We were making our way down the stairs and toward the back door after Sunday church. I could see sunlight streaming through the panes of glass over the door, promising an afternoon of exploring and wandering. The slow pace of our descent was torture for a seven year old. I wanted us to move quickly. Didn’t everyone know we were just a few feet away from opening that door and running into a warm summer day?
All I could think about were the daisies I’d seen in the field on the way in. I was determined to pick some before getting into Grandma’s car. Hopefully the flower petals would reveal a few aphids to help occupy my mind while I ignored the inevitable scriptural admonitions on the drive home. Those thoughts sustained me through the service as I sat with an open bible on my lap, every now and then turning my head to pull in a whiff of summer through the open windows. Grandma saw me fidgeting and gave me a white peppermint Lifesaver. I tried to make it last but ended up crunching it, enjoying the hot-cold rush.
Now, finally over, instead of racing down the stairs and out the door I was hemmed in by a swarm of dainty old ladies. Why had everyone stopped? Didn’t they know the rest of the day was waiting? Then I heard the whispers. Cancer. They were looking at a man named Pepé. The ladies had caught up with him halfway down the stairs and wouldn’t let him leave until each one had said something helpful to him. I heard: “Keep your faith.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “You need vitamins. Have you been taking vitamins?” “Which nature foods store do you go to? You do buy your food at the nature foods store, don’t you? You should, you know.”
I was just a little kid but I could see Pepé wasn’t listening. I saw him look up the stairs, and down the stairs, and then at all the women who were surrounding him with their advice. He looked down at me, the only child in a sea of little old ladies in pillbox hats, handbags crooked on elbows. He looked like he wanted a way out, like me. Except he looked tired. I wasn’t tired; my legs wanted to run.
My attention captured, I began watching the scene play out. I eventually concluded the women weren’t comforting him so much as they were comforting themselves. I believe Pepé knew it, too. He smiled at me and held my gaze for several moments while the ladies were nattering away. Although he gave me a smile, I felt his sadness and his questions. He looked tired. He looked like he wanted to leave. He looked just a bit defeated. Had he shrugged his shoulders I wouldn’t have been surprised, but he didn’t. He stood there, halfway up, halfway down the stairs, until each one had had her say.
A couple of months later I heard he died — except that’s not how they said it. They said he had finished his earthly course. I didn’t understand the words individually at the time. As a child, it always sounded like a single word: finishedhisearthlycourse. It could have been a normal phrase like ‘he ran’ or ‘he ate’ but it always signaled the end of conversation as soon as someone said it.
Years later I found myself in a similar situation while attending the funeral of a colleague’s son who had died in a car crash. In the lineup, making my way toward the bereaved parents, I realized I had no idea what to say. What in the world do you say to someone who just lost a child? To my horror, what came out of my mouth was every bit as inane and useless as the women who had mobbed Pepé with their ‘helpful’ comments twenty years earlier. Apparently I was savvy enough as a kid to realize the futility of those words but not smart enough as an adult to stop myself from saying them. With that thought came the realization I’d been shielding myself from death with trite phrases about loved ones falling asleep in death and I couldn’t reconcile that at the funeral of a university student whose life was cut short by something way more sudden and violent than falling sleep. And so began years of pondering.
What I’m about to say is not meant to sound morbid: I think about death a lot. It has taken me years to formulate my own ideas about afterlife and collective consciousness and to finally get some degree of comfort with the whole life/death cycle. I don’t want to be placated by the vision of a loved one smiling down at me from heaven or consoled by the hope of physical resurrection. Accepting mortality makes each day important. Today counts. Big time.