I was precariously winding my way through snow-covered streets in my neighbourhood a few days ago, trying to keep moving so as not to get stuck. At one point, I glided through and unmarked intersection coming out of an alley, and just as I crossed the sidewalk I noticed a young man less than a meter from my side window. I wasn’t going fast—certainly not fast enough to do any kind of damage—but it still felt like a bit of a close call.
I made it to my house and parked the car. Looking up the sidewalk I noticed the young man ambling toward me. He was a stringy fellow, unkempt, disheveled, long trench coat, black boots, wispy facial hair. His stride was languid and uneven, his gaze erratic and empty. “Hey, sorry about that back there, I didn’t see you.” He seemed to take a few moments to register that someone was speaking to him. Eventually, he turned and said, “Oh, back there? Yeah, don’t worry about that… You know, I don’t really care if I die, I would just be worried about making a mess of your car, so…” He stared blankly at me for a few seconds. I returned the favour.
The absurdity of his comment was matched only by the strange sadness I felt in hearing it. I doubt he could have made a dent in my car at the speed I was going and the risk to his life in our near miss was, shall we say, minimal? But what a thing for a young man with so much life in front of him to say. He was almost certainly in a chemically altered state of some kind or another as evidenced by the odours he was emitting, his general mannerisms, and the odd nature of the rest of our conversation (he asked for my name twice, as well as whose house we were standing in front of… twice). “So you really don’t care if you die?” I said. “No man, it don’t matter. I’m not afraid to die. I’m just glad I didn’t make a mess on your car…” And with that, and a limp, appropriately nihilistic handshake, he trudged off.
As I reflected on the encounter later that day, I couldn’t shake what seemed to be his casual and cavalier approach to death. “I don’t really care if I die… I’m not afraid of death.” Still having Lord of the Rings on the brain, as per our family’s tradition of watching the trilogy each Christmas, Aragorn’s warning to Frodo about the Ringwraiths at the Prancing Pony in Bree came to mind:
Aragorn: Are you frightened?
Aragorn: Not nearly frightened enough. I know what hunts you.
Are you not afraid of death? You should be. I know what hunts you. What hunts all of us.
I spent yesterday afternoon with a dying woman. I am told by healthcare professionals that death eventually can come to seem normal, routine even. No so for me. Each encounter with death or the process of dying leaves me reeling, no matter how old the person happens to be, no matter if death is by this point a welcome mercy or a shattering tragedy. A light goes out and so much is lost. So many stories untold, so many unspoken words, so many unforgiven transgressions, so many loves and longings that will now never find expression, so many wounds that can now only await heaven’s healing balm. Even in the cases of those who die at peace with God, self, and neighbour, there remains, I think, an unfinished element to all human stories. Death is the path to life eternal, yes, but on this end it is experienced as a thief. Death is a defeated enemy, yes, and thanks be to God; but an enemy it remains.
At the hospital yesterday my thoughts returned to the young man I encountered on the street. I don’t know much of anything about him or why he responded to me the way that he did. Maybe his brain was a toxic conflagration of drugs and porn and violent video games. Or, maybe he had recently suffered great loss. Maybe he has seen things that I can’t imagine. Maybe he was in the throes of an existential crisis and truly was despairing of life itself. Perhaps what he needed at that moment was a pastor rather than a distracted dad scrambling to get the kids ready in between Christmas gatherings. Christ have mercy…
Whatever the case might be, I wish I could have brought this young man to the hospital and shown him what death looks like, whether for the first time or just as a reminder. I wish he could have seen rasping panicked breaths and laboured, groaning speech. I wish he could have seen a skeletal frame that would not house breath and love and life for many more days. I wish he could have seen how the specter of death affects the living, for this is surely the hardest thing to behold. I wish he could have seen that it is a frightening thing when something as precious as life is lost.
Maybe if he would have seen all of this he would have been frightened enough of death to be struck with appropriate force—for the first time or just as a reminder—of the staggering gospel imperative, Do not be afraid. Maybe if the two of us had spent some time together with death and with the One who has conquered it we could have not cared about and not been afraid of death in the right way and for the right reasons.