As a pastor, you spend a lot of time passing around the chewing gum in the parking lot with the Grim Reaper, having that “meeting after the meeting” that all church folk are familiar with. I have actually had dreams where I am dancing with him, waltzing beautifully in a large, silent ballroom and feeling romanced and loved by this hooded, faceless Presence. Sometimes I see Death as the Spider Woman, sexy like Chita Rivera in that webbed gown she wore in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and I can tell when she’s hanging around a hospital room or bed. She wears heady perfume and smokes thin little cigars, and you can faintly detect their odor under all the other human smells.
And sometimes Death is a stern presence, tall, gaunt and impatient, dressed in a Puritan clergyman’s vestments and tapping his toe, pursing his lips and wanting to quote some more from the Bible — injecting the Word of God into your heretical 21st century nonsense. I always stare him down until he backs against the wall and promises to remain quiet. “This isn’t your gig, Reverend.” He nods and sighs his acquiescence, but his perfect posture never flags.
Now and then Death is a grandmother Jesus, rocking and knitting, looking up and glancing at the suffering one and humming a soft little song to help her baby along. She is calm while everyone else is frantic. She smiles with ultimate understanding but never rises from her chair. This isn’t her work, it is ours, and she is content to be a supportive witness while we attend to it. Even when the last exhalation has occurred and the dying one is finally still, she still doesn’t get up, just tilts her head and checks to see everything is alright, and goes back to her knitting and her humming. She will be the last one out of the room, and she will draw the curtains when everyone is gone.
The Death I have never met is the one who will be there for the person who, after a decade of heroic, exhausting and constant medical intervention to keep herself alive, has decided that she can no longer endure the pain and is stopping treatment. When she told me of her decision over the phone this afternoon, I felt this Death in the room behind me, a strong, young, taciturn farmer with some kind of big rake in his hand, wearing overalls and sturdy boots and a hat to shield his face from the still-strong October sun. He clomped through the house leaving bits of dirt on the floor, and the screen door slammed behind him as he went back outside to the fields. It is harvest time, after all, and there’s work to do.
I wanted to run after him, to shout that he should clean up after himself, that he had left dirt on my floor. More than that, I wanted to pick a fight with him, really, to land a good punch to his jaw. I wanted to pummel him right on the bib of his overalls, to stomp on his boots with my own. I wanted to tear off the sleeve of his worn cotton shirt and make a hankie for myself and for her — something we could hold in our hand and cling to — and leave him bruised and sorry for what he’s taking.
I know what he would say. “Don’t take it personal, ma’am. This isn’t anything you need to fight me about.” And then he would give me a kindly look and again leave the house, this time closing the screen door more carefully behind him.