Until 2007, July 24 was simply another day in summer, a usually hot and humid day, perhaps cooled for a time by a late afternoon thunderstorm. There was nothing in my experience which made it noteworthy. In 2007, my father died on this day. Complications from cancer and its treatment took his life. Ten days before, we had celebrated his 70th birthday.
Not long after his death, my mother and sister gave me his Huntington (WV) High School class ring, and I have worn it almost every day since. I noticed the other day that his graduation year was 1955. Had he lived, he would be, I am sure, attending his 60th Class Reunion sometime this year.
As I’ve worn his ring, I’ve reflected on his life while living mine. In ways I couldn’t have anticipated but for which I am so very grateful, I have come to an even greater understanding and deeper appreciation of him.
I have a much clearer sense—or I imagine that I do—of how he dealt with the challenges and opportunities which life brought him. I’ve had many conversations with him, with my memory of him, conversations I’d like to believe we’d have been able to have face-to-face (or, as he liked to say, “man to man”). I am thankful for what I continue to learn from his living, including the way he lived his dying.
Last year, on July 24, I was at Duke’s Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Clinic. The day before I had received an infusion of an extremely powerful chemotherapy agent; it was targeted on Multiple Myeloma cells, but the collateral damage it would eventually do included the near-eradication of my immune system. On the 24th, I received back stem cells which had been harvested from me a couple of weeks before. The purpose of the stem cell transplant was to support the recovery of my severely-weakened immune system.
I’ve written before about how the good folks at Duke call the day of stem cell reception is “Day 0” and about a delightful custom they have of calling it a “Second Birthday.” To celebrate it, they gave me a T-shirt (which I wore this morning on my walk through downtown Asheville), a Certificate of Congratulations (which they intended to be like a birth certificate), and the tags from the syringes that held my stem cells.
So, July 24 is now a day marked by endings and beginnings: my Dad’s death and my second birthday. Since last year, I’ve experienced many endings. There have been, and there remain for me to encounter, necessary relinquishments, difficult surrenders, and hard farewells. I’ve also experienced, though, new beginnings: unexpected gifts, fresh opportunities, and delightful hellos.
Many (most) days—not just July 24—I live with the awareness of endings and beginnings, of letting go and opening to receive, of letting be and stretching to become, of vulnerability and strength, of grief and hope, and of tears and laughter.
I’ve been reading Eric Wilson’s fine book, The Mercy of Eternity: A Memoir of Depression and Grace. At a critical point in his experience of depression, he got help from a wise therapist who, in Wilson’s words, told him that “there’s no such thing as perfect happiness, or, for that matter, perfect sadness. Life is actually lived in the middle between joy and sorrow. To try for a trouble-free life is to strive for something inhuman, unreal, like all ‘up’ and no ‘down.’”
Wilson and his therapist are right, of course. For me, the challenge and invitation of faith are to give more weight to—to live more deeply from—laughter, hope, and joy. Easter means that life is the last word, not death; that light and love fully embraces and finally irradiate shadows and fear, and that divine delight is the origin and end of everyone and all things.
Eudora Welty wrote, in The Wide Net, “The excursion is the same when you go out looking for sorrow as when you go out looking for joy.” On the journey ahead, whatever a day may bring, I want to look for joy.