That One November

I stood in my best friend’s kitchen on a Friday evening with tears slipping down my face.  Shawna had just been discharged from the hospital a couple of hours earlier.  Her husband had just finished telling me what the doctors had said when they discharged her, but I only heard one word. Hospice.

We cancelled everything on the calendar that one November.  Portrait sessions.  Design projects.  Meetings.

Life.

Josh and I drove 2-1/2 hours home the next day.  It was a strange feeling – packing bags for an indefinite amount of time. Staring at the clothes in my closet, trying to decide what I should wear to her funeral.

I sat down in the same old chair at the same old kitchen table the morning before making the long drive back to her.  It was the same old chair I had sat in for 17 months.  Begging God for His miracle.  The same chair I had sat in for six years, begging Him for mine. For whatever reason, He had decided it was best to withhold both.  And within a handful of weeks, I knew that she would be gone.  And with Him.  In awe of His glory.

And I couldn’t stop crying.

Why are You being so deliberate in not healing?!  I cried as pen scratched on paper.  And why are You being so deliberate in telling me that You are not healing her?

And before I could even finish writing the words, His voice spoke strong and clear.

So you can pray.

And something triggered in me.  I flipped back five months of pages in my journal – all the way back to May and another day where my eyes were bloodshot from crying and the prayer-writing-pen was heavy in my hand.  It was her birthday.  And the latest scan the day before had shown more cancer in her liver.  

I had just opened our favorite devotional to read that day.  My birthday was the week before, and the verse attached to it was out of Genesis.  The one that said Sarah became pregnant at the very time that God had appointed.  And on Shawna’s birthday?  It was a verse in Job.  About how a person comes to their grave full of vigor and ripe with many good years, like sheaves of golden grain gathered at the harvest.

After her diagnosis, we would alway say that someday, I would have a family.  And someday, she would be cancer-free.

Her someday was just looking a little bit differently than what we had hoped.

The truth is, I had already known for a month that He wasn’t going to heal her.  It was something God told me loudly and clearly and painfully and sacredly.  And I knew two words down in the very core of me: six months.  It wasn’t until her birthday that I had the courage to actually write it down, and I began to pray in obedience.  Pen to paper.  Words you never want to pray for someone that you love.

God, I pray as this season begins to close down that You would ripen Shawna for death.  I pray that fruit would literally be falling off of her everywhere she goes.  That her children and her family and her doctors would all be changed because of the truths that she teaches them.  Stop them in their tracks, LORD.

And I pray also for the hope of heaven.  That she would be willing to die.  And not fighting You on it.  That’s where Your supernatural peace comes in.  Please LORD… cover her with it.  Encamp all around her with an iron-clad tent of Your peace.  I pray that she is satisfied with the time alotted for her.  Keep her long enough to do all the work You’ve called her to.  And, when it’s time, as the time gets closer,  may she come cheerfully to the grave.  I pray that she is not forced to suffer one day longer than necessary in the pain she is in.  But that it would be in Your perfect time.

“Our times are in God’s hand; it is well they are so, for He will take care that those who are His shall die in the best time; however their death may seem to us untimely, it will not be found unseasonable.”  (Matthew Henry)

“When the sun finally drops below the horizon in the early evening, evidence of its work remains for some time.  The skies continue to glow for a full hour after its departure.  In the same way, when a good or a great person’s life comes to its final sunset, the skies of this world are illuminated until long after he is out of view.  Such a person does not die from this world, for when he departs, he leaves much of himself behind – and being dead, he still speaks.”  (Henry Ward Beechaw, Streams in the Desert).

LORD, as Shawna’s body begins to fail, may her soul shine yet brighter.  As winter comes, may an eternal spring yet still rise in her heart.  And the closer she comes to the end of her journey, may she more clearly hear the immortal symphonies of eternal worlds inviting her to come in awe-inspiring and yet profoundly simple fashion.  (Words from Streams in the Desert turned into prayer)

After re-reading those words, I turned back to the fresh and tear-stained page from that November morning – five months to the day that I began praying her into heaven.  And I felt that same, familiar push.  So I prayed the same words then that I had on her birthday.

And then we packed up the car to leave.

November 6, 2012

It was a quiet fall afternoon.  Shawna’s kids weren’t home from school yet.  Her husband was at work.  Her mom wasn’t due to arrive from the airport for another hour.  And a cozy perch was prepared in the back corner of the lawn in a small pocket of sun that she loved to sit in.

Her dad carried a stack of blankets outside and layered them up.  Soft and high.  A nested respite from the hard metal of the lounge chairs and the cold hardness of life.  I began settling into some work at her kitchen table to let him have some time with his daughter when he came inside.

“It’s ready for you,” he told me, and walked into her room.  She stood up out of bed, unsteady on her feet and white-knuckling the walker.  So determined to have the strength a 36 year old woman should have and fight the deterioration that the cancer had caused. Slowly, she made her way outside.

