The last time I saw Keith was at a church service around Thanksgiving. As bearded twenty-somethings milled around us, he asked me, “How is your eye?”
“Not good,” I said. Nearby, his wife bounced their newborn in her arms while his daughter sprinted up pews, chased by children in vests and tiny loafers. I asked, “How is your cancer?”
“Not good,” he said.
These were days before Covid-19. In 2017 when Keith and I met, church meant bodies together: all the sweat and droplets mingled in communion, eight squeezed into a pew meant for five, spinning in all directions to “pass the peace” mid-service with handshakes and smiles and tears and belly laughs.
When Keith and I first met at a prayer meeting that February, we hugged, though we were strangers. Keith and his pregnant wife had sat in folded chairs to ask for healing, just like me. He was thirty-four, an east-coaster like I was with one toddler at home, and he had stage four soft-tissue cancer. I was twenty-nine, an intern at the church with a husband and two toddlers, and my retina had begun to deteriorate that January, around the time of Keith’s diagnosis. We kept up after that, trading war stories about doctors and treatments in the foyer during the coffee hour.
Having grown up religious, church has always been part of my life, and it’s always meant a painful embodiment, an awareness always of my unsightly parts alongside the bloodied body of Christ stretched across the cross. I simply do not understand religion apart from the bodies nearby me, swaying to a shared melody or a stranger’s hand across the pew back.
As it turned out, praying for Keith’s recovery was a whole-body exercise, and the church did what it could: babysitting their toddler, delivering tubs of soups and casseroles, and praying, always praying. That October, congregants gathered in a circle of folding chairs in a Sunday school classroom and reached hands toward Keith, touching his shoulders and speaking aloud to a silent deity, begging someone or something, anyone, to reverse the disease that was wasting Keith’s body—for the sake of his wife, for his newborn, for his unbelieving family, for all of us there who needed to see miracles to believe.
All of us said we believed that the room could shake. We said that the goosebumps on our arms could mean a power greater than us, here and now, had arrived to rearrange the space between Keith’s organs, that God could mend the errant cells in an instant. But what good is faith without proof—physical, bodily, stick-your-fingers-in-my-scars proof? How do you celebrate a miracle when you cannot recognize it when it arrives? As far as any of us knew, when we walked out of the church building that night, Keith still had cancer.
A month later, no miracle had yet arrived, for me or for Keith. My eyesight’s demise had stalled, at least, rendering me legally blind in one eye, but whole-sighted in the other, while Keith’s plight had worsened. Emails piled up, each more urgent than the next, passed from Keith’s wife to the church secretary to the congregation.
Keith had undergone two cycles of a clinical trial. The fact of his enrollment in a clinical trial at all meant the traditional treatments had failed; his doctors were throwing up a “hail Mary” of their own, and no one seemed to be paying attention. The latest scan showed tumors. Keith’s doctors reminded him that their goal had always been to control an incurable disease.
Still, Keith wrote to the church in an email, he wanted to teach his newborn son how to summit a mountain someday. New pills were prescribed, past treatments repeated. The congregation, learning the news remotely, kept on with failing prayers.
Blood appeared in Keith’s urine; medication arrived late; Keith gained a cough and pains in his leg and side, the pain graduating to a middle-of-the-night emergency room visit. The in-laws caught the next flight. Doctors ran tests and delayed the chemotherapy.
In response to this news, the church held a twenty-four-hour prayer vigil, with hour-long slots per congregant, some doubling up to kneel together, clasping hands, so that God could not, not for one second, forget about Keith and his cancer, all of us whispering through an entire night and day. On Superbowl Sunday, our pastor knelt on stage, a microphone pressed to his lips, with bad news: in a choked voice, he prayed, “We’ve been knocking at this door for a year, and we’ll keep knocking.”
But Keith could not breathe. Blood and fluid were choking him. Doctors were draining his lungs, which kept refilling, waterlogged. With his wife cradling his shoulders, his family and friends taking up every inch of space in his hospital room, doctors finally broached the topic of a ventilator.
These were the days when death was attended—before coronavirus made such a vigil impossible. Keith spent his last days watching his baby flap his arms at the tubes pushed into his body. His toddler told him knock-knock jokes, lying against his side, his wife’s hand enclosing his, their closest friends and family members circling the bed.
At the very end, someone strummed a guitar and the group sang to Keith, though they weren’t sure he could even hear the tune. Keith’s breath rattled. His morphine drip kept his eyes shut. His legs and face were bloated and still. I was not present for the scene, but even so, I can see the hands, so many fingers stretched toward the dying man, or holding onto Keith’s wife as she rocked and wept.
And then Keith joined in, just a gasp here and there, but they all heard it. Was that the miracle, the last exhales spent in worship before his breath stopped?
I learned the news of Keith’s passing through a screen, an email forwarded to acquaintances. He has been gone for three years, and now I wonder if he didn’t receive a miracle after all. Is presence anything but miraculous? All the bodies holding his, witnessing his body’s expiration with grief, yes, but also anticipation and wonder. No one would wish such a death on a young father. And yet, the chance to say goodbye means something, to grieve the body going and gone, and to hope for what may be, again.
Cover image by Mariah Solomon.