On Thursday, February 18, yours truly will be participating in a ZOOM authors event to talk about my book Behind The Locked Door. I will have ten minutes to talk and three other authors will also speak followed by Q&A. Sign up below to participate.
You can find several excerpts, comments and reviews of my book on this website (go to My Book at the index). The following excerpt is particularly relevant to my life at this very moment.
From Chapter 19 …
Later, when he felt better, Eric climbed the hill to the chapel, eager but apprehensive. It upset him to need help and attention from others. Ofelia had cleaned him as if he were a child. Now he was going to see a priest, something he thought he’d dispensed with long ago. Where was the strong and independent man he thought he was? He trudged along, head hung in shame. He was dying. What difference did all his plans make now? Life’s a shadow, an illusion, a dream, just as Macbeth said.
Eric had worked himself into a state of agitation by the time he entered the chapel. His depression had passed. He stood upright and strong as if no illness could attack him. He heard the sound of a Celtic harp. Father Jordan strummed the chords at the altar.
Eric waited in the back of the chapel. As his excitement cooled, he felt ill at ease and ridiculous. He was ashamed that he had no friends to speak with at a time like this. His stepmother, Karen, was smart and always willing to talk, but their relationship was professional. She’d been married to his father longer than his birth mother had. They’d developed a close relationship, but always at a distance. Eric loved his real mother dearly, but they lived in different worlds. His half-sister and half-brother from Karen were too young. They would never understand his situation. He was closest to Devon, his half-brother on his mother’s side, but Devon was eight years younger, married with children, and still in college. There were a few people at work, but they were no more than acquaintances. He trusted Manny, but Manny couldn’t get close in that way. Manny had little interest in philosophizing. He was a realist who was not afraid to get his hands dirty, a blood-and-guts doctor.
Eric needed someone to stop the nightmares grinding away in the immense mill of his head. He didn’t want to bore his friends or impose his problems on those he cared about. They all had their own lives. They had their health. He was jealous. Why not admit it? He hated their good health, the years ahead they had to live, years he didn’t have. He knew this despair was born of anger, jealousy, and fear, but it gripped and held him just the same.
When Jordan finished playing, he spotted Eric at the back of the church and waved him forward. Eric was overcome by shame and embarrassment. He didn’t know what to say. He stood paralyzed. He stared at Jordan, frozen in thought.
“Aye, lad, I understand your fear of churches. It can be difficult for heathens. I’ll come and meet you by the entrance. Give me a minute to take care of this wee harp. How’d ya like the lilting melodies of old Ireland?”
“Lovely, Jordan. I had no idea you played. Stay where you are. My phobia of religion isn’t what’s keeping me from coming forward. It’s just that I’m uncertain about what to say.”
“God knows your thoughts, my boy.”
“But that’s my trouble. I don’t think I believe in God. Being here feels hypocritical.”
“We each approach God in our own way. What troubles do you have?”
Eric walked to the front of the church. Jordan’s jolly round face and snowy white hair came into focus.
I’m not sure I know my deepest troubles, Jordan. Cancer, of course, but it’s not the only one.”
Eric sat on a hard wooden pew below the pulpit while Jordan sat on a step leading down from it. They faced each other, but not at the same level.
“Nor do any of us, Eric. But God knows. You needn’t have faith. Don’t struggle for it. You may be one of those for whom dogma in any form is so repulsive that it would have the wrong effect. You can’t be damned for that.”
“I used to joke with my brother, Devon, about the growing population of China. I said it was like an unbalanced load of laundry that would cause the world to spin out of orbit. Now I’ve spun out of my orbit, Jordan. This illness is like a weight distributed unequally that makes me stagger around like someone drunk or sleepwalking.”
“Believe me, my son, your situation is not hopeless, though no one could blame you for thinking it is. And even if things don’t work out as we hope, death … well, fear of death is not due to the timeless constitution of the human mind. Unfortunately, it’s historical and cultural conditioning and the Church, with its misplaced emphasis on hellfire, that’s to blame. I don’t mean to trivialize what you’re going through, lad, not at all, but there may be a blessing in the darkness around you. Any rich life consists of a series of deaths and transformations. When a part of us dies, another part is born. Take each day as it comes. Each moment of consciousness is an amazingly precious thing. Sometimes life’s greatest sorrows can lead to life’s greatest joys.”
“That sounds suspiciously like resurrection, Jordan. Look, knowing that I’m going to die someday and knowing that I’m going to die soon are very different things. I’m thirty-three years old. I’ve just started to live and now I’m dying. I’m afraid this is the only life I’ll have and it doesn’t seem fair. I guess I’m here partly to get your opinion.”
Jordan had his personal ideas on life. They were not always consistent with the teachings of his church. “The spiritual view is that man is divine in origin with an immortal soul. The materialist view is that man is an evanescent accident with no moral nature except that created in him by his experience and culture. As mortal human beings, we have no way o’ knowing which view is correct, Eric. What holds and constitutes Christianity is a body of myths. We each interpret these myths differently. Most Christians believe them, some don’t, but all revere them. As a matter of faith, we believe there is an immortal soul that survives the death of the physical body. I’m not blind. I’m as convinced as anyone that a corpse canna come back to life, but I do believe the immortal soul goes on whether or not I can imagine how. But that is not the point. Whether or not we travel through eternity, we do, at the very least, have this moment here on earth. You are alive now, and that’s what matters. What you must do is to make the most of that, my son. You must make each day count even if it is to be your last.”
“I know, Jordan, but I think constantly about death. It’s coming faster than I’d wish.”
“None of us knows the future, Eric. In a rich country like America, death is associated with old age. In Mexico, like most o’ the world, death occurs all along the life span. No one is immune. Life is fragile, unpredictable, and none of us can know for sure when death is coming. On the other hand, with God’s grace, the unexpected can change things quickly.”
“I’m angry, angry at being sick, angry at a medical system that’s cold and insensitive and ineffective. I’m angry at everyone who isn’t sick, angry at their nauseating good fortune, at their inability to comprehend what I’m going through.”
Eric’s stomach cramped up. To hold himself steady he held onto the pew. He hated unloading on Jordan. He wished he were more courageous. Why couldn’t he face death stoically like the great philosophers? To read philosophy is one thing; to live it is another, especially when death is rattling your cage. Eric’s heart had been a cold stone through most of his life. Now, it burned. Dying was not dramatic, not heroic. There were moments of intense pain followed by listless boredom and useless worry.
“It’s okay to feel the rage, but don’t dwell on it, Eric. We must take what God gives. Life’s very uncertainty is its greatest asset. Human beings are not windup clocks. Things have a way o’ turning around just when you least expect it. I’ve seen it. We’re all mortal. We live in order to die, but death has to be earned. It’s the one spiritual experience that cannot be stolen from us, Eric. Your illness could be like a messenger that’s come to show you a way to deeper truths.”
It was years since Eric had been in a church. The baroquely painted angels and elaborately carved saints no longer worked the same magic on him as when he was a child. Jordan didn’t need the magic to make his point. Had he used the same old tricks, they’d have repelled Eric. Jordan spoke as one man to another, unlike the priests Eric had once known. Jordan’s wisdom and modesty worked in a special way. He was spiritual in a secular sense. Eric felt a camaraderie. That startled him but also pleased him; not that he was going back to the church or was about to get on his knees to pray. That idea was ridiculous, but Jordan had accomplished what Eric had been unable to do on his own. Eric had scaled the hill to the church while on the brink of complete despair. Jordan gave him a measure of reassurance, even a kind of goal. If he could steady himself through the storm, Jordan was right: everything could change very suddenly.
“Thanks, Jordan. Your words mean a lot. I’m frightened and angry at the prospect of death, but you’re right—things could change for me here. In fact, they’ve already changed.”
Eric’s thoughts turned to Ofelia and lunch. Taking each day at a time was the way to beat back the despair.
“Don’t second-guess your true feelings, the instincts that brought you here. Follow Doctor Milagro’s advice. You’re just beginning the treatments. Attack the disease with vigor. Fight for optimism. Give it a little more time.”
Jordan stood up. “Let’s go outside.”
He put his arm around Eric and walked him out of the church. Once there, Jordan pulled a cigar from his pocket and lit it.
“Don’t give up. It can take weeks before the results of the treatments become apparent.”
They shook hands, but that felt insufficient to Eric. He put his arms around Jordan and hugged him triumphantly without giving this uncharacteristic act a thought. Jordan hugged him back. Ashes from Jordan’s cigar fell onto Eric’s shoulders. He was too full of feeling to notice. It was awkward putting his arms around another man, around anyone actually, yet it felt right. Eric let his head fall onto Jordan’s shoulder. If he had let himself cry, his tears would have been tears of joy.
“I’m so glad I came.”
“So am I, Eric.”
On the way back down the hill, Eric planned what to say at his luncheon date with Ofelia. He had to make up for the poor impression he’d made earlier. He wanted her to like him. If he had nothing to say, it would be a catastrophe. His heart stopped cold, then beat like a kettledrum.