Several years ago I worked with a client who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. Cynthia** came to me because she was afraid of dying, and as a Christian, she felt that she shouldn’t have to be afraid of death. I promised to help her the best that I could and agreed to meet with her weekly.
To begin our work, we examined our inner images of death, because the mental images we have for death provide a vivid picture of how we conceptualize death and how we feel about death. Images of skulls and coffins came to mind for Cynthia, which both of us thought was kind of hackneyed and meaningless—and therefore not very helpful. I on the other hand, found myself immediately flooded with images of skeletons holding guitars, dressed in mariachi clothing. I get it: I live in the Phoenix area, and Halloween is closely followed by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations; there are sugar skulls everywhere. Still…when did Death go all Mexican on me? When I told Cynthia how I couldn’t shake the image of a guitar-playing skeleton in mariachi clothing, she and I laughed for a good five minutes.
Counseling is much like a winding road, and Cynthia and I ended up spending a lot of sessions talking about the clinical trials she had joined in hopes of extending her life. We talked about her family’s fear that she would die before she got a chance to live a full life, as Cynthia had never married or had children. At this point, Cynthia had given up on those dreams and was just trying to live long enough to help her family accept her impending death.
One of the tricky things about counseling is that the longer you work together, the closer the friendship becomes. A client once described me as “a paid friend who helps me cut through my own BS and get real” and this is actually a very good description of the counseling relationship. But sometimes there is no BS to cut through, and then your counselor is the paid friend who encourages you to say out loud all the stuff the rest of your friends are afraid to hear. I did my best to be that kind of friend for Cynthia, and we spent many of our sessions saying a lot of very scary things about life and death and terminal illness. We did a lot of good work in the first few months that we met, but we struggled to achieve the goal she set when she came to counseling: to stop fearing death.
Cynthia and I had been working together almost six months when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit spoke. An image came to me of two women in the late 1940s, close friends, dressed to the nines,*** and heading to a dance, both hoping to meet the man of their dreams. When I say they are dressed to the nines, I mean the whole enchilada: hats, gloves, dress coats, elegant beaded purses, high heels, stockings, fancy dresses, pearls and jewels. I pictured two absolutely stunning women who were ready to dance the night away. I imagined them arriving at the party; very quickly one of the women meets an incredibly handsome man and begins dancing. Seeing her friend dancing so happily, the other woman quickly realizes that her friend needs help; she approaches her and says “Hey! Give me that purse! You can’t keep dancing holding on to that purse. I’ll hold it for you.” The dancing woman hands over her purse gladly so that she can keep dancing the night away. A few songs later, her friend approaches again. “Hey! You’re going to melt if you don’t take that coat off. You can’t keep dancing in that coat!” And so the dancing woman hands over her coat, and then later her hat, and then her gloves, and then her high heels, each time relinquishing them so that she can keep dancing, so that she can keep savoring every moment of this spectacular experience.
Keep that image in mind, because I want to remind you that in life, there are many moments—we usually call them milestones, or rites of passage—that are one-way doors. Once you pass through them, you can never go back. For instance, graduating high school is a one-way door. Graduating high school is the official entry to adulthood; never again will the entire community you live in collude to help you succeed. Once you graduate, the community considers you are an adult and in many ways, you are on your own; your success or failure is up to you. Likewise, getting married is a one-way door. Once you are married, you will never be single again. You might be divorced or widowed, but you will never be single ever again. The same is true of parenthood: once the baby is born, no matter what happens to your child, you will always be a parent. Though we mostly fail to recognize the gravity and irreversibility of these moments, one-way doors represent the death of our old self—a self that is lost to us forever, a self that can never be regained. In this way, death has been with us from the very beginning of our life. We experience hundreds of little deaths as we pass through the various phases of life; as we age, we lose parts of ourselves that can never be regained or retrieved, except in memory. Strangely, it was graduation from college that revealed this truth to me, as I realized that I would probably never again have the luxury of being so self-focused. The previous four years of my life had been focused on gaining knowledge and skills, preparing for my career, and developing close friendships that would sustain me as I moved on to the next phase of my life. I felt that I would never have another period in my life that would be this self-focused and uncomplicated, and as excited as I was to graduate, the moment was soaked with bittersweet sadness because graduation marked the end of this part of my life forever.
