It was a couple of days after the Boston Marathon bombing and I was sitting in the back row of the bus. Just as we were about to roll out of the park-and-ride lot, a man boarded the bus. I watched him as he walked down the aisle, he was brown-skinned, of Indonesian or possibly Pakistani descent.
There were two things that struck me about this fellow as he made his way toward the back row where I sat:
- Although it was a brisk day, he was sweating profusely.
- He was carrying what appeared to be an impossibly heavy backpack, holding the right shoulder strap in front of him with two taut hands to help ease the load.
The brown-skinned man sat down one seat away from me carefully placing the backpack directly in front of him. I looked over, noticing the sweat glistening on his brow, his labored breathing—was he exhausted from carrying the pack or nervous about what he was about to do?
He reached down and began to unzipper the top opening of the pack. At my core I felt at ease, but a twitchy, nervous part inside me began silently yelping—he’s a bomber, he’s reaching into the bag to detonate a device, he’s about to blow up the bus!
At that moment, he pulled his hand out of the backpack holding a small container of skin-softening lotion. He opened it, applied the lotion onto the backs of both hands and vigorously rubbed it in. It quickly dawned on me that a man concerned about dry, chapped hands was not about to blow up the bus.
This later got me thinking about death and how most of us don’t know when it’s going to happen.
I recently read the book In the Presence of Angels by Andrea Garrison and it chronicles the death of the author’s mother, Mattie Pearl. As the end draws near after a long illness, Mattie seems to have one foot in this world and the other in the afterlife. She is visited by angels who serve as “official greeters to heaven” who want her to know that “something beautiful is waiting for her”.
Mattie Pearl sees her impending death clearly and is able to let her daughter know the precise day when she will die. She schedules meetings with old friends and relatives, some who she has spoken with in years, and is able to set everything just right before she passes on as well as pass along some wisdom. In Andrea’s words:
As the day of the departure came closer, Mom became more determined to communicate messages of love to everyone who visited her. She said it was about spirit, heart and love. Love is the most important thing. It is all that matters.
I am reminded too of corporate exec Eugene O’Kelly who at the age of 53 finds out he has three months to live. He develops a detailed game plan as to how he was going to spend his final days, scheduling meetings with colleagues and close friends. He even takes up meditation and for the first time in his life is able to slow down and find the joy of something he calls the “perfect moment”.
But what of those who have no time to plan meetings with friends and family and lose their lives in an instant—through a sudden heart attack, an automobile accident, a natural disaster or a random act of violence? What if there is no time for preparation and life is yanked from you like a rug pulled out from under your feet?
In the devotional blog The River Walk, the author who identifies himself only as BJ examines the Bible passage 2 Samuel 14:14: All of us must die eventually. Our lives are like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. He then looks at his own life and asks some pointed questions that we might also ask ourselves:
Every day I have lived in my life is a day that I can never get back. Like water on the ground, I cannot recover it. The question is, did I pour it out or was it spilled out? The day I am living today, the one I will live tomorrow, am I investing it with purpose or am I just accidentally tripping my way through it?
If it all suddenly ended today, can you say you have lived your life with purpose—or are you bumbling through it? Are you in good standing with your friends and family? Can you say that you accomplished what you set out to do during your time on earth or were at least making progress toward some ultimate goal? Are you fully engaged in life?
I personally answer these questions with half-yeses, and I realize there is work for me to do, and I know there is no better time to get started than right now.
This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, June 7, 2013.