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.
Not long after finishing graduate school, I took the position that led me to Charlotte. My responsibilities included visiting elderly clients, most of them impoverished. Sitting in shabby tenements, I listened to stories of long-dead siblings and faded dreams. A few years into the job I met John, a homeless man who had suffered a traumatic brain injury after a brutal beating in a city park. John’s capacity for short-term memory was almost entirely gone. We had the same conversation over and over again. Every week he described to me, as if for the first time, his plan to move to another state and open a bakery. It was a dream I knew he would never realize. John had just enough awareness of his own impairment to be excruciatingly frustrated by the circular nature of our talks. One morning, instead of returning to his entrepreneurial aspirations, our discussion turned to his drinking. I will never forget how he described his habit.
“I’ve got a little spot down by the Willamette where the cops can’t see me. Nobody can. It’s just me and the ducks. I take a six-pack down there and sit and drink my beers and the moon rises over the water and all my problems just melt away like candle wax. I’m going to keep doing that.”
In my childhood I was taught that Jesus suffered and died so that I could go to heaven. As I grew older, I came to understand the Gospel to include the hope that those who put their faith in Christ may be renewed now, in this life. But it’s a hard hope to sustain in the face of all the loneliness and fear I encounter on the job. What does Christ’s promise of renewal mean for someone dying alone in poverty? Confronted by my clients’ suffering, the hope of eternal life—a time or place beyond death in which God will wipe away all our tears—has given me strength to face the thresher of this world with my eyes wide open.
Another day, another visit. As I sit in a dim apartment on a winter afternoon, something dark pulls at me. My client is silent, staring at a shadow creeping down the wall. His fingernails are yellow, his hair like dirty snow. I think of Ezekiel and his valley of clattering bones. This man has just told me about his children, whom he hasn’t seen in years. He cannot quite remember where they live. He is tired and old, wrung out by his work as a foreman on a road-building crew. My colleagues tell me the woman currently staying with him is almost certainly stealing his Social Security checks. The hallway outside his apartment is lined with huge roach traps.
When I reach the sidewalk I am lightheaded from the building’s stench. I shake my head, trying to clear it. Across the street the black mouth of a parking garage gapes like a tomb. I see Lazarus stumbling out, into the warmth of day and the scent of lilies.