“You turn men back to dust, saying,
‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” Psalm 90:3
I received a note, years ago, from a couple who claimed they wanted my help. She was dying of ovarian cancer. She’d kept a journal throughout her life but had continued to write during her affliction, thinking about issues she was facing immediately, issues of life and death. She and her husband wondered whether I might help her—and them—bring something together in book form. Lots of people appreciated her e-mail reflections, they said; many urged her to collect them. “They should all be in a book,” people told them.
The cancer was terminal. Since the verdict had been handed down, the two of them—with a little help from a financial benefactor—had decided to do their own “make-a-wish” adventure and travel to places they’d always dreamed about. They’d had four kids—two of them were in college, all of them in their late teens and early twenties. Extensive travel hadn’t been an option earlier in their lives. They’d chosen to live frugally, in a fashion they would have called, themselves, “stewardly.”
But Sharon was dying, and there were things she always wanted badly to see, places she’d always wanted to go. So for a year or so they’d lived like nomads, and she’d kept that journal, pages and pages long.
Would you help us? they asked. Her reflections would make a good book, people said.
I get dozens and dozens of such requests, and it’s always painful to have to tell people that I can’t—or won’t help. I could have spent every moment of my writing life helping people with their own great stories or writing those stories myself. I could have done that and never once seen a publication or made a buck because, honestly, just about everyone has a story—everyone. No one has time to read everyone's.
But something about this couple’s story seemed especially compelling, so I told them I’d like to meet them and have a look. I did, and I took the job on. That was years ago. Eventually, the book was published.
From that first phone call to publication was a long, long time, attributable, in a way, to the fact that the project is—and has been from the very first scribbling—a labor of love. I’m no angel and I don’t want to suggest some blessedly big heart; but to be truthful, I knew I'd never make a dime on that book; and I didn't. Neither did they.
Sharon never lived to see the publication. Her cancer took her, so the book includes her final jottings, as well as the detailed plans she’d made for her own funeral. Her lifetime of earthly musing is history, has been now for years.
Just before publication, I got an email that reported Sharon’s husband, Dennis, had cancer himself too. Not long after, Dennis died too. Lung cancer. Dennis never smoked in his life.
A good friend of mine once told me her father, a preacher of the Word, loved to do funerals because he felt he never held people’s attention so fully and completely as he did when he read Psalm 90 with a coffin set right there in front of him. That's when people listened to the Bible.
“Dust to dust the mortal dies,” the old song says. Not just Sharon, but then her husband too—and, lest we forget, you and me.
The book? I have three or four copies in a box in the back room.
What is inescapable about Psalm 90 is inescapable about life: it ends, for all of us. That’s everyone’s story: "Return to dust, O sons of men."
And all of us do.