I watched the grainy, blocky video in silence. My friend was singing “Landslide” and I felt a certain tautness in my eyebrows and a peculiar heaviness in the corners of my mouth. By now it had become a familiar feeling, this physical expression of sorrow.
Can the child within my heart rise above
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life?”
~Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide,” The Dance, 1997
Sonia Lee ’06, whose mellow and resonant voice was captured in that video, passed away in 2007, during my second year of medical school. For most of our mutual friends at our college Christian fellowship, her passing became our first encounter with the death of a friend. In many ways, it challenged my most deeply held convictions about the way the world works. I went to medical school with the growing conviction that my calling was to deal with death and suffering on the professional level, but this experience — so unexpected, tragic, and terrifyingly personal — cast everything under a different pall.
Sonia had acute myeloid leukemia. The onset was rapid and completely unexpected by friends and family alike. I can still remember the dread of the moment I first found out: a string of e-mails with the titles “Urgent prayer for Sonia…” waiting quietly in my inbox. Sonia and I had been good friends during our undergraduate years but had fallen out of touch since my graduation two years prior and I had not heard much from her since then, which made the suddenness and ferocity of the disease all the more shocking. A full year in medical school did nothing to prepare me for the daily anxiety of opening my e-mail in anticipation of an update from the family on her condition. I still have all those e-mails: seventy-seven messages with headings ranging from “A positive turn for Sonia!” to “Sonia — Chemotherapy day 3” and “Emergency request for platelets.”
I received those updates nearly every day for several months, tracking her progress through the end of the summer and into the beginning of the school year. It was a trying time for our community of mutual college friends. We prayed together, planned gifts for her together, and waited together every day for those e-mails with hope and fear.
I remember the tightness in my gut during my first medical lecture on leukemia, trying to suppress my emotional confusion as the professor raced through hundreds of slides. I remember listening to the complaints of classmates about how “overwhelming” the lecture was and nodding my agreement as I headed over to a computer cluster, dizzy and ambivalent and anxious to check my e-mail. By that week Sonia had been doing much better and was simply waiting for a bone marrow transplant donor. Her family hadn’t been able to match but, by some miracle, had been able to get her story published on the front page of a big South Korean newspaper asking people to test for matching. Her picture in that article was the only one I saw taken of her during that time and it did not show the smiling, radiant friend I had known.
The seventy-third e-mail on the subject, received only a few days later, carried the heading, “Bad News.” The seventy-seventh e-mail was entitled, “Memorial Gathering for Sonia K. Lee ’06.”
I often find myself dwelling frequently on that time. After those events, friends I talked to in medical school or in church — those whom I had expected to understand my struggle and accompany me through it — said that such a fixation on death and suffering was unhealthy and perhaps even pathologic: “It’s over now; she’s in a better place,” “Everything’s going to be alright,” “Life just goes on.” I couldn’t understand why words like those hurt. They were true, but I resisted them fiercely and was even irritated and angered by them. “There is no purpose behind death,” one friend simply replied, “We just say things like that to make ourselves feel better.”
On hearing that, my ambiguous sentiments and tensions revealed themselves for what they were: fear. Crippling, disabling, and terrifying fear. Toni Morrison once said that humans react to fear by naming it, attempting to feel as if we have some understanding and therefore some control over it. We name our diseases and our disorders and our bogeymen. We name our failures and our enemies and the secret longings of our hearts. But in the end, a name is all we have. A name is not much.
I named my fear The Gravity of a Moment. For me, the death of a friend is the lost opportunity to sing in harmony, to shout at, to laugh with, to cry on each other. It is shocking in its finality and irreversibly strips my future moments of something precious, the weight of which I cannot measure. How many more moments will lose gravity and appear a little thinner and gaunt? Will I ever realize the magnitude of what has been — and will continue to be — lost?
Shortly after the death, a close friend of Sonia’s told me, “I don’t understand why people didn’t want to come to the funeral or the memorial service … maybe they didn’t feel ready, but somehow it feels like they’re just trying to move on. At the funeral, her parents told me, ‘Don’t forget her,’ but I feel like that’s what we’re doing . . . forgetting and moving on.” When I heard that I felt guilty because, deep down inside, I wanted to move on too but simply couldn’t. I wanted to find a tidy closure and a proper perspective from which to define the experience. I didn’t want to forget, but I didn’t want the remembering to be so painful either.
Henri Nouwen once wrote:
We tend, however, to divide our past into good things to remember with gratitude and painful things to accept or forget. This way of thinking, which at first glance seems quite natural, prevents us from allowing our whole past to be the source from which we live our future. It locks us into a self-involved focus on our gain or comfort. It becomes a way to categorize, and in a way, control. Such an outlook becomes another attempt to avoid facing our suffering. Once we accept this division, we develop a mentality in which we hope to collect more good memories than bad memories, more things to be glad about than things to be resentful about, more things to celebrate than to complain about.
Gratitude in its deepest sense means to live life as a gift to be received thankfully. And true gratitude embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not-so-holy. We do this because we become aware of God’s life, God’s presence in the middle of all that happens.
Is this possible in a society where joy and sorrow remain radically separated? Where comfort is something we not only expect, but are told to demand? Advertisements tell us that we cannot experience joy in the midst of sadness. “Buy this,” they say, “do that, go there, and you will have a moment of happiness during which you will forget your sorrow.” But is it not possible to embrace with gratitude all of our life and not just the good things we like to remember?*
Suffering is and must remain an integral part of our human experience. It cannot simply be a byline in our pursuit of happiness, for if we fail to embrace suffering, we fail to embrace Christ himself. As Philip Bliss wrote, “Man of sorrows! What a name for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim.” Paul, in describing suffering as the loss of things he once considered profitable, wrote with paradoxical conviction and mysticism, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11).
I write about death because it represents one extreme in our human experiences with suffering and, for better or for worse, reveals the raw power of our reactions to pain. It exposes our tendencies to sentimentalize it, to avoid it, to explain it away, to do everything except embrace it. We may refuse to acknowledge suffering but in doing so we eliminate an opportunity to experience the true and piercing presence of God. If we cannot experience pain, how can we understand the comfort of healing? If we do not understand death, how can we comprehend the victory of resurrection? And so, while we ought not to idolize suffering or intentionally inflict it, we cannot ignore its centrality in our journeys toward the divine.
The last post of Sonia’s weblog is a quote from the movie, You’ve Got Mail: “Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life. Well, valuable, but small. And sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?” In the smallness and shortness of our mortality, do we dare to embrace every moment of it? Do I have the bravery to love each painful and pleasurable instance so bitterly intermingled in its brief course?
I cannot help but wonder if somewhere beyond the pall the gravity which I thought was lost has simply become a part of something greater, something that draws me to it a little more closely and tugs at my soul a little more sharply. Perhaps all the moments that are torn from this life are really just being transported, in the twinkling of an eye, to a place where the weight of the world becomes the weight of Glory and everything I thought I lost will be found in even greater measure than before.
If there is one reflex in my soul stronger than all the rest, it is the longing for that day.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
~1 Corinthians 15:51–55
*Nouwen, Henri. Turning My Mourning Into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2001), 17–18.
[ Originally published in 2008. This January marked Sonia’s 29th birthday. Happy birthday, Sonia; we miss you.]