Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dying, Part Five: The Priest

            In the week following Roger’s visit, Scott’s condition had deteriorated quickly.  All sorts of machines were brought in that I recognized from various medical TV shows, but couldn’t really name specifically.  There was the heart thingy with the bleeps, some kind of drippy deal, a kidney cleaner and one or two other things.  All of this, I learned, was designed to keep Scott alive for an extra day or two. 
            Scott himself was still in rather dampened spirits since Roger left.  Bridget popped her head in once or twice, but it didn’t seem to cheer him up at all.  I tried what I could, but there just wasn’t anything that could shake him out of it.  For the moment, on top of his despair, Scott was visibly anxious.  His parents visited yesterday and, through tears and various other displays of grieving, informed him that they had asked one of the local priests to come to the hospital to talk with him and administer the last rites. 
            Both Scott and I are Catholics, but as often happens in the college world, our zeal for the sacraments had dulled a little.  I knew he still went to mass every week, but I also knew it had been years since his last Confession, and he was dreading the list of infractions he would soon be asked to rattle off to the priest.  Admitting your transgressions to anyone was difficult, but Scott’s concerns were deeper than just that.
            “What if it’s not enough?” he said in a hollow voice.  “So I’m forgiven for all the sins and such, but I haven’t exactly been a zealot, you know?  Is going to church and tossing in some community service going to be enough?”
            “I don’t really know,” I shrugged.  “Sorry, I’m not really an expert.”  And I wasn’t.  I hadn’t been any more attentive than he had.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe or anything like that.  I guess it just didn’t seem as important the past few years.
            “But you’ve been a good guy as long as I’ve known you,” I said, trying to sound encouraging.  “I can’t imagine your Heavenly Resume having too many black marks on it.”  Scott snorted and cracked a half grin.  It was the first time I had seen him smile in three days.
            “Maybe I’ve done a few things you don’t know about,” he replied with a sly look.  I shook my head at him and he sighed.
            “I’m not ready for this,” Scott said earnestly.  “This is getting a little too real.  I’ve only got a little more than a week or so and I don’t feel any more prepared than I did the day I found out.”
            “Well, like I said before,” I replied.  “Maybe it’s just not something you can ever really prepare for.”  Scott frowned.
            “I thought that’s what all this religion was for, you know?  I thought if I lived like I was supposed to and took all the lessons to heart, then I’d have a better understanding of what comes after this.”
            “Oh, I don’t know about that,” I said thoughtfully.  “I think, rather than a preparation for death, it’s supposed to be a prescription for life.  It’s like what Dewey said about education.  It’s not a preparation for the future, it is life itself.”  Scott rolled his eyes.
            “Yeah alright, professor.  So I’ve lived this good life and all and I don’t mean to be impertinent, but what’s the ‘man upstairs’ got for me now?”  A silence filled the room as Scott finished.  I wasn’t a hundred percent comfortable with answering his question, but I knew he meant it.  A cautions feeling of relief came over me, however, when I noticed the black clad figure standing in the doorway.  The priest looked to be about fifty years old.  His hair was graying and his face slightly wrinkled.  He glided into the room casually and looked from me to Scott.  We both nodded a little and said ‘hello father’ in unison.  He smiled at us and sat down in a chair next to the bed.
            “Hello, gentlemen,” he said in a deep, husky voice.  “My name is Father Carroll.  Which one of you is Mr. Scott Meyers?”  We both fumbled for a few moments before Scott sputtered out:
            “The um, dying one.  Er, I am, Father.”  Father Carroll smiled and extended a hand.  Scott took it and shook.  Father Carroll then turned to me.
            “And that would make you Jonathan Henk?” 
            “Jack,” I said nervously.  “I mean, yeah.  Hi.”  We shook hands and Father Carroll turned back to Scott. 
            “Now,” he said with a grin.  “I understand you have been out terrorizing patients and nurses for the past two weeks.  Nothing interesting on the television?”  Scott coughed a bit and forced a half smile.
            “No, I mean…well,” he stammered.  Then, gathering himself for a moment, he spoke with an unexpected confidence.  “I’m not ready to face death without some concrete idea of what I’m up against, so I’ve been talking to some people to try to get a better understanding of what is about to happen to me.”
            “Hm,” the priest mumbled, pondering the statement.  “And what did you find out, Mr. Meyers?”  Scott took a deep breath that puffed up his chest as though ready to make some great statement.  When his lungs reached capacity, however, he burst out in a string of coughs that deflated him almost entirely.
            “Not a lot,” he said, when the coughing subsided.  “I’ve essentially learned that you can’t tell people what dead is or how they should die and that I ought to live how I know is right no matter what my situation while finding out what death really means to me.  That’s about it.”  He finished, exasperated, and stared at the priest.  Father Carroll nodded and waited for a moment to be sure he was finished. 
            “Well,” he said, once he was certain he would not interrupt.  “That doesn’t sound like too bad a start.  I’m not certain I follow where you’re coming from with the first half, but all that about living how you know is right and knowing what dying means to you seems pretty sound.”
            “Ok, sure,” Scott said, his voice showing his frustration.  “But that just brings me back to square one.  All I wanted to know was what death was really in the first place.  So now I’m supposed to know what it is for me?  That’s not really getting me any closer.” 
            “I don’t know if I would say that,” said Father Carroll.  “Dying is just one part of living, right?  So why shouldn’t death reflect life?”  Scott looked uncertain and I was at a bit of a loss.  This was out of my league and I knew it, but Father Carroll seemed to be in his element.
