The last couple of years have not been particularly kind to my family.
Two years ago, a sister was lost to cancer; this spring, a brother-in-law died suddenly of a heart attack while at work; right now, we wait and pray as another sister is dying of cancer. In each case, death has claimed a young person, someone still in the bloom of life.
Our family has faith. In the end, we believe that resurrection will bring us all together again, that ultimately, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will he well.” There will be celebrations still in the future . . . with everyone there. Of that we should have no doubt.
But that future can seem a long ways off and belief in resurrection in some indefinite future often offers scant consolation in the definite present. So we grasp for some seeds of consolation in the present, something to hang on to, as we face losing yet another young member of our family.
Dying young. It’s a compound tragedy. There is the loss of a life, a good-bye with a finality that cauterizes the heart.
Nobody and nothing can prepare you for the reality of death, the finality, the irrevocability, the severance. Death has a sting, a whopping one, despite Christian faith. This is true of every death. When someone dies young, however, the tragedy doubles. Life is cut off in bloom and there’s a sickening waste of health, of beauty, of love, of opportunity.
Few things scar the heart as badly as does the sight of the premature erosion of beauty and the untimely corruption of flesh. When you see the taut flesh of freshness and young life give way to the slack, sickly odor of death, well, that kind of withering has no mercy on the heart.
First it posits anger. Bitterness can easily follow.
But even without anger, it still posits the question: Why? Why all this for so short a time? Why an ending when so much is just beginning? Why all these years of effort, growth, learning, loving, maturing, to be cut off just at bloom? Why a parent dying, a spouse dying, a loving nun dying, when they are still so badly needed—not to mention wanted?
I was sitting in my office last night luxuriating in some self-pity when some small seed of consolation dropped right at my feet, literally.
For a reason that may seem slightly sadistic, I always keep an hibiscus plant in my room. The reason is because one of the features of that plant is that it rarely blooms, though it does so in spectacular color. Its flowers last for exactly 24 hours, then they wither and drop from the tree.
Nature, it would seem, has its reasons for this, months of effort and growth constellate in a spectacular bloom which lasts for only 24 hours—and perhaps nobody even sees it. Yet nature makes no apologies for this and everything about it assures us that the whole thing is worthwhile.
Last night an hibiscus bloom, unusually beautiful, and just one day old and already withered, dropped at my foot. That too posits something. A bloom, however beautiful, is only for a very short while and sometimes nobody even sees it. Nature works like that.
Life is nature and nature is life. So life is brief and the power and health and beauty of our bodies bloom ever so briefly and oftentimes go mostly unnoticed. That’s also true for all that we give bloom to, our human loves, our infatuations, our honeymoons, our achievements, our securities.
It’s all hibiscus flower—beautiful, so much work and nature and feeling constellated in a spectacular bloom that’s destined to begin to die just as it reaches full flower.
Yet nothing is lost in nature. Each flower changes the world and no sparrow falls from the sky, save God notices and marks the event in the great eternal book from which, some day, all that is hidden will be revealed.
Without every sparrow that’s ever flown and without every hibiscus flower that ever gave up its life on the day of its birth, the world would be slightly different. And that exceptionally beautiful hibiscus bloom, with its ever so brief a glory, reminds us that a day of bloom is infinitely better than an eternity of plastic.
And so beautiful flowers wither and die and we look on and we cry, but with real tears, spilt over real life and real beauty.