Table of Contents
Introduction Go to Page
The Last Act Go to Page
The Last Day Go to Page
The Last One Go to Page
The Author Go to Page
Web Links Go to Page
"The Last Rites"
Nearing death, a person is anointed with holy oil and given a blessing. The hoped for results are a return to life, or a joyous crossing into the next.
Being of a certain age – old – I find the stories not only reflect where I am in life, but seem to capture much of what my life has been about. I find myself wondering whether they are my soul's last communiqués to myself and the world.
Are they the final anointing of my life? I honestly don't think so. However, who can know the time or place...? But in my present state of mind, I'd accept the call, feeling I have fulfilled what I came to do. Even though I sense there is more.
I'm presenting the stories in reverse order, from the last story written to the earliest, because this is how we view life – in retrospect.
The Last Act came to me unexpectedly as I walked along the sea wall on English Bay in Vancouver, just after I had finished The Last Day. Originally written as a sequel, it takes place between this world and the next, within that liminal reality after the moment of death and just before the next state of being, whatever that may be. I think Tibetan Buddhists refer to it as the bardo.
As for The Last Day, I had given myself a writing exercise, to write about the last day of a man's life. As it developed, I began to realize that it was becoming more a personal memoir, a profound account of my own inner struggle to become more loving, or in terms of the story, to become a loving presence.
Finally, The Last One is a story I wrote many years ago, the rescue of an old man from a cave. It is also the story of how humankind finds a way to overcome the death of the oceans, and so much more. If we are very lucky this might be how the world as we know it ends – happily.
He was sauntering along the boardwalk on a bright spring day. Empty cargo ships bobbed like corks out on the bay, their bows facing south as a warm breeze from the tropics swept away the early morning chill. The grass was green, the trees leafless. It was good to be back among the living.
The man had no memory of his past. No sense of how old he was, though looking at the back of his hand told him he was no longer young. But God, he felt good! Just being alive was more than enough. He watched a windsurfer skim across the water, and marvelled at such elegant play. Continued his walk up the promenade, luxuriating in the joy of being back in the world. He felt it was a blessing to be free of all memory of the past. Like a newborn of some new species, old yet young, he had a sense of being within a bubble of some eternal presence.
Gradually he become aware of a mundane human urge – the desire for a cup of coffee. Hot, yes, really hot, with lots of cream and two spoonfuls of sugar. He headed up into the city.
Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out his wallet. In it he found an expired driver’s license, a bank card, and a faded picture of a young woman. He studied her, trying to fit her into his history. He couldn't recognize her, yet was abruptly aware of tears running down his face.
He found an ATM machine, inserted the bank card. It asked for his pin number. He checked his driver’s license and typed in the year of his birth. It worked. He checked his balance and was amazed to discover how much money was in his account. He took out several hundred dollars and walked across the street to a coffee shop.
Sitting in the back booth, he cradled his cup and slowly savoured the sweet nectar of the coffee bean, realizing how good the moment was. Maybe he should be trying to remember who he was, where he'd been, who the woman in the photo was. There was a name on the driver’s license, but he didn't recognize it. It could be anybody's.
He looked at the young waitress coming back with an order of toast and a coffee refill. Her eyes were sad, tinged with hurt and abandonment. Despite her attempt at cheerfulness, he knew life had wounded her deeply. He watched her push back her vermillion-striped hair, revealing black roots. She came up to him, set down the toast and filled his mug. Then, hand on hip, she stood there and glanced at him.
It was all he needed. He looked into her, saw her eyes soften and the hurt begin to heal. He almost took her hand, then realized it would be unwise. Instead he smiled warmly, and she knew then it would be a good day. She had yet to realize how good it would be. Straightening her back, she swung around in a pirouette and strode to the counter.
He sat there, cherishing the moment for what seemed like an eternity, though the clock on the wall told him it was only 9:00 a.m. He had the whole day before him. It should be enough time, he thought, and hoped it would be.
He became aware that the waitress was staring at him, and he wasn't sure why. Could he have sat there too long? Yet the look in her eyes was not one of reprimand. He couldn't quite trust what he was seeing, nor could he explain it. There was a lingering gratitude that disarmed him. He got to his feet, and her smile as he left enveloped him.
It was a beautiful morning, a good day to be alive. He headed up Edward Street, deciding to let the day take him where it would. Looking in shop windows, he found himself fascinated by the array of strange foodstuffs, the colourful curries and other unfamiliar spices. Then he caught a glimpse of himself in a store window, and was struck by his appearance. He thought of himself as old, but the figure reflected in the glass seemed to be glowing with some odd radiance he couldn't explain.
As he walked on he was surprised by how many people were squatting in doorways of vacant storefronts, or simply sprawling near the curb. One of them looked up at him – a young man with a scraggly beard, his body thin to the point of being sickly. There was something in his eyes, a desperate hollow stare, and also a defiant, angry begging.
The man stopped, searched his pockets, then handed over some bills, trying to make eye contact. But the youth's attention was fixed on the money. Unintentionally, their hands touched, and he looked up with such suspicion and fear in his eyes that all possibilities were instantly frozen.
"Don't touch me!" He spat the words, and the man felt an ache in his heart that was close to unbearable. Yet he knew it was not for him to force a connection. He let the youth be, hoping that one day the wall might be breached. Leaving the money where it fell to the ground, he walked on.
He wondered if his appearance had something to do with the youth's response, and decided to take a closer look at himself. Once more that strange luminescence surprised him.
He checked out what he was wearing, and found his clothes shabby, his shoes scuffed and cracked. He saw he could use a haircut. Realizing he'd been again staring into a shop window, studying his reflection, he waved at the curious salesman inside and hurried on.
Well, he could certainly do something about his scruffy appearance. He went into an upscale haberdashery. Casual khaki pants, pale blue shirt, dark blue windbreaker, brown leather sneakers. Next came a haircut and shave. Feeling like a new man, he leaped onto a bus and headed uptown. It was good to be alive.
He calmly scanned his fellow passengers, happy to be among people once again. He watched as they went about their lives, absorbed in their hopes and schemes, busy plotting, planning, dreaming. He felt his heart warm in their presence. It was good to be here.
One man sitting across the aisle had a rawness about him. Not young, but old enough to see the bleakness of the future he'd brought down upon himself. Across the bus, their gazes met, and the passenger was unable to hide the hurt in his eyes, or the longing to be understood. Engulfed in the anguish of living, he seemed to be silently reaching out for something that might be beyond what he had any right to hope for, let alone ask for.
Their gazes connected, held. If anyone there had the vision to see, they would have noticed a wave of light sweep across the aisle. The passenger suddenly became aware that suicide was not an option – that there might be a way ahead he hadn't thought of.
A woman sitting near the front of the bus glanced back and smiled knowingly.
For some reason, the man decided this was his stop. He got off the bus feeling particularly good with what had transpired, although he wasn't clear what actually had.
Spying a corner diner, he remembered again the pleasure of food. Going in, he plunked himself down on a counter stool and found himself ordering a sloppy joe. The cook laughed. "Haven’t had anyone ask for that in years. Will you settle for shepherd’s pie?"
Not as good as a sloppy joe, but it hit the spot. The man took out his wallet, paid the bill and left a tip. For no particular reason, he pulled out the faded photo of the woman. He still couldn't remember if he knew her, but felt he would like to. He wondered if he would ever meet her again.
