Dave stood in the threshold, waving goodbye with his right hand and propping the screen door open with his left. I was sitting behind the steering wheel of my Jeep, leaning over and waving in return.
A wordless affection passed between us. My heart ached as I put the car in gear and started the long drive home.
His wife Doris had phoned me with the news of his pancreatic cancer. By the time they had gotten the diagnosis, Dave’s remaining time was reckoned in weeks.
I told my wife Joy, and she agreed that I should clear my calendar to go see Dave. Within a couple of days, I had driven across three states to spend some time with my friend.
We passed a day laughing, talking, and gazing silently out the windows of his sunroom at the hay fields surrounding his house. Around noon we shared a simple lunch of homemade corn chowder and bread.
Eventually he got around to telling me what dying had taught him about living.
I cannot remember precisely the words Dave used. But here’s what I took away from the conversation we shared.
Each breath we draw reveals the power of love. For the most part, we don’t realize this. We just go about our busy lives.
But for those who know how to listen, the existence of every single thing in this cosmos sings, “Love is at work here.” And there is nothing quite like facing our own death to teach us to how to listen.
It’s not just that we live and then we stop living, as if we’re all marked with a celestial sell-by date. Death actually tells us the kind of existence we have. We receive life as a gift from a source beyond ourselves.
That we came into this world and that we depart this life teaches us this crucial lesson. No person or animal or plant or inanimate thing brings itself into exist. Everything owes its existence to something else.
Okay, you might say, “Well I’m here because my parents wanted a baby.” And that’s may well be true for you. But stretch the point a bit. Ask what one philosopher asked as the most basic question. Why is there something rather than nothing? At all.
Let’s get a little more personal. Listen to your own heartbeat for minute. Feel your lungs inhaling and exhaling. And then say to yourself, as honestly as you can, that there is nothing you can do to guarantee the next heartbeat or breath.
Dave did something like this. And here’s what happened. Wonder. He felt wonder that he had lived at all. He experienced it as gift, pure and simple.
He sensed—he felt in his gut—that he owed each moment of his existence to the power of God’s love. Mind you, Dave was a humble guy. He acknowledged that the life he actually lived didn’t always reflect this insight.
Nevertheless, he had come to see that to exist is to be held, to be tenderly sustained, by God’s own love. And to do more than merely exist—to really live—means to give that love away.
Jesus told his friends something like that on the night before his crucifixion. He told them that he is the True Vine and they are the branches.
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
We are here, on this planet, because we are loved. And to take hold of the life we have been given—to bear much fruit—we have to give that love away just as it has been given us. As a gift.