THE GREATEST MYSTERY

Because physical movement was now impossible, the dying man laid perfectly still in his hospital bed. The astrocytoma tumor embedded in his brain had induced the paralysis that consumed his body from the chest down.

After battling the malignancy for years, Nicholas had come to think of himself as a prisoner of sorts, someone with no hope of escape and who dwelled in perpetual darkness. His cancer had taken his vision twenty-four months earlier and life had slowly closed in on him, becoming claustrophobic in the strangest way imaginable.

His isolation had become absolute, and he found it disturbing to consider how thoughtlessly he had taken his good health for granted. In his lifetime he had shown scarce appreciation for a breathtaking sunset or a shimmering full moon. Each autumn the leaves had silently exploded into a stunning array of brilliant colors while completely escaping his notice. Sparkling new-fallen snow and the electricity of a spring thunderstorm were both equally ignored.

Even having the ability to move about freely and to be active in the fresh air had been wasted on a man who rarely ventured outdoors preferring books, computers, and other solitary endeavors requiring little contact with the natural world.

But now, after an exhaustive struggle, the final days were ticking by with astonishing speed, leaving him with little doubt that death was drawing near. In what he perceived to be a peculiar circumstance; his tumor had spared his cognitive functions. His intellect was sharp, and his speech was precise – however, because his world was now reduced to three hundred square feet, stimulating conversation was difficult to come by.

The harried nurses who scurried in and out around the clock, caring for a patient they knew was quickly losing his personal battle, regrettably, had little time to spend on even small talk.

But his sterile confinement was no longer an issue because he believed he was prepared to die. At least in the sense that you can ever be prepared. Nicholas was convinced that there comes a point when a person instinctively knows it’s their time – and he realized that for him, that time was now.

Because of his profession, he’d been fascinated by the subject of mortality his entire adult life. And he was particularly interested in how people chose to face death when they had prior knowledge that it was coming. Unfortunately, in his case, he’d known for quite some time.

And so, today, like every other day, he waited.

On this particular afternoon, his sightless eyes were staring at the ceiling when there was a light knock on his door. Instinctively, he turned his head toward the sound.

He heard the door slowly open and then a man’s voice cheerily said, “Good afternoon. My name is Edgar Collins. I’m the hospital Chaplain.” 

A mock look of worry spread over the patient’s face. “Uh, oh. If they’re sending in the chaplain that can’t be good news for me.”

“Not to worry. I’m here of my own volition. Part of my daily duties.”

Nicholas smiled. “Well, that’s some relief.”

The chaplain inquired, “Is this a bad time?”

“Absolutely not. I have all the time in the world.”

“Is it okay if I come in for a minute?”

Nicholas took a deep breath and then said, “That depends. If you only want to talk as a Chaplain and a patient, I’m not interested. But if you would be willing to talk just as two human beings, I would welcome the company. I realize that ‘faith’ is your profession – so I leave it to you to decide whether or not we chat.”

The Chaplin studied the unusual man in front of him and instantly decided that he would love to engage him in conversation. He started to step forward and extend his right hand to shake but realized his mistake. Embarrassed, he placed his Bible on a chair and sat down on another. Warmly he said, “All right. Today we are just two people. Nothing more or less.”

“Great! I’m Nicholas Dickinson.”

The Chaplin smiled. “Like the famous poet.”

Nicholas nodded. “Yes, yes. The Belle of Amherst. Thanks to our family name, Miss Emily has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But, sadly, we are not related.”

“She was incredibly gifted.”

“One of my favorites. I still listen to audio of her work.”

“I always thought the sound of a human voice made her poems seem even more alive.”

“Which is ironic since she wrote so much about how fragile life can be. Of course, that is a subject I’m now preoccupied with myself.”

“So, how are you feeling today?”

With complete honesty, Nicholas said, “Pretty much like yesterday.”

The chaplain began to have the feeling that this was going to be a very interesting conversation. “You know, most people are not so blunt when they don’t wish to speak with a chaplain. They usually drop hints and beat around the bush.”

