A quiet life, a quiet faith, and a quiet death. Sharon Harrah Schwartz passed from this world almost a year after a formal diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig's disease and almost three years after symptoms began to surface. My wife and the mother of two did so with a grace and peace that stood in stark contrast to the ravages of the disease relentlessly claiming her life. “The beast in my body,” she called it with a sad smile, which would quickly widen as her face reflected an inner joy that allowed her to spend her last eleven months in this world quietly dispensing wisdom about life, about God, and about living well and spiritually.
Sharon was all about happy endings…and about God, who enabled her to live and, finally, die gracefully just a few months ago. You don’t associate grace with ALS, a brutal and terminal disease that my brother, an M.D. cautioned, “Brace yourself—it’s about as bad as it gets.” And it was…
But she died as she had lived: quietly, with a smile on her face and love in her heart, never wavering from her Christian faith and belief that happiness is our natural state. She enjoyed Hallmark movies, the cheesier the better. She would take it as a point of pride that, in her last year, she lived a Hallmark death. She smiled real smiles even as illness accelerated, urging those around her to discover the true meaning of God’s love while the disease serially destroyed her muscles and, consequently, her ability to eat, to speak, and ultimately to breathe. She never wavered: God is good, God is grieving with us, with her family and friends. “God loves me,” she’d gasp during the few seconds of energy she periodically summoned to use her vocal cords, “Believe it—he’s grieving with us.” And “I love you, I love all of you--always have, always will,” her unwavering message to me and our daughters, one a nurse in Texas and the other an executive with a digital music service in New York City.
During those eleven months--on a last family outing to vacation favorite Hilton Head, to enjoy the rugged beauty of maritime Nova Scotia, to our daughter in New York City, in her bed in the guest room converted to an in-home hospice in Southwestern Virginia--she explained both God and life to those around her. She wanted to leave a legacy for her daughters to draw upon as they lived their lives, something to help them appreciate the highs and persevere through the lows. And through it all she smiled, death overtaking her body, as she discussed with us God and life. She talked increasingly slowly over time and with great effort, but always with consoling words for the many caregivers, family and friends who, overwhelmed by the horror of what was happening to her, invariably broke into tears.
And when her dying muscles would no longer allow her to speak more than a few seconds, she was still intent on leaving a legacy of be-thankful-for-life thoughts for her daughters. Through an IPad application that spoke the words she typed; and finally emails, hand resting on her keyboard, tapping out one letter at a time, she offered her thoughts on God, on living, on forgiveness for mistakes, on being a “reasonable” Christian, on living with love. And explaining why she was such a fan of happy-ending Hallmark channel movies.
From the room where she would end her life, she was a voice of sanity in an age of hyper-unreason, the antithesis of all that our popular culture portrays as cool. She had given up a promising career in public relations to become a fulltime homemaker and mother, a quietly devout Christian who believed that every second of an ordinary life—“I guess you could say I’m extraordinary for my ordinariness,” she’d gasp with a chuckle—as a mother and wife was jammed with meaning and opportunity. She was a baby-boomer who belied the popular and largely accurate image of a generation possessed with itself, both in thought and action.
Our discussions during her last year offer a common-sense approach to positive living and illuminate the value of a Biblical approach to life. Even in dying, she was the type of person who caused her friends, her family, and the caregivers assisting us to say to her “I want what you have—how can you be so at peace?” Jesus Christ was both her answer and explanation. She was satisfied with being who she was where she was and, especially, having given her all to raising a family. Her last year did not involve a frantic attempt to pack the experiences of a lifetime into the relentlessly dwindling months of her life. No drama, no cursing her misfortune, no giving up. Steady, steady, steady…steady as she goes.
She would have liked a miracle, for our God to come down and touch her and heal her. But God has his little secrets, she would say, and if the reason for her suffering is one of them…well, that’s all part of the mystery. There are just some things we can’t know, nor should we try to know them. Instead she was at peace, despite knowing the suffering ahead and having experienced the suffering behind. Sharon was content to live her last year with a smile, a gentle soul who died holding fast to God, encouraging those around her to know the One who died to bring us eternal life. And, knowing, she instructed us to provide the opportunity at her funeral for those who did not believe to hear about the value of living—and, ultimately, dying--with Christ.
She never sounded ‘churchy’ or wingnut religious. Rather, she was a simple soul with a simple message, living a quiet and joyful life that—despite the horrors of the disease that ended it—had a Hallmark ending. She went to be with the Lord. She had done all she could here, used her time on this earth as best she could, and now it was time for the next step.
For Sharon--and God--it was that simple.