Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land…Then the Lord said to [Moses], ‘”This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab….Deut. 34:1-4
A dear friend and her husband who has pancreatic cancer have been on the journey of their life. A journey that they would never have chosen for themselves, but to which they had been painfully summoned this past January when they first got the diagnosis of cancer. Like Moses and the people of Israel, they had their “promised land”: this past week, they drove to Houston’s MD Anderson with every expectation that Alex, my friend’s husband, would receive the long-awaited Whipple (a procedure that removes the pancreas along with, among other things, the gallbladder, stomach bile duct and lymph nodes near the pancreas).
Our friends had been praying and waiting for this drive for weeks now, at times wondering if it would ever happen. There were the infections- one that had nearly taken his life in the hospital- and the weekly chemo treatments. The emergency trips to the hospital. The scary falls.
And then there have been the daily realities. The nausea and vomiting. Those sickening protein boosts. The emptying of the bile bag (which my friend had joked was “Gollum” from The Lord of the Rings). All of this the new normalcy of having to play host 24/7 to an unwanted guest called “cancer.”
I, along with thousands of friends and acquaintances, had been regularly praying for Alex’ healing. We had been intimately following their journey through the Caring Bridge web site that connects family and friends during times of a loved one’s illness- a total of 41,450 visits made from around the world as of this morning. Each day I have had the blessing of witnessing the faith, hope and love of this family as they have banded together around their father, brother, husband, and lover.
Yesterday my friends were told that the Whipple would not be possible. The cancer had spread to the liver. Like Moses, my friends had been obliged to gaze on their promised land from afar. The doctors had said Alex could measure the remainder of his life in months.
Shock. Anger. Depression. Sadness. Fear. Doubts. ”If only’s.” I wonder if Moses standing on Mount Nebo experienced the same tide of messy emotions that my friends are experiencing right now.
Even as I write this I want to paper over the reality of death and dying with some tidy expression of faith. I want to say that my friends will beat the odds (a one percent chance of life now, according to the doctors, as if life and death can be predicted like the weather). I want to ask for a miracle and part of me is still praying for one.
But to do so is also to deny the tragedy inherent in every death: that by definition, death is the violent ripping away of our “promised lands”- if not the Whipple and another decade of life, then the book remaining to be written, or the grandchildren you had wanted to hold, or the places you had hoped to visit. The list goes on. In death we are forced to gaze on what lies before us with the naked recognition that we will not have it. At least not in this life.
Can any consolation be found here, at this juncture where we stand like Moses gazing on what we had hoped would be the land that we would inhabit but which has become painfully elusive to us? For Christians the answer is resolutely “yes.” Even as we must walk through the valley of death and fall back against the tragedy of life itself, there is consolation that our lives, like Moses’, are in the hands of “the Lord” who led us on the journey and along the way provided manna from heaven and protection from our enemies, who planted in us the desire for a “promised land” and who will indeed give it to us, only never as we had expected, as if to remind us that our beginning and our end are in Him alone. To that same God, I give thanks for these dear friends and entrust their journey.