The day continued full of promise as he turned down a side street to a postcard-size park, with a small pond with bulrushes at one end and an ancient statue commemorating some battle of a long-forgotten war. He settled himself on a bench across the path from the pond, watched as a clutch of sparrows, hoping for a few crumbs, alighted in front of him. A pair of mallards waddled along the water's edge.
Suddenly he became aware of a little girl running towards him. Uninvited, the toddler climbed onto his knees and looked up into his face, happy with herself for what she had done.
He beamed back at her, and his heart opened wide in joy. He had forgotten the pure delight of life, which played about this young child. It was for him a moment of recognition, of love seeing itself incarnate. He brushed her hair out of her eyes, then lifted her high in the air, and she laughed in delight.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw her mother hurrying toward them. She was more than a little upset by her daughter's rash encounter with a stranger. He put the child down.
A moment later, without a word, the mother sat beside him and placed her daughter back on his knee. They started chatting about the usual mundane things – the weather, the tulips blooming – both of them happy to simply be together, sharing this blue-sky day.
Gradually the three of them – woman, child, man – fell quiet, wrapped in a silence that seemed filled with peace and love. He held them in his warmth until he sensed they could endure no more of such intimacy, and he withdrew, letting them return to earth.
He looked down at the little girl, thrilled when she reached up and ran her hand over his face. Then she jumped off his knee and headed over to pat a sleepy-looking Lab being walked by its mistress.
The mother looked back at him, shrugged and smiled. It was a moment she would tell her grandchildren about.
He got up and walked out to Main Street. It seemed to be midday, the sidewalks filling with people heading off to lunch. Most were attractive, well dressed, but with a desperate, unhappy look in their eyes. He found himself spontaneously nodding and smiling at certain ones. They acknowledged him with a smile or a glint of recognition. Although he couldn't explain this pleasant but unexpected response, it pleased him. He continued walking against the flow of humanity, peering into people’s faces, searching for recognition from kindred spirits.
Next thing he knew, he was walking down another quiet side street, feeling the warm glow of life about him. He realized he needed to find a place to settle in and take stock of where he was and what he needed to be about. His past or lack of it, and ultimately who he was, should be of major concern, but he found again he wasn't really interested in either. He was more curious, or rather fascinated, with people’s response to him. Why was he here at all?
He wandered through a hillside enclave of upscale homes until he came to a large old house almost at the top. He stood on the porch and looked back down on the bay. Some of the freighters were heading out to sea, but there were still many sitting empty, bobbing on the water. He could hear the cry of gulls as they flew inland, and imagined he could hear waves lapping against the shore. The tide must be turning, he decided, for he could feel something shifting in his veins.
Time to go back to the crowded main street. It was the living that interested him. He studied the faces, so many tight with hurt and anguish. He longed to take away their sadness, but was not free to do so. He saw one character approaching with the weight of failure evident upon his brow. There was permission here, but the individual passed by too quickly for any encounter to happen.
Looking up, the man spotted a bird silhouetted in the endless blue of the sky. An eagle or a vulture? Not sure; too high to tell.
Then he came across a secondhand store with a window full of costume jewellery and pocket watches. Distracted from his thoughts, he went in to look at a gold watch, and realized he no longer had any interest in time. What he really needed was some gold. He found a small gold coin that the proprietor assured him came from some lost civilization. It was just what he needed. Putting it in his pocket, he left the store, and began to think about where he would spend the night.
Several blocks away he saw what looked like an old-fashioned railroad hotel, built in an age when the elegant way to travel was by train, and hotels catering to the rich sprang up along the railway lines. Most had long ago been torn down, but a few were still standing. As he came closer, he saw that it had an almost Gothic front to it. As large and ornate as a medieval cathedral, it dominated the area. This was where he would spend the night.
A doorman held the door for him and wished him a good day. He checked in at the front desk. "I’d like a room where I can see the bay."
The clerk handed over a key. "I think you will find this to your liking."
In his room, the man checked out the ships in the harbour, watching as another vessel sailed out to sea. There were only three ships left, floating at anchor, waiting for their cargo.
He showered, had a short nap and took the elevator down to the lobby. Off to the left he noticed a short corridor that seemed like a trade entrance. He turned right and entered an elegant lounge.
The man ignored the suggestion of the maître d' and found a table in a quiet corner by a window. He ordered a gin martini, no ice, lemon twist.
Waiting for it to come, he watched passersby on the street, all rushing off to someplace or another. Then he noticed an old bag lady sitting in the parkette next to the hotel. She was staring off into the distance, but for some reason, he felt she was expecting someone.
The martini came. He sipped it reverently. Sat back and tried again to make some sense of his day.
The big question for him was what he was doing there. He still didn't have a clue about his past. Not totally true – he had the contents of his wallet. But as for memory, it was a total blank: no names, people, events. It was as if he'd come into the world that morning as a fully functional adult, with a detailed knowledge of how to get on in the city, a grasp of and ease with its culture, and a somewhat sophisticated taste in clothes and drink, plus a certain level of deportment in polite company. He felt absolutely comfortable and confident wherever he went. And yet it all seemed unreal.
The best he could say was that he was in this world but not of it.
And then there were the events of his day – strangers smiling at him, others nodding in recognition. None of it made any sense. He had certain intimations about what was happening, but they hovered just below consciousness.
He refused a second martini, straightened himself in the soft, cushioned lounge chair, and watched as the noisy after-work crowd streamed in. They were stressed, frantic for a drink, anything to unwind from their complicated lives. An aura of unease and discontent exuded from them.
The lights were dimmed. Candles were set out on the tables. The man slowly scanned the lounge, looking for what was possible. A pair of sad gray eyes met his. It was all that was needed. The woman leaned back, relaxed her shoulders and smiled across the table at a friend.
The man's gaze moved on. Other eyes met his. Some were cold and steely, some wary but open. He took his time, assessing, offering. His embrace took in all who were willing.
The candles gave off a soft golden light; the chatter lost its hysterical edge. Laughter was more prevalent. People congratulated themselves on having made the right decision to have a drink before heading home. There was a perceptible change in the room.
He opened his heart in a wider arc. Eyes brightened; positions softened. For all but the embittered few it became an evening out of time. New possibilities came to mind. Work partners looked across the table and saw a vulnerability they'd never expected in their colleagues, were touched by how much they cared for them.
He witnessed the transformation in the room and felt a deep joy within him. He was beginning to have some sense of why he was here. The waiter came over and set a martini in front of him, then pointed to a table across the room. He raised his glass in acknowledgment. He was enjoying the attention, but at the same time felt uncomfortable. This wasn't what he was here for. He got up and headed back to his room.
It was a relief to close the door behind him. Walking over to the window, he stood for a long time staring out across the bay. A rising moon silvered the water. The dark shadows of the freighters started to glitter with lights. He sensed that they had swung into a west wind. Wondered which ones would have raised anchor and left by morning.
He kicked off his shoes and fell back across the bed, let himself be seduced by the luxurious embrace of a queen-size mattress. Maybe he'd had a little too much to drink. Not sure, but an old rocking chair came to mind, and he heard himself counting.
He woke up shortly after midnight, pushed back the cover. He lay on the bed, his hands folded across his chest like a stone effigy of a medieval prince carved atop his tomb.
Next thing he knew he was thinking about the bag lady he'd seen from the lounge, and wondering where she was spending the night. After ten minutes of debating that totally destroyed his self-indulgent contentment, he got up and went outside.