Richard tucked her into the nest he carefully built, brought out her phone and the stack of papers she’d been wanting to read, and left us there in the afternoon sun to run to the airport.  Hymns played quietly from the phone in her lap.  And I tugged the blanket up tight and swallowed emotion down hard.

This is it, I thought.  This is where we say all the things we’ve ever wanted to say.

But that afternoon?  We sat there quietly in the kind of unspoken comfort you only have with your best friend.

I don’t know how long we sat there like that.  Not talking.  With the sun shining our skin warm and November leaves making their last slow dance off the trees.   I only realized later that we had lived our entire friendship in such a way that the things that we should say were always said.  And when it came down to the final stretch, we had already said it all.  And the mutual, heavy silence was more of a goodbye than I could have ever anticipated.

November 22, 2012

The days turned into weeks.  Filled with eating.  And drinking wine.  And telling jokes.  And playing cards.  And watching movies in bed.  And stealing away private moments to release the waterfall of tears before coming back to love on her some more.

And then Thanksgiving came along – a holiday where families all over the country were gathering together and cooking.  Watching football.  Doing the mundane things that families do.  And all the while, giving thanks.  We did all those things too.  It just looked a little different.

Our families understood that we would be skipping Thanksgiving with them that year so that we could celebrate it with her.  And she lay in her master-bedroom-hospital-bed with a clear view of the kitchen.  And she watched while we cooked.

Just before sitting down to eat together, we gathered in her bedroom and stood around the two beds.  A normal one for Scott.  And a new-normal one for her.  And we held hands.  And we prayed.  And we gave thanks.  Shortly after, Shawna’s daughter piped up.

“We wrote a list of things that we are thankful for in school this week,” she said. “Can I read mine?”

She scampered off to her room to get the paper and returned with her handwritten list of thanks.  Which opened the door for the rest of us to give ours.  It was a not-so-veiled opportunity to collectively say goodbye.  Because, until then, she hadn’t let us.  But that moment?  She sat quietly in her bed.  Receiving the so-difficult-to-say, and yet likely so-much-more-difficult-to-hear words with grace.

And then we sat down at the table just feet from her bed.  And toasted with our wine.  And she chuckled every once in awhile, drifting in and out of sleep with the hum of conversation and laughter providing a soothing white noise.  And we took photos.  Lots of photos.  Crawling in bed with her and snuggling up close.  Knowing deep down that they would probably be the last photos with her that we would ever take.

That evening, as we were getting ready to leave, Shawna’s pain went up markedly.  And I squeezed her goodbye, choking back the tears.

“I’m ok,” she said.  “Love you Janeykins.”

November 23, 2012

Early the next morning, I woke up to Josh sitting up on the side of the bed frantically putting his shoes on.  Scott’s phone stopped working late the night before during a routine software update.  And on it?  All those priceless photos from the night before.  And from those last few weeks. Everything that was on his phone was suddenly inaccessible.  And Josh was flying out the door to help Scott retrieve it all.

He sat there at the kitchen table for a couple of hours, trying to restore the memories.  He wouldn’t have normally been there that early, and it happened to be that Shawna was in a lot of pain.  Scott needed help getting her rolled onto her side.  So Josh went in and helped turn her for the last time.  He told me later that when he did, she began speaking quietly.  Unrecognizable words beneath her breath.  A holy conversation reserved for another audience.

Shortly after, he took the kids out of the house.

About that time, I was twenty minutes away.  I had just gotten out of the shower and felt the sudden and overwhelming urge to pray.  So I sat on the edge of the bed.  Get lower, God said.  So I did.  And with knees bent and head buried deep in that small space between bed and closet, I soaked the carpet with tears and dripping-wet hair.

Tell her it’s ok to let go, I begged.  Tell her it’s ok because nobody else can.  Only You.  She’ll only listen to You.

Ans as I prayed, I suddenly found myself standing among a crowd of people.  They were cheering.  And yelling.  And clapping.  And they were all dressed in white. Everything was white.  There was so much white.  And I saw Shawna running.  And, for a moment, I was running alongside her.  Seeing her off.  Right up to the end.

My phone vibrated.  It was Josh, on his way with the kids to pick me up.  So I threw on some clothes and put my wet hair up.  And climbed into the back seat of the car when he pulled up.  The ipad was out and they were all watching a sitcom with canned laughter when Josh adjusted the rear view mirror so he could see my face as I sat behind him.  And he reached around behind his seat and squeezed my leg tight.  And I smiled at him in the mirror.

“I’m dropping you off at Bethy’s,” he said.  “And then I’m taking the kids to a movie.”  And I said ok.  And before I got out of the car, he squeezed my leg again and kissed me more intently than normal.  Then I walked up the rain-soaked driveway and into the house where Shawna’s dad was on the couch.  Staring out the window.  Heavy.  And quiet.  And Bethy met me right there in the entry.  And told me that she was gone.  

It wasn’t until later that I put it all together.  And realized that the moment that she died was the exact same moment I was on the floor.  Praying.  Lost in that vision and the unspeakable and very holy privilege of literally praying my best friend into heaven.

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