Monday, September 1, 2003

SING ME TO HEAVEN by Margaret Kim Peterson

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

In an e-mail message to some friends, I called Sing Me to Heaven an "AIDS memoir." It was useful shorthand, but it was misleading.

Sing Me to Heaven is instead (as the book's cover says) the "story of a marriage." But it is the story of a compressed marriage in which the presence of HIV and then AIDS is a constant reminder that this marriage will be short, one into which much emotional intimacy and mutual discovery and reciprocal caring must packed.

In so many of our marriages, we act like we have decades to get to know each other and to take the risks of self-disclosure. If a particular personal revelation is too challenging or an annoying habit is too difficult to talk about today, we discuss something else—or see what's on TV. Our marriages lack intention, and procrastinate our relationships to death.

Margaret and Hyung Goo Kim could not afford to dawdle. They had four years, not forty.

The title of the first chapter, "The Most Beautiful of Absolute Disasters," sets the tone for the book's fundamental puzzle: How is it possible to experience goodness in the midst of evil? Margaret Kim Peterson testifies repeatedly that it is indeed possible. "Alongside the awfulness … our marriage bloomed, like a little flower in the midst of a desert," she writes. AIDS, she says, was not good. But "the particular good that Hyung Goo and I experienced together in the midst of AIDS" could not have been obtained "in any other way."

As Hyung Goo was dying, she writes, "We had had a table prepared before us; even death standing there looking at us couldn't take away all that we had received and enjoyed together…. The goods of marriage were present more intensely in that hospital room than they had ever been before."

The author never "solves" the problem of experiencing good in the midst of evil, but she writes with such gratitude for the experience that it should drive us to focus on "counting our blessings."

Someone else, just as blessed and just as cursed, might tell a parallel story with gloom. But even though her story repeatedly moved me to tears, it was not with melancholy, but with wonder at the sheer depth of human experience.

Margaret Kim Peterson is a theologian, and while she was tending to Hyung Goo's many needs, she was also pursuing a doctorate at Duke. "I wanted to study theology," she wrote, "because theology is about everything, and I liked thinking about everything."

And so this theologian shares gospel truths she has mined from her life with Hyung Goo. In him, she writes, "I saw the weak made strong and the poor made rich. … Here were all the reversals so central to the gospel: life in the midst of death, healing in the midst of illness, thankfulness in the midst of loss, strength made perfect in weakness. This was what redemption looked like … ." And later she observes, "Redemption is not compensation but transformation."

This is a book rich in specific detail (when Hyung Goo died, Margaret calculated that she had 12,000 capsules and tablets of prescription medicine in their house). You will learn much about AIDS, about the difficulty of talking with friends and family about the infection, and about the impact of being caught in the rhetorical crossfire between cultural conservatives (with whom this couple shared their theology and ethics) and the gay community (with whom they shared the experience of a disease). But above all, you will be drawn to reflect on and learn more about marriage.

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