The first thing Charlotte ever said to me was, “Everyone I know and love is dead.” I knew it was true, I just didn’t know how to respond. For a moment I sat with the phone to my ear, the silence building. When I showed up at her apartment a little later, she regarded me with a faint smile. She was ninety-four years old, her clothing stained and torn. I was a mental-health worker with the county, there to do a cognitive evaluation. I had barely settled into my chair when she took me completely off guard.
“Let’s pray,” Charlotte said.
I hesitated, vague misgivings spreading their wings inside my chest. Then I shrugged. “Okay.”
Charlotte stared at me for a long beat, her rheumy eyes holding a spark. At last she spoke. “I’m not going to pray. You pray for me.” So I started, but didn’t get thirty seconds into my prayer before she burst out—“I’m ready for the rapture, Jesus! O God, I want to go to heaven!”
Charlotte was descending into dementia. She was convinced someone had a key to her apartment and was letting himself in at night. As I was leaving, I stood at her front door, trying to explain how she could lock it from the inside after I left. I assured her she was completely safe, but every time I tried to go she started crying.
Soon I will be dead. I’m not sure when—I’m relatively young and in good health—but even at thirty-five years old I can already sense time accelerating. The transience of human existence is one of our race’s most cherished truths, yet for many years the admonition to remember how little time I had failed to move me. It takes more than a proverb to stir up intimations of our own mortality. My awakening came in the form of a strange job.