When a Story Stops at Death

 
Melissa Zaldivar | September 29th 2022

This following is an excerpt adapted from What Cannot Be Lost by Melissa Zaldivar, a personal story of holding on to faith in Christ in the face of loss. Learn more about the book here.

Every part of our stories is something caught between poetry and passing comments. One moment, the sun is rising and the birds are welcoming a new day as the breeze floats across the marshes. The next, you drop the almost-ready avocado you found at the grocery store and lament that it’s probably ruined. (Spoiler alert: you just paid almost two dollars for a ruined avocado.)

Jill’s death both was senseless and made sense. Everything about it was a constant juxtaposition, and it threatened to pull my heart in two.

When a story stops at death, it feels like trying to button your coat or tie your shoes with numb fingers. You’re grasping for what you know is there, but somehow you just can’t seem to get a hold of it.

There’s a reason ghosts in stories we read as children show up and leave with no real logic. They mysteriously make themselves known on their own time and in their own way, leaving the haunted to shout into the darkness.

Hello?

Don’t leave.

Come back.

The story I’m about to tell you feels like it needs a thousand caveats, but it’s probably best that I just write what happened.

When a story stops at death, it feels like trying to button your coat or tie your shoes with numb fingers. You’re grasping for what you know is there, but somehow you just can’t seem to get a hold of it.

I can’t tell you a lot of details about the weeks leading up to November 22, but I can tell you that it had been raining for a very long time. Late autumn storms in New England cut through with whipping winds and dark clouds that somehow made the marshes brighter. The green beachgrass of the summer shifts to bright orange and then a tired rust color. It’s probably the richest of the fall colors because it’ll stick all the way through the winter.

When I moved to Massachusetts, I made it a point to live near the coast so I could put on my duck boots and make my way out to the marshland, which floods and dries up hour by hour. 

My friend Ed says that the Great Marsh is always different and doesn’t change, and he is right. One local historian, Charles Wendell Townsend wrote in Sand Dunes and Salt Marshes in the early 1900s, “There are also reasons for believing that as the land sinks, the Marsh, soft and uncertain as it seems, is really more stable than the everlasting hills.”

During low tide, my favorite hiking path is dry enough to walk along. I had discovered it accidentally, just before the summer. A construction project meant another trail had to be moved, and this seemed like a good shortcut. It wanders through woods on the Crane Estate, a historic site on the coast surrounded by pristine dunes, woodland, and beachfront. 

A massive Gatsby-esque estate house sits on the top of the hill, looking over it all, reminding us of a heyday long passed.

When I think of those final days with Jill, I often think of how I couldn’t lay my eyes on her but I heard her over the phone. It is a strange thing to use your hearing to process the reality of losing a beloved friend. I don’t have to try hard at all even now to recall her voice in it’s weariness.

I cannot imagine what it’s like for those of you who are or have been constant caregivers in the room as your loved one is in pain. I wish that I could sit down with each of you and hear your story about how loss has shaped and scarred you, and give you words of comfort, but I also know that when we’re in grief, we’re in shock, and words never really seem to make up for what we’ve lost.

When we’re caught in the middle of the most severe of storms, it turns out that Jesus walking on the water toward those whom he loves still happens even today.

Though the memory is laced with an ache, my mind still cherishes that text I would get from her to talk when she was needing an outside voice to tell her the truth. Over the previous months, we’d built a new sort of liturgy of conversation. I would know she was exhausted and she would express her needs in straightforward ways. And tell me that she needed an anchor in something eternal. Not trite sayings or empty promises or prosaic hopes.

“Hey,” I would say.

“Hi.”

“You want me to just pray?”

“Yeah.”

I don’t know what I prayed for, but it never felt like the right thing to pray for. Do you pray for relief? Do you pray for endurance?

Nothing seemed very clear, and after I said “Amen,” Jill would ask me to talk to her. After a while, I got into the habit of simply recounting the story of the Bible.

“Well,” I started, “I don’t know what to say. And I don’t know what is best. So let’s go back to what we know is true. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

We talked about creation and the fall and all the ways that God had acted. All the ways his people abandoned him. All the stories we already knew.

We’d met in Bible college, for crying out loud, but when it came time to cry out loud, all that came out was the parting of the Red Sea and the fact that Jesus walked on water. When we’re caught in the middle of the most severe of storms, it turns out that Jesus walking on the water toward those whom he loves still happens even today. I didn’t know if it ever helped her, but I just kept repeating the narrative of Scripture over and over like my life depended on it—and Jill’s too.

November arrived, and soon, Jill had been gravely sick for longer than expected. Part of the normal rhythm of my days was checking in, sitting in silence, and more recently getting occasional updates from her husband. I’d stopped texting Jill a few weeks before when she got too weak to respond.

Facing death, even from across the country and over the phone, feels like a constant loss, even before the final breath.

In some ways, I never had the chance to say goodbye to her. We had been surviving each day, and the last thing I wanted to do was admit that my fears were all coming true. She was strong and weak all at once, and I knew that my job as her friend and confidante was to listen and pray and encourage her.

Death wasn’t at her doorstep; he was in the room, and she knew it.

We all did as time went on.

Jill started hospice, and the pacing continued in my living room and around the apartment. Every morning, I would reach over to my phone and check for the bad news. I would let out a sigh of relief because she was still alive. And then I would feel my muscles tighten because I knew she wasn’t going to last much longer.

Facing death, even from across the country and over the phone, feels like a constant loss, even before the final breath…

Melissa Zaldivar

Melissa Zaldivar holds a Master’s Degree in Theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. As an author and book marketer by profession, she has told the story of Jesus in contexts from Bible studies to articles with a voice that is young and honest. Walking through intense and traumatic experiences throughout her life, she has learned that God is constantly present, even during the darkest of seasons and hopes to share that hope with her readers with practical wisdom and Biblical truth. She’s the host of Cheer Her On, a podcast with over 12k downloads that is entering its third season.

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