One of the themes I will occasionally explore here in The First Circle is death and dying in the human frame. Not exactly the light fare of pub trivia discussions I know, but it is an important issue, one that needs more discussion in my opinion, even here in Hell. I sometimes use rhetorical parable-like stories about a Master and his Apprentice to illustrate what is not so easy to communicate directly. What follows is one of those illustrations:
Master have you seen death?
Eh, what was that?
Have you seen death?
Hmm. Well that depends. If you are talking about the boney gentleman running around in the holocaust cloak, wielding a scythe, harvesting souls…can’t say I’ve seen him.
Um, that’s good I guess, but that wasn’t what…
I’ve felt him many times though, lurking around and about. In fact I’m pretty sure he likes to hang out at the old baths. I know if we don’t get the foundation fixed, those baths will be the death of me.
I thought you didn’t believe in the…
I believe anthropomorphization is the word you are looking for.
Yes, that, I thought you didn’t believe in taking ideas and giving them human qualities.
When you’re as old as I am, death does become a friend of sorts. Not a close friend, and not a personal one you invite for, say… tea or that last nightcap before bed, I dare say at least not yet. But I’ve learned through the years he isn’t always a curse, a thing to be feared, this dark mysterious fellow named Death. But nonetheless, and this is important, neither is he welcome before his, or should I say, your time. Death has a complex nature, like man, and perhaps this is why in my old age I can sense him about the edges of things, giving them definition even if I can’t see him. But I believe you were really asking me if I’ve experienced a person leaving this world, yes?
Yes, I was working in the hospice helping out the Sisters when…
When Brother Jakob passed. I was informed while you were out this morning.
Master, he didn’t go peacefully. It wasn’t like what I’ve been told. It was horrible. I can’t stop thinking about it. There was no peace!
Death can be horrible my boy. But even with its horror, it is release. A final release. Brother Jakob was in terrible pain and agony, and it had been getting worse for months. You might say it wasn’t death but the last minutes of life that were the most terrible for him.
But Master, his eyes, he wasn’t ready to die, he was looking for away to escape, he… he grabbed my arm as I was trying to give him some water, and he wouldn’t let go, I swear it was as if he was trying to change places with me. I’ve never seen such anger and despair all at once. The Sisters…
Yes, I’ve already had a word with the Sisters, they should have relieved you early, and sent for me. You needn’t have been present for Brother Jakob’s passing. That was my duty and burden to bear.
What do you mean?
I often sit with the … well soon to be departed as it were. Like I said I can’t see death but I can feel him and you might say I act as a bridge of transference. Not everyone goes gently into the night my boy, but no one wants to leave this place alone, and for some reason I don’t even understand completely, I’m able to help those in the final moments of life before finality comes. You might say I initiate the conversation between Death and the soon to be departed.
But aren’t they already dying?
Sometimes the body knows what the mind can’t accept… helping the mind reconcile something it can’t understand, is a tricky piece of magic I confess, but I feel we owe it to our own, and anyone really in our care, if we can manage to bridge that gap between finality and what waits beyond…
I thought you didn’t believe in an afterlife?
I believe we can’t know. There is a difference. And hope in this matter is useless. Too often what waits beyond is an excuse in this life to do or not to do what you should… I prefer to focus on one reality at a time. What will be, will be…no use worrying about it. And no use listening to others making promises either. Do what is right, uphold what is just. For its own sake, my boy, you need no other reason why. Always remember, Duty, Dedication, and…
Determination Master, I know. I know.
The lips can repeat by rote what the mind does not always understand and a spell can penetrate the soul but not find purchase in the heart. Merely saying is not doing, and merely doing is not thinking. Virtue never takes shortcuts.
But it can be exhausting.
That is can my boy, that it can.
It doesn’t scare you?
But Brother Jakob’s eyes Master!
Were caused by his body’s intense pain and suffering, and probably no small amount of regret, not death my boy. Brother Jakob’s to do list for Sister Rebeka was rather long. I had hoped to have a final discussion with him about it before he passed. I think it might have helped him.
You think so?
Yes, in fact why don’t you go ask Sister Rebeka if there is anything you can do in memory of our departed Brother.
You think that will help Brother Jakob to rest?
Not sure about that, but I know some hard work will help you sleep tonight. Now get to it.