She would have been 52 last Sunday. We spent that weekend in Indiana, in the town where she was born, visiting her family whom we haven’t seen in five or ten years. The convergence of her birthday and our reunion wasn’t planned that way on purpose, it just sort of happened, a kaleidoscope of memory, of blessing, bitter and sweet.
Standing in the yard at Esther’s farm that day, fields of beans and corn stretching out in every direction, the blue sky vaulting above us, family all around, the ache settled in.
I miss you. I wish you were here. I’d give anything.
We always said we wouldn’t trade it. She even said it first. She was a leader in that way. Unflinching. Unwilling to let something like cancer ruin her, or steal her voice or her faith. It wasn’t a glossing over of the truth. It wasn’t a matter of pretending she wasn’t sick. It wasn’t an ignorance of the disease. No. It was her way of saying that life could throw anything at her, and she would keep moving forward. Looking back, wishing things were different, feeling sorry for herself, or giving up her desire to live and live well, that would have been defeat.
It’s a lot for a daughter to live up to. It’s a lot of gumption that, in my grief, I don’t always feel like I have. Cynicism sets in and I question whether or not saying things like “I wouldn’t trade” my mother’s illness and death for an easier life is synonymous with saying I don’t miss her or it doesn’t hurt or I’m fine, or perhaps worse, that other patients have to respond to cancer the same way as we have.
So what am I really trying to say when I tell you that I wouldn’t trade this, all this heartache, all this void, all this grief, for a life in which none of this had happened?
In Stranger than Fiction, there’s a part where Harold Crick is staying at his friend Dave’s apartment and the two are sitting at the dinner table eating, lost in thought, until Harold asks Dave a question.
“Dave, can I pose a somewhat abstract, purely hypothetical question?”
“If you knew you were gonna die, possibly soon, what would you do?”
“Wow, I don’t know. Am I the richest man in the world?”
“No, you’re you.”
“Do I have a superpower?”
“No, you’re you.”
“I know I’m me, but do I have a superpower?”
“No, why would you have a superpower?”
“I don’t know, you said it was hypothetical.”
It’s a funny scene, but in previous viewings I’ve always kind of glossed over its poignancy. I thought of it again the other day while I pondered the meaning behind “I wouldn’t trade it.”
Whether we’re hypothesizing about the future or the past, whether we imagine having superpowers or we’re bartering with fate over terminal illnesses, we’re seeking a measure of control. We want to believe that we would willingly face death, knowing it was just ahead, and that we would make all the right choices and live like we mean it. We’re imagining a life in which God offers us two choices : Be a Better Person With Cancer or Be a Shallow Person Without Cancer.
We’re creating a sadistic god, a false dichotomy, a moral hierarchy, and a misunderstanding of sanctification that veers into atonement.
I heard things like “I wouldn’t trade it” and “don’t waste your cancer” and “everything happens for a reason” and “it’s all a part of God’s plan” for so long, that the subliminal message I interpreted from this cacophony of bad theology was that I wasn’t supposed to be sad about her illness and death. I wasn’t supposed to wish her back. I wasn’t supposed to miss her. That would be weak. That would be faithless. That would be defeat.
But in the last 20 months since she died, I’ve slowly realized that like every other cheap platitude, “I wouldn’t trade it” became an aversion to feeling my grief as deeply as I needed to. I said it when I was afraid of admitting to God that I was angry, bitter, lonely, and heartbroken.
There was power in those words when my mother said she wouldn’t trade her experience for an easier life. For awhile I kind of lost the point of what she was really saying, and the cynicism set in and I wasn’t sure I believed all that hokey, hypothesizing, magical-thinking talk about hope and faith and prayer. But just like we have to grow up and find our own faith and beliefs separate from our parents’, I’ve had to figure out what “I wouldn’t trade it” means to me.
The hard truth is that a lot of the good, beautiful experiences in my life came at the expense of really hard, painful experiences like my mother’s death. I can’t explain why life is like that, but I don’t know that I want to anymore.
I’m more at peace living with “I don’t know” than when I staked my faith on having all the answers. I feel more free to miss her, not knowing why it happened, than when I believed her death was a moral to a story.
So when I say that I wouldn’t trade it, I don’t mean that I’m glad she’s dead. I don’t mean that I don’t miss her. I don’t mean that I wish this experience on others so that they can become a Good Person like I am, or that I expect them to process this experience the same way.
When I say I wouldn’t trade it, I mean that I wouldn’t trade who I am for an easier life. I wouldn’t trade the deep, beautiful, powerful relationship I had with my mother, or my other relationships that have deepened through this experience, for all the shallow relationships and physical health and earthly prosperity in the world. I will never regret learning the lesson that life is too short to compromise what I want out of it or who I am. It’s not a superpower, but it is a powerful thing nonetheless.