Clinging to life: A story of death

Sharon Savage. What a woman.

Twenty-five years ago, the diagnosis came.

“Cancer,” the doctor said.

“How long?” Sharon asked.

“Six, maybe eight months.”

Her reaction was…unusual. Aside from the shock, the anger, the grief, she felt something else–resolve.

This. Would. Not. Take. Her.

She wasn’t ready to die. And she would defy the laws of biology to prove it.

That was in 1990.

I met her in 2004.  Fifteen rounds of chemotherapy later! Can you imagine? I know of people who quit after one and said they’d rather die than go through another round of Chemo.

Not Sharon.

When we met, I was a fairly new missionary who was assigned to serve in the little town where she lived (Houghton Lake, MI).


Of all the people I met, I’ll never forget Sharon. She wore a scarf over her bald scalp. I’m not sure how much of this was because of the chemo, but she had some strange reaction to any cologne or perfume and she would convulse when anybody new came to church.

And she loved to “play” the piano. In that small congregation, nobody knew how to play and for years, they sang a cappella. (And, it sounded like dying cats, if I’m being honest). The church finally found enough money to purchase a “player piano.” All the person had to do was hit any key and the correct note would be played to any number of a host of programmable songs. So Sharon would sit at the keyboard, watch the conductor, and tickle those keys like Ray Charles. She’d close her eyes and sway her body like she was actually playing.

I remember her stacking chairs after an activity and pausing every few minutes to gather what little strength she had left, before stacking some more. Over and over.

I remember her entering the church, helping an older woman out of the car who couldn’t drive herself.

And I remember her food. Every week, without fail, she’d cook a double meal and bring the leftovers to me and my fellow missionary companion. It was always some sort of soup that she’d stored in empty cool whip or sour cream containers.

You know I loved Sharon, right? But I didn’t have to love her food. Out of pity, I’d store it in the refrigerator until things started to smell. Then I’d binge toss her leftovers while wearing haz-mat suits. (Okay, I’m exaggerating). Yet, without fail, I’d see her at church, plaster a smile on my face and tell her how delicious the meal was.

(It’s sometimes okay to lie, right?)

Shortly after I left, her cancer took a turn for the worse. She flew to Texas to be with her daughter. Again, she had a meeting with another doctor.

“I’m sorry, but you’re not going to make it this time,” he said.

“That’s what they said fifteen years ago.”

“I know,” he said. “But this time…This time it’s different.”

She shook her head. There was defiance in her eyes, a calm resoluteness in her stoic expression.

But it wasn’t meant to be. The cancer immobilized her and with her strength, it took the fight right out of her.

“It’s time,” Sharon said to her daughter.

“Time for what?”

“I was born in Houghton Lake. I will die in Houghton Lake. Please. Take me back home.”

And so she returned to her place of birth. Ruth and Chuck, lifelong friends, agreed to have hospice care in their home as they cared for the woman.

By this time, I’d returned home from my missionary service, found me a beautiful wife, and decided to travel the place that had so shaped me as a person. We boarded a plane to Michigan and arrived in Houghton Lake.

Having heard about Sharon’s condition, I knew I should visit her. That’s what a good Christian would do, right? But, to be honest, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to face death. I didn’t want to deal with the uncomfortable. I didn’t want to sit there by her death bed, saying nothing because I didn’t know what to say–what to do? Was it taboo to talk about her death? Was it expected? Should I hold her hand? Pray with her? Try to heal her?

At sharon's door - A story of love

With a tremble in my step, I entered her room. Moonlight spilled in through the windows onto the queen-sized bed. And there was Sharon. She occupied a small sliver of the bed. She was pale and gaunt and looked seconds from death.

“Hi Sharon,” I said.

Her eyes flickered open and her mouth cracked into a smile. But, within a half-second, she fell asleep.

What would I say? I had no idea. My only experience with death had been Hollywood and my grandad’s funeral. So I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I talked about what the scriptures taught–you’ll see your loved ones again. You’ll live again. You’ll be with Jesus.

She slept through my words. Which was fine, I guess. I suppose I had these lofty ambitions that whatever I said would stir her soul and she’d rise from her bed and tap-dance or something.

Instead, she slept. Had I done something wrong? Was there more to say?

Me near Sharon's deathbed, a story of love

I said a silent prayer. And I dropped the act–stopped wondering what I was supposed to do.

Instead, I loved her.

I grabbed her knee, which was nothing more than bone and skin. “I love you,” I said.

Her eyes opened and her lips parted. “I…love…you…too.”

“I don’t know why you’ve fought for so long,” I said. “You’re a saint. You have lived a wonderful life. And now God is calling you home.”

She closed her eyes and relaxed into a smile. It was as if I’d lifted a burden for her. What burden she carried, I didn’t know.

Only a few hours later, she passed into life eternal.

Sharon passed away | A story of love

When Ruth told me of Sharon’s passing, she said, “I don’t know why, but Sharon always said she wasn’t ready to die.”

I don’t know why either. The woman was a saint. An unkind word never escaped her lips and she spent what little strength she had in the service of others. What could she possibly fear from death?

Maybe it wasn’t fear of death, but fear that she hadn’t finished life–that her impact on the world was too small to let her pass into eternity. Maybe she thought of how the only way she could play piano was to have the instrument do it for her. Or perhaps she felt that when she left, nobody would care.

I cared. The impact of her life remains with me, and will remain with me for eternity. She taught me what it means to value life and to minister even when you barely have the strength to stand.

So, Sharon, I hope you’re listening. I’m not sure how the internet of the afterlife works, but I hope you’re tuned in to this web address. Your life still has an impact on me. And now, I hope, it has an impact on those who have read.

God bless you.

Let’s not wait, my friends. I really hope that those around me don’t find out how much I treasure them until they’re on their death beds. I hope there’s never any uncertainty about what they mean to me.

I love my family. A story of love

Photograph Curtesy of BRC Photography.

I’d hate to hear of one of my friends or family members clinging to a grueling life, waiting for me to tell them that I love them.

What ways do you let your loved ones know they mean something?

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4 thoughts on “Clinging to life: A story of death

    • Thanks, William. I wish ya’ll could see my personal facebook page. A lot of my friends that knew and loved her have offered their favorite memories 🙂

  1. Thank you for sharing Dustin, a beautiful story. And answers the question of what to say when visiting very ill people – a very difficult thing to do and yet a simple ‘I love you’ can be the answer. Very powerful x

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