Anniversary: Thoughts on life and death

“You will start counting backwards from ten…”




I don’t know if I got to eight.  I usually don’t.  I often don’t get past nine when I go under.

I’m not scared of surgery.  Not after my history.  There was the tonsillectomy in middle school, and then the hip replacement in college, then the wisdom teeth, followed by the gallbladder removal when I was 29.5 weeks pregnant with our oldest child.  I have gone through two C-sections. Then there was the handful of laparoscopic procedures, exploratory and otherwise, all involving complete sedation.  The spot that they provide on paperwork for previous surgeries is pathetically small, so I usually don’t even include all of my previous surgeries on my forms.  They just don’t fit.

So, no. I don’t normally get nervous.  I consider it a nice opportunity for a long, dreamless nap.  Those periods of “refreshing sleep” are few and far between in my mommy, PTSD brain existence.

I felt a twinge of peril when I woke up the morning of my tube placement surgery.  I wasn’t sure why.  It was typically an outpatient surgery, a mere blip on the radar in the world of medicine.  They send you home the day of the surgery, so, no big deal.   

But as I stood in my closet and chose my shirt for the day,  I felt like I was potentially choosing my final outfit. With my fingertips I brushed the edges of the sleeves lined up in my closet and gingerly picked out my charcoal grey shirt from the previous fall’s New Room Gathering.  The word scribbled on front of it:  Awaken.

“Awaken” I thought.

Yes.  I want to wake up after surgery.  God, please don’t take me home yet.

I lingered in the mirror, in a trance as my eyes couldn’t quite draw themselves from the single command on the front of my t-shirt.  Awaken!! Odd,  I hadn’t ever felt this sense of gloom and doom before any other surgery.  But this time…..


When I woke up, I knew something was terribly wrong.  The pain was quite possibly the worst that I have ever experienced.  I couldn’t breathe right, and it felt like someone has stabbed a knife directly into the lower part of my left lung.  Jordan was leaning over me, and I was desperately trying to communicate with my eyes the gravity and urgency of my pain.  “I…….need……something……

That was the beginning of my descent into the valley of the shadow. The following nine days in the hospital are a blur of morphine, alarms, hallucinations, fevers, a depserate, constant craving for more air, and pale, terrified faces of loved ones.

 A typically outpatient surgery turned nearly fatal,  where my life hung in a delicate balance,  teetering on the edge of a thread, for nearly two weeks.  No one was to blame, per se.  They just didn’t realize how fragile my body really was, because no one grasped the gravity of my rare diseases and my medical state.  There was no mistake to pinpoint or oversight to shine light on.  It just happened.

I almost died on my mother’s birthday. My babies, ages two and three, almost became motherless.  My husband almost became a widower.  My beloved friends and family almost watched me slip into eternity, and I almost had to say goodbye to a world that I wasn’t nearly ready to leave.

On the worst day, the day that I nearly slipped into eternity,  my friend said that she watched me, sleeping restlessly. My eyes closed, but face ambivalent, like a war was waging internally.  She said that it looked like I was playing tug-of-war, fighting to remain within the familiar bounds of time and space. No one knew on which side I would land. 

I don’t remember the last few days of Lent last year.  Who knew that “ashes to ashes” would become so nearly a reality for me a mere month after our Ash Wednesday service?

I don’t remember Easter.  Resurrection Sunday 2017 is an empty space in my memory bank, as empty as the tomb. Evidently my family came to visit me in the hospital in the afternoon, but there is very little left in my consciousness of my time in the hospital.   They say that our ability to block out near-death or severe medical experiences is adaptive.  It helps us to heal from the trauma.  I am glad that I don’t remember much. It is too much agony for our consciousness to hold for the rest of our lives. 

I haven’t thought about the experience of almost dying much over the past year. It was too close, too surreal, and way too serious to spend much time sitting with.  But as the anniversary approaches,  I realize that this Easter may be unique.   I will be worshipping with my family in church,  instead of fighting for my life in a hospital bed.  I will get to read the resurrection story to my children, holding my own sort of resurrection tenderly in my healing heart. 

 We tend to live with the concept of death nestled safely into our “blind spot,” acting like we will live in these bodies on this spinning planet forever.  There are some of us, who come nose-to-nose with eternity, or who watch those who we never imagined living without drift into eternity.  Death has become an unwanted reality for us, and we either live in terror, we find a way to reconcile ourselves with the reality of physical death, or we cling to the secret of Easter. 

What better time is there to almost die than Easter?  To watch the wave of the EKG next to your hospital bed, realizing that your magnesium and potassium levels place you in a percentile that screams “mortal!!!”? When you watched those closest to you with their eyes glued to your vital signs flashing and beeping around your hospital room, and you read cold sheer terror in their blood-shot eyes. And you know that there is nothing you can do to keep them from the hell of fear and pain that is brewing in their gut. 

On the day that Jesus broke out of the grave, I was a few steps away from death. 

But here’s the thing: I would have broken out of the grave too.  That’s the sacred secret of Easter:  “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:5).  News flash: it’s gone.

On the day that Jesus rose from three days of stinky death and rolled away a rock that 20 men couldn’t move,  I was dancing with my fragile human existence, walking with the tender Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death.

On the day that God lifted His Son from Hades, and Jesus changed from the dark stench of grave-clothes to pure white gowns of resplendent life,  I was being held in the hands of that same God who raised Jesus.

There is nothing to fear in death because Jesus was there and neutralized its threat.  I had nothing to fear in death, because Jesus made death into life.

Almost a year later, not much has changed.   We get up in the morning not knowing if we will be breathing at noon.  We dance this fragile dance of earthly life in our bodies created from dust, each holding their own unknowable expiration date.  We could go crazy with fear.  Many of us do.

But here’s the thing:  Death is defeated.  Now, we might not know exactly what this means, or what it looks like for our flesh and blood, but we do know that the power of the Spirit of Life is stronger than the prince of darkness and death.  We know that God created mankind and earth to be subject to His will, just as Heaven is under His will.  And good news:  In Heaven, there is no dying.  That’s what we are praying, right? “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God’s will is supreme.  God is working His redemption plan right now, behind the scenes,  in the interim time when we live in the already-but-not-yet kingdom of our God.  There will come a day when death will be finally defeated and banned eternally.  God’s promise is this:  If we are HIS, then we will live to see that defeat.

As the anniversary of my near-death encroaches, I don’t understand the fullness of this true triumph of life over death, but I know that where Jesus is, there is love, and where there is love, there is no fear of death.  

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever shall believe in Him shall not die but have eternal life.  John 3:16

Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my words and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. John 5:24

Jesus said:  I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.  John 11:25

I am the living one; I was dead, now look: I am alive forever and ever!  I hold the keys to death and Hades!  Revelation 1: 18

But our citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Savior from there:  The Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that brings everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.  Philippians 3:20-21

The death and Hades were thrown into a lake of fire.  The fire of the lake is the second death.  Revelation 20:14

We believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him.  1 Thessalonians 4:14

We know that if the earthly tent that we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.  2 Corinthians 5:1

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:26

Where oh death is your victory?  Where oh death is your sting? 1 Corinthians 15:5


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Pastor Al Gilbert

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