A Chronicle of Hopeful Dying
Wangerin begins this shepherd motif with a childhood experience: Thirteen-year-old Wally huddles in a wintry attic bedroom in Edmonton, Alberta. Pained with a stomachache, he tries to be an adult, tries not to cry. Finally, sobbing, he takes comfort as his mother sings: I am Jesus' little lamb, / Ever glad at heart I am. / For my Shepherd gently guides me, / Knows my need and well provides me.
This is "the image which even now most consoles" him as at age 64 he "is given to contemplate another sort of wintry darkness."
Jaded Christians often criticize Christian writing that avoids doubt as sappy and in flight from reality. Whose faith doesn't wobble? But Wangerin's Letters avoids both unreality and doubt. Though his life is full of pain and awkwardness, there is never any question about whom Walter Wangerin belongs to. Jesus the Shepherd cares for Wally the Lamb as much in Wangerin's 60s as in his teens.
Wangerin keeps his story real by his tangible accounts of pain, reduced capacity, and irritability. He is short of breath. He loses his temper. He worries for his wife, Thanne, and the uncertainty of her future. Medical tests force him to miss the New York debut of a musical based on his award-winning The Book of the Dun Cow. He describes the pain graphically:
No rubbing eases the ache …. It is a team of plow horses galloping up my spine, dancing on my ribcage …. A thundering down the femur and hard against my kneecap. Or across my back, as if I were the horse, saddled with a crop-whip pain. This particular assault causes a whizzing at the roots of my hair. It crawls down into the lower back—burrowing wormlike into my sacrum …. In my skull. Behind my eyes. In my chest. And always, always, morning to night, in the dead center of my chest.
Groaning helps. I recommend it. Seriously.
He describes the bodily changes with humor as well: "One of the advantages of an old man's losing all his hair (so thinks this old man) is that it clears his nostrils and his ear-holes of four mighty bushes. One of the disadvantages of the same fellow's hair's returning is …. Well, you get the picture."
Dylan Thomas famously wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Thomas's challenge to rage is mirrored in our everyday language. We talk about battling cancer. About fighting the disease. For Wangerin there is no reason to rage or fight. The disease is not the enemy, he writes; "it is a rooster's crow, calling me to the truth of myself and to the precise condition of my relationships—God, society, nature."
God loves, cares for, and protects his own. There may be other enemies, but the dying is something else. "By declining this change with great passion, or receiving it with a huge natural fear, we accuse the divine providence of tyranny, and exclaim against our natural constitution, and are discontent that we are human." And thus, he says, we become the enemy, because we fight against God.