Fall has always been a time of contemplation for me, and it tends to stir a mix of emotions each year related to change and loss and beauty and grace.
This fall, I’ve been feeling something decidedly different, as the cancer diagnosis of this summer has me pondering my own mortality. Being told that you have a disease for which there is no cure, and to which you will likely succumb in a foreseeable time frame, can skew your thinking quite substantially. These days, my brain flip-flops often between the extremes of “I have to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do and become the best person I can be and leave a positive impact on all humanity” and “What does it really matter? If I’m going to die, I might as well just live comfortably and coast to the finish line. How much can I really change in a potentially short time anyway?”
A couple days ago, I received a tremendous gift in this regard that has helped me land (at least for the moment) in a place of hopefulness for this season. On a mini-retreat with a church group at a local farm, we had the opportunity to spend an hour in solitude and silence, to spend some “quality time” with God. I found a large stone on the property next to a bright yellow tree and decided to just sit and stare at nature around me for awhile. I emptied my mind as best I could of myriad distractions and asked God to talk to me. Within a few minutes I heard a gentle voice telling me it was OK to let go of the tight hold I’ve kept on my emotions, that I needed to face them to move forward. I was suddenly overwhelmed by deep sadness and gripping fear.
Now, I have allowed myself to feel fear and sadness and anger over my cancer diagnosis before, but only in short little snippets. I’m a busy women with work to do, family to care for, life to live; I don’t have time to sit for a long spell with my emotions laid bare. But there on that stone, knowing I had nothing else to do, no one to interrupt me, nothing demanding my attention, no one to explain myself to, I curled up into a ball and wept. And I began to let God into that space that I’ve tried so hard to avoid, to keep hidden even from myself.
God and I had a long conversation through my tears. And then he used my surroundings in nature to teach me a few lessons about this time in my life.
I looked again at the golden tree next to me. Its yellow leaves danced in the breeze, intermittently catching the sunlight and becoming even more vibrant. And I realized those leaves were nearing their end. They’d lived through their life cycle–as buds, as bright new leaves in the spring, as hearty green leaves enduring the summer heat, and now as autumn’s golden leaves, some them already drying around the edges, waiting for their turn to return to the earth. And those leaves were beautiful. More beautiful, in fact (at least to my eye), than when they were green and lush. It is in the journey toward their death that their beauty is most notable. Lesson number 1: Transition, even death, can be a time of beauty and wonder.
I picked up a few leaves that lay near my feet and looked at them closely. One had a little tear on the edge. Another had some tiny parasites on it, causing the surface to pucker and feel bumpy. But each of those leaves had done its job for the tree, providing respiration and creating energy from the sun, despite its imperfections. Lesson number 2: We are all broken, but all still have a role to play. In my case, part of my brokenness is my disease. But I still have a purpose here. I can still serve my family, my community, and my world, and do whatever work God calls me to.
Then I watched several leaves flutter to the ground. How poignant to think that I was witnessing the moment of death for those leaves as they separated from the tree. What struck me was how quietly and gently they fell. Lesson number 3: Perhaps in the transition from life to death, there can be peace.
While sitting a little longer with these thoughts, I stared at the ground, and my eyes fell on a single blade of grass moving as the wind hit it. I remembered that it is God who made the wind that moved that tiny blade of grass. In fact, God made that blade of grass. Indeed, he formed the seed it grew from, made the soil it lived in, and provided the water and sun it needed to grow and survive. Lesson number 4: If God cares for even the grass, and is in control of its tiny, temporary life, how much more does He care for me. (OK, that revelation is not my own–that’s pretty straight from Scripture.)
I left that morning feeling drained… but in a good way. I had emptied some of the bucket of grief I’ve been carrying around–not only about my own situation, but about some significant losses we’ve experienced recently–and it was cleansing for my soul. I also left with a greater sense of peace than I’ve had in quite a while. My circumstances have not changed one bit. But I received assurance of God’s presence in them. And perhaps more importantly, I was reminded of how powerful and positive (even if a little scary) the practice of making space to bring myself fully open and vulnerable before God can be.