It takes about four hours to do the yard up right, and I don’t remember a time in my adult life—except once when I had the flu and twice when I had strep—that the job would have tired me out, yet I only lasted 45 minutes today before I had to slow down. After ninety minutes, I felt the need to take an extended break. This is how I am spending my break.
My fatigue made me remember my neighbor, John. Five years ago, he drove 120 miles over the Cascades, climbed a 10,358 foot peak, and drove home, all on the same day. Few people could do as much at any age, but John did it at 55. Instead of being pleased, he was upset that it drained all his energy. He went to the doctor the next week, and died of prostate cancer the next year. While I was working in the yard, I seriously entertained the thought that I really might be facing death.
It was this melancholy realization that made me think of Eugene Sledge, a World War II soldier who wrote about the battles on Pelieu and Guadalcanal. Sledge said that new soldiers typically think they’re too smart to get killed. When they observe that more experienced soldiers than themselves get killed all the time, they conclude that they could die, but that they probably won’t because they’re special to God, and God will protect them. Then they see their friends die—sometimes horribly—and they are forced to ask themselves what makes them more special than those people. When they can’t think of anything, they conclude that, not only might they die, they are almost certainly going to die.
Then I remembered Dana Reeve, the wife of Christopher Reeve, who died of lung cancer less than a year after his death. I saw her on a DVD about health care recently. She was well dressed and appropriately made-up, but her eyes were tired, and her pauses for air came too often and lasted too long. I admired the hell out of that woman because she radiated such incredible courage by trying to help other people live longer when she was so near death herself. I had the thought that a good death would go a long way toward making up for a life that, if not failed, is nothing to brag about either.
When I listen to Pachebel’s Canon in D, I often reflect that, if Johann Pachebel didn’t do another thing but to write that one piece of music, a piece that comes nearer to embodying the divine than anything else I’ve ever seen or heard, it would have justified his entire 53 years. What, then, have I done to justify my years?
The one thing that I just cannot see my way to bear is my knowledge that I will be leaving Peggy alone. If only I could have her hypnotized so that she would come home from the funeral wondering how she ever put up with me to begin with and glad that I was dead, I would prefer that a million times better than to think that she will experience a grief that is beyond anything I can imagine. I picture her here, in this house, crying alone in the wee hours. I picture her coming home at night without me to greet her and without her supper on the table. I picture her taking her bike out for a ride while my bike remains behind. I picture her sitting in this chair, at this computer, getting things all fouled up, and not knowing how to straighten them out, and not having me to call.
If I could imagine now everything she will feel then, she might feel less alone for knowing that I traveled the same road ahead of her, but I know I cannot. Writers from Job to Eugene Sledge were right; God’s favors are not bestowed according to merit. What then, is the good of God?