M A Y 2 0 1 6
Lying there, looking up at the doctor and your next of kin, you grow uncomfortable with their concerned faces. You close your eyes so they will think you need to rest. You hear them back out of the room and the soft click of the door. You can still hear them speaking out in the hall, most of the words indecipherable except for the doctor’s, who you distinctly hear say, “It won’t be long now.”
It sounds like a line from a movie you saw once — it won’t be long now — but this time it’s about you. Ah, so this is my death-bed. The words form again in your mind, “my death-bed,” and again, “my death-bed,” as if repeating them will make you believe it’s true. My time has come. A quiver of fear — or is it excitement? — flashes in your stomach, but it doesn’t last. You lie there without moving. It’s quiet in your room. You’re thankful they brought you home; the hospital with its noises and interruptions is not a good place to die.
You feel wide-awake, but as you cast your mind over the history of your life, letting images from different periods arise, you fall into a half-dream state and drift. Gradually you sense a presence close to you, although no one has come into the room. It’s not a presence you can identify, but it feels somehow familiar. Kind. Is it an angel? It’s asking you something. You strain to hear it, and then the words become clear.
“Have you loved well?” it asks. That’s all, nothing more.
You hear the question echoing down the corridors of your life, doors opening on moments you’re sure bear witness to your failure to love. You know this feeling, this old feeling of unworthiness, of having failed somehow. No, I haven’t loved well, certainly not well enough, good God all the times I was self-preoccupied instead of loving, impatient instead of gentle, oh God…
You feel the weight of judgment — your own, the angel’s, God’s — fall on you like shovelfuls of earth, darkening and compressing against you. You strain to breathe. But now in the darkness you sense something else — at first it’s faint, then unmistakable — it’s the smell of earth, the smell of soil in a garden where you once knelt, the dark, loamy, sweet smell of fertile soil breathing into you. How lovely it is!
Now chinks of light appear beneath you — it’s strange, there’s light beneath you and you feel yourself falling into it, but suddenly everything turns around and what felt like down a moment ago is now up, and you’re looking up into blue sky and as you breathe it feels like you’re breathing in the whole wide sky, clear and fresh. How lovely it is!
There are a few puffy white clouds balanced in the sky, precious against the blue. Two birds glide over the landscape. You hear leaves whispering in the trees. So beautiful!
Now you are walking. There’s the familiar stride of your body along the path, confident that it knows how to adjust each step around the small stones and the tilt of the ground. You remember this, how beautiful it is to walk, to feel yourself glide along past the trunks of trees, how lovely it is!
Suddenly it all becomes clear to you: the enormous gift your life has been, all the moments given you to love — the wonder of it! — to have received this chance to breathe this air, to walk in this body on the earth. Gratitude wells up in your heart: Oh yes, I have loved this!
Now you are no longer walking, now images as real as life are passing through you, images from your earliest memories, flashes of wonder in your child eyes, your mother picking you up, oh! riding your bike through leaves fluttering down around you, the images that come are as numerous as those falling leaves, tying your shoelace for the first time and looking up smiling, holding your first friend’s hand, kissing, that feeling of soft lips kissing yours, two hearts kissing, how I have loved this! And each tender, shy love I have taken in my arms, each one, each one loved, longed for, each one! Images of love pour through you in a great current of gratitude, alleluias of white birds flying up, images of stairways, carrying groceries, cooking dinner, children playing under the table, their laughter and nonsense talk, oh how I have loved this! And laying my head on my pillow so many times, its touch on my cheek, the open window in the morning billowing the curtain, the smell of coffee brewing, music from a neighbor’s radio, sunlight on the porch. I remember! The images continue, beyond telling, and your heart feels like it’s bursting with gladness. You feel yourself coming apart as if a child was blowing on a dandelion puff. You want to say something, one last shout to everyone everywhere, one last whisper in everyone’s ear as you come apart, you want to say, Love well! Love well!
When they come back into your room they see you lying there, a little smile on your lips, very still.