Living on the Edge of Life
The Silent Sacrifices of the Selfless
Read Time: 3:30 minutes
Trigger warning: Grief and Loss
As I sat and watched the images scroll by, this phrase came to mind. The stream of pictures was compiled by siblings to honor a mother who had lived a full life and a sister whose life had ended too soon. Both had recently passed just months apart, leaving the family shell-shocked with grief and those of us who had known their sister still grasping to understand how one is diagnosed with cancer on a Wednesday and dead the following Sunday.
I visited with her in the hospital, and she too was trying to understand her diagnosis. The first two days, she proclaimed in her weakened voice that she would fight.
But her symptoms told another story. I had sat with the dying enough to know that her body was shutting down so rapidly that there would not even be time for a treatment plan to be discussed.
And sadly, I was right.
When I told her goodbye that last night she was alive, she was barely conscious. And because I knew I may never get the chance again, I thanked her for believing in me. I thanked her for her steadfastness and kind heart. She blinked her eyes open and whispered, “You’re welcome.”
Within a few hours, she’d be gone from this earthly plain.
Now we sat watching the images of her and her mother. The family had found a creative way to blend the memorial services, honoring both lives collectively and individually. That must’ve been incredibly difficult for them. Not only were they dealing with the loss of two loved ones, but they were also navigating the planning, coordinating, and scheduling of a family event that was always handled by the sibling whom they were now responsible for burying.
Oh, the irony was not lost on any of us. To know her was to know how much she had loved her family, and how strongly she was committed to caring for her mother. She was the designated caregiver, monitoring the bills, the caretakers, the doctor’s appointments, the cleaning, the……..
You name it. She took care of it. For years she had taken care of it. The time involved increased with each passing month as her mother walked closer to her final days, prompting many of us to muse that she will have so much time when death comes for her mother. Of course, we were not wishing for her mother’s passing, but we could also see that the burden of caregiving was weighing on her.
She deserved relief.
But that wasn’t to be her story. In just a few short weeks, she lay in the hospital fighting a futile fight for her life that would end in four short days.
I couldn’t help but be struck by this irony—this sick, twisted irony that reflects the cruel edges of life that no one can explain. No one should try to explain it—at least not around me, especially if they offer the triteness of hollow religious rationalizations that speak of any of this being “God's will.”
I’d shut that nonsense down immediately and have, on occasion, done just that. And for her memory, I’d push back with equal parts rage at the ignorance and passion for the love I feel for her. She would be proud of me for doing so, because she too found no comfort in “God’s will.” And although I no longer believe in the heaven of my religious heritage, I sense she’s smiling as I write these words, because we just got each other in that way.
She didn’t get any free time after her mother’s death. Instead, we were gathered here watching her story unfold in images lovingly collected and sorted for this moment. I giggled at the thought of her doing all of this differently had she been in charge, and yet also sensing that she was proud that they, her siblings, pulled off a lovely memorial service.
As the images streamed across the screen, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a pattern. In every single group picture, she sat or stood on the edge of the photo, oftentimes leaning in to be sure she was in the frame.
Over and over again, this theme was seen—birthdays, picnics, holidays, weddings. You name it. There she’d be in the frame, leaning in from the outer edge, smiling.
I lost myself in the images witnessing this again and again, never once having to scan the images to search for her face. I knew where to find her.
On the outer edge of the picture.
She was the photographer in the family, so that made sense. It was up to her to get the lighting, and everyone arranged in the shot. Year after year. Event after event. Without fail. It was as if there wasn’t one family event where she didn’t seize the opportunity to capture it with a group photo. As the pictures continued to scroll, I could envision her, setting up her tripod and ensuring the people assembled could all be seen. Then I imagined that she’d set the timer on the camera and hurry back into the frame, leaning in just a little just in case her calculations were off.
They never were—she was always fully there in each picture.
No one else was bothered to worry. They didn’t lean or tiptoe or hunker down to ensure they weren’t missed. There was an easiness in the images captured that seemed to say “With her in charge, this picture will be as good as the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that…”
Of course, they didn’t worry. Neither did I. She took care of details for me in my ministry, paying the bills, filing the taxes, and answering questions for accountants. That’s what she did. Quietly, efficiently, steadfastly, living on the edges of a lot of noise around marketing and scheduling, but it was she who made sure that the foundational things were running smoothly. I haven’t replaced her in that role. I can’t bring myself to think about it.
Each of us mourns in quirky ways, and we who lived on the outer edges of her personal life yet felt her loss with a profound sense of sadness still feel her absence. Her email is still active. We all see it, yet no one says a word. It’s a placeholder for someone we lost and loved, and whose presence left an unfillable void.
If we feel that so profoundly, I can’t imagine what it must feel like for those who remain in those photographs who are tasked with navigating life without her. An entire family structure was jostled. That jostling was palpable sitting there in that memorial service. One sibling acknowledged it by commenting that things will change, because who will take the family pictures now? “She took care of all that stuff,” he said.
Then he cried.
And I and many others cried along with him because we got it. She was the one on the edge that held the boundaries of a family, a business and a ministry together. We were all realizing something very real and palpable—that how a person touches our lives is not in the grandiose moments but in the small ones where the details are tended to, the notes taken, the doctor appointments scheduled, the gatherings coordinated, the bills paid, and the pictures taken.
She exemplified a life well lived through the silent sacrifices of the selfless.
And God, I will miss her.
As we departed the memorial service, the owner of the business for which she had worked for over 30 years stood on the sidewalk facing the street. As he turned to greet us, it was evident that he had been crying. I asked him if he was alright, and he said, “No. I don’t think I’ll ever be. There was no one like her.”
We know, Dear One.
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