Several weeks before she passed away this summer, Shuling Chen gave her friends an opportunity to travel with her on the path of suffering and dying and living and loving. She did so by hosting a time of worship and reflection with us at the Jewish General Hospital where she was receiving palliative care. It was a deeply meaningful service of song and testimony and reflection and prayer, held in a beautiful solarium looking out on St. Joseph’s oratory. It was as human and honest an event as anything I have experienced in my life.
To be human is to travel in company with others. Some of those others are family members and close friends, with whom our truer selves may be revealed. Other fellow-travellers are women and men who walk alongside us more at arms length. Whoever our travelling companions, however, and whatever the degree of openness and disclosure between us, being together on the way defines us as human. In fact, we betray our humanity when we try to walk in isolation. Shuling’s invitation to celebrate and pray and worship with her represented an insistence that even the path toward death is one that we can and must share with others, in faith.
Shuling’s death came at the end of a very difficult year-and-a-half struggle with cancer. And one of the questions I wrestled with through that time was how to remain in company with her – how to remain a friend during her hospital stays, her days at home, and her return trips to the emergency room. I wouldn’t characterize Shuling as an intimate or close friend, but would describe her as a dear friend – someone with whom I shared in work and laughter and friendship over a number of years. So for me it was a question of how to accompany Shuling without my presence being a burden to her; how to speak with her and learn from her on this path while also respecting the nature of our relationship.
Each one of us has to negotiate these kinds of relational spaces in our own way, given the particularity of the relationships we live in. Finding a way to approach such circumstances somewhat imaginatively may be the difference between maintaining contact and losing touch altogether. (Shuling’s decision to host a worship service was, in part, her imaginative way of staying in touch with many who were dear to her, some of whom she hadn’t seen in some months.)
I’m not sure I got it quite right, but one small way I tried to travel with Shuling was by sharing something of my everyday with her. Or course I sent occasional texts letting her know of my concern and prayers for her, but I also determined to send text updates on daily happenings. I sent these notes far too infrequently, but they were my way of keeping contact with Shuling from the “normalcy” of the everyday. Her response to one of my early everyday texts was that it made her feel like more than just a cancer patient.
One of the everyday realities I shared with Shuling was my interest in, and early attempts at drawing. The picture to the right (my attempt at a Black Eyed Susan) was one of my first drawings, and was an image I texted to her more than a year ago. Obviously the point wasn’t to send a beautiful picture of a flower – the point was just for me to be me, alongside her.
When I draw now (which isn’t as often as I would like) I often think of Shuling, since it was with her that I began down this path – with her and with her words of encouragement.
The most recent drawing I did was one that I drew specifically for her, and gave to her at the service she hosted at the Jewish General. It is a simple image of a ship hanging in a church, a sight not uncommon in Danish Lutheran churches, and in some others also. (Some years back my friend Phil Irish did a series of oil paintings of such ships hanging in churches.) The ships are hung there as a reminder of God’s care for those who travel on the sea – and as a reminder of the people’s prayers for those who face the risk and challenge of the sea. And the ships are also hung there, I think, as a reminder that we are all, at times, travelling through difficult seas.
Around the ship and window are select words and phrases from Psalm 107, a Psalm that recounts the many troubles experienced by God’s people and points to the persistent love of God expressed in his saving them. Here are the select words I incorporated:
Some went down to the sea in ships… [and] He raised the stormy wind…
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and He brought them to their desired haven.
The drawing was a simple attempt to acknowledge Shuling’s suffering and dying and also to express something of the hope she expressed and which is basic to our faith in Christ. The drawing was also my way of being with Shuling in friendship – my way of travelling with her and remaining connected to her when it wasn’t entirely clear to me how to do so, otherwise.
It is a true cliché to say that death is a mystery. In the light of Jesus’ resurrection, the New Testament seems to insist both that we are with Christ in death, and that we wait to be with him on the day of joyful resurrection. Shuling belongs to Christ in her death – she has found herself in safe haven with him, and will find herself there finally.
Yet a travelling companion is now gone. Her laughter and joy and courage and care are lost to us, and it is a very real loss. There is sadness in my heart, and I miss Shuling, as do so many others. Those who travelled more closely with her feel her absence the strongest. No one said travelling together would be easy, but the shared path, even in the midst of loss, remains gift and grace through Christ our Lord. It makes us human.