I feel its presence. Every second of everyday, it creeps closer. On days when I feel the ominous impact of some evil spinning on it’s own axis or the pull of shame for some offense I’ve done, or on those when my medicine quits working and my erratically beating heart does its own dance and sends me floating skyward, death’s darkness beckons stormy clouds. These clouds are not light and fluffy. Their heaviness pushes me down as their foreboding gloom surrounds me with false threats of lightening strong enough to surge through my body and shock me from this world into another.
Sometimes I pretend I am in that moment that separates life from death. I tell myself I do this so I will be prepared when the second hand ticking my life away abruptly stops. It is an exercise to test my faith.
Try it yourself. Be in the moment as the Buddhists say.
You are swimming alone. Some excruciating pain takes control of your body. Muscles tighten and cramp. The sinking begins. Sun rays spread an angling cone of light and optimism overhead as your writhed body remains hopelessly frozen in some contorted shape farther and farther beneath. Eventually breath runs out and you suck in water. It floods your sinus cavities. That moment between the tick of life and the tock of death has arrived for you. Is God real? Are his promises true? What do you believe? This briefest of moments will tell.
Since I was a child, I’ve seen dead people all dressed up, cold and still, flat on their backs, hands folded across their chests the way my husband says I sleep. People, for the most part, don’t want their children to see these things now. They make up fairytales about their dead dogs and fish or they just plain out lie. Or, maybe they tell the truth gently, but the dead thing itself stays at a distance. I wonder if it’s right to keep this certain finality from children. Time will tell.
That Unseen Life-to-Death Moment
All the time, somewhere, some living thing becomes a dead thing. I’ve seen that split-second alteration at least a thousand times. Mostly, I see it when some pesky or frightening bug, frantically trying to dodge my deadly intent, feels the slap of my shoe or book coming down hard.
Except for Cinderella’s, shoes are not glass, so I can’t see the actual moment of bug death. I don’t know if I really want to anyway. But you do have to wonder what an insect feels when its exoskeleton caves in, crushing ever shrinking and intricately positioned coiled tubes. These tubes, just a fraction of a second before, were transporting oxygen from the big wide outside air to tiny living cells inside the insect’s body that have their own elaborate respiration systems. Now each cell is soon to meet its doom too, but I doubt even one will feel anything.
The Death Moment Itself
More often than I have cared to though, I have seen the death moment itself in what seem to me crueler killings – crueler, perhaps because I did see that moment. Once I watched a young fisherman pull up a net full of baitfish. There had to be at least fifty. With each passing millisecond, suffocation fought relentlessly on death’s side.
I looked into the unmoving dark round eyes of a few as they desperately flopped and searched with open mouths for the water flow that would force their gills apart enough to extract oxygen from hydrogen. Their panic became mine. I wanted to throw them back into the wide blue-gray bay. Oh, to know the deep relief that would surely come. Instead, I watched as they wrestled with death on hot dock wood unaware they were waiting their turn under the fisherman’s red-handled knife.
For some, the wait was too long. Frenzied flops became less frequent as they gave up the hopeless fight to open glued gills. Of those who were unlucky enough to be alive when their turn came, I watched fish tails coil upward as heads were pressed one-by-one to plastic cutting board. With slow grisly splats and crunches, the knife pierced scaly skin and tensed muscle, sawed through ribs and backbone, and then through muscle and skin again to sever the head just behind the pectoral fin. The effort to live ended, and the tail relaxed.
Watching Warm-Blooded Creatures Die
Thanks to my mom who made me stay home and eat biscuits instead of letting me head out into the woods on early fall mornings with my dad all decked in camouflage, I’m not a hunter. But, warm buttered biscuits dripping with honey did not keep me from seeing warm-blooded creatures die. I have seen them face that moment and cross over. One I saw die was a cow who would be served as the main dinner course for several months to come.
Before we ate the cow, I stood beside a narrow winding country road that zipped between a hay barn and a white farmhouse. If you had looked at a snapshot of the scene taken from the hay barn’s tin roof, you would have seen, from left to right: the backside of my grandfather, rifle in hand; my dad; and an elementary-aged girl who was me. The roped cow standing front and center nearest the road, would have looked as if he were on stage waiting nervously to give the opening line.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my grandfather raise the rifle. “P-ow …” The gun’s kick knocked my grandfather backward as its bullet ripped through the internal sequence that moved the cow from standing to falling more swiftly than you could turn the page of a best-selling thriller. Faster than I could fathom, my dad and grandfather hoisted him vertical, and cut him parallel to the way he was hanging. The silence and the wave of hot air that escaped from the fleshy opening surrounded me and left me stunned.
I read the Revelation of Jesus Christ, but I am stunned at that too. It speaks of a reality that remains illusive to human senses and undetectable by our oh so sophisticated inventions. Cloaked like a Star Trek ship, that reality is already and not yet. Almost imperceptible, it busily waits, along with me and earth, for its own glorious transformation.
My imagination can’t even get close to what this reality is like even now, must less what it will be like made new. But like death, I already sense the presence of its existence too. It presses light in on me until darkness scatters and heaviness lifts.
Sometimes here, in this present reality I live in, with dead cows and dead people, God himself is barely palpable. Other times his presence overwhelms me more than a thunderous lightning storm bolting around me in an open field or sea and calls forth my awe. What will it be like when I see him face to face? What deeper things will I see and feel and know? What will I be able to do in such a wondrous presence as this except to open my mouth with thousands and thousands of other true believers from every kind of people to say:
“Worthy are you.”
Death is Coming
Fear God. Death is coming. Who knows how? The unknowingness of the how leaks anticipation that creeps up backbones and makes brain neurons fire and vibrate all at once. Will death come crushing in? Will it suffocate slowly or be quick as a bullet searing through brain or heart? In this world, there is always the possibility that it may even terrorize you to its precipice. Or, if it is, as most hope, like one of my dogs who relaxed serenely after lifting her head for final breath, it may just lure you gently to its chasm’s edge before it forces you to jump.