By James B.
When I was seventeen, my aunt announced that we wouldn’t need to buy her presents for Christmas, she wouldn’t be around long enough to receive them. They’d found a tumor wrapped around her intestines. The doctors said six months.
She announced this just as summer had begun. To me, summer is what eternity must feel like. There’s a sort of endless renewal during summer that I’d taken for granted up until that moment. And with one pronouncement, life had a clock. Six months.
I remember going through the usual feelings. I was angry about it. Not at God, but angry at invisible diseases and failing bodies. At time and the lie of time, and at feeling immortal when you’re not. I wished it could be transferred to anybody else. My aunt was beautiful and cared for everybody and laughed at my jokes. I wasn’t feeling philosophical or rational about it. I just wanted it to go away.
It didn’t seem fair. It wasn’t fair. But “fair” is actually a much bigger concept than we can comprehend. Much like death.
I think we hold onto a sort of unacknowledgment of death. We know everyone is going to go through it. We know there is a one hundred percent statistic that you will lose somebody. Many somebodies. Actually, eventually, all of your somebodies. And it’s hard to think of that. Death to many is the final, awful, great end-all-be-all. But I think we all know better if we allow ourselves to know it.
We are children of a god; he is our Heavenly Father. He is eternal, and we are eternal too. We know that. Deep down, we know that there is something so purposeful about us, so infinite, that we can’t just be born to die. We will die, of course. But it’s just a moment, another step in our existence.
We have to understand our real relationship with God. This is one of the things I started to realize during my aunt’s six months. We’re not his playthings, some interesting creations he puts in the way of car accidents and heart disease. We’re his literal children. And like earthly children, we can’t save them from all of life’s hard lessons. The more we intervene, the less they learn. So he has to step back. Let us fall. Hard sometimes. But he will be there to help us mend, and to comfort us when we are in pain.
There were a lot of miracles that happened during those months. Families became closer. My aunt’s faith increased. She knew that God was watching over her, and as her time got closer she was at peace about it. I remember sitting with her, looking at her new chemo-short hair, and feeling that it was going to be alright. Heavenly Father wasn’t leaving her alone. He was like a parent helping a child move to college. He was there helping her pack and get ready to leave all that she knew.
The chemo worked for a while. That was a miracle, too. Her six months stretched into a year. She did get Christmas presents. But eventually she did die. I remember going to the funeral. And this was the most poignant part of this experience.
The funeral was held at the large church in her hometown. The place was a sea of grief. Even if we have a knowledge that we continue past death, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grieve. It’s a goodbye. It’s being separated from someone you love for a long time. I felt bad for the way some people were crying. There was so much despair, so much finality in their grief. And I can’t say I knew better, because I didn’t firmly believe there was an afterlife at that moment. My belief actually came in the next moment.
The moment when I walked up to my aunt’s casket. It was before the service and I was the only one up there. I walked up the great aisle, past all the beautiful stain glassed pictures of life and death, sacrifice and love, right up to her side and looked into the casket. And it wasn’t her. My aunt was not in there.
It was a body, and it was her body, but I’d never seen anything like it. It may as well have been a mannequin. My aunt was not inside there. That spark, that bigger than life person, all that kindness and energy, was gone. And I know some people will say, “Well, that’s death.” But that’s not what I saw. I saw a shell. A placeholder where my aunt had been. A lighthouse without anyone to run it.
It’s hard to describe what the Spirit feels like. But the closest way I can describe it is reassurance and intelligence descending upon you. Heavenly Father taught me at that moment that we are infinite. A personality as amazing and brash and happy as my aunt’s couldn’t just fade away. Something that unique on this earth had a purpose. I knew there was more than this. That body in the casket was just molecules. Eventual stardust. It wasn’t my aunt. She’d taken a train to elsewhere. And that I’d see her again.
I know that God loves us. That he sent us to Earth and gave us bodies because we needed to learn things that could only be taught here. That one day he’ll take us back. And we’ll go to where my aunt is. That place of no clocks. That place of eternal summer.