The truth is that we can’t avoid these losses. I mean, really, who wants to be a high school student for the rest of their life? Many of the one-way doors we pass through in our lives are based on our deep desire to move into another phase of our life; most of the time we choose to step through that doorway on purpose. In order to embrace the parts of life that are coming towards us, we have to let go of what needs to pass. We cannot be young forever. We cannot be a carefree child and still have the rights and privileges of an adult. Basically, if you want the good stuff of life, you have to let go of the old and move forward into the new. Our lives are one long list of little deaths, one after another, mostly gladly accepted so that our lives can continue to grow and change and evolve. Without these little deaths, abundant life isn’t actually possible.
And now we are back to the two women at the dance. The dancing woman is YOU, loving every minute, cherishing the dance of life. And Death is your close friend, coming to you again and again, prompting you to let go of what you no longer need, to let go of what must pass from your hands. And once you hand something to Death, you can’t have it back. Let go of that coat, and you will never have it again; Death will hold it for you so that you have it as a memory, but you will never have that coat again. Death comes to take these things from you, not because she is a cold, heartless, witch (you understand me) but because Death knows that this is the only way that you will be able to keep dancing. Don’t you understand? Death votes for life, every single time! One thing after another, Death comes to take things from you so that you will go on in the dance, continuing to enjoy all that life offers as you pass through milestones and birthdays, marriages and children, careers and retirement, aging and disability. Death stands there, waiting for the next moment when you need to let go, to let something pass from your life. She comes to you gently, encouraging you to let go and keep dancing. Death waits on you and never leaves you, just so that you can go on dancing. Death is not the enemy! Death votes for life every time.
At the very end, Death comes to take her friend to the dressing room. After all that dancing, Death knows that her friend is sweaty and exhausted; it’s time to get out of those clothes and shed that stupid girdle that has been made her flesh ache more and more as the dance went on. That ache was almost unbearable by the time they left the dance, and Death is eager to free her friend from her pain. And there they are, Death and her girlfriend, in the dressing room pulling off the sweaty clothes and that damn girdle. Any woman who has ever had to take off her tight foundation garments knows what this is like: you pull, and you tug, and you huff and puff and it seems hopeless and yet you and your friend are laughing so hard you can hardly breathe. And outside the door of the dressing room is the woman’s dance partner and all of her friends from the dance. And they knock on the door and they call to her: “What are you doing in there? Are you okay? Are you sure that you’re okay?!” But the woman can hardly answer anymore, or maybe she does but not in words that her family and friends can hear with human ears. Death finally helps her friend shed all those clothes and her earthly flesh that was becoming so uncomfortable…and that beautiful woman opens the dressing room door, and all her friends are gone. She finds an entirely different group of people waiting for her; it’s everyone who left the dance before she did. And Death…Death doesn’t follow where she is going, because she is going on to an entirely new life; she is joining the dance that never ends. Death doesn’t get to follow…she hangs behind, holding on to everything her friend used to be. Death says to her friend, “Don’t worry about me. Go on! There’s so much more where you’re going. I’ll be fine.”
Death votes for life every time, here on Earth and again in the next life.
Death votes for life every single time.
Death is not the enemy. Cancer is an enemy. Heart disease in an enemy. Addiction is an enemy. There are plenty of enemies that must be fought, but Death is not one of them. God sends Death with us to be our lifelong friend when we are born, because Death votes for life every time, and only Death can usher us back into His arms in the end.
I write this for my friend who is ready to begin this final journey. Cancer is her enemy and I hate cancer more than I can tell you. I am doing my best to make my peace with Death because Death is doing the best she can to help my friend to her eternal home. I pray that Death takes her time with my friend because so many of us are not ready to let her go. I pray that God grants her a little more time in this dance, because while it is nothing compared to what is coming, this dance is sweet beyond words.
**Cynthia is her real name. She died in 2010, and tell this story to honor her life, our friendship, and the work we did together.
***For you youngsters, ‘dressed to the nines’ means dressed in your very fanciest clothes.