“What are you worried about?” I asked.
Mr. Jones was a sixty-five year old veteran teetering between living and dying, more dying than living. I knew it, and he knew it. A cancer had eaten his liver and seeded his abdomen, and now his kidneys were failing, his liver was failing, and he was hypotensive and septic. There would be no more chemotherapy. His room was littered with monitors, intravenous lines, and the incessant beeping that seems to define an intensive care unit—an electronic heartbeat of sorts that let everyone know he was still alive.
“I’m worried about my judgment.” His voice was weak and fragile.
I knew Mr. Jones was a sniper in Viet Nam, but knew little else. “What judgment?” I asked.
“God’s judgment,” he said. “I was not a good person, I killed.”
I sat there silent, watching him as his eyes looked upwards to the sky, to heaven, or to wherever it is that we look when we look up.
An alarm sounded and startled my attention—a short run of ventricular tachycardia. I glanced at the bedside monitor, then back at Mr. Jones.
“I killed a lot of people, and they were innocent. We’re supposedly all innocent in war, the ones killed, the ones not killed. But not me, I killed with purpose, with intent, with hate.”
“Why are you guilty, but not the others?”
“Because I killed with intent.”
“But everyone did. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t drafted. But in war, everyone kills with intent—it’s survival, you or them.”
“Mine wasn’t an even playing field.” He stared straight ahead, like I wasn’t even there. “It wasn’t hand-to-hand, it was eye-to-finger—my eye, my finger, their death.”
He was right, he didn’t fight hand-to-hand, but he was not guilty, not in my mind. But then, would I feel the same if it had been my brother he killed?
He continued. “I was good at what I did. Nam was horrible, it was bad, I was young, but I was good.”
“Can you tell me about it? Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.
“I would wait. Sometimes on the ground, but usually from above. The waiting was the worst, not the killing, at least not then. The mosquitoes, the bugs, the heat, the humidity, they were miserable. The crotch rot was the worst. It burned, it itched, it’s a wonder I could aim my rifle. But now, I would trade the waiting for the killing in a second.”
He started to cry.
“They would be walking, talking, maybe showing a photo of their wife and kids, not knowing their life was a second from being over. Gone, just like the snap of my fingers. Bam. Walking one minute, limp, on the ground the next. A pool of blood their gravestone. No time to say goodbye. I always hit my mark, and while I didn’t then, I hope the death was quick, that they didn’t suffer. So I worry that God will punish me, that I will go to hell. And if I look at myself in the mirror, I deserve it.”
As life begins to end, people confess. They confess in the hope that God will forgive, and that their afterlife will be one of heaven, not hell. They confess greed, hurt, infidelity, and murder. And Mr. Jones believed he had murdered—and he needed a moral cleansing, an absolution of sinful deeds.
“Doc, I lost so many friends, I had such a hate for the gooks. I hated them with all my being. They were rodents.” Then he hesitated, and spoke so softly I could barely hear him: “I’m afraid, I’m so afraid.”
I sat silent.
“I don’t want to die. No one wants to die, but I’m afraid, I’m afraid of what happens after you die.”
“I know you’re afraid of how God will judge you, but God is good, God is benevolent, He understands, we’re imperfect, we’re human. He understands. You’ve repented, you’ve asked for forgiveness.”
“You don’t understand, you didn’t kill. I killed!” he yelled.
He was right, I didn’t understand, I didn’t kill.
“Did you go to Viet Nam?” he asked, forgetting I had told him I hadn’t. “You know Nam? You know what it was like?”
“No, I was number 39 in the first draft lottery, but failed my physical because of nearsightedness.” My answer seemed so lame, so weak, like a pathetic excuse.
“You were lucky man, you were lucky.”
“She was my girlfriend, my mistress. I loved her.”
“Who was?” I asked.
“My rifle man, my rifle,” he said.
“Doc, I got such a rush killing, such a rush. I was powerful, I controlled everything, and I was only 19. I was the CEO of death. My finger was God, one pull, and bam, dead. I was a big shot, all the others knew we were the cream of the crop, the snipers. Everyone admired us. But when you’re young, you think you’ll never die…” His words faded.
“But we do,” he said, his voice now soft and pensive.
“Yes we do. And we’re never ready, no one wants to die, just like you said. But we all do. And we’ve all done things we’re sorry for, some worse than others. But the important part is regret, to be sorry, truly sorry for our actions. And you are. God knows that, He knows that. Maybe speaking to a chaplain would help.”
“I don’t want a chaplain, he can’t do anything, this is between me and God, not me and another man. Don’t you get it?”
“You’re right,” I said. His anguish was visible, his existential pain stubborn to words and presence. I felt so helpless.
I looked down at the floor, then into his eyes. “I wish there were words that would make everything okay, but there aren’t, not my words anyways. You’ve had words with God, those are the important words, the words that matter. I’m here for you, and I’ll do anything I can to help you, but I think God has forgiven you.”
I stood there for what seemed like an eternity. I didn’t know what else to say—for there was nothing to say. That’s the trouble with death, all the loose ends.1 The things said and unsaid, the things done that cannot be undone. Burdened by killing, he needed to clear his conscience, and that was the easy part, if there is an easy part to dying, but his fear of God’s reckoning—there was nothing I could do. I was impotent in the matters of the hereafter.
I touched his shoulder, squeezed his hand, and told him I would return in the morning, although I wasn’t sure he would live the night. His heart was erratic, and his life was flickering. I turned to leave.
Suddenly, I felt a breeze of bodies.
“Give him some epi, get a tube in him, is anesthesia here? Come on, get the tube in him, now! Give an amp of calcium. He have any family here? Where’s the epi? Come on, hurry up. Is the tube in his lungs? His stomach’s swelling, pull the tube, it’s not in his lungs. Where’s anesthesia? Get anesthesia in here!”
They weren’t my words. And then I noticed the beeping—it was gone.
- Ascher BL. Landscape without Gravity. Penguin Books: New York, NY: 1993