Today is the 10th anniversary of the loss of David, one of the most significant people in my life. Over the last few years, I have shared some stories about him on this blog, like here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (He’s a great person to spend time with, so you won’t regret re-reading any of those! And if it’s helpful to any of you, there are lots of reflections here from me about grief, loss, and an experience of continued love).
Over the last couple of weeks, there have been some days, and one in particular, where I felt great sadness as this larger date approached. Though this made complete sense (after all, I was reflecting very purposefully) the strength of the feeling took me by surprise a bit as well. But today, the 10th anniversary of the day he died, I’m not feeling particularly sad. I’m feeling grateful. I’m feeling connection. I find myself reflecting upon the impact of our relationship in the ten years that have followed this loss.
As I approached this anniversary, the date that hit me hardest this year was December 29. It’s a date I always mark in addition to this one. It’s the date of our last conversation together, one that was so lovely, and one that has sustained me for ten years now. These last words are on my mind and heart again as I begin this day, this time, not with sadness, but with gratitude. So I want to share them with you:
David had been in treatment for a rare, aggressive form of prostate cancer for nearly two years when he went into the hospital with pneumonia on December 29, 2008. Though we lived in Texas at that time, Ian and I happened to be in Southern Indiana on that date, where we both grew up and where David lived also. Sadly, this was also the date of Ian’s grandmother’s funeral. After finishing the funeral, we received a phone call that David had been admitted into the hospital. We were told that he needed treatment for pneumonia, but that after two weeks or so, he’d recover fully thanks to some heavy-duty medicine.
So Ian and I went over to the hospital. This was our last day in town; the next day, we would get in our trusty car and drive 22 hours all the way back to Texas. Unexpectedly, this was also the last day that David would be fully lucid. I’m so grateful we were able to be there.
When we arrived, he was still in the ER without a longer-term room, so we were told we could only have a few minutes with him and just two people at a time. Two people stepped out so that Ian and I could have that bit of time.
When we walked into the ER where he was lying in bed, David greeted us and then first made a funny, crude joke that I won’t even repeat here. His sense of humor was certainly intact! While I’m sure he wasn’t happy that he needed to be in the hospital, I think he was relatively hopeful and fully himself.
Then he began to take care of us. He asked about the funeral and took interest in how Ian’s family was doing. He also wanted to make sure we’d be okay for that long drive the next day. This was the bulk of our conversation in that makeshift hospital room.
But since we knew we couldn’t stay long, we also began to say goodbye. While I stood in that room, I assumed we’d make our drive back to Texas and that I’d talk to him the next day on the phone. But in that moment, we shared our last words together. This was such a sweet moment, and for years, I’ve felt grateful for it.
As we were ending our time together, I said, “Do you know how much I love you?”
“How much do you love me?” he asked in reply.
“I love you so much that I am going spend the rest of my life loving you by loving everyone I encounter.” I said this playfully but also sincerely, genuinely more sweet than sappy. And at that, he just kind of gathered me to himself and kissed me on the forehead.
We stepped out of the room and said goodbye to the others who were there, and once I walked out of the hospital, something in my gut told me very clearly that I had just talked to David for the last time.
I was right. While in the hospital with a weakened immune system, David developed an infection from sepsis. He was not often lucid, but he pushed on for many days until he died on January 11, ten years ago today.
As I experience this anniversary today, and I as I consider those playful but sincerely loving words we shared, I can’t help but think about all the love that has come into my life over the last decade. Or to put it another way, and with language I remember David using once in a sermon (he was a Presbyterian minister), I think about all the Loves who have come into my life over the last decade. “God’s extravagances,” he called such Loves.
People come to mind. People with names. The kinds of people with whom I am now in life-long relationships. Whole communities come to mind too, people and places to whom I belong. These are God’s extravagances to me.
They’re also connected to him.
I’ve done a lot of reflection over these ten years, and I always come to this: The best way I’ve known to honor David Nelson Roth is to incarnate pieces of our relationship into all my relationships. And this happens all the time. This is also how I experience him as present. He shows up all the time.
I tell stories about him and quote him to others here and there. So sometimes, this connection is obvious. But most of the time, his way of living shows up in the ways that the many people behind these relationships — God’s extravagances — keep choosing one another. If I could have one more conversation with him, I know I would speak to him about these many relationships by name, along with what it has been like to choose one another.
I miss David, and I wish he were still here. I waited a long time to have someone like him in my life, and I lost him when I was still pretty young, hoping for many more years with him. But he was such a catalyst in my life and in ways that make his influence so actively present. The course of my life was altered and deeply enriched because he chose me. He chose to make me family.
In response, I chose a pathway — one that is so human, rich, imperfect, messy, and loving — to experience community and build our own family entirely by choice. Because of him, I have chosen and been chosen many times over.
He chose me for a lifetime of choosing. I haven’t loved perfectly — far from it, in fact — but in a very real way, I have truly loved him in my love of others. And I hope that somehow, he knows it.
3 thoughts on “The Last Words”
Renee, I thank God for the witness of David in your life. I sense the resilience and love of David that shines through so beautifully in your life. Just reading about David in your essay is a gift. It is a witness to me that it is possible to become centered as a child of God. That cynics will not have the last word because of the witness of David and yourself among others, and all those who have loved and given compassion to me.
This is such a kind comment! Thank you!