It wasn't hard to find her. She was in the small garden parkette just outside the lounge window, where he had first seen her. He studied her, sitting there on the bench, staring straight ahead, her bags beside her. He couldn't tell whether she was asleep or awake; all he was aware of was the smell, the stench of days without bathing. Like a leper's bell, it warned people not to get close.
A quaint story from his childhood came into his head. Saint Francis meets a leper on the road. The leper, malodorous and covered with open sores, is to be avoided at all costs. Leprosy is contagious. It kills. But Saint Francis goes up and embraces him. Next the saint kisses the leper on the forehead, and at that moment the leper is transformed into an angel.
The man had often wondered what happened next. Did the saint and the angel have a chat?
He went to sit beside the bag lady, but didn't have the courage. Besides, he told himself, it would just frighten her. "Are you okay?" The question wasn't quite right, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
She glanced up at him, then returned her stare to some distant inner place. "You're late. What took you so long?" She spoke the words into the space in front of her.
An odd thing to say, but it was enough of an opening. Although the smell made him sick to his stomach, he took her hand. She withdrew it slowly. He watched as she got to her feet. It was a painful process, for rheumatism had had its way with her. Then, straightening her smock, she turned and faced him.
He looked into her eyes and saw sadness and a weariness beyond comprehension. Before him stood the soul of humanity broken, hurting. What could he do? It was not given to him to change her fate, to remove from her the pain and anguish. Nor had she asked it of him. But he needed to do something
He took both her hands, opened himself to her. Wondered in the face of such misery if his power would hold sway. Instead her grief swept over him. And he realized the truth – that in the presence of suffering humanity, he was powerless. The heart could not win against such torment. It would always be so.
And yet there was a more simple truth. There was one thing he could do.
"Leave your bags here. Come, follow me." He led her to the side entrance he had seen earlier. No one was around at that time of night. Soon they were up in his room, and he was running a hot bath for her.
"Take your time. I’ll be sitting over by the windows."
She went into the bathroom and locked the door.
He looked into the closet and found a white terry robe. He sat on the bed and waited until she was done. Then he knocked. "I've got some clean clothing for you."
The door opened a crack and a hand came out, took the garment. There was another wait, the sound of a hair dryer running, and finally she stepped into the room. Her face, before raw and dirty, was now bright and rosy. Her long grey, almost white hair hung down over her shoulders, giving her an oddly regal look. In his eyes she was transformed.
She walked over to the window and gazed out into the night. "There's a full moon. It's early tonight and will set well before dawn. You must be on your way long before then."
He stood behind her, looking at her reflection in the window. There was a radiance around her, a light in her eye and a knowingness about her face. She turned back to him.
"You of the open heart. You who touch all you meet. You who love. The time has come to give you your due. What you have come back for. Something you never knew you needed. Look at me."
He peered into her eyes.
"This day you have walked the earth, bestowing with divine fervour a potent, powerful love upon all you meet. You have returned spirit to matter.
"From the depth of all that I am, and all that I have endured, suffered and grieved, I anoint thee with my humanity. I give you a human touch. In earth and matter, flesh and blood, you will live incarnate in all whom you encounter. I give this gift to you in love and gratitude."
She reached up, took his face in her hands and kissed him. Breathless, he felt himself being drawn into her luminous essence. Filled with ecstasy, he was reborn.
An eternity passed, and then she stepped back and smiled up at him, a woman bathed in light and beauty. His heart full, he stood motionless, overjoyed simply being in her presence. For what seemed like forever he gazed at her, feasting on her radiance, until at last he was ready to move on.
"You have yet a ways to go and things to do." She opened the door and he left her side.
It was still dark, that time between moonset and sunrise before birds, impatient for the day, filled the air. He knew now that he was walking that world between living and dying, where knowing, judging and completing were given as a parting gift.
The rendezvous was behind him. He walked down toward the sea, knowing that this life was over, joyful that his destiny had been fulfilled, wondering what might yet conspire before the dawn arrived.
His reverie was disturbed as he gradually became aware that he was being followed. Glancing back, he saw three figures less than a half block behind him, and waited. They turned out to be teenagers in baggy pants and hoodies.
"Old man, what ya doin' out so late? Got some money for us? Maybe we won't hurt you too much."
The man stepped toward them. In a quick moment of triage, he made his decision. The tall one had dead eyes. The mouthy one was lost in despair. The small, quiet one standing back a bit didn't want to be there.
"You ready to get the fuckin' shit kicked outta ya?" Dead eyes badly needed to hurt somebody.
At that moment a police cruiser pulled up to the curb with a brief burst of siren. The two tall youths darted down a lane, but the man managed to grab the small one by the scruff of his neck. The boy didn't offer any resistance.
"You okay, sir? You were lucky. We were just about to head back to the station. You caught one of them. We'll take over from here."
"You've got it a little wrong, Officer. This kid is my son. I was just coming to take him home," the man lied.
"Officer, I'd appreciate it if you'd just drop us off. We don't live far from here. Tell him where,, son."
"You know we don't do this sort of thing," the cop complained to his partner moments later as the two climbed into the back. "Why did you say we would?"
The sergeant shrugged, "Why did you decide to stop?"
"Home" wasn't that close, and neither cop was very happy when the boy and the man got out. "Hope you know what you doing," the sergeant muttered.
When the officers left, the two of them stood facing each other. The boy was trying to act tough, but inside was frightened and hurting. And desperately asking for something there were no words for.
The man looked into his eyes, saw the hurt and the rawness, saw a lost soul about to give up. He reached out, took the unformed, wounded heart in his hands and breathed upon it until it warmed and softened. He held it gently as it opened up, and he poured in his love. Then, looking into the expectant face of this bewildered boy, he spoke a blessing. "Your path will be hard, full of hurt and loneliness. This I cannot change. But your heart has been opened, and this will be your salvation. Stay true to it, and life will surprise you."
Tears flowed down the boy's cheeks, and his gaze held a promise he would fulfill as he grew into manhood.
"Go now. Your life awaits."
man felt the lad's arms around him. Startled, he found himself
blessed with a memory:
Dawn was still holding off as he headed back towards the sea, aware of the many souls lying awake in the houses he passed. So many humans unhappy, longing for something more, yet not knowing what would satisfy their hunger. After a while the sadness of so many unfulfilled lives became like an enveloping fog, swallowing the glow of the streetlights. How, he wondered, had it come to this? Grief, lives misspent, regrets...
He needed to pass on to another his gift, a legacy of his life upon this earth.
Up ahead he saw a lighted window. As he came closer, he realized it was a 24/7 coffee shop. He went through the door and sat down at the counter. He was beyond the need for food or drink, yet nodded to the weary looking waitress that a cup of coffee would be acceptable.
He scanned the restaurant's clientele, saw a figure he was sure he had known from some other time. Fragments of a name hinting at some far place in another life surfaced in his mind, vague memories of a coldhearted guard who had treated him as a farm animal about to be slaughtered, but who had changed. He had witnessed his becoming. A man with a biblical name – Jedediah.
His face was filled with sorrow now, his eyes red from weeping.
The man took his coffee over and sat down opposite him in the booth. The guard didn't glance up. The man looked upon him, remembered the final moment and his presence beside him on that fateful day. He reached out, raised his hands over the guard's head, lifted the sorrow from his heart and blessed him.
"You see, I'm still here. I have not left you. There is much for you to do."
