The Light That Never Dies: A Story of Hope in the Shadows of Grief
On his 39th birthday William Hendricks had it all: a loving wife, three beautiful daughters, and a fulfilling career. Three weeks later his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and by his 49th birthday a decade of his life had been consumed with the process of her dying and his grieving. It was a mid-life crisis of tragic proportions.
Three years and a day after his wife's death, a first-grade girl was killed while crossing the street just blocks from Hendricks's home. The driver behind the wheel of an SUV, blinded by the sun, ran her over. And two more families, and classmates and teachers and neighbors, entered the "house of mourning." The tragedy haunted Hendricks, causing him to ask himself whether he'd learned anything from the experience of his wife's death that would be helpful during such a time. A LIGHT THAT NEVER DIES is his answer.
He navigates between his own calamity and larger, better-known tragedies, examining the connections between all mortals --- the looming and sometimes unexpected specter of death.
"So then, what's the connection between the bungled economics of the Great Leap Forward or the massive genocides of the twentieth century, and my wife's death in October of 2000? Simply this: in both cases we're talking about death. But whereas the deaths of people in rice paddies or labor camps are known to me only as sobering statistics and disturbing headlines, Nancy was Nancy. Nancy was a face, and a voice, and a person, and a presence. Nancy was my wife. Nancy was the mother of our three children. Nancy knew my name. Nancy knew the best of me. Nancy knew the worst of me. Nancy knew my heart," he writes.
Hendricks has written a number of excellent books, most of them quite didactic in nature. He certainly is a gifted teacher, and that dynamic comes through in this memoir. It can feel somewhat stiff and outlined, especially in transition from chapter to chapter. But, having said that, there are also sections of this book where the outline fades away and what's left is deeply moving, including the scene that played out in his home when he and Nancy told their daughters that Nancy's cancer had metastasized.
Hendricks has a strong grounding in theology and he, helpfully, puts suffering in a biblical context. He doesn't spiritualize pain away. Instead he digs into passages from Ecclesiastes and explores the Hebrew word "hebel," the experience of having one's hopes and expectations dashed to pieces.
"I'm all for stopping to smell the roses. But Ecclesiastes reminds us that it's a gift to be able to smell at all. And sometimes there aren't any roses --- at least, none that you can see. Ironically, that's exactly the point at which many people who, like me describe themselves as Christians, have a particularly hard time sticking with reality," he writes.
Above all, this is a book about reality --- about death and pain and suffering. But it's also about the way suffering brings both the best and the worst of life into sharp relief. It's about how God wades into the pain to provide comfort. And it's about how death isn't the final word on life.
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on February 1, 2005