I wrote the following 10 months ago, after we celebrated Judah’s 10th birthday in Memphis while he was at St. Jude. He died just over three weeks ago, and I sometimes forget he is gone. We miss him so. He fought so bravely, and lived so well, and his family surrounded him and loved each other through all of it. We are each learning to carry Judah’s life with us through stories and memories. In these weeks of brokenheartedness I find strange comfort through remembering not just Judah, but also how we all helped each other through. None of us is alone, even when we feel swallowed up by despair. Here is an attempt to capture that idea:
I recently watched A New Hope, the film that introduced my generation to Star Wars. Our family gathered to view it for my nephew’s 10th birthday, projected on a big expansive wall, with bags of popcorn and candy in abundance. It was such a beautiful night, not just because that movie is nearly perfect in the way it threads early friendship, captures the angst of longing to outgrow one’s childhood, describes good and evil, explains the sacrifice necessary for resistance, and demonstrates the way we mechanize the serving class, reducing them to machines even as we delight in their simple mindedness (It really is a fabulous film).
It was also a beautiful night because my nephew has a brain tumor, and we don’t know if he will have another birthday. The pain of carrying this knowledge is excruciating. The weight overwhelms when added to any simple task. It is always present, and always terrible.
It is especially awful in the way it disorients us in relation to time. When a young person you love might not live long, you feel regret and longing for the time before, when you did not know. You feel the present in your bones: the frantic, fleeting, precious present, and you want to grab all of it. The future looms, though. You fear it, hating what it brings. It is easy to forget that you are at war with the future on a hard day though, and you might accidentally long for it to end. Then you’ve betrayed yourself, because you vowed to avoid the future, to never ask it to come. Part of the weight of grief is the way it makes you betray yourself.
Judah Finn, my nephew, has been in Memphis since July, when his mom and dad arrived with their family for a 2-day appointment. They haven’t driven east since, but are suspended, like time, on the western edge of the state. Judah is being treated at St. Jude, a magical place that celebrates the dance of past, present and future in remarkable ways.
When you enter St. Jude, you are accosted by pictures of bald children. These aren’t fat little babies, but kids of various ages, kids whose hair should be pulled back in a ponytail so a cartwheel can be perfected. Kids who should be experimenting with hair gel and the wondrous spikes it can create. The shock of their sunken eyes and round heads exposed by chemotherapy makes you want to look away. But then you realize each of these faces is a portrait being held by even bigger pictures of adults. The kids smile in the midst of pain, but the adults are beaming. They smile the smile of gratitude. They are survivors, holding pictures of themselves from their pasts. The images of the adults, with long lives behind them, are juxtaposed with the kids they once were, living through a nightmare. Their futures came, with wonder, so their pasts could be gladly left behind, rather than gripped with longing. Suddenly you realize that these pictures don’t mean to accost; they invite you to believe.
The thing about faith is that it is elusive. It can be hard to find, hard to trust, hard to know. I used to hear people describe how they walked through hard places, carried by their strong faith. Now I am more likely to hear people say the Universe feels really dark right now. People say this not to explore some vague sense of spirituality; they are simply people whose life experiences leave them wondering if they can trust the world as they previously thought it to be. When life is devastating, when it feels as if all the things we once trusted are no longer safe, where do we turn?
As a person of faith, I turn to God, to a Messiah who moved toward hurting people in time and space to redeem them, to bind up their broken hearts and to comfort those who mourned. Still, this turning to God thing can feel foolish, or perhaps insufficient, when the life I experience is wrong. It is wrong for my sister and her husband to cling to the life of their son as a tumor tries to take him away. It is wrong for their family to be suspended in Memphis, for their sense of time to be disorienting. It is wrong for them to want the future to come so Judah’s siblings will remember him. It is wrong for a God who heals and comforts to see God’s people broken and grieving.
And yet, I turn to God and find comfort there, even when I’m angry and not sure I want to believe anymore.
In a remarkable story told by one of his close friends, Jesus tells a man whose child is ill that he must believe, for believing leads to hope and hope leads to love and love sustains us. The broken man, responding, says to the Giver of all life, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” This is a story I cherish, for it captures well my dance with faith. It is everything to me, and it is fickle, not to be trusted.
Still, even in all the pain, faith and hope are what I long for. They are elusive and difficult, but they are also the marrow, the lifeblood that help us survive. St. Jude knows this. This is why they display photos of beaming adult survivors holding pictures of themselves on their worst day. Because sometimes the worst day is the worst…but sometimes it isn’t.
In A New Hope, Han Solo is arrogant: a self-starting egomaniac who depends on no one but himself and his furry, moaning companion, Chewbacca. Solo has no use for the force or for good and evil; he only cares about what benefits him. As Luke faces his most important mission—destroying the Death Star—Solo chooses to save himself, abandoning his friends (temporarily, of course). The loyal friend buried within Solo persists even in the midst of his betrayal, and he wants to comfort Luke, to say something that will help him. Like many of us, Solo’s strategies for avoiding risk and protecting himself fall away when he realizes the people he loves are in danger. He wants to help and to hope. As Luke turns to board his X-wing fighter, Solo calls his name, and then says, with something more like wondering than conviction, “The Force be with you…?” You hear it, right? He says it like a question, as if uttering for the first time: Could this thing be real? Could it help? Do you believe?
I’ve never noticed it before, but earlier this month, as my nephew turned 10 and the whole world felt sad and beautiful and ugly as we battled to live only in the exact moment we embodied, Han Solo seemed to speak for all of us. I looked over at my brother, with whom I share a soul and every important instinct, and saw the tears in his eyes through my own. Our eyes wondered, together, “The Force be with you…?”
I think Solo knows what faith is like…it can be a statement, but sometimes it is a longed-for question, and it is no less powerful for being so. Only a few things remain, but faith, hope and love are among them.