I’ll never forget seeing her, as it made such an impact upon me. A few years ago I worked as a delivery driver for a food delivery company and had to make a run to a children’s hospital. I picked up the order and made the delivery to the nurses there. As I was leaving, a girl walked through the hall and I was immediately struck by her presence. Her emaciated frame made her seem far frailer than other kids her age. Her bald head reflecting the lights, a pink and colorful hospital gown flowing as a dress, and her holding onto a portable IV and almost dancing around with it. She smiled and waved at me and I waved back through the windows of the closed doors. A child, no more than ten years old, facing a level of suffering that some people will – thankfully – never see in a lifetime.
We live in a beautifully tragic world, a world where beauty emanates from the darkest crevices of existence, yet those dark crevices still exist. In many instances, we have put words to our suffering. A man who loses his wife is a widower, a woman who loses her husband is a widow, a child who loses her parents is an orphan, and so on. Yet, some suffering is so great, that we have no word for it (at least not in English). What do we call parents who have lost a child? “Childless” can refer to those who have never had children and therefore have never experienced the joy of their birth or the agony of their death. No word for someone enduring cancer can summarize the suffering, especially of one dying from cancer. We hold no word for those who suffer greatly; we leave our verbal confirmation of the suffering at the word “patient,” or “enduring,” or at the name of the disease, but we dare not create a word to name the suffering. To name the suffering makes it more common, more real, and so we avoid it.
Suffering, both emotional and physical, is a burden which all of us must carry in one form or another. All of us are on death row, walking a very long mile, until the end of our days come. We do not know when our lives will end, merely that they shall end sooner than we had hoped. Our curse is that we must die and in this curse, death becomes an enemy. It becomes a foe we struggle against, who we war with, and in this war we will exhaust all resources to gain even an inch of life. But the battle is futile as we shall always succumb to death.
In our sufferings we believe it better to die, to take our own lives and deprive death the joy of our suffering. In taking our lives we feel we allow death to collect the debt, but to forgo the interest. Admittedly, for those who’s death is inevitably close, for whom death immediately beckons, prolonging their lives are cruel and only serves to create additional pain and suffering. The patient who is terminal, who must rely on machines for life, has suffered enough and we should let death overtake him, as in this way death becomes a friend who ceases his pain.
Yet, the one constant in ancient history is that “So long as there is life, there is hope.” This sentiment is found in Ecclesiastes 9:4, but also Theocritus, a 3rd century BC Greek poet, said the exact same thing, leading Cicero – the Latin statesman and philosopher – to quote it as well. So long as you draw breath, there is hope, but hope in what? Ecclesiastes says it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion while Theocritus says that the dead have no hope.
What if suffering is not a prelude to the end, but the signs that one lives in the twilight of mortality? When we are born, we suffer. We are leaving the only world known to us and must endure great physical pain in the birthing process. Yet, we enter into a world of overwhelming possibilities, one vastly superior to the one in which we lived. What if suffering is merely the birthing pangs we must endure as we enter into another stage of life, a final stage. What are a few moments of suffering compared to an eternity of ecstasy?
Death is immanent for us all, but not immediately so. Whenever death is immediately immanent, it is best to forgo modern medicine’s attempt to prolong a life already lost and embrace the inevitability of our death. Yet, so long as I draw breath, I have hope, even in the greatest amount of suffering. My hope isn’t necessarily in a recovery, but in a God who will not forget me.
For those who fall asleep in the Lord within the Orthodox Church, the patrons chant “Memory Eternal.” Memory eternal is to remind us that God, who is infinite and without time, keeps us in his memory. We are immortal through his doing and his doing alone. In our falling asleep, we awake to his presence where we continue to grow in our love and knowledge of him.
In our disembodied states we shall remain in God’s presence, through his constant remembering of us and eventually we will resurrect into new bodies. Those bodies, though very much physical, shall not endure suffering. We look forward to the day when there shall be no more flag-draped coffins, when we don’t have to create words that describe our suffering, when suffering itself is a distant memory, a vague memory from a long-ago bad dream. In that moment, our present suffering will stand as nothing more than a grain of sand in the infinite hourglass of time. And so we endure our suffering unto death, realizing that as suffering begins we are witnessing the death of death, we are living in the twilight of mortality and stand upon the dawn of eternity.