The Tortured Old Lady Who Died Holding My Hand When I Was 10
A few days ago, sort of out of nowhere, I posted this as a status on my Facebook fan page:
Visited old folks' homes today. Once, when I was about 10, I was prowling around unattended in an old folks home. I came across an old woman, alone, in a room at the end of a hall. She called me to her bedside, and took hold of my hand. Wild-eyed, she began wailing of her sins: the affair she had on her husband; the daughter she sent away. "I don't want to go to hell," she kept crying. Then, still clutching my hand, she died.
People began kindly responding. A reader named Kim Johnson wrote to say: "I'm sad that you had to visit the home, and for this past situation."
"My dad sold food to such places: school, hospitals, convalescent homes, restaurants," I responded. "I'd hang out in the business while he and the kitchen manager were doing their thing. I spent a lot of time wandering the halls of old folks's homes when I was a kid. When that lady was rearing up off her bed and, glazed-eyed, screaming about going to hell, I thought, ‘Whoa. She's breaking my hand. This is horrible. This, right here, is why you have to live right.'"
And so ensued a spontaneous little dialogue between some readers and me. When you do that stuff, of course you tend to respond to whatever comment … well, compels you to respond. You read and digest them all, certainly—but (as you must) tend to answer only one.
Below are some of the comments of this particular thread, followed by my responses to them.
Comment: Wow, John. Just … wow.
Me: Her suffering was so absolute. At the very height of it—when she was sitting almost upright in her bed, and wailing to the heavens for the absolution she knew she was about to die without—I thought, "This woman, right now, is in hell."
Comment: Have you thought about this a lot over the years or just kinda let it sit and gel in the back of your mind?
Me: It's not exactly the kind of thing you forget, right? I've lived with it all my life. I was already kind of … obsessed with the nature of morality (if that doesn't sound too precocious—which I know it must, but … that's what I was). But I think it's safe to say this incident pretty utterly eradicated any idea I had left that anything mattered more than making sure you were always comfortable with the state of your moral standing.
Comment: When people are that tormented—even if it's buried a bit in the subconscious—it's a mystery why the idea of church or picking up a Bible or talking to someone religious doesn't occur earlier! If heaven and hell and where you'll end up is …the prevailing thought on your deathbed, then you have certainly considered the whole philosophical question earlier in your life, when you perhaps could have altered the path or upped your chances. Not making light of this poor woman's pain, but it does make you wonder if people even hear their own souls.
Me: Right? When the lady was crying/wailing, I kept thinking, "Too late! Too late! Damage done! Husband dead! Daughter estranged! Your agony won't fix what you did!"
Comment: We're not punished for our sins, but by them….amazing story J, and in an odd way an incredible privilege for you to share that moment with that woman…
Me: Yeah, it was! It was … weird, obviously. But I was, like, "What the heck kind of place is this?" Because she was, like, all alone in this room at the end of a hallway of what seemed to me to be all empty rooms. She was really alone back there. And what I especially remember was the light in the room. It was, like, cloudy afternoon light, coming through these white curtains over the large window on the wall right over her. The room was just infused with amazingly soft, thick white light. But her white gown and bed dressings were actually kind of glowing, because the sun was bouncing right off the curtains, down onto them. So, honestly (and I know I haven't explained it well), it looked like she was on this illuminated, glowing little … platform, and was moving up through a cloud.
Comment: I have to believe that the holy one heard her cries. remember the thief on the other cross? He did not even ask for forgiveness. just "Hey. Don't forget about me."And Jesus said, "I will see you in paradise"
Me: I do think God heard her cries; I think God hears all cries. But I KNOW that woman died without relief. And it's funny (but, you know, not in a ha-ha way, of course), because even when she was at the crescendo of her suffering, she STILL wasn't really asking for forgiveness. What she was asking for was to not have to go to hell. It was a subtle difference, but I was really aware of it. I was thinking, "Man, she's still not really giving it up." It made me think she was deserving what she was getting. Because it was still all about her, if you see what I mean. That was actually as big a lesson for me as anything else in that moment: that people will take their crap straight into hell with them, rather than give it up.
Comment: Like you've pointed out, we spend so much time worried about the hell to come, and there are plenty of hells right here, right now, to go around. She didn't have to die to go to hell, she'd been carrying hell around with her for years.
Me: It did make me think, very much, that no other hell could be worse than the one she was experiencing. I did think, right then, that the most suffering a person can do, ever, they can do here on earth. There was no way for me not to think that. The "funny" thing was, she had red hair—kinda like George Castanza's mom. There was no way for me not to think it looked like her head was already burning.
Comment: I can tell this story is going to stay with me for a while. Thanks for sharing it.
Me: You're welcome. Thanks. Over the last … gosh, 40 years, I've written that story about a trillion times. And I keep meaning to blog it. But … somehow all of a sudden I felt like kind of just laying it out real quick here. Weird.
Comment: I'm really glad you did.
Me: I am too. I could never write that story right. It was nice, to just not worry about it.