My Mama died of brain cancer.
One lovely August afternoon, she sat down at her computer and discovered she could no longer read. The words were all jumbled together. She sat there for a moment, blinking. She’d never had very good vision, so maybe this was a bit of blurry-eyes. But when after a moment or two the words on the screen remained all jumbled up, my mother the nurse knew that something was seriously wrong.
It was odd. She had been out shopping earlier that day. She didn’t have a headache. Nothing, really. It had been a lovely day in Seattle.
Now here she was, a lifelong reader, unable to unscramble the words before her.
She got up from her chair, walked into the other room and told Brother John, “Something is wrong. We need to go to the hospital now.”
My brother, good man that he is, didn’t even hesitate for a second. He knew Mama well enough to know that if she wanted to go to the hospital something was awfully wrong. When we were kids, Mama gave us aspirin for everything. We had to be hemorrhaging before she’d even consider taking us to a doctor. So if she was wanting to go, there had to be a good reason.
There was as we would all find out later that night.
Mama had six tumors. All cancerous. A subsequent biopsy revealed that the cancer was actually lung cancer gone to the brain.
Mama spent the next several days in one hospital after another. The family gathered around her hospital bed, trying desperately to find some way to give comfort to a woman who had given comfort to hundreds over the years. We rubbed her back. We combed her hair. We brought in tomatoes and made her white bread and tomato sandwiches, the southern woman’s diet staple. We laid hands on her and prayed for her. We wept in quiet corners of the hallway, and sometimes openly right there in front of God and all our siblings.
My memories of that time with Mama, time with our families is very tender to me. If you have ever watched anyone die of brain cancer, you understand what I’m trying to convey here. You get it. If you have never had to watch someone’s life be robbed from them one indignity after another, then, please, go somewhere and bow your head and thank whatever angel of mercy has been at your side all these years.
I have watched three people I love dearly die of brain cancer. Each one has shredded my heart. Left me empty as a hallowed out June Bug.
So when the news reported that Joe Biden had gone to Arizona to be with his good friend John McCain, I knew all the things the news wasn’t reporting. The tender words spoken. The laughter shared. The memories recalled. The ache of knowing there would never be enough time now for either of them to do all the things they hoped to do. The hugs exchanged. The prayers offered. The tears shed. Tears of appreciation and gratefulness. Tears of a job well-done. Tears of the tearing asunder from one world to the next.
I have watched Senator McCain’s daughter, Megan, openly grieve her father’s grave diagnosis. He approached it the same way he approached everything in life – with an attitude that says, “I’ve lived through worse. Let’s fight this.”
What McCain didn’t realize, what none of us ever expected, was the degree to which decency has been scrubbed from the fabric of our union. McCain, long regarded a war hero, has been repeatedly and very publicly derided by a man who cannot for the life of himself be kind, even in the face of death.
Trump has taken our country to a new level of low when it comes to a regard for others. I have seen lifers in prison treat each other with more kindness than our president has shown John McCain.
I wish I were surprised but I am not.
I knew when he sat on that stage and said that John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam that the level of hatefulness in Trump was something I had never encountered before – on the national stage or in my own personal life.
People like to say that words can’t hurt you.
Those people are liars.
Words that come out of Trump’s mouth wound me on an almost daily basis.
I am in a continual state of grieving.
If you are not, it is because you fail to understand what is at stake here.
I was in my closet, literally in my closet hanging up clothes, when I heard the news that White House aide Kelly Sadler had responded to John McCain’s very public opposition to Trump’s choice of CIA Director who had been involved in the torture of POWs, something understandably upsetting to McCain who had spent 5 years in a POW camp in Vietnam. Sadler had remarked that McCain’s opposition didn’t really matter because “he’s dying anyway.”
He’s dying anyway.
This comes on the heels of Senator Orrin Hatch saying he thought it was “ridiculous” that McCain didn’t want Trump at his upcoming funeral.
The news reported that Kelly Sadler’s remark was a joke. “She joked that he’s dying.” That’s how the news reported it.
But that’s not accurate wording.
Death is no joking matter.
It’s a tearing asunder. A renting. Death drove Jesus to such a state that he sweated tears of blood. That may be the very image of Christ that I most identify with. I have never sweated blood but I have known the anguish of death.
Kelly Sadler has said she was sorry.
Orrin Hatch said he shouldn’t have said what he said.
That won’t erase the pain these two inflicted upon the McCain family, but it is the right thing to do.
Trump has never apologized for the ugly things he has said about McCain. He says he never apologizes for anything. Regret is one of the things that makes us human and binds us together. This ability to grieve the wrongs we have done is a mercy we don’t often acknowledge. Regret can make us a better people, a better nation.
A man who never apologizes for anything has never experienced the gratitude that comes along with grace. A man who never apologizes for anything has never known the humility that comes with redemption. A man who has never apologized for anything has never known what it means to take a knee before the Almighty. A man who has never apologized for anything lives with demons untold because he has never ever experienced restoration. He only knows destruction.
So I stood in my closet and I wept.
I wept for all the ugliness in our nation.
I wept for John McCain.
I wept for Megan McCain.
I wept for Cindy McCain, who responded to Kelly Sadler by pointing out that theirs is a family grieving every day.
And I wept for my mother, and the memory of her dying.
Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A Novel. (Mercer University Press).