My sister, Tracy, was diagnosed with brain cancer exactly nine months ago. Within weeks of learning that she had a rare brain tumor, called an oligodendroglioma, she underwent an awake craniotomy to remove the tumor. After this, she received six weeks of daily radiation and daily chemo. The next step of her treatment was a higher dose of chemo (one week on; three weeks off). Three cycles in to this regimen, she developed systemic hives that travelled all over her body: her legs, torso, arms, fingers, face. Everywhere. At one point (and I’m shortening the story here quite a bit), the hives got so bad so quickly that she had to go to the emergency room to get her wedding band cut off her swelling finger.
Sometimes we parody her medical journey with the rhythms of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you give a woman an oligodendroglioma, she’ll need to take Temodar. If you give her Temodar, she might develop hives as an allergic reaction. If she develops hives, she’ll need to take a whole lot of steroids. If you give her steroids, she won’t be able to sleep, so she’ll need a sleeping pill. (Etc., etc., etc.)
Tracy and I stare at each other across the miles on video calls, shaking our heads. She is never one to dwell on the pain or discomfort or mind-bendingly-horrible itchiness, so she’ll change the topic either by saying, “Fuss-a-fuss-a-fuss-a,” or “This, too, shall pass.”
This, too, shall pass. We say it to each other, knowing it’s true, but hating how long it can take to come true. This, too, shall pass. These hives shall pass. They have to!
And they do. They did. The hives passed because her oncologist took her off the chemo she had obviously developed an allergic reaction to. And now she is facing 6-8 months of a different chemo cocktail. More toxic. More invasive. More side effects. More opportunities to fuss. Or not to fuss. More occasions to say, “This, too, shall pass.”
Awful things don’t last forever. Even chronically awful things like long covid or depression or grief don’t last forever – at least not statically. The awfulness changes or gets integrated or at least comes and goes in waves.
Or eventually the final passing comes.
There’s hope hidden in the mantra – this, too, shall pass. Awful things don’t last forever. They pass, in one way, shape, or form.
But there’s also a sadness sitting inside it. Beautiful things pass, too. Life is so precious because it is so short.
Last weekend, I visited a graveyard on Mackinac Island. The oldest grave in the yard belongs to a little girl named Mary Biddle.
Legend has it that she drowned after falling through the ice off the coast of the island. She had just turned eight years old, and Christmas was a week away. In the years after her death (again, according to a shaky but oft-repeated legend), her father honoured her memory by creating a pathway of Christmas trees between the island and the mainland of the upper peninsula – to guide travelers across the safest part of the ice. Her gravestone – covered in visitors’ pathways of coins and rocks and jewelry – includes a poem by W.E. Peters:
As the sweet flower that scents the morn
But withers in the rising day
Thus lovely was this infant’s dawn
Thus swiftly fled its life away.
Life is but a breath. Grass withers. Flowers fall. When my sister declares that this, too, shall pass, I sometimes think about her whole life – not just the hives or the hair loss – but the beauty of her one wild and precious life. This life, too, shall pass.
And so shall mine. And so shall yours.
I suppose my deep knowing of the fleetingness of things is part of why I am a record-keeper. I write things down in my diary, I keep my annual planners. I number my days in these ways as if to say, “Yes, these things passed. But they did happen and look, here’s the record!”
I also find deep comfort in the memory and record-keeping of God – who stores up our tears in a bottle and records them on a scroll (Psalm 56:8). And I trust that not only our tears that come from love will last, but also our work that comes from love (1 Corinthians 3:13, John 15:16). These things, too, shall last.
Yes, things pass. But the things that matter also leave their mark. They last. They last in the mind of God and in the ripple effect of grace and love, passing from generation to generation.
The Christmas trees on the ice and the rocks and bracelets on Mary’s tombstone are a way of saying, “This, too, shall last.”
The hug that I shared with my sister at the end of our recent family reunion – this, too, shall last.
Crowns of glory, words of the Lord, our everlasting inheritance – these, too, shall last.
Bless you, my friends, as you wait for the passings… and rest in the lastings.
Header Image: Photo credit – Robb Keizer (my brother-in-law) taken of my daughter, me, and my sister, on the southern shores of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.