by Dr. Bill Maynard
Helen is becoming more translucent by the moment, and eternity shimmers through her like light through a fraying curtain. In fact, she has been almost see-through for years, as her parchment-like skin has thinned down like cellophane, revealing every blood vessel and bruise. She has also been disappearing through emaciation from bowel obstructions. Yet now she is vanishing into the distance. She recedes farther every hour, and I am no longer trying desperately to haul her back. No medicine can halt her journey now.
Sitting at her bedside, I keep mulling over lines from W. B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium”:
An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap it hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
I think the Irish poet had in mind achieving immortality through art. But this aged woman is achieving immortality through an eternal being. Though now but a paltry thing, she is a woman of deep faith in God; and though her hands are grossly deformed from the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis, yet her soul is indeed clapping heartily and singing lustily.
Such a scene can be beautiful. It can also be hideous – if I give you the impression otherwise, I am doing a disservice. There have been fear and pain over the last several days. Delirium drifts through Helen’s head like tendrils of fog – a mingled mist of nitrogen waste from failing kidneys, low oxygen from a faltering heart, and the haze of pain medications. At times she appears poised on the threshold of another realm, and then she becomes almost completely transparent.
Last night she suddenly sat up in bed, gesturing and remarking, “See how beautiful they are!” “It’s the morphine,” the nurse explained – Morpheus was after all the god of dreams – but Helen’s son is convinced it was angels, not phantoms. At times a wisp of fog will lift, and Helen will come unexpectedly closer to us. Now is one of those lucid moments. She stirs, recognizes me, and reaches out. Her hand is cold, but her voice is warm. “You know, people wouldn’t believe the kind of friendship we have had.” I realize that she is referring to our long medical journey together, but more especially she means the Christian fellowship we have enjoyed. Over the years she has humbly acquainted me with her lustrous life of love for God and man.
He is calling her now. The veil is so thin! This could be our last moment together. Her grip is weakening. She is drifting away like a shining boat on a wine-dark sea, bound for a shore I cannot make out. But before the curtain drops on her time this side of Heaven, she has one more thing to say to me – one gleaming beam that pierces like a diamond. Her eyes kindle; her feeble lips form words that echo in my heart even today. “Someday we are going to figure out just how big we are and how small we are.”
Helen has led a radiant life. Now in death she imparts to her family and others the wisdom and blessing of immense clarity from the boundary of two realms. I submit to you that such paradoxes are what the human drama is about – the enormity, yet intimacy, of God and the tininess, yet significance, of mankind because of God’s compassion.
How big we are and how small we are. The constructs of materialism, humanism, and moralism fail to account adequately for the complex, beautiful, broken reality in which we live or the miracle of human experience. They do not help us make sense of life or promise to meet our chronically unmet yearnings. Is there any other narrative that does? How big we are and how small we are!