No reaction; the guard seemed to be gazing through him, at the wall. But something was different. His eyes held a glimmer of light. Purpose was forming in his mind.
Quietly, the man got up and left. He knew his legacy would live on.
He enjoyed walking the final blocks. Looking up as the rising sun turned the glass-clad buildings into golden walls of light, he stepped into a world he had never seen before. Heart bursting with joy, he walked in sunlight. The dark night had passed. A new day was aborning, a new man arising.
In some other time, in a place close by, he could hear his friends and his loved ones. They were talking about him, laughing aloud at the things he had done, and the richness he had bestowed on them. They were singing his praises, in awe of all he had accomplished. It was the perfect ending, the final anointing.
He was one with the sunlight, at peace within the new day. Presenting his coin, he let himself be welcomed aboard the last vessel in the harbour as it prepared to set sail.
Just after I had breakfast, cold porridge with lukewarm coffee, the guard informed me that it had been set for tomorrow morning. Still not sure why, or what crime I committed, but it was not unexpected. And in truth I'm ready.
Took some time studying the small cardboard box the guard left on my table. Shook it carefully. Something rattled inside, so I gingerly opened the box and dumped what it held onto my bed. It was an old-fashioned alarm clock like the one I had when I was a kid, the wind-up kind with two little bells on top.
I check the time: twenty after nine. I presume, since I just had breakfast, that it’s morning.
The clock must have been their idea of a final touch of misery – let him know exactly how much time he has left. They do that sort of thing now and then. Once, a long time ago, I found a newspaper under my plate. The headlines told of the death of a princess. Not good news; princesses aren't supposed to die, especially when they're so young and beautiful. Another time under my plate I found a mirror, the small metal kind that soldiers used to shave with. Having no wish to see myself, I left it there. It was gone the next morning.
How do I use this last day to the best of my ability? I don't want to waste it reviewing my life. Lord knows I've spent too many sleepless nights doing just that. From God to myself, I have forgiven all who needed it. I’m more than ready to move on.
Twenty-four hours and my life will be no more. I'm not sure of the exact hour or even the means. Will it be by lethal injection, hanging, or firing squad? Whatever way it comes about, that isn't my concern. The brief time remaining to me is. Confined to a small, windowless cell, five paces by four, I confess that I have grown somewhat comfortable in my little world of bed, sink, chair. A monk accepts his cell as a crucible, a place to grow in sanctity if not sanity. In many ways my incarceration has done the same for me. Besides, I long ago told myself it was time to leave the craziness of the outside world.
The first few years I was angry, bitter, despairing. Then for reasons I'm not sure of, I found myself changing. Maybe it was my own resolve to accept the reality of my life; maybe it was best described as grace. But something happened to me.
One day to live – don't waste it. A stupid admonition; Richard II in Shakespeare's play says something about what happens within a tiny prison cell. "It will make wise men mad, yet blessing on his heart that gives it me! For 'tis a sign of love, and love to me is a strange brooch in this all-hating world." I know – odd words. But the longer I linger here the more meaning they take on.
One day to live. Not really sure why I was incarcerated, as I said. Maybe it was something I did, maybe something I didn't do. Have the suspicion I'm here because of what they were afraid I might do. Like a proactive arrest of some terrorist. A friend once told me I should read Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. Instead, for some reason, I read The Idiot. Guess I thought that might be more useful.
Damn, now the coffee's really cold. How many times do I have to tell my manservant – the guard – I like it steaming hot? So it's on for tomorrow. Best get about my day. I woke up with the usual aches and pains that come with growing old. Still, I like my body and don't really want to leave it. But I don't seem to have much choice.
Carry what passes for coffee over to the rocking chair. It took me a year and more than a few favours to acquire the chair, but it was worth every compromise I made – an old pine rocker with back pad and cushion. I relax into the comfy seat, sip my coffee. Could spend the rest of the day rocking back and forth, letting myself drift away into daydreams. I've done that often enough.
What would it have been like to be born with a talent – music, painting? I would have liked to be a writer, though in truth, I was born with a character deficit. I don't have the perseverance or discipline to hone such skills, if I had any. I'm not made of the stuff for greatness.
My God, it's ten o'clock already. Maybe I should write letters to everyone in my life. A good idea except that there were so many. Maybe a form letter, like those year-end missives that used to be the rage, people bragging about what a wonderful year they had had. I hated the affected, self-congratulatory tone of those epistles. Better I should write my friends telling them how special they have been to me. Not a bad way to spend one's last day.
No, stupid idea! I haven’t been allowed contact with anyone since the day I was incarcerated.
The truth is my life has been a failure, at best a disappointment. I never got more than B's in school. I never won a race, never was given an award or earned a promotion. I was happy just to make the team! Yet I was satisfied with my place in the world, until the illusion that I was someone special was shattered.
How or when did that happen? Was it simply that I just lived too long – too long in that I see now only the mistakes and foolishness of believing I was so special? Seeing the truth of one's limitations is the final challenge in life, and the cruelest. T.S. Eliot claimed that April is the cruelest of times. He was wrong; old age is. But here I sit with less than a day left in my life, ranting on about what never was.
Eleven o'clock on my last day on this earth, blathering on about nothing. A thought occurs to me: maybe this is all some cruel joke the guard is playing on me. Then again, sometimes I think life is a cruel joke.
Breathe; I'm not dead yet. What can I do with this time I have left? Likely nothing, other than thinking, and I've discovered little comes from that. The past is what was. The future? That's been decided.
Wish I still believed in God, or better still, a hereafter. To call for a priest, confess my sins, be rewarded with happiness ever after. It's almost worth admitting I was wrong to see the world as it is, in order to be taken back into the arms of a loving god – the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the good thief. It would be a wonderful thing. But such a lapse of integrity, such a cowardly submission to a discredited faith, would be unworthy of me, and in my opinion, the ultimate sin.
No question, I think the Christian narrative is the greatest story ever told, and I envy all those who live within it. But I have lost the capacity for such delusions. If I could be honest with myself, I might admit to having other illusions more amazing than the faith that has held the Western world in thrall for two millennia. But for now let's just say I have lost all faith. And maybe this is my crime. The one punishable by death.
Come back to this day, my last day on earth. Can I live it fully? Conscious beyond faith, hope, and within that one virtue I still believe in – love? Be still, my soul. Listen to the creaking of the rocking chair, back and forth, back and forth. Close my eyes. Sweet nothingness. The empty mind. I breathe out. My chest grows warm with a pleasant sensation like a soft, glowing light. My heart stirs, awakening as if being called forth by some personal destiny.
I let myself fall into a familiar trance, a conscious state of being, sensate and mystic. It is not a new experience. At times recently I’ve felt as if a fountain of golden light was welling up in me. Something I had barely any control over. Something that fills me with a joyful sense of well-being. Beyond that I know very little, except that I often find myself sending out this good feeling to everyone I have known.
I wake from my reverie. It is almost time for lunch, and I'm hungry. I wonder if my manservant, the guard, is feeling generous today. Maybe the food will be hot.
Lately I've come to think of him as Jedediah, though I never call him that to his face. I find I'm growing fond of him. He tries to act as if I'm a piece of furniture, but he no longer gives off that institutional contempt reserved for those nonentities guards are paid to watch over. Does he experience any of that good feeling I just sent him? I sometimes think he does.
Jedediah brings in my lunch – macaroni and cheese – and it's almost hot. He asks me what I want for dinner. Seems as if the "Last Supper" tradition is still alive.
"My wife sitting across from me," I reply. He mutters something that seems to imply he'd see what he could do. But I hear sadness and regret in his voice. Will wonders never cease?
So many times Megan and I sat across a dinner table, a glass of wine in hand, gossiping about friends, ranting on about the state of the world. Then if we were lucky, and we often were, we'd find ourselves talking about the good times we had shared, and would end up glowingly proclaiming our love for each other. At such moments, I'd call her my princess bride. In turn, she would scold me, saying that we were just two ordinary people trying to live together. All this babbling on, arguing, chatting, disagreeing – the usual stuff of living with another person. Why shouldn't she be here, at this last meal, on the final day of my life?
In truth it would be too painful. And what would we say that had not already been said – that we would do it all again? Would there be the birth of a love beyond what we had thought possible?
My God, it's one-thirty. Tomorrow at this time I will not even exist. Must keep in the present.
Return to the rocking chair. Rock back and forth. Can feel the void like a twilight fog, creeping in around me. Do I simply sit here and wait until they come for me? Is this how the end arrives? A numbing of the mind, a muted acceptance? If one is lucky, an inner peace? Not what I want for this last day. Yet I am frozen in this present moment, like a gnat in amber, unable to rouse myself out of the stupor, until a knocking on the door suddenly startles me awake. The voice of the chaplain. "Do you want to talk? Is anything bothering you?"
Why do I see my life as such a failure? I'd like to ask him that, but I know he'd only try to convince me otherwise.
You have people who love you, good friends; God loves you. You've written books.
I feel a thick mantle descending over my memory. Some dark force seems to have enveloped me, made my life a mockery. Is this darkness responsible for my incarceration? Am I prisoner to this entity, my life in thrall to some evil force?
Or maybe it can all be explained simply as the limits of who I am.
I grew up believing all things were possible, only to wake one morning to find myself in a land that was not that way at all. The magical world of my youth had morphed into the wounded world of human misadventure.
I pace the ten-by-twelve floor space, across and back, counting out my usual one thousand steps – my daily pilgrimage to nowhere. Get to thinking that it might not yet be too late to make a success of my life. My God, does hope spring eternal, or what? Or are we incapable of accepting what is? I sort of like the idea that your life passes before you just before you die – giving it meaning and purpose?
I go back to my rocking chair. Start counting backward: 10-9-8. Let my body settle into a gentle rocking. 7-6-5. Stop fretting about the past and what might have been. 4-3-2. Let my heart open up. 1-1-1. Repeat the process. Slowly, gradually, sweet euphoria fills me – a full body pleasuring of almost erotic sensation. I let the rocking come to a stop, and sit bathed in a golden radiant light.
Sense that it flows out from me in ever widening circles. Maybe this is how the sun must feel as its glowing warmth and light spreads out across the solar system. Beyond all that is sane and rational, I wallow in this impossible dreaming. Ecstatic beyond all that can conceivably be possible, I float in the heavens. God, if dying could be like this, if this is a taste of the hereafter, hallelujah! I'm a true believer!
Must have fallen asleep. With only hours left, sleep is definitely a no-no. Thank God the need to pee woke me up. To sleep away my last day on earth, not a good idea. Damn, it's almost four o'clock. Truth is I'm just one of what – a couple thousand people who are going to die within a few hours? So really, dying is no big deal.
Life ends. That's the way it is. Even the great ones, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Jesus, are all where I'm about to depart to – oblivion, nonbeing, the void, whatever, or wherever. Yet all of us were granted a life to live. To have a go at it, see what we could make of a few decades of existence on earth. Some do great things. I applaud them truly and honestly, and with more than a little bit of envy. I longed to be great, too. But I am coming to accept my less-than-stellar lifetime. Most of us do little more than procreate, fret and pretend.
I want to stand up for the mass of humanity, the great average, the ordinary, the normal, the untalented, the ungifted. Those of us who bear the anguish of little lives lived with as much dignity as we can muster. These are my people. I respect them. I love them in all their frailty and foibles. How can I not?
Christ, it's almost dinnertime. I splash cold water on my face, run my fingers through my hair, settle back into my rocking chair, rock and wait, while away the minutes. This time tomorrow I'll be cold flesh and congealed blood, stiff with rigor mortis. Or maybe I'll be ashes cooling in an urn. Not a problem. Still, I'm willing to be proved wrong
Two things have just arrived. One, a
confirmation; the other totally unexpected, yet a welcome
surprise. "You're definitely scheduled for tomorrow morning,"
the guard informed me. I watched as he put dinner on the table. Since
thinking of him as Jedediah, some vague
the Old Testament keeps trying to come to consciousness. And I have
sending him good thoughts'
Tonight I swear, he had the faintest hint of a smile on his face. And as he turned briskly and left, was that a wink? That's the thing about solitary confinement – you start imagining things
I sit down and slowly address my sloppy joe. Can't believe my good fortune. It's hot! Amazing!
I tear a piece of bread and sop up some joe. Pick up my mug and take a swallow to wash down the bread and meat, then practically spit it out, as if I was being poisoned.
Jedediah smuggled in a little wine for my last meal! I can't believe it. For my last supper he'd filled my mug with wine. The taste on my palate triggers long forgotten memories. I’m reminded of altar boys and wine cruets….
I dig into the sloppy joe, and let it draw me back into the present. Funny how after so many years you get to enjoy the most ordinary foods. I genuinely like what's in front of me. Plus it informs me that today is Monday; they always serve SJ at the start of the week.
I take my time, not wanting to rush this last meal. I enjoy another sip of wine. Want to save some of it for later. Wipe the last of the SJ up with bread. The one thing they always give you lots of bread, white and starchy. I usually save some from supper. It's good to put something in one's stomach before bed.
I sit in silence. That's a laugh. I've been in silence for as long as I can remember. That's the nature of solitary confinement. In many ways it's a blessing to be secreted away – as if I was a danger to society, some terrorist capable of bringing down the pillars of civilization. What a joke.
I take a piece of bread, pasty white and tasting like cardboard, in one hand, pick up the mug of wine in the other, and hold them out in front of me. Let it come back to me – the last time I performed the priestly ritual, the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The last time I held the elements of life, bread and wine, in my hands, and spoke the words. But even by then I had no belief, no faith that would have transformed the mundane into the divine. The words were hollow.
For me it had become an act of
scorn, ridicule, a meaningless ritual -
But my God, it was a painful time for me. There is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Wanderer," that captures my anguish. The narrator is a trusted member in the lord's high court. He has a seat at the high table. Then the lord dies and the narrator finds himself adrift. He is alone, belonging to no one, and so he wanders the roads, bereft of kin and clan. He finds himself unwanted, forsaken, destined to live out his days roaming a land where he no longer belongs.
That was how I felt. My faith in my Lord had died, and I was without meaning or purpose in my life; I began to drift. Took up with pretty girls. Thinking I had found love, I lost my virginity. A naive waif, lonely and desperate for something to replace my lost faith, desperate for anything, a belief, a cause, I went in search of gurus and masters, traveled to far places. But each desperate quest ended with my own collapse into despair.
This was the only "enlightenment" I could achieve – that life had no purpose, no meaning. But I couldn’t accept it. There had to be something more. I held to that one last hope: one day it would be revealed.
Was it revealed on a dance floor? Maybe. I asked her to dance. And slowly, over many years, we danced, held together by our frailties, our need for each other, and together we spun down into our flesh and blood, our foibles, our vulnerabilities, and came upon love. Our lives became simple and ordinary, and often happy. Although secretly, such ordinariness was an embarrassment to me, having expected much more of my life than the simple heroism of living with another.
For had I not seen for myself the possibility of greatness, a noble deed, a task fulfilled, an endeavour enhancing the forward journey of humankind? Was I not ordained a priest with Eucharistic power? And now here I was, a fragile, defenseless, soft-skinned creature. A man who discovers he's loved by another so totally different, so "other," that it would take a lifetime to fathom her depth, her complexity, let alone how she could love him as she did. And that I, too, could love another, so foreign, flawed, and yet so unique.
And so it came to pass that I found myself once again sitting at a table, not the lord's high table, but hers. Not in a castle, but a home. One we had built together. A humble abode, but one that was real. The wandering had come to an end. I found what I had set out to find – myself, a human, capable of doing hurtful things, but also able to love. The hardships of the journey were nearly within the fullness of our lives.
Enough of this. It must be early evening – 6:39, to be exact. Wonder if the sun is setting. It has been so long since I witnessed such a sight, it’s painful to contemplate.
I stand at the table, feeling like a priest in front of an altar. I put down the bread and wine. The moment was not the right one. I go back to my chair, need to rock, to hold myself. My last few hours of life, and I can find nothing better to do than await my fate. No, that will not do.
I start counting down from ten, repeating the small ritual, until my mind gives way. Slowly I fall into the mystery. Not the facts or history, but the essence of who I am. That part that has no meaning or logic, but just is. I drop into that wordless place, let it envelop me. I rock back and forth, dissolve into the flow. Like an iceberg melting into the sea, I become the formlessness of ocean. The mystery reveals nothing, and yet I am aware that I am being drawn into the heart of mystery itself.
A sudden shudder snaps me back to my cell. Thank God. I rock fiercely, relieved that I am still embodied flesh and blood, able to move, to speak. I get up, walk back and forth from wall to wall to wall. Feeling afraid, I risk a look at the clock on the table. I break off a piece of bread, wash it down with a sip of wine. Don't want to see the bottom of the empty cup. It is now 9:18. I hate watching the minutes measure out my life.
I wonder if I have the courage. Wonder if I can put myself in that state of mind where it will be possible. That seems to be the central point of this final day of my life. The truth that there’s nothing beyond this life, the longing for a reality beyond my secular truth of what is. Yet to give up all that I've spent my life reaching for – my integrity, my truth, my disbelief – in order to fulfill that longing...
I do know that I've spent what seems like endless lifetimes within these walls, fed by guards who refuse to talk to me, isolated from the affairs of the world, the touch of a woman. With my tenuous grasp on reality, I must conclude that I am now hallucinating. Probably by any rational assessment, I'm certifiably insane. But it serves my purpose to maintain such a cover of insanity. Makes me a little more comfortable with what I am about to do.
This little cubbyhole with a stainless steel toilet, a sink, a bed, a table, and an overhead light. Plus a rocking chair, something so out of place as to be beyond all understanding of what possessed the powers that be to allow me to have it. It has been a comfort and a source of genuine pleasure. Like a magic carpet, it has helped me to escape the confines of my world.
Must be getting dark outside. I can't remember such things. All I recall is a good feeling and a sky of red and gold. Doesn't matter anymore. This cubbyhole is my world. And the next few hours are mine.
Mine and not to be wasted. I could call forward my priestly prerogative, according to the order of Melchizedek – thou art a priest forever – and bring down the Divine Presence into this realm of flesh and blood. On the table is the bread and wine.
Dare I speak the ancient words of transubstantiation? Have I the depth of belief that would bring down the sacred into my cell of cement and bricks? At one time I believed I could. But that was more of a child's faith, one filled with saints and miracles. What is needed here goes beyond all that. It was the young alchemist who believed he could change lead into gold. The wise old one knew the truth.
I do not know if it is fear that I would be found wanting, and these words just another bit of human folly speaking to the absurdity of my life. I feel tempted, teased by the immensity of such a moment.
The miracle of the Eucharist was part of a medieval rubric belonging to an age of faith long since hollowed out by reason. Yet hours away from my own point of no return, here I am, questioning the point of it all. What absurdity. Does any of it matter?
More important: why Christ or God or any divine entity would want to come down into this benighted realm is beyond me. However, there is this strange phenomenon known as love that one might offer as a reason. Although for me love is a mystery beyond all understanding. Seems like wishful thinking, fool's gold.
Must have dozed off – almost eleven o'clock, the eleventh hour. Don’t want to sleep away my last few hours on earth. But how to fill them? What to do with them? There must be a way to give my final moments some value. I had once thought I might end my life with some noble deed, some heroic endeavour, something significant that might move humanity forward. Give meaning to my life.
Basically, I can credit myself with a few acts of kindness, but nothing beyond the norm. In fact, as I sit here rocking myself into a state of animal contentment and groggy, not unpleasant vegetable consciousness, my mind drifts back to another place, before memory or thought.
Maybe it never was. Maybe it is just some far forgotten state of being. Maybe it was womb time. More than that, there is an intimation of something beyond words or thought that is drawing me toward it. Something accessible only through silence. I can sense a growing awareness that I am shifting toward a wordless realm that contains us all. There is a stillness, an expectation of what awaits me in the silent void. And without any reason or explanation, I feel a cautious joy stirring within me. Or is it an overwhelming anxiety over what is coming?
I force myself up, pace the floor, fret, pee, try to keep in the present. Pull back, cough, catch my breath, check the time. It is almost midnight. The borderline between today and tomorrow. I wash my hands. What is happening to me? I switch off the light. Make my way back to the rocker, stare into the blackness.
The dark void holds me. I feel comforted by its velvet impenetrability. I let myself be rocked gently in its soft embrace. I rock back and forth, back and forth. Nothing can be seen. Nothing matters. Nothing is. I can feel myself falling into sleep. A peace beyond understanding takes me up into its folds. I'm given a dream.
The world is collapsing into darkness. Every time someone switches off a light, everyone in that room vanishes into the dark. Until there is only one room left. "Don't anyone turn off the light! Don't even touch a light switch!" I'm shouting. I know that the situation is dire. There is no one left except us few in this last small, lit room.
My shouting awakens me. I switch on the light. And then, heart pounding, I remember more of the dream. In it I'm given a way to bring the world back…. I seem to know how to turn the lights on again. It is gold that will bring the lights back. Gold is the key. If only we can find enough gold. I ask if anyone in the room has any gold on them. Each person present, about a dozen of us, has a little. One has a gold watch; another, a gold wedding ring. Someone has a gold necklace. I realize I have a gold filling.
At this point I find myself falling out of the rocking chair, excited by the dream and what it portends, and exasperated because I woke up before I find out how to use the gold. What was the dream about? Why gold?
Gold – the one metal that doesn't rust, the softest, most malleable of all. Of no practical use, yet valued beyond all reasonable expectation, coveted by all mankind. A "precious" metal – odd term for the last metallic element on the periodic table. What surprises me most is that every person in my dream has some gold on them. And I think that is true in life. Most people wear something gold. I wonder why this is.
The hands on the clock show me I've slept for two hours. Didn't want to fall asleep, but the dream was worth it. If only I could figure out what it means.
Four hours left in my life, and I have a dream about gold. Is it the alchemist's dream – to turn lead into gold, or more symbolically, to transform the dross of one's life into something precious? The priest's power – to transform bread and wine into the divine? The wafer of bread held on a gold paten, the wine contained in a golden chalice… What is hidden in these beliefs?
Why was I ordained a priest? Why did I dream of gold as the key to changing the fate of the world? The riddle of my life contained within one last dream before my end. Curious indeed.
I take the clock and wind it until the spring breaks, then put it facedown on my bed. Time for me has come to an end. I sense that this moment beyond time is what my life has been about. I need to make ready.
I study the tiny cell that has been my crucible, that has prepared me for this moment. The dream has foretold what will come to pass. I feel a simmering joy, see sparks of ecstasy streaming from my fingertips. I pause, calm myself. It has come to this.
For this was I born? For this has my life been lived? I stand with my arms outstretched, letting the light flow from my hands.
The table before me has become my altar. I pick up the bread and wine. Honouring the past, I speak the words of transubstantiation over them. Partake of the body and blood of Christ. Honouring all that was true and right within the ancient ritual of the Eucharist, I ingest the holy sacrament.
I know now that that was but a precursor of what was meant to be. It was not the bread and wine. Stepping forward, I call down the power that has overshadowed our kind since time immemorial.
Need I repeat the ancient words? Yes, it is right and just to do so. "Hoc est enim Corpus meum." I sense every cell in my body quivering, changing. Far beyond all rational thought, I thrill at the impossibility of what is happening to me.
"Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei." I let myself be taken up. The dross within me is being transmuted into that which can only be hinted at by the word divine.
I let its essence consume me. Like a log placed on the fire ignites into flame, I experience the immolation of my being. What the last thread of rational thought tells me is that I have been transformed into that which we have for millenni prayed to as something beyond us. I am enraptured with an ecstasy that words cannot describe.
Like a lamp that has just been turned on, I feel like light itself. I gasp, feel as if I am dying to all that was, and yet loving all that is. My body cannot contain what I am being overwhelmed with.
Sense a need to find a way of releasing what is threatening to burst me apart. The picture on the wall my youth, the sacred heart of Jesus, the one with the heart open and on fire, pouring love out onto the world.
I imagine my heart opening and light streaming forth from it. I send out love, letting it fill my small cell with a golden glow. I send it out to all whom I have met in my life, an endless litany of friends. To neighbours, to people I smiled at on the street, to all who are open to this loving energy. To Jedediah. And instantly, I remember his namesake, "the servant of the Lord."
I find I can breathe again. I stand, feet on the floor, tall as the mountains, a loving presence within a world longing for love. I open wider to this rapturous essence that has taken me up, until I am that essence. I am the dream. In that last lighted room, I am the gold – the gold shared by everyone. I see it glowing, growing, and the light returning. This, I know now, is how the dream ends. With the world pulled back from darkness. A key turns in the lock. My last day is coming to a close, and what a fitting way for it to end. I look about the small space that I have lived within. Nothing has changed. It's still cramped and sparse. And yet everything about it is different.
"Is the prisoner ready?"
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The old man hunched forward, his head slightly bent to one side. He wondered where he was. Maybe this was all a dream; maybe he was dead. For years he had lived alone in a dark cave near an ancient swamp, and now...
He looked about the great hall. Although the lofty space was lit only by candlelight, there were no shadows; everything seemed filled with its own translucent radiance. The old man narrowed his eyes and studied the people about him. They, too, seemed to glow with some inner light.
One of them smiled at him. He frowned back and scratched his head. For some reason he couldn't understand, he was the guest of honour. They'd told him that he was the last one, whatever that meant. He had refused to talk to any of them, afraid they might find out what he had done far back in that other time.
Suddenly a great hush fell over the hall, and in through the marble archway walked a white-haired woman in flowing white robes. Slowly she took her place at the far end of the hall on a great throne like chair similar to the one on which the old man was seated.
"To all of you, welcome." The voice of the white lady rang like crystal throughout the hall. Then she looked toward the old man. "Long have we searched for you, and now at last you are found. You are most welcome."
The old man stared back at her. She was aged beyond imagining, yet in the soft candlelight she looked young and beautiful beyond belief. He could not remember ever having seen her before, yet she awoke long forgotten memories within him.
"This is a day of celebration," continued the white lady, "and as is our custom, we begin with the story of that other time." She paused for a moment, then went on. "Far back in that other time, humankind was like a butterfly about to emerge from its dark cocoon. But it was a timid butterfly, afraid to leave the comfort of what it knew. Back in that other time humans had everything they needed to go forward, yet they clung to their old ways. In fear, they held to their old beliefs.
"It is hard for you who live in love to imagine the iron grip of fear, but humankind lived that way, and it was fear that held them back. People couldn't love, because fear filled their hearts. And so that this might be erased from the hearts of humans, they were taken into that which they feared the most – world's end.
"World's end did not come from war, as everyone had expected. It came about in a way that put an end to war altogether. In that other time, poisoned by men's fears, the oceans began to die."
The old man leaned forward. He knew that other time. It was his time – and it hadn't been fear that had killed the oceans.
"I was there when the oceans were dying," he wanted to shout at them. "When scientists discovered that industrial waste draining into the sea was killing everything, even the tiny plankton. I was there when they discovered something that stunned the world – the fact that most of our oxygen came not from the trees, but from these miniscule sea creatures, and that once they died, everything that breathed oxygen would die as well. I was there when the scientists predicted we had only two more years to live."
The old man wanted to stand up and cry out what he knew, but he didn't. He was afraid to. He was afraid they'd discovered what he had done.
The white lady continued, "It was fear that brought the nations of the world together. In that other time nothing but fear could have united the world. For what was the point of fighting if in two years they'd all be dead? So the nations of the world met together, and after many days and nights of talking and arguing, they selected four leaders to coordinate the task of saving the oceans.
"First the four leaders brought together experts from every country to work on the problem. Then they ordered that food be shipped to wherever people were hungry. No one needed to feel the fear of hunger. But the most important thing the four did was to see that everyone on earth knew what was happening. This was the first step in breaking the fear that gripped the world – that everyone know the truth. They did this with a device that allowed people to see and hear each other over great distances."
The old man smiled to himself at the white lady's description of a television set. He remembered how it had been. Every family on earth had been issued one, and each day at the appointed hour, they'd watched to see if an antidote for the dying oceans had been discovered.
Finally, with only fourteen months left, the leaders announced that a chemical had been found that could perhaps neutralize the poison. The old man remembered that well. Day and night they had worked to make enough of the chemical to spread across the oceans. Everyone had worked hard and yet they seemed to have enjoyed it. During that time even strangers would stop and talk to one another.
Then had come the fateful day when thousands and thousands of ships loaded with the chemical headed out to sea. After that there were weeks of waiting to see if it had worked. The old man had turned twenty-two on the day the results were announced. The oceans had not been neutralized. They had failed!
Twenty-two years old, his life just beginning, and suddenly it was over. The old man clenched his fist at the memory of that other time. He looked at the white lady as if it were her fault.
But she was continuing with her story. "The nations of the world did fail to save the oceans, but it wasn't really a failure; it only seemed that way. You see, countries had stopped fighting. War had come to an end. That was the real success!"
The old man stared at her. He had been there and they had failed; they had all been faced with death. He listened to her in disbelief as she went on.
"The people of the world were shocked and angry. They had tried so hard, and were still under the illusion that they had failed. The truth was that for the first time in history, the peoples of Earth had worked together with one purpose. They now trusted one another. They were ready for the next step."
The old man looked at her darkly. He remembered when the four leaders had announced that the planet had only five months of oxygen left. They had talked about the possibility of something unexpected happening. Maybe even that humans might evolve beyond the need for oxygen. That had been utter absolute nonsense, the old man knew. He glared at the white lady as if daring her to tell him differently.
She smiled toward him, and for some reason he suddenly remembered that one of the leaders had been a woman – a woman who had won world acclaim for finding a cure for cancer. A white-haired lady whom one reporter had dubbed the fairy godmother of the world – and ever after that she had been known affectionately as simply the godmother. Being the senior member, she had been the last of the four to speak. The words she had once spoken came into his head:
"There is a way out. We can change. I know most of you believe it is impossible to really change, to become something different than you are, but it's not.
"But first we have to let go of our old beliefs. We must accept the fact that each of us is responsible for what has happened. We cannot blame one another."
The old man didn't want to even think about what he had done, and he let his mind drift away to other things – but the white lady drew him back. "Those last few months were the most important times in our history. People began to understand that it was their own fear that was polluting the world, killing the oceans. Even the righteous began to see that they, too, acted out of fear rather than love.
"However, even in our darkest moment humankind was capable of a magnificent gesture. People from all over the world began sending in messages. 'Find some way to save the children. Our children are young and unafraid. They are not tied to old ways and for them nothing is impossible. Perhaps they can change. Maybe deep in the forests there is enough oxygen for them to live at least long enough to try. Find some way of saving the children.' Here was a worldwide sense of caring beyond self and family. It was the sign that the butterfly was getting ready to leave its cocoon."
The white lady stopped and studied the old man for a long time. He felt frantic and wanted to run from the hall. She knew that she had to reach him now or he'd be lost forever. She'd have to risk bringing him into her story.
"And so the children were sent into the forests – wherever large and ancient trees could still be found, for that was where there might be enough oxygen for them to live. And with each group of children was sent a strong young man or woman, one who was loving and fearless, chosen because he or she had promised to protect the children."
Inside the old man's head, a protest was pounding: Stop! Stop!
"And with us tonight is one of those chosen few who long ago was sent out to protect the children. He is our guest of honour!"
Everybody turned and looked toward the old man. Words were exploding inside his head. It's a lie. It's a lie. And suddenly he was on his feet, shouting at them all, "It's a lie!"
He knew now he would have to tell them what he had done. "Yes, I was one of those who went to protect the children. But I wasn't fearless or loving. I went because I was afraid. I didn't care about the children, I just didn't want to die. Can you understand that?!
"And I wasn't chosen – I begged, begged them to let me go.
"Then came that strange day in the forest. Everything filled with a blinding light. It was so powerful it had to have been a light blast from some horrendous holocaust, and I ran. Yes, I left the children, ran and hid in a cave. I've lived in that cave ever since. I don't know what happened to the children."
Suddenly he had a strange thought. These people looking at him were those children grown to maturity. They had come back to judge him.
"Yes," he said, the words coming slowly, brokenly. "I left you to perish in that blinding light. All I thought about was myself. I was terrified with my own fear. That's why I did it. I wish I could have been different."
He sank back into his chair and stared blankly at the floor, while tears of shame, guilt and then relief ran down his race. He had never told anyone before.
The godmother waited until the old man raised his eyes, then she asked, "Would you like to know what happened when you ran back into the cave?" He nodded. "Would you like to know how my story ends?"
"Yes, I would," he said, leaning forward in his chair.
"Well, after the children went into the forest, those of us who remained behind had no choice but to accept our fate. As we did so, fear disappeared! We were no longer afraid, even of world's end. A great peace swept across the earth.
"Then the last day arrived. Everyone gathered at the appointed hour. 'Your work is all but done,' they were told. 'You have changed war into peace, and transformed fear into trust. To each of you, well done. The next step is so simple your minds will deny it. You have but to join together, speak with one voice, and open yourselves to the power within you.
"'For you now stand ready to know the full truth of your being. You now can be trusted with the power of the universe that has been locked within your hearts since time began. You are now ready for a happier world. Come, let us cross over together. Let us open our hearts to each other and speak with one voice!
"All together, we said aloud, 'We the people of earth, of one mind and heart, open ourselves to the power of love and truth.'
"And with these words, spoken at the same moment in time by every loving person on earth, everything changed. The butterfly left its cocoon of fear and darkness, and the earth shone like a luminous pearl in the heavens."
The old man sat there, nodding slowly. He now knew what happened on that strange day in the forest. That flash of blinding light had been the bursting force of that power locked within the human heart. But that moment of human destiny had passed him by. In fear he had run back to the cave, while they had gone forward.
He longed for another chance. And as he sat there the godmother got up and began walking towards him, and he knew that it was true. They had come back for him.
He rose to his feet and walked to meet her, his hands outstretched in greeting. When she took them in hers and smiled into his eyes, he felt himself filling with light and his heart bursting with joy. A faint smile trembled on his lips as all about him he could hear singing and laughter. The celebration had begun.
The last one had crossed over into the light.
(If you'd like to have a friend read this
story, send them this Web address: www.thelastone.ca)
My life’s journey has taken me from a deep enriching Catholicism, which fell behind as I moved into the wonders of psychotherapy, through the intriguing world of the New Age, to where I stand currently, on the open plain of a spiritual, compassionate acceptance of life. This place offers a sufficiently unobstructed view of the sky over my head to realize there probably is what might be called a divine presence. How it moves within us and upon this earth is for me a deep and reverent enigma that fills me with awe.
I have explored the sacred isle of Iona, climbed the Tor at Glastonbury, kept vigil at Lough Derg in Ireland, crossed the Bridge of the Angels in Rome. I have gazed out upon the Sea of Galilee, wandered through India, and three times walked the ancient pilgrim's route, El Camino de Santiago, in Spain. I've participated in a sun dance with Plains Indians, gone on pilgrimage across America, and received Kalachakra Initiation from the Dalai Lama.
Over the past few years, I have been chronicling an inner journey through the hopes and despairs, dreams and realities of my humanity. My pilgrimage has taken me out across the peaks and valleys, open steppes and savannahs of the soul’s country, as I head towards a place of longing that many might refer to as God, others as the Great Mystery.
The urge to look back, summarize, review seems a natural part of advancing in years. I've learned a lot along the way – about myself, mostly. And from it all, one truth emerges: that love is key. Love is what makes us human. Love is what we're learning here.
I don't know if that understanding comes at a certain age in everyone's life, like permanent teeth, puberty or wrinkles. I only know that I'm much more capable now, at my age, of extending compassion to all I meet, of saying, "Yes, I know." Of loving the world as it is, with all its ambiguities. I've recently been experiencing a strange and stirring phenomenon – feeling my own heart open up and actually pour forth a stream of loving energy to all I meet.
A wise old man once told me that he'd thought he'd accomplished a fair amount in life, and was pretty satisfied with all the work he'd done. Then he reached a point where he realized everything he'd done up till then had just been preparing him for the next task ahead – the real work he'd come for.
I've dreamed in recent years of a noble deed I might perform. Some way to help give hope to humanity, make my own unique contribution. Some grand and meaningful gesture in these truly troubled times.
This possibility keeps me going. Keeps me alive.