(from Forty Acres and a Goat)
“Look, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe a goddam thing. They tell me I have five to eight months to live, and I want you to help me die.” A young woman I hardly knew was lying in a Nashville hospital, just out of exploratory surgery. The lung cancer they found was already metastasized throughout her body, beyond reach of the surgeon’s scalpel. They sewed her up and gave her the news. I knew that I was presiding over the second sacrament. She had made her confession. Penance was supposed to follow. But I always had trouble with that one. If the gospel, the “good news,” is a message of unconditional grace, there is no place for penance. That message had become so clear to me that I didn’t understand why it wasn’t preached from underneath every steeple in Christendom every Sunday. Finally I figured it out. You can’t build a steeple on an unconditional message. Not even unconditional grace. There must be a club. A threat. Something to hold over their heads. When I was a child in Mississippi the condition was, “Don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t drink liquor, and don’t mess around on a Saturday night and you’re a good Christian.” I didn’t see the good news in that. Even “good” and “Christian” seemed contradictory. According to the attendant teachings, Jesus had come for the bad. And what he had proved in coming was that salvation did not depend upon our own goodness.
So I went off to the theological academy where they confirmed my childhood dubiosity. They told me that such foolish legalism as don’t smoke cigarettes, drink liquor, and mess around on Saturday night had nothing to do with the message of Jesus. God didn’t care about such primitive trivia. What God cares about is the suffering of His people. Therefore, don’t segregate, pay your workers less than minimum wages, or go to war, and you’ll be a good Christian.
That worked all right for me until I realized that I had substituted one moralistic code for another. And that if the instruction of the theological academy be correct, that God cares about the suffering of His people, then my primitive ancestors were more nearly correct than they because, according to the scientists, cigarette smoking is going to cause more suffering of God’s people than slavery. With drinking liquor a close second. The woman lying there smoked three packs a day.
For whatever reason, I skipped the penance with the woman who had just made her confession. Or perhaps I didn’t. “Would you like to talk about this God who has damned what you don’t believe?” I asked, striking my most professional posture.
“Don’t give me any of your counseling shit, Reverend!” she said, trying to sit up but failing. “I just chased that fat-ass nurse out of here when she said, ‘And how do you feel about what has happened to you, Millie?’ How the ratfuck am I supposed to feel? Thirty-five years old and just figured out what I’m doing in this world and they tell me in six months I’ll be fucking gone from it.” She began to sob and I was glad. Not glad as the professional counselor; just glad that she was releasing the hurt and anger by crying. Glad because it gave me some time. Time to assign the penance. To myself. I had been temporarily more daunted by the one-sided sensitivities the culture had instilled in me — “Ladies don’t say ugly words” — than by the news of her intolerable fortune. Shame on me. Shame on the culture. What makes an ugly word ugly? And for whom?
I embraced her, forgetting the incision running from her right scapula to the bottom of the rib cage. She didn’t seem to care about the pain as my own whimpering blended with her sobs.
With the facade gone, I could begin. As she had begun. “Well, sugar, either I missed that course in seminary or didn’t do too well in it. But I’m here.” My male patronage would have bothered her in normal times, she told me later, but not on that occasion.
We spent long hours and many days together after that. We shared many things. Her anger was so furious I thought it beyond abatement. Sometimes the railing was directed at me. At other times at doctors; nurses; a mother who abandoned her at three; the great aunt who raised her; the father who drank around, slept around, and died young; two marriages which ended in disaster. But most often it was aimed solidly at God. After each harsh spasm she would catch her breath, laugh, and say, “How can I hate the son-of-a-bitch so much when he doesn’t exist?”
After each out-of-town trip I made she wanted to hear every detail of what happened. She particularly savored a report of a western journey to a lavish retreat center which had once been a dude ranch. A part of the retreat was to be spent in silence. From ten at night until noon the next day, no one would speak. As we sat at breakfast, enjoying the finest Columbian coffee, English muffins, Canadian bacon, grapefruit already sectioned, pointing at platters and making ridiculous gestures, something took hold of me. “To hell with this bullshit!” I screamed, slamming my fist against the table. The startled group looked on with silent disapproval. Finally one said, “You broke the silence. Why did you break the silence?”
The words which followed were not my own. For the first time I had some brief understanding of glossolalia as I explained without even thinking of word or form. “I broke the silence because more than half the people in the world can’t enjoy the luxury of worship. If this be worship. How can a mother or father maintain silence while pushing and scrounging and screaming for possession of half a cup of rice to feed their starving babies. I broke the silence because the wine and wafer which will slide down our pious gullets at the alleged altar tomorrow morning will contain more calories than that half of the world will get all day.”
Millie laughed and held me close. “You know, Reverend. I just might join your church.”
“I don’t have a church,” I said.
“No. I guess not,” she said after a long pause. “You don’t have a church. A church has you. Is that what you’re saying?”
“I’d be afraid to get that definite about it,” I said. “If I made that claim, I’d probably give it a name and put it on a bumper sticker. And then you can bet your life I’d run it. And then it wouldn’t be church any longer.”
As soon as the words, “bet your life,” left my lips, I knew it was wrong. There was another long pause. She could no longer swallow solid foods, so she liked to sit beside the Pool of Siloam and throw bits of bread to the goldfish. The symbolism of sitting there was overwhelming. But I was trying again to be professional, to be strong. She threw the last of the crumbs into the pool and took my hand. I thought she was going to scold me. Instead her voice was soft and kind. “I guess somebody ‘bet my life.’ And according to yesterday’s X-rays, the bastard is about to collect.”
She loved those goldfish and had bought a little kit to measure the pH factor in the water. A few days earlier we had drained the pool and filled it with clean, clear water. All the fish were visible to the very bottom. They