It’s easy to walk through life under the illusion that you know a thing or two. That all changes when you witness the death of someone you love. And I don’t mean getting a phone call that’s one person trying to explain that suddenly and inexplicably someone close to you will never be there again. That brings its own brand of terrible. I mean actually sitting in some room while someone close to you struggles minute by agonizing minute to detach their consciousness from their body. It isn’t like the movies. It isn’t all pale skin and meaningful musings followed by a sudden drop of the head and unblinking stare into eternity. Death crawls in like a great lurking beast. It stalks its prey, prowls around the room making sure that everyone knows its there, then pounces on its victim and sits with its full weight on their chest, toying with their gasping, struggling, there-but-not-really-there soul until finally they suffocate and succumb to exhaustion all at the same time. Once their life is gone, a vast hollow, black hole silence fills the room as death stalks from person to person reminding each of them that, although it might not be today and it might not be tomorrow, he’s coming back for them, and their end will be just as senseless and just as harrowing.
My step mom, Sue, lost her battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) two months after Katie and I married. For four years, we all looked on as her illness took her ability to stand, then her ability to walk, then her dexterity, and on and on until she started loosing the ability to swallow. The end came so fast, but when it did come, it happened in slow motion. The last time I saw her, she was dying. We sat for hours and just watched it happen, totally helpless, totally dumbfounded. She died in the early hours of the morning the next day while Katie and I slept.
Two months later, my grandfather succumbed after an extended battle with an unshakable struggle with pneumonia. I was working at a retail clothing store when I got the call to come say my goodbyes, but when I got there, I walked in to find I was too late. He was reclined and slouched slightly to one side, his usually meticulously groomed coif disheveled, his body and skin slightly jaundiced and sagging from the unnatural relaxation of death.
When my bereavement time was over, I decided life was too short to go back to retail hell. The hours were too erratic, the demands too high, and the rewards too few. I’d sold several paintings in the months leading up to my departure, so I decided I’d have a go at being a professional artist. Katie made enough money nannying to pay our bills and feed us, so she agreed that I should at least give it a shot. And that’s what I did.
What followed was the best spring and summer of my life. I worked when I wanted to, and didn’t when I didn’t. On Ash Wednesday late that winter, I got my first major commission: our church was doing a new sermon series that needed comic book style art as props for each Sunday’s sermon, and each week another artist and I would hand paint a new illustration on one of the plate glass windows that made up the front of our church building. With a few promising pieces to work on for the church, I started working on pieces for my first arts and crafts festival. The small dining area of our one bedroom apartment served as my studio when I had my own reference photos to work from. When I didn’t, I drove Katie to work and then settled in at the community library and worked on animal studies until she called for me to come pick her up.
As deadlines approached, the church added a new project: they wanted us to write and illustrate our own miniature graphic novel to be handed out on Easter Sunday. We had a week to get the story down and the illustrations finished. After several meetings and drawing sessions that lasted well into the night, we finished it and sent it to the printers.
As the heart of spring approached, I finished all of my animal and plant drawings and showed them in my first outdoor arts and crafts festival. It was a moderate success, but I was on top of the world.
As the vibrant, electric greens of spring deepened into the heavy, overheated green of summer, I fell deeply and madly in love with the Christian faith I’d leaned on when Sue died and decided to pursue days before my grandfather died. I was only mildly interested in art in comparison. I’d felt the call to shepherd others within and toward the light of the Divine my whole life, even in the depths of my atheism, so I committed to pursuing rebaptism and a formal religious education.
I had never been more content or fulfilled. When you’re young and naive, you don’t realize the opposition you’ll come up against when you’re pursuing your calling. All kinds of beasts, both personal and external, were prowling on the fringes of my vocation. But, at the time, nothing could’ve torn me from my devotion and joy. I was walking out my dreams, arms outstretched, fully committed, trusting whole heartedly the calling I felt on my life. No one ever tells you how the nameless evil that lurks at the thresholds of your life can and does use your callings and passions to tempt you into its purposes and schemes.
I felt impervious.
I was wrong, but I’ve never felt so free.
I’d experienced a lot of life. I’d experienced my fair share of death. I thought I knew a thing or two.
I didn’t know a damn thing.