            “As Catholics, we believe in an afterlife, right?  But even that life hinges on how we lived in this life.  So if you feel that you have lived a good life now, then dying is nothing to worry about.  If you have not lived a good life, you should maybe be a little nervous.  But the way I see it, if you were going to honestly change how you live, you would have done it by now.  Death is just the conclusion to the story of this life and it is rarely a twist ending.  You see - ”
            “But what if I don’t believe in an afterlife?” Scott asked, interrupting.  The priest was a little taken aback, but he thought about the question.
            “Well, it’s not really my area of expertise, but I wouldn’t think that would change things all that much.  Even if you don’t believe there is something after this, death is just the period at the end of a sentence.  If you lived peacefully, you’ll die knowing that you were a peaceful person.  If you lived violently, you’ll die knowing that.  At this point, you’re already the man you’ll be when you die.  You may not be sure of who that is, but don’t think death is going to change that.”  Scott sat quietly for a long time, the gears turning slowly behind his eyes.  After a long time in silence, he spoke with a cold, deadpan demeanor.
            “I’ve always thought of the question of ‘who am I’ as something little teenagers ask themselves when they don’t fit in or something.  It never really occurred to me until now that maybe that’s a question we should all be asking ourselves every day.  Who am I and am I ok with the answer.” 
            “It’s an important question,” Father Carroll said, his tone warm, but serious.  “And I think that, given a little time, you can find the answer.”  He paused for a few moments as his words sunk in.  Scott’s gaze remained stable, but the tension in his face seemed to relent as he breathed. 
            “Now, Scott,” Father Carroll whispered.  “I hoped you wouldn’t mind talking with me in private for a little before I administer the last rites; in case you had anything to confess…”  Scott nodded slowly and Father Carroll turned to me and smiled.  I smiled back and turned away from the bed.  I could hear their quiet voices beginning the Act of Reconciliation as I walked out of the room.  Down the hall, I could see Bridget getting off the elevator and turning in my direction.  My heart skipped a beat, but I tried to keep my composure.  As she approached, I smiled and waved awkwardly. 
            “Hey,” she said, returning my smile politely.  “Is Scott asleep?”
            “No,” I replied.  “But he’s in there with Father Carroll right now.  I’m not sure how long he’ll be talking to him.”
            “Oh, I see,” Bridget said, looking a little surprised.  She looked away for a moment, a perplexed look on her face. 
            “Something wrong?” I asked, worried I had offended her with either my smell or my appearance.
            “No no,” she said.  “I just didn’t realize…”  There was a pause for a moment as I waited for her to continue.  I soon realized she would not, so I tried to fill it in for her.
            “That he was Catholic?  Yeah, sorry.”
            “Er, yeah.  Don’t be sorry,” she said, half laughing while she spoke.
            “I’m not,” I replied, my head swirling.  I tried very hard to compose myself, but my feelings on Bridget are already well documented.
            “We both are,” I said, pushing the thought out one word at a time.  “We met in church, actually, but not like, in the good way.”  She raised her eyebrows curiously and I realized I needed to qualify my answer.
            “We went to a Catholic college and our freshman year we both got busted for drinking on campus in separate events.  Mine was a load of crap really.  I wasn’t even really drinking, my roommate was.  I was really un-” I cut when I realized I was rambling.  For her part, Bridget was being very polite.
            “Anyway,” I continued.  “As punishment we had to clean pews at the church and that’s how we met.”
            “Oh, cool,” Bridget said, her head bobbing up and down.  “Sorry about my reaction there, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.  I was never religious myself so I guess the whole idea takes me off guard a little.
            “Yeah, I can understand that,” I replied.  “I was raised Catholic from day one and I still have some trouble with it.”
            “Does it help much in times like these?” she asked, her face contorting immediately as though she regretted the question.  I smiled to reassure her and answered.
            “Well, it does and it doesn’t.  It helps me to think that Scott will go on at some level of existence, but it doesn’t really do anything to help the fact that he’s gone from me.  I mean, we say they always stay in your heart, but when someone dies, I don’t know.  No matter how well I hold on to and honor his memory, he’s still never going to be standing next to me, telling me I’m an idiot for liking Marvel more than DC again.  It’s stuff like that that really hurts, you know?”  Bridget nodded and gave me an understanding smile. 
            “I know, it’s tough.  I know my father will never stand next to me and hold my hand again or anything like that.  He’s just going to lie there until he passes away.”
            “It’s hard to take,” I said, my face growing hot as I fought against the slowly sprouting tears.  “There isn’t anything either of us can do for them.  It’s like all we are is spectators, watching as they inch away from life.  He’s so bent on knowing and I feel terrible that I can’t help.  I feel like I’ve let him down.”  She put her hand on my shoulder, and the first tear escaped from my eye. 
            “Scott’s still alive and you can still be there for him.  If I’ve learned anything from talking with you two, I know you’re not going to let him down.  If it helps any, I’ll be there with you.”  It did.  The tears now flowed freely from my face, but the knowledge that I wouldn’t stand by Scott alone was a help.  I don’t know where I got the nerve to do it, but I turned and hugged her tight, crying onto her shoulder.  Any chance at impressing her with some kind of macho fortitude was blown out the window, but I didn’t really care.  She patted my back and I sobbed, looking for something inside myself that would give me the strength to face the final days of my best friends life.

End of Part Five