, made me feel closer to God than ever before. In the last days of Jean's life, I witnessed the coming together of her community of family and friends who loved her. Together, we gathered around, laid our hands on her frail body, and sent her off to whatever comes next, in the most gentle, loving, and respectful way. While the ceremony was Zen Buddhist and not Christian, I believe that the universal themes of love and community were deeply felt by all.
Death had always been a concept that frightened me, that I dreaded and avoided thinking about. But Jean's death changed this for me: her death seemed like a place of peace, of acceptance, and of ultimate surrender. Seeing the love surrounding Jean upon her death filled me with the faith that when my physical life is over, God, in the form of a loving community, will be present with me. And, that shared love gives me the confidence that my spirit will live on in some way.
Jean's death might serve as an analogy to the metaphorical death of my old way of being. Before, I clung tenaciously to my reputation and my physical and emotional comforts. These things that I grasped tightly were preventing me from going deeper, entering in relationship with the suffering, and seeking uncomfortable places. Now, I am less fearful. I willingly go to these dark places.
Jean's spirit lives on in me, and in those who love her. I utter her name softly under my breath every Sunday during the Prayers of the People. I remember her death. I touched her hands and feet. I placed rose petals on her forehead. I was there.
And St. Joseph and Nicodemus were there, at Jesus' tomb, to pay their last respects. They courageously faced their fear of being openly faithful to Jesus, and in doing so, they became closer to him. I do not know what happened to St. Joseph and Nicodemus after this event, but I imagine that their lives were profoundly changed forever. I know that my life has been.