life (before) death

Essays, Featured — By on August 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

One Saturday evening several weeks ago, I heard that 27-year-old Amy Winehouse had died, and even though I’m not familiar with much of her music, the news hit me hard. I stayed up past 2 a.m. crying for the troubled soul that was too fragile to withstand the angst of an artists’ creative process and too weak to resist the temptations that offered to numb that psychological pain.

I also cried for my grandpa who has end-stage COPD and just got out of the hospital, and for my grandma who had a stroke that week. I cried for the young man in my parents’ church who died of pancreatic cancer, leaving a wife and two little girls behind.

I cried because I understand the will to live that made me defiant through eight debilitating rounds of chemo and, when I was in the ICU with sepsis a few months later, threaten to make a rope out of my bed sheets and escape through the window of my ninth-floor hospital room if my pulmonologist didn’t discharge me in time to celebrate my birthday at home.

I also cried because of the deep depression that came after the cancer, causing so much emotional pain and spiritual desperation that I prayed every night before I went to sleep, “God, if life doesn’t get any better than this, take me Home to be with you. I just want to come Home.”


Having cancer at a young age makes you grapple with your mortality much earlier than most people. In an afternoon, I went from being a healthy 20-something-year-old to being a cancer patient who required “extensive surgery” that would leave me “tragically disfigured,” as my surgeon so tactlessly put it.

My parents flew to Connecticut the day before my mastectomy. I picked them up at the airport, and then took them to lunch at a nice restaurant. I knew it was literally my last supper before surgery, since I couldn’t eat or drink anything that evening in preparation for next day’s procedure, so I went overboard. My parents and I shared lobster, steak, salad, mashed potatoes, and cheesecake.

After the waiter cleared the table, we sat there sipping our coffees, having exhausted all the easy topics of conversation. I cleared my throat and began talking.

“Just so you know…” I started awkwardly, faltering to find the right words. “If something happens to me tomorrow during the surgery-” my mom started crying, so I made eye contact with my dad instead, “-my bank statements and investment papers are in the bottom drawer of my desk. My passport, my birth certificate, and the title to my car are in the fireproof metal box in my closet.”

My dad nodded calmly.

“And I also wanted to tell you –” I introduced the next topic just as awkwardly. My mom was crying harder, “-if something goes wrong and I don’t wake up from surgery, make them check an EEG. If I don’t have brain waves, I don’t want to be kept on life support. Just let me go.” I looked deeply into my dad’s teary eyes to make sure he understood.

“It’s okay to let me go.”


Last week I told my friend Alex that I was planning a trip to Seattle to visit The Invisible Girls, the Somali refugee family I befriended in Portland last fall. He asked if the apartment complex they live in is safe.

I shrugged.

“Be careful, okay?” he asked.

I nodded. “I have pepper spray in the glove box of my car, just in case,” I said.

“And if someone attacked you, you would use it, right?” he asked. He knows my pacifist tendencies too well.

I contemplated my physical safety and said, “That would be a great way to die, wouldn’t it? “

He looked horrified.

“I mean, I have to die of something at some point,” I continued. “What a great way to go out, standing between evil and an innocent life.” It sounds crazy to say it, but I actually pray for a death like that. I tell God that I only owe Him one death, so He’d better make good use of it.

While I was musing about all the interesting ways I could die, Alex repeated his question. “If someone attacked you, you would use your pepper spray, right?”

“Yes, I would use it,” I promised. “But if it didn’t work, I would gladly give my life for those girls.”


As I was crying, and thinking, and crying some more on Saturday night for the pain death inflicts on all of us, I thought about how consumed our culture is with our mortality.

We plan our funerals, buy prime cemetery real estate, and draft legal documents that detail our end-of-life wishes. The time we don’t spend planning for death, we spend plotting to thwart it.

The money our youth-obsessed culture invests in Botox injections, liposuction, plastic surgery, and toupees depicts a peculiar form of denial. Maybe some people truly don’t realize that improvements made to external appearances don’t increase the longevity of internal organs. And maybe for others it’s a form of magical thinking – as if Death might come for you one day but, after noticing your wrinkle-free nasolabial folds, decide he’s got the wrong woman and take someone who’s horribly shriveled instead.

