I was asked to speak to some graduates last week, and so I spoke to them about finding their place in the world and about endurance in the face of suffering and about decisions that once we make them can never, ever be undone. I don’t know how to talk about these things any more without telling what few meager stories I have about running from God, and about being swept up by the sense of a presence so good and true and faithful that I only know to name it God. I only know my own stories any more, and I think maybe that is something precious, if each of us can finish life knowing his own story, the truth and beauty and pity of it.
I didn’t say much about my daughter except to say that she got sick and nobody could help her and so she died. I don’t think I even said her name, because this is something you must learn, how to forestall an ache that wants to come thundering into your hollowed out heart all these years later. I don’t think I said her name, but of course the pain of her absence is etched into my face, and it leaks into my quivering voice sometimes, and though the point was not that my child is gone, I am afraid this is all some of them will remember.
Afterward, one of them told me about her own cancer, and asked how to cope with the anger and the hurt of it, the sense that maybe God or the universe or fate has betrayed you, has singled you out for this burden while your friends have their flesh unscarred, their hearts free of fear.
I recalled for her a time towards the end of Caroline’s illness, when every day was consumed with just feeding her and managing her pain. I didn’t tell her all of it, how I would start the morning with my daughter in my lap, a roll of paper towels and cans of a nutritional drink beside the bed, how I would dribble sips between her tumor-clenched teeth, and catch most of each dribble with a paper towel, and how filling her little belly usually took five or six hours, and how in between we had to give her morphine and sometimes we had to just stop trying for a while because she would begin to cry and not stop crying until she passed out.
I told this young woman, though, about coming downstairs one afternoon, my body and heart empty, with time only for a short respite before going up to begin administering medicines and painkillers. I sat at our kitchen table, and the afternoon sun was flooding in through a window, and every wooden surface was golden with it. I cut an apple with a paring knife, and listened to the whispered separation of flesh from flesh. I put a slice of apple in my mouth, and I bit into it, and the sweetness of it and of this moment were so overpowering that I couldn’t even weep, I could only taste and breathe and give thanks to God for all the wonder of creation cradled here in this wedge of apple.
I ate, and I let the sun warm my skin, and I have never, ever tasted anything so sweet and life-giving in all my days since, and I suspect I never will on this broken earth.
I trudged back up those stairs and with my wife nursed that dying girl to heaven, and when she died things came apart in me that can never be remade, but in the midst of those evil days I entered heaven through an apple wedge.
This is what I tried to tell the young woman scarred by cancer, that heaven is here, that when we are taught how the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, this is not because hell presses against heaven, but because heaven pressed into hell.
Heaven presses into hell, and this is why you get up and breathe again when you’d rather not, because even when you are in hell, grace comes to you. Especially in hell.