In the end, death would come for him in his sleep, waking him for a few brief moments, before whisking him away.
In the darkness of the warm room, with the subtle understanding that the moment he’d been thinking about for so many months, at times even dreading, now was upon him, he was able to think more clearly and calmly than he ever had. He awakened...as if his eyes were finally opened and fixed upon the One Great Truth. His final few moments on this earth would prove be the most lucid of his entire life.
He sensed he was naked and lying on his back. He found himself afloat in a calm and peaceful ocean of dark, thick, comforting blue liquid. He had the sensation of drifting. Indiscriminate and indiscernible memories, exploding in sporadic flashes of light and sensation, began to return to him…one by one. They came in their own order and in no particular chronology. In what remained of his consciousness, he was seeing obscure parts of his life pass before him.
With his back arched in a gentle curve, only his face and a part of his bare chest remained above the warm liquid. All was quiet in his world, except for the muffled words of a prayer he kept hearing. Someone, and he knew not who, somewhere above him or perhaps behind…somewhere out of his sight, was faintly whispering...
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures…”
He could hear the slow rhythmic chant in that way voices and sounds come to you when your ears are below water.
As these flashes and bursts of his life’s experiences continued to unfold before him, as if upon a giant movie screen, he could feel himself slowly beginning to sink below the gently rolling surface of the endless ocean of blue.
His comfort and stillness quickly turned to panic as he realized that he was no longer floating, but now drowning…taking the dark and salty liquid into his lungs. Despite his every urge to do so, a powerful yet comforting force within him was urging him not to resist. He obeyed and simply surrendered.
“He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake…”
With each burst of light...another memory. One by one, rising up like sea swells and then just as quickly disappearing into themselves. He soon realized, in those final minutes and moments, the images which he was witnessing were not the crucial moments of his life.
Instead, his journey was taking him to the outer reaches of his memory…out to a place where inconsequential and meaningless events, covered in the dust of long forgotten time, were piled up like old magazines.
“He leads me beside the quiet waters. He restores my soul…”
He recalled an article he'd read in a newspaper as a young teenager many, many years before…one about a priest who had been killed by a bullet while giving communion to soldiers in a jungle. It had made no sense to him back then but now, it was suddenly crystal clear.
“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake…”
Then came another memory…this one about an old suitcase that he’d almost left behind in his father’s attic when he left home to begin a life on his own. That old leather valise was a gift to him from his grandmother, years after the man who owned it, his grandfather, died in a pile of snow on a cold Christmas Eve night.
“He was carrying this when he arrived at Ellis Island,” he remembered his grandmother saying in that delightful, melodic voice of broken English. “It seems a hundred years ago and more now. He would have wanted you to have it as you start out on your own journey.”
“Yea…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”
Next came a brief glance from a stranger. He recalled it as vividly as the day it happened. He and his sister were just children at the time, waiting in a train depot in the small Pennsylvania town where he was born. Their mother was taking them away from their father again. The stranger’s stare, accompanied by a smaile, made him feel that everything was going to be OK in the end.
These and other meaningless memories were coming back to him one after another. Inconsequential fragments of a life lived all too quickly paraded before his closed eyes…all gathering at once during those final moments. Mere seconds that were no longer portions of time but something else. Visions stretching out into eternity.
“Your rod and thy staff, they comfort me…”
Time had become suspended…just as his body was suspended, floating in the warm, blue, bottomless liquid.
Opening his eyes, his mother’s face emerged from out of the white clouds and blue sky high above him. It had been so long since he had seen her this clearly.
“You prepare a table before me.”
She spoke not a word at first. Her black eyes glistened just the way he had always remembered…always as if she was on the verge of tears.
As he gazed at her, and she back at him, he had a curious thought. One that found its way into words...
“Mamma,” he said. “Tell me. What were you thinking in your final moments? What were your thoughts when you realized your passing was as inevitable and as unavoidable as mine is now.”
“In the presence of my enemies you anoint my head with oil.”
Maybe she too had remembered places from her life…perhaps the house in which she’d raised him…the long hallway on the second floor. Maybe the living room where she would sit after dinner in her chair...the one with the carved wooden arms that looked like the necks of swans.
Or maybe she thought about him as he was now thinking of her. Wouldn’t that have been something!
She just continued to smile at him...lovingly. Peacefully. Yes...she might well have been thinking of him. She may have had her own thoughts and her own memories of their time together…things he himself had long ago forgotten until this very moment. Or perhaps he never knew them at all.
There was the time when he was just a small boy…not more than five or six years old. He was hiding from her…behind the freshly-washed bed sheets that were blowing in the breeze on clotheslines his father had strung between two poles in the backyard of their house.
He listened to her, calling out his name in Italian, pretending she could not see his little feet below the bottoms of the sheets...or his little body silhouetted on the cloth, all the while he hid from her.
She pretended not to see him or know where he was. But she was never too far away…always watching him from the corner of her eye, making sure he was safe.
“My cup overflows.”
Yes… maybe this is what she was thinking in her own last moments in time.
But finally she spoke to answer his questions. And when she did, her words came from somewhere outside of this world…from a place and a time that he could not comprehend.
And her words were not spoken, as one would normally hear words, but they came to him in glorious colors and the most vivid light...
“I remembered lying on the beach,” she spoke to him. “I remember feeling the wind blowing the tiny grains of sand across my face, stinging my skin. I lay there thinking, “if I can just keep still long enough, the sand will cover me over.”
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life”
With his eyes now closed, envisioning his mother being covered over by millions of tiny grains of sand, he sank completely below the surface of the liquid for the last time.
“and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
He drifted downward…in a slow spiral…to a place where the sunlight could no longer reach him. He could feel the liquid in which he was suspended becoming colder…and colder…until it numbed his body and he had no more thoughts.