Chapter 1: An Introduction
Death can really muck up your plans. Or so I’ve heard.
I generally go about my day, doing my job, meeting new people, checking names off my “to do” list. Today should not have been any different, but I decided to take control of a situation I had no business being part of.
It’s the end of January and I’m standing in the lobby of the cancer center at one of the nation’s leading research hospitals – we’ll get to my reason for being here in just a bit. Deceptive sun floods through the double door entry and glassed ceiling above. I say deceptive because I know the temperature outside to be at least ten degrees below freezing. Near me is a friendly receptionist stationed at the information desk. Her perfume smells sweet, almost of spring flowers, which is odd on such a cold wintry day. Middle-aged with big hair, dangly bracelets and an ill-fitting blouse that causes a battle between her cleavage and shirt buttons, she kindly gives first-time visitors directions. She smiles each time and often comments on the weather. She compliments them on their jackets or scarves or shoes; it’s her way of easing their stress. I conclude that she must not be a native of the city. She speaks a little too loudly and with a trace of a rural accent. This is a good occupation for her, she performs well.
“Yes Mam, to get to patient rooms, take the elevators directly behind me to the seventh floor. The nurses will be able to tell you which room she is in.” Her head is cocked to the side and a sincere smile on her face as she speaks to a troubled woman in her seventies. The old woman’s orthopedic shoes squeak on the sterile floor as she walks away. She is here to see her friend, one who was diagnosed with stage four terminal cancer just three weeks ago.
A man and woman, both with weary eyes and tired postures, approach the desk. He retrieves a creased appointment card from his pocket with an unsteady hand. Recognizing the color and blocked letters on the card, the tight shirted lady informs “Treatment rooms and check-in for procedures is just down the hall on the left. Someone at that station will be able to give you more information and the forms you’ll need to fill out.” As they walk away, the wife grabs her husband’s hand and gives it a reassuring squeeze. His first round of chemotherapy is today.
A few minutes later a family of three approaches the desk to inquire about the location of the pediatric oncologist they will be visiting for the first time to discuss their son’s recent test results. “If you have an appointment or consultation with one of our physicians, go through the double doors just to the right.” She points and her bracelets dangle and her perfume wafts. “Offices are at the end of the hall.” She leans over her desk to get a better look at the eight year old boy’s shoes. “Well aren’t those some fancy shoes young man!” The receptionist gushes in that over-exaggerated way that some people speak to children. “I bet you can run fast and jump high in those! Mmm Hmm. That color is just too fabulous!”
The boy brightens for the first time today. “I can!” he confirms with confidence. “I got them for Christmas, green is my favorite color.” The mother gives the receptionist an appreciative smile and mouths thank you. The father puts his hand around the boy’s shoulder and smiles as he looks down at the bright green athletic shoes they purchased for said running and jumping – although his son has done little of either lately.
Several other patients and visitors enter the building at once. The barrier from the outside temporarily broken, a burst of cold air swirls around our ankles and the noise from the street turns heads. In the distance, sirens ring and horns blast due to a traffic accident just a few blocks away. An accident I’ve just come from. Before that accident I met a man in his office who had just suffered a heart attack. Last night I was at the home of an elderly woman who lived alone. I met her peacefully in her sleep.
People have called me many names throughout history – Angel of death, Grim Reaper, Santa Muerte. Some people fear me, some people welcome me. Some beg me to leave while others beg me to come. But the pleading for one or the other has no weight, I have an assignment and I have never failed. Until today.
You are most likely familiar with the disturbing figure in the black cloak with the sickle? I certainly have never worn that garb and I am convinced none of my colleagues have either. Humans imagine things when they are afraid. And most people, whether they are willing to admit it or not, are afraid of death. I do not come cloaked in darkness. I do not hide in the shadows waiting to steal the life of your best friend or dear child or sweet grandmother. I do not make the assignments, I follow orders. My work concerns transition. My desire is to ensure you are removed from your current existence in a respectful way. Most of my kind share my aspirations – the business of death could never be handled by one immortal. Yes, there have been a few that have gone rogue – the story of Thanatos and Sisyphus comes to mind – but order is generally restored. There are many stories I could tell you about those like me, however, I want you to understand what I do from my point of view – one that you have never heard.
I am an agent of death – a representative or a “go-between” one might say. Allow me to share some of my stories of what it’s like to be the one present in the moment one dies, to enlighten you about my position by telling you of some of my charges. I’ll share with you about those leaving their known existence, and I’ll tell you about the ones left behind. People respond to my touch in different ways, their response changes stories and shapes history. You will discover that death [me] is, as you all tend to say, the great equalizer. I am also the great connector, because let’s be honest – I am something you all have in common. You cannot hide or bargain your way out of my meetings, but what I hope you gain from my account is an understanding.