“I seem to have lost all interest in social niceties. I find that a shortened life span compels you to get to the point.”

“Something tells me you were pretty much the same way twenty years ago.”

“You are very perceptive. But since you are a chaplain, how do I address you? Not being a person of faith I’m not sure what’s proper. Is it Father, Reverend or something else?”

“Edgar is fine.”

“Very well, Edgar. Please describe yourself. I like to have a visual image of who I’m talking with. And being a chaplain, I’m sure you’ll be completely honest regarding your appearance.”

“I wouldn’t be much of a Chaplain if I wasn’t honest. I’m a forty-nine-year-old white male. My hair is already turning gray so I look older than my years. I’m tall. Over six feet. I’m a husband, father of two daughters and one son, and I’m soon to be a grandfather for the first time.”

“Congratulations! A boy or a girl?”

“A girl.”

Looking into the face of a man who was grateful that he still possessed the gift of speech, Edgar innocently asked, “So – what would you like to talk about?”

Without dramatic effect, Nicholas answered, “How about death?”

It was not the response the chaplain was expecting. “Are you sure that’s what you want to discuss today?”

“Yes, today. I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but I’m sort of in a ‘now or never’ situation.”

Edgar considered his request. “I must say, that is the one topic that most people in the hospital do not want to talk about. But if that is your wish, we will discuss it. But first, it’s your turn to provide some personal information.”

“I suppose that’s only fair.”

“Are you from here originally?”

Nicholas shook his head. “I was not born in this state, I only moved here for my career. Of course, I had to retire a few years back.”

“What did you do?”

“I was a history professor.”

“I love history. We can learn so much from it.”

“That’s true, but, regrettably, we rarely do. We make incremental progress, but we also tend to repeat the mistakes of the past. And too often those mistakes lead to death on a mass scale. I’m sure you would agree that to die naturally is preferable – while dying needlessly at the hands of others is both cruel and senseless. However, those seem to be the tragedies we are most prone to repeat.”

The Chaplain thought for a moment and then asked, “Do you think a horrific historical event like the Holocaust could be repeated?”

“Absolutely.”

“But today it would be impossible to keep it hidden.”

“On the other hand, we are far more efficient at killing. We can do it at lightning speed and with heartbreaking precision. Millions could die before the world would be willing to react.”

“It’s a sobering thought.”

“Yes, it is. But I find that death tends to be sobering in most situations – including mine.”

After a brief pause, Edgar decided to steer the conversation back to personal disclosure. “What else can you tell me about yourself?”

“Well, I’m sixty-three. No children. Never married. I had two older brothers. They are both deceased. I was diagnosed with my brain tumor seven years ago. It’s been a long haul but the worst moment was when I realized I could no longer teach……I loved talking to a room full of people who were forced to listen and couldn’t argue with me. Much different than real life.”

“I’m guessing you were an excellent teacher.”

“As long as you keep your personal opinions out of it, history is pretty hard to mess up. What has happened, happened, and that’s all there is to it. The problems occur when you start trying to put your own spin on particular events. I was never interested in that. I prefer cold hard facts. To me they’re comforting. I’ve tried to approach my current situation the same way.”

“How do you mean?”

“I’m going to die. I’ve been in the process of dying for quite some time. It is an inescapable fact that can’t be denied.”

“You don’t believe there is always hope?”

Always? No. Every life runs out of hope at some point. Hope is buried in the cemetery.”

Although Edgar was impressed by his honesty, he wasn’t comfortable dwelling on the patient’s mortality. “Have you always been interested in history?”

“Yes. I was in grade school when JFK was assassinated. I remember that evening during the TV coverage, my dad explained to me that this was a day that would be remembered forever, and even at that young age something clicked. I suddenly realized how important a single moment could be when it’s shared by everyone. And I’ve loved history ever since.

“Of course, when you teach history, you spend a great deal of time focusing on the subject of death. Down through the centuries, it was a frequent companion. Due to rampant disease, poor nutrition, and a lack of sanitation, life expectancy was lower and infant mortality rates were heartbreaking.

“But, sadly, we are responsible for most human suffering. Those who have power, those who want power and those the powerful crush all create history through death. So, if would be fair to say that I’m well acquainted with the subject.”

“I was hoping we could cover more than just that one topic.”

“I assumed you found death as interesting as I do. After all, it is your line of work.”

“I suppose you could look at it that way, but I prefer not to. I try to focus on life. This one and the next one.”

“Ah! You snuck in a plug for eternity.”

“For many people, eternal life is very important.”

“I find it to be an interesting concept myself……Have you ever considered that if eternity exists, it never began? Or that we are always exactly in the middle of eternity? It cannot be otherwise. Every day that passes, another day is added.”

“Sounds like you’ve given this some thought.”

“As you can see, I’ve recently had a lot of time on my hands to ponder the universal truths. However -”

At that moment the door swung open and a middle-aged nurse with years of hard-earned experience stepped into the room. She smiled at the chaplain and then, knowing what was coming, addressed her patient in a wary tone of voice. “Mr. Dickinson, are you comfortable?”

“Carol!! I’ve missed you! Am I comfortable? In a word, NO! I could use a long slow sponge bath. We could put on some soft music if you want. We can even dim the lights, although that won’t make much difference to me.”

“You know that’s not what I meant. Do you need to be repositioned?”

Nicholas turned his head toward Edgar. “Carol just can’t keep her hands off of me. I’m sorry you had to see this.”

The long-suffering nurse remained stoic. “Mr. Dickinson, let’s be nice.”

“Carol, don’t toy with me. Take me. I’m all yours! I am in no position to resist.”

“Stop that.”

“You’re the one that’s flirting!”

The nurse sighed. “I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”

“How can you be sure I don’t have plans? You’re not the only nurse in this hospital you know. I can’t guarantee I’m going to wait for you. This might be your only opportunity.”

The nurse rolled her eyes at the chaplain and left the room.

Amused, Edgar asked, “Is she your favorite nurse?”

“I don’t know. Is she wearing a wedding ring? Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’m not making any long-range plans.”

Edgar had never met anyone who chose to confront the prospect of death in quite this way. He found the man’s attitude intriguing. “Your ability to joke about your illness is unusual.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice – but, ultimately, dying is always the same. Whether it’s a lingering death or a sudden shock, the end result is predictable. But because my disease has progressed so slowly, I’ve had plenty of time to choose how I want to face it.”

“That must be a difficult reality to contemplate.”

“It is – but in my situation, it was necessary. There was a time when I thought it’d be preferable to know when death was imminent, however, now I’m not so sure. I’ve decided there is a certain comfort in not knowing.”

Edgar had never heard a patient talk about death in such stark terms. “I certainly have no interest in knowing ahead of time.”

Nicholas said, “I understand. This might sound odd, but I’m not afraid to die. However, I am tired of waiting to die. I’ve had a death sentence hanging over my head for several years now, and that takes a toll. As my body has deteriorated, it has affected my psychological outlook as well.”

“Do you think that death is a natural part of life?”

“Unfortunately, it is. But that doesn’t make it easier to accept when it’s staring you in the face.”

Edgar could not get over the patient’s willingness to be so honest.

“What about you. As a clergyman are you afraid to die?”

“I wouldn’t say I’m afraid – but I’m in no hurry to die. I’m enjoying my life, and I want to watch my new granddaughter grow up.”

Nicholas understood. “It is because death makes our time in this world finite that life is so precious. But, of course, as you age, your perspective changes. At twenty-five, I didn’t look at life the way I did at fifty. The older I got the more aware I became that the clock was ticking.”

At this point, there was a pause. This was the longest conversation he’d had in quite some time, and Nicholas was surprised by how draining it was. The patient gathered his strength and continued. “It’s an inescapable fact that each morning when we open our eyes, we are one day closer to death.”

Edgar drew a gentle contrast. “On the other hand, each morning when we open our eyes, we’re blessed with another day of life.”

Nicholas smiled at his response. “This is a rare occasion where two different points of view both seem to be correct. The real issue is how many mornings are we allowed to open our eyes. I sometimes wonder if in the distant future they will look back on us with great pity that our lifetimes were measured in decades instead of centuries.”

“Do you think that will really happen?”

“It depends. History has proven that we are our own worst enemies. If we don’t destroy ourselves or the planet, then yes, I think science will be able to extend the human lifespan to lengths we can hardly comprehend.”

“But won’t that create its own set of problems? Overpopulation, lack of resources –”

“A less frequent need for your profession.”

Edgar couldn’t help but chuckle.

Nicholas pressed on. “I’m not saying that a longer lifespan would be possible without significant issues. But for someone like me, it is very appealing to consider. Thankfully, the mind has the amazing ability to compartmentalize so it doesn’t focus continually on mortality. That is fortunate since we prefer not to face the fact that our lives will eventually come to an end – in some cases, slowly and painfully.”

“I believe most people make a conscious choice not to dwell on dying.”

“And that’s because they fear the unexpected. The randomness of death is its most terrifying characteristic. Too often, good people die young, and the wicked live long lives. There is nothing fair about death. Why should a six-year-old child drown in a swimming pool? Why should a family of four be killed by a drunk driver? Why should a shooter kill innocent students in a high school? Why should a history teacher be diagnosed with a lethal brain tumor in the prime of his life?”

“I can’t answer that. No one can except God.”

Nicholas was growing tired and had no desire to question the validity of that particular statement. Instead, he opened up about a private matter. “When you are confronted with death – one of the worst aspects is the regrets you have. My greatest regret is that there will be nothing to remember me by when I’m gone.”

“I’m sure you’ve touched many lives through your teaching.”

“Hopefully, that’s true, but I’m talking about personal creativity. A decade ago. I wrote a historical novel and spent several years trying to get it published, but I finally gave up. Unfortunately, instead of putting it in a bureau drawer like Emily, I became frustrated and destroyed all the copies. Now as I look back, it would have been nice if even one person had stumbled across it after my death and taken the time to read it.”

Edgar found it poignant that a man who knew the end was near was willing to open up in such a personal way. He could only assume that at this point the patient no longer felt the need to keep secrets. 

The teacher, steeped in history, offered a compelling thought. “I often think about what the world would’ve lost if our friend, Miss Dickinson, instead of safeguarding her poems, had decided to burn them. Perhaps Emily knew best of all. It’s not just the life you live that matters, it’s also what you leave behind.”

“Everyone wants to be remembered.”

“Yes, but I fear that I’ve lived a forgettable life.”

“It may be small comfort, but I don’t think I’m ever going to forget you. This is the most unusual conversation I’ve ever had with someone I didn’t know well.”

Nicholas smiled. “You’re sorry you knocked on my door, right?”

“Not at all. It’s just that dying is a subject most people don’t want to discuss. They consider it off-limits or too mysterious.”

“Death is the greatest mystery of all, and yet it is the only certainty in life.”

The chaplain knew how true that statement was.

Nicholas continued to disclose his most private thoughts. “I’ve decided I don’t want a funeral……There’s no point because there would be no mourners.”

“That’s not true. I would come, and I would mourn.”

For a few moments the patient struggled to control his emotions, then he said, “I envy you having a wife and children. When your time comes, they’ll be by your side. But I know I will not be blessed in that way.…… Dying is a private matter – but no one wants to die alone.”

Edgar found the man’s insights touching. It made him wonder what he had chosen to write about. “I wish I could have read your novel.”

Fighting the fatigue that was starting to overwhelm him, Nicholas replied, “Thank you. I wish you could’ve too……People are frightened and at the same fascinated by death. You don’t have to be a history teacher to appreciate that through the ages it has been a favorite subject for novelists, playwrights, and poets like Emily. People are drawn to the thought of dying and at the same time, they’re repelled by it. It is that powerful dynamic that creates great literature.”

The chaplain had noticed that Nicholas’ voice was growing weaker, and he realized he should leave and let him get some rest. He glanced at his watch, but suddenly there was a loud gasp from the bed followed by the unmistakable sounds of choking. Edgar jumped from his chair and went to the patient’s side. “Mr. Dickinson, are you okay? Mr. Dickinson, can you hear me?”

As the patient struggled to get air, there was a sickening gurgling sound escaping from his lungs, punctuated by several more agonizing gasps. Frozen in confusion, Edgar watched as Nicholas desperately tried to speak – but his speech was so slurred, it was unintelligible. A moment later the paralyzed man’s chest heaved and the color quickly began to drain from his face.

The chaplain finally broke free from his shock and bolted into the hallway yelling for help.

It only took seconds for a full team, including Carol to respond to the crisis. Standing in the hallway, Edgar could hear snippets of medical jargon as they worked with rapid efficiency to try to save Nicholas Dickinson’s life.

The chaplain stepped farther away from the door, leaned his back against the wall and began to pray with all his strength. He had done this for patients in distress countless times, but somehow today seemed different. During their brief conversation, Nicholas had touched his heart with his honesty and vulnerability. So, because the chaplain knew this man was ready to die, he simply asked God to do his will – whatever that might be.

Finally, after many minutes of fervent prayer, the medical team slowly began to file out. Thankfully, Edgar could tell from their demeanor that, at least for the moment, their patient had survived. Last out was Carol. She looked over at him with tears in her eyes.

At moments like this, being a chaplain required the utmost compassion and sensitivity. Gently, he asked, “What is our patient’s condition?”

She shook her head. “It’s fortunate that you came to see Mr. Dickinson today. I don’t believe there will be a tomorrow.”

Edgar watched her walk away realizing that Nicholas would soon confront what, only a few minutes earlier, he’d referred to as “the greatest mystery of all”.

He stepped back into the room and was struck by the stillness that gave no evidence of the medical emergency that had just occurred. The man of God reached down, picked up the Bible he’d left on the chair and turned to the verse he wanted. He paused for a few moments and then tenderly read out loud 1 Corinthians 15:51. “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed.” He closed the book and looked at the man who had been a stranger to him just an hour before. The humble chaplain felt honored to have been a part of what was most likely the man’s last conversation in this life.

Quietly, he slipped out of the room and headed down the long hallway, wondering if he would ever see Mr. Dickinson again.

Sadly, he would not.

That night, as predicted, death paid a silent visit and, employing the dreaded stealth that strikes terror in the hearts of humankind, gently took the hand of his chosen victim and led him into eternity. With little more than a whisper, it was over. A life that had been lived to the fullest came to a merciful end without drama or resistance.

But, as we all know, it is the erratic nature of death that makes it so difficult to accept. And on this particular occasion, its unpredictability was truly startling. For reasons that would never be known, death chose not to come for Nicholas Dickinson but rather for the gentle hospital chaplain.

The clergyman who’d mistakenly believed he would outlive an unusual man who was blind and paralyzed perished without a struggle in the stillness of the night.

When Edgar laid his head on the pillow, he had been confident he would live for decades – but his remaining time in this world was, tragically, just a matter of hours. As he peacefully slept, a weakened blood vessel ruptured deep in his cerebrum, causing the hemorrhagic stroke that robbed him of his earthly existence.

With a final heartbeat, his wife was widowed. His children lost their father, and a soon to be born baby girl was forever deprived of the chance to know her grandfather. The loved ones who were left behind would struggle long and hard to pick up the pieces and reclaim a measure of joy and happiness in some distant future.

In its relentlessly arbitrary way, death had decided that two men, one anticipating a long life and one prepared to die at any moment, should trade places.

As always, fairness was not a part of the equation.

A short while later when the first morning light broke through heavy gray clouds, Nicholas opened his eyes, and in his ever-present darkness was surprised to discover that his journey was not yet complete.

As the now-familiar mixture of heartfelt relief and imposing dread swept over him, the history professor realized that his reluctant dance with the inevitable would continue just a little longer.

 

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.

 

Emily Dickinson

Poem 479, 1863

 

 

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