I watched the subtle rise and fall of my chest yesterday and wondered:
What if it stopped? What if my heart stopped right now?
It was a horrendous thought. Horrendous because I’ve chosen to spend my days thinking about how to fill them, not how they will someday end. Recently though, I’ve thought a lot about death. Not in a morbidly obsessive way, but rather in a matter-of-fact-this-is-going-to-happen way. Because it will. Sooner or later it will.
I’d like to believe that I will grow old. That I will wear sweater sets, use a cane and take heart in singing to plants and playing games of Scrabble. That I will take my last breaths in the comfort of my own bed after a life well lived. That I will have earned my laugh and frown lines. And that my spirit will still be young and strong despite its vessel being old and weak. But there is no guarantee that my end will be this way. There is no guarantee that my last heartbeats will be slow and steady as they march toward my death. And quite frankly, that scares me.
I once had a dream about my wake. I was laid in a white coffin, dressed in an outfit I’d never seen and covered head to toe in thin lace netting. My hair was done up, which I never do, and my lips were stained a garish red. The room was wall-to-wall with people, but no one passed in front of my casket. No one wept or extended their hand to cover mine. And when the priest asked if anyone had anything to share, no one spoke. No one.
I woke in a panic thinking about the hairsprayed coiffé, the horrible lipstick and the deafening silence. And suddenly all the horrible things I’ve done and said lay before me like the countless pebbles on that tiny beach in Maine.
I remembered my childhood and the mountain of untruths I told. I remembered how I laughed with my friends at Barbara Denk who smelled, we said, but to whom we never got close enough to test out. I remembered how I yelled at my Grandmere after she’d asked me 209 times where my Papa was. How He’s dead seemed utterly cruel to share with her Alzheimer-ridden mind. And how I once told a boy I still loved him just as he told me he loved someone else. I didn’t though. I just wanted him to love me instead. Those are just a few, of course; there are pebbles that are more grievous and some that are less. But all of them bring me back to the admonishment of earlier this year:
You are a good person, Dani. But you need to be better.
It had been a terrible Saturday. I was very ill and had started to shake uncontrollably, as I nursed pain that felt like a forest fire moving east to west inside my upper abdomen. Bishop and Sister Hall arrived as I was in the thick of it. And before I knew it, Bishop anointed my head with oil and began to pray over me. The prayer was earnest and simple, imploring for the pain to subside and my health to return. I felt his hands shake a little upon my scalp and heard a hitch in his breath as he invoked the name of Jesus Christ and finally said Amen. As he stepped away, I felt my body go limp and saw a flash of brilliant blues and pinks. Then he appeared.
He was glorious as angels go: a beautiful strong nose, bright blue eyes a shade lighter than my mother’s, and a kind upturned mouth. His hands were unblemished and rosy, like the skin of a newborn, his fingers long and delicate.
He called me by name and shared with me some of my truths. And if I remember correctly, he reached his hands toward me more than once. Because I remember wanting to reach back and hoping that that is what Heaven feels like.
Then he slowly began to back away and said this, his last words to me:
You are a good person, Dani. But you need to be better.
When I came to I was crying. I immediately told my husband about the angel and what he’d said, to which he responded with tears. He later reminded me that I was being pumped full of powerful drugs, that I wasn’t well, that perhaps I didn’t actually see what I saw. But I wouldn’t accept it. He called me by name; he knew my heart. It was real. And he was real too.
I haven’t seen him since that day and I’m okay with that. Seeing an angel once was more than I ever hoped for and I don’t plan on wasting his advice and admonition. And while I know what I know and know what I saw, I’m still terrified of dying. I’m still terrified of leaving this Earth before I’ve done something worth remembering, something that will move people to cover my hands with theirs as I lay still in my casket. Something that will render me forever a passenger in the hearts of those I love.
And then it hits me: perhaps the something, the big thing, isn’t a big thing at all. Perhaps it’s calling to let you know you’re thought of, laying with you when you’re sick or helping you when you can’t help yourself. Perhaps it’s giving my seat up on the bus, buying lunch for someone in need or running after exhausted parents with their little one’s stuffed giraffe. Perhaps all the big things I could do would mean nothing if I hadn’t done the little things. If my heart hadn’t been right. If I hadn’t been right.
I wish my younger self could hear that. I wish she would have let herself be known in ragged form instead of the person-shaped mask used to make her appear whole. And I wish I could go back, hold her hand, and tell her the two things I haven’t always known:
It will get better.
And you will be better.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken an angel to figure that out, but maybe, just maybe, that’s why he came. To let me know that I’m on the right track. To confirm that I’ve made mistakes, tons of them, many of which I don’t wish to relive. But I’m on the other side of them now. And I’d like to think, I’m better for them, as well.
I don’t know when my last heartbeats are coming, it’s better that I don’t. But I hope that when they do you’ll put your hand over mine and whisper something to my heart, if only from the quiet of your own:
You are better, Dani. You truly are.