Recently I walked hand-in-hand with my husband, Ryan, around our neighborhood park, soaking in the sounds around us. The following morning I would be traveling alone to the funeral of our friend, Scott. As we walked, a whirring noise stopped me in my tracks. It seemed the brown leaves on the nearly-barren trees were talking to each other—a long, final conversation with the sky. When I closed my eyes, it sounded like a brook. It’s funny how dying things can make such a gentle sound. If sound could shimmer, it would be the applause of autumn’s leaves, the song of surrender to the order of dead and dying things.
As I flew east, I listened to a recording of the final conversation we had with Scott in person. We had traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee in February to say goodbye to Scott as his wife, Carol, and their hospice team thought his death was only a month or two away. I was writing my first book and had recorded the conversation in hopes of sharing part of their story of perseverance through both three years of ALS and forty-five years of hard and humble love.
On the recording, you can only faintly hear Scott—his breathing was so labored. He said, “Suffering is difficult and painful and awful and I hate it. But the Lord is loving and kind in the face of it. He’s working all things together for our good and his glory even in the midst of the pain and the hurt.” When a man dying from ALS looks you in the eyes and uses the little breath he has to say this, it carries an iron weight. Its audible mass of truth is more solid than from any other mouth. In that moment, the scandal of God’s love is imprinted in the charcoal corners of your memory.
We met Scott and Carol over a decade ago as a newly engaged couple. I had just left a church where I felt known and loved to join my soon-to-be-husband at the church he was helping plant—and it was my first year of dealing with my own disease. We didn’t even know what my diagnosis was then, but I was already struggling to envision our life being more than doctor’s appointments.
After the chairs were stacked one Sunday, I awkwardly pushed myself into a conversation and invited my husband and myself over to a perfect-looking older couple’s house. “You said you would love to have us over sometime. Well, let’s schedule that now.”
At Scott and Carol’s house, we were met with warm lighting and the scent of roasted veggies, and somehow our story of brand-new suffering slipped right out onto their lace-covered dining table like clumsily spilt wine. But this prim and proper couple didn’t mind one bit. I remember their welcome, the warmth emanating from the other side of the table where our secret wasn’t shamed, but respected. They shared their own stories, of the years they hated life and the times they couldn’t hope, and suddenly I found myself feeling like maybe this whole marriage thing could be more than the darkness I felt. Their presence, their stories, and the room they made to tell ours helped us imagine a life where God wasn’t forsaking us. They didn’t tell us how to suffer with hope, they showed us how and named the ways we already were.
We kept coming over for dinner and they never stopped being willing to see our suffering and hear our truest selves.
On the way to Scott’s funeral from my home in Denver, I had a few free hours in Atlanta while waiting for a bus to take me north to Chattanooga. The bus stop happened to be by the High Museum of Art, which happened to be open for free that Sunday, and I happened to stumble into the center of Sally Mann’s A Thousand Crossings photography exhibit. I looked up to find the grief and gratitude that had been formless and fluid in me all day outlined in large letters over black and white photos. “All the accumulation of memory . . . when someone dies, where does it go? Proust has his answer . . . it ultimately resides in the loving and in the making and in the living of every present day.”
Images of Mann’s husband, Larry, encompassed me. Named Proud Flesh, these photographs portrayed Mann’s husband after his late-onset muscular dystrophy diagnosis. From his face to his gaunt, naked body, I was struck not simply by what I saw in the photographs but by what created them. The entire room was a sanctuary, revealing the sacred trust between Sally and Larry, the trust between Carol and Scott—as Carol tended to Scott’s diseased, decaying body these last three years—and the trust between Ryan and me.
I stood with our memories in my hands and honored the trust that was and will be. I cried and smiled as I stood next to the photographs. And there I again heard the shimmering sound. The low, gentle hum of human love rings from willingness to look each other’s indignities in the eye.
These broken bodies talk, and they use more than words. Are we listening?
Scott didn’t always hear every person and pain in his life perfectly. And I don’t either.
Sometimes I wonder how much I’d rather hear the sound of my voice testify that God is good than let my husband and friends really hear the shame of my doubts. We kiss the wind with half-felt praise instead of letting the actual people in our lives tenderly kiss our wounds and wrap words around our sorrows. We displace our pain into praise and miss hearing the sound of love right now.
Nearly a month has passed since Scott’s funeral, and I’m still transfixed by the energy pulsing through the tiny gift shop print of “Ponder Heart” (one of Mann’s photographs of Larry) that now sits at my writing desk. It reaches out to me as I write words of faith, sorrow, and joy, permeating my efforts with the reminder to see like Sally and like Carol—to watch the waning of life as a summons to a fuller love. I ponder my own beating heart and hear each flutter as an invitation to inhabit this broken body, with all its shame, all its pain, all its groaning and grouchiness and glory, in this present moment as the place God is already present.
The present—in the pain I yearn to paint with praise, with the people I struggle to show the self that’s far less than praise-worthy—is the place ringing with the sound of love. And every time I’m willing to be here now as I am instead of presenting a plastic version of myself like a shield or a shrine, a little bit dies—an applause of surrender, the sound of love.