My friend died and I am sad. But I am more than sad about when and how she died. I am profoundly sad about how she lived.
For as long as I’d known her, she lived with a variety of serious medical problems. Some she survived much to her doctors’ surprise; some were chronic and intractable. In addition to her overwhelming health problems, she lived in utter chaos. In her apartment, there was barely a path to walk amid all the piles of paper, newspapers, magazines, and just plain STUFF. The only clear surface where anyone could sit was on her bed, and “clear” is a relative term.
I accompanied her to doctor’s appointments. When she was in rehab after her major surgeries, I did her laundry, helped her pay bills, took care of her cats. I attempted to tackle some the mess in her apartment, throwing away bag after bag of trash, and corralling what was left into boxes with labels like “Top of Desk,” “Sofa” and “Table Next to Kitchen.”
I say all this not to tell you what a wonderful friend I was. I say this as a confession, because while I did these things out of love, I realized after she died that I was also trying to save her. I wanted to be the one who rescued her from her loneliness, from the home that was not fit to live in. I was going to be Mighty Mouse, swooping in to right all wrongs to the strains of my triumphant theme song: “Here I Come to Save the Day!”
Then she died and now it would never change. When I went to her apartment after she died, the boxes I packed three years ago were still there, stacked against the wall, now surrounded by a fresh layer of detritus. Those words, in my own handwriting — “Top of Desk,” “Sofa,” “Table Next to Kitchen” — mocked me and my fantasies of rescue. As I grieve the loss of my friend, I am also mourning my failure to be her savior.
I know how those words sound: full of hubris and delusions of grandeur. Yet, I suspect I am not alone in this. Many of us want to feel wise enough to know what someone needs and powerful enough and capable enough to provide it. Many of us want to believe we are wise enough to understand our own needs and self-sufficient enough to see to them ourselves. We like knowing we have a Savior in Jesus; we just don’t always live like we need one. If I admit I can’t be someone else’s savior, I have to admit that I can’t be my own either.
I am reminded of the words of Henri Nouwen: “It is Jesus who heals, not I. Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I. It is Jesus who is Lord, not I.” I can — and should — be loving, merciful, and self-sacrificing to others. I can — and should — do what is within my power to care for myself. But I must be careful. I cannot cross that line from “serving” to “saving.” I cannot be seduced into thinking I have the power to bind up the brokenhearted or heal deep wounds. That is Jesus’ delight. That is Jesus’ mission, which can be accomplished through me, not by me.
My faith tells me that whatever disappointments, suffering and frustration this life had for my friend, they are gone now. She is with the God she loved and who loved her. Whatever struggles she had with her own limitations are gone. She is in the care of someone — the only one — who could truly save her. The same could be said of me, this side of Paradise.