Helen smiled broadly when I entered her hospital
room, and set aside the mail and People magazine
s she had been fiddling with. "I haven't seen you in a long time," she said, and I realize she is sincerely happy to see me.
Helen is a member of my church, or more precisely a member of my former church. I left them because I could no longer sit through sermons that didnt teach me a damned thing. We had hired a new pastor, a good man, with a good family, sincere, pious, and as far as I can tell, completely without a clue about the real message of Christ. Helen spent her life in this church, raised her children, buried her husband. Her daughter Chris is a good friend of mine, and when I attended Trinity the three of us would often have lunch after the service, talking about many things.
I pulled a chair next to her bedside, and sat. We chatted for a time, and I spoke of my recent vacation, the beauty of Williamsburg, and rebuilding the acquantance of an old friend.
She seems cheerful as ever, but that has to be a lie. Her aging skin is paper thin, and purple with cascading bruises, presumably from IV's. We both know why I am here. Though I am no longer a member, my friends from Trinity wanted me to know that she was ill, and this may be my last chance to see her.
Finally our discussion came to a head. Helen asked me if I know why she's in the hospital. I lied and told her that I didn't know the truth but heard her condition was bad.
She sighs and explains that she has leukemia. And then she turns her head to face me and her face is set with determination, yet soft. "I'm not going to go on living on transfusions. I'm telling them that, tomorrow."
I turned my head to the ground unsure of what to say. But Helen has no doubts. "David, I'll be 85 next month." And she smiles at me, as if death is nothing at all.
"That's older than my house," I reply, trying to make a feeble joke. I'm afraid to face the awful truth. Helen laughed anyway, making it easier for me. And yet she is not old, at least old in the way we often imagine the elderly, inactive, waiting for death. Helen always did, and enjoyed her life.
She tells me where the hospice is that she will go tomorrow. She has accepted her mortality and is prepared to embrace the end. It is me, not her, who has a hard time accepting her death.
After I left, I thought back to her words, when she told me that she would be 85 next month. Helen was telling me not that she wanted to go. She was telling me that her life was a good one, that she had no complaints. If this was her time to step into the shadow, then so be it. When I came to her door, she was not pining over things undone, but rather taking care of her affairs as she has always done. Continuing to live.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, it is written:
For what befalls the sons of man, also happens to beasts, even one thing that happens to them. them: as one dies, so dies the other. They all have one breath, so that a man has no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go to one place, all are of dust, and turn to dust again.
Who knows if the spirit of a man goes upward, and the spirit of a beast downward?
I percieve that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his life, for that is his portion, and who shall bring him to see what shall come after him.
Ecclesiastes was saying that we all die, and should not count on heaven, reincarnation or whatever may come after, for these things are not knowable in this life. Since we cannot be sure what will come next, we should live this life without regrets, so that when our time comes, we shall die, knowing that we truly lived. I think that Helen believes in an afterlife, that soon she will rejoin her husband for eternity. But either way, she is ready, because she knows she has lived.
Ecclesiastes 3 19-22