On Friday, two men died.
One was Matthew Warren, the 27 year-old son of Pastor Rick Warren. Matthew died by suicide after years of struggling with severe depression. The other was David Kuo, 44, a gifted writer who worked in the White House during the Bush administration. He was a husband and father of four. David died after battling brain cancer for 10 years.
I had the privilege of knowing David for the last three years and in that time he became perhaps the most encouraging voice in my life. And while I didn’t know Matthew Warren, I can imagine the questions his family is asking right now. The questions so many of us have to sit with at different points in our lives.
I’ve lost two of my closest friends in the last four months. My longtime friend David McKenna was killed in a car accident in December. His unexpected death shook me and my community. This week, a different community faces the death of a different David. Two Davids with so much to offer the world, two men loved by many, their stories closed too soon. What do we do with the death of the young? What do we say to the enormous questions that come as loved ones go? We talk about “the end of their suffering” but what about the suffering of the ones left behind?
I spend a good amount of my life telling people their best days are yet to come. And I believe that. I really do. I believe there’s hope in the darkest places. I believe there are so many reasons to live.
But what happens when the best days are no longer coming? When death inserts its final word on a life? Messages of hope feel trite for the grieving. Visions of a better future seem to border on betrayal. I know how to offer hope to the living. I stand silenced in the presence of the grieving. When it comes to death, I seem to have only questions.
Perhaps there is room for the questions, and perhaps it’s fitting in a way, because my friendship with David began with him confessing some of his own.
In a room full of strangers—most of them early in their stories, many of them successful—David stood and spoke of living with cancer. With his wife Kim by his side, he spoke of the weight and the cost of their long struggle. He talked about their marriage and their children. He talked about his faith.
The strangers offered no easy answers and instead were invited to pray for David and Kim. I was moved and so I literally moved to be close to him. I don’t remember the words of the prayers but I remember crying and I remember wanting to be his friend.
That was November 2010 and we have been friends ever since. He was wise and hilarious and kind. He was sensitive and emotional and intentional and deep. He asked great questions. He asked the best questions. He was never in a hurry.
In our friendship, he was not the sick one and me the healthy. We both had our aching places. Mine could be called depression. My 2011 began with deep sadness—a broken heart after the sudden end of a relationship. I called David crying and he offered nothing small, nothing cheap or leading. He took a deep breath and said “Oh, Buddy. I’m so sorry. What a tragedy.”
David started another round of radiation that week. And yet on that Friday, after his fifth day of treatment, he boarded a plane to come comfort me in Florida.
We sat on the beach, we watched movies, we ate good food, we fed manatees—David adored manatees and I happen to live in manatee mecca. We listened to U2 and Michael Jackson and we talked for hours. In those hours I felt invited to be honest; I never had to fake it around David. We always found a way to laugh—with David, the laughter came easily.
There were other trips—two to Las Vegas. I watched him eat sushi at his favorite place and he spent most of that meal with his eyes closed. Words were replaced by groans of appreciation. He had a gift like that. He was excellent at wonder.
I never had a solution to his cancer. I could never promise healing. When healing would seem to settle in for a season, I could never promise it would stay. It was all a great mystery to me. I didn’t have answers but I learned the privilege of meeting my friend in his questions. And he seemed to do the same with me. With presence and laughter and sometimes words, we reminded the other that he did not walk alone. With David, I was invited to know him and to love him. And what a gift to have those things returned—to be known and loved by this extraordinary man.
We break in different ways in this life, all of us eventually. Perhaps we were made for heaven. I can begin to accept that. But I can’t explain the suffering here. I don’t have answers to the questions that come with these men leaving when it seemed there was so much life still to live, so many people loving them and needing them.
Though I find comfort in the thought of my friend no longer suffering—and Matthew finding peace as well—they leave much pain behind them. David’s playful youngest son will start Kindergarten in the fall. His bright daughter is only 8 years old. His amazing best friend Kim is now a widow. Matthew’s parents have to plan a funeral for their son who left too soon. His siblings lost their baby brother. Based on Rick Warren’s email to staff, it seems they did everything right. Counseling, treatment, medication. It seems Matthew’s pain was met with compassion and understanding. His mental illness was not ignored or prayed away. It seems they loved him well. Their son made a choice in the end. And again, based on his father’s words in response, the son’s choice was met with compassion and understanding, as his parents praised Matthew for staying alive as long as he did. “But he kept going for another decade,” Rick wrote.
I don’t know a lot but I’ve come to believe the following:
The world is broken. Our bodies break eventually. Our minds and hearts can break as well. We lose things in this life. We lose relationships. We lose people. And so a lot of folks live with a lot of pain. Much is mystery but God asks us to love, not just when it’s easy and not just when a certain Scripture fits. What does it look like to love someone when you’ve never been where they are? When there are no words? Or what about allowing someone to love you when you feel completely alone, like no one can relate?
Beyond that, maybe it’s better not to fake it, not to offer something cheap. For the rest of us still here, with air in our lungs and tears in our eyes, perhaps we are meant to simply meet each other in the questions. Though the price will be the heartache of loss—for we can’t control when or how an ending comes—what a privilege that God allows us to connect with other people in this life, to be known and to be loved so we do not walk alone. Perhaps friendship—the deep kind, the best kind—perhaps it is a miracle. Perhaps it is a taste of heaven.
My friend David lived that way. He lived a deep, intentional life. He listened and asked the best questions. He saw things and he said things and it made me feel like a million bucks, like maybe life could be rich, like maybe I was something good. He said “I love you, Buddy” and “Buddy, I’m so sorry.” David walked with dignity and grace in the face of enormous uncertainty. His cancer couldn’t make him bitter, couldn’t make him selfish. He asked great questions and he met me inside mine.
David Kuo gave me permission to be honest, permission to be me. He battled cancer and I battled depression and we could not fix each other. But what a gift to find a friend. What a gift for each of us—to get outside our heads and to see beyond our pain, to remind each other there was more to our stories. We were not simply broken things. He wasn’t only Cancer and I wasn’t only Sad. And of course we had the bigger story too, the one that unites us, the one that finds richness and wonder in this life and in the hope of heaven.
Last summer, in a Las Vegas hotel room (OK, it was a suite), in the presence of about 10 of his closest friends, David said this: “We will bury each other. If we get this right, it means we live life together and we love each other and we walk together. And in the end, one by one, we go home.”
I spent my Easter at a hospice house in Charlotte, with David and his family. As I drove to the airport that afternoon, there was a stretch where, on my right, the trees along the road held not a single leaf. On my left, a perfect row of dogwoods stood covered in white, their full blooms declaring spring. It was a picture that echoed the day, an Easter spent between two seasons—between life and death, heaven and earth—but something in me has to believe the dogwoods win in the end.