I wondered what would happen if we took all the money and energy we spend on alternately accommodating and cheating death, and diverted our efforts into a quality life?

What if, instead of eulogizing loved ones after they’re gone, we called them every now and then while they’re still alive? What if, instead of paying for cosmetic procedures that give us the façade of time we don’t have, we made better use of the time we do have by logging out of Facebook, turning off the TV, and powering down the Wii so we can be more aware of God and the people around us?

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of money on cancer treatments that kept me from dying, and a lot of energy on emotional and spiritual growth that kept me from wanting to die.

During the first year after my cancer diagnosis, I prayed every night for God to take me Home to be with Him if it wasn’t going to get any better, and I felt like my prayer had gone unnoticed or unanswered because I had to keep praying it. It finally dawned on me that I’d received His response, because morning after morning, I kept waking up.

It’s true, as Shakespeare said, that we all owe God a death.

But for now, until God cashes out our chip, each of us owes Him a well-lived life.

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  • Sarah, do you play baseball? Because you hit this one out of the ballpark.


  • Jo hilder says:

    Beautiful. I loved it, probably because it rings so familiar in so many places. I envy those who haven’t yet had to consider how close dying is to living for their naivety, and yet not, because the experience of living and dying at the same time made me understand so much more about being alive. I don’t want to stop until I have to. Thanks Sarah.

  • Steve says:


    It’s pretty quiet here at the homeless shelter. As a shelter supervisor I pray for God to bring peace and calmness so that our ‘guests’ can experience rest if only for the night. I cease to be surprised that mostly the nights are still. That’s when I read and think.

    This piece you wrote about truly living life instead of merely trying to avoid death struck a chord in me. You see my family and I lived for 10 years in East Africa where life is measured differently than here. Death is constantly dropping by and his visits are expected and something normal if not welcome. Then we spent these past five years caring for parents until one by one the three of them passed on. We were present for each.

    Now I’m encountering my own health adventures and I am thinking much about how I shall choose to live. How much time, money, energy and life am I willing to spend on my health? Am I willing to continue to take the risky path if it means I may not get the level of treatment/care/attention by specialists that I might otherwise have if I were to play it safe?

    I’m still wondering and that’s where this chord was struck. I’m thinking a well lived life.

  • Mimi says:

    Thank you, Sarah. “It’s okay to let me go.” You have no idea how healing that one sentence is for my heart, my soul. I’m a parent that had to make that decision.

  • Michael D. Bobo says:


    This resonates with me tremendously since I, too, have suffered a life threatening condition at a young age. I was 32 when I had open heart surgery to replace my mitral valve. I have to live on medicine for the rest of my life. Monthly blood draws maintain a fragile balance which is affected by my diet and exercise. Most days I don’t think about it, but living in this way is so isolating and exhausting. Living is a chore and it would be easier to just move on to the next life. We both have unique ailments that make us wrestle with many inner demons others rarely encounter.

    I had lived all of those years in a weakened condition and similar realizations have impacted me during my recovery. Life is a gift. Many Christians focus on going to Heaven and life after death, but how many of us really think about a life lived well? Thank you for your candor and transparency through this very tough but necessary conversation.

    Grace and peace to you.

  • Jesse D says:

    Great words, Sarah. Wendell Berry’s short story “Fidelity” has reshaped much of how I see death; I wonder at the lengths we sometimes go to keep Him at bay. Often it seems life merely becomes a mission to stay alive, begging the question of whether living just to stay breathing is worth it.

    And I’m not speaking of people with terminal illnesses, necessarily, but rather serious health complications in old age; at what point do you say that life as an exercise in continuing itself is no longer worth the effort? If your days are consumed with medical procedures and doctor’s visits and cocktails of drugs, just to keep breathing, wouldn’t it simply be better to stop?

    I don’t really know the answers to these questions, though I do think I might choose not to fight death to the bitter end. Death, though an enemy on one level, is the gateway to what’s next, and it doesn’t need to be avoided at all costs, as we seem to do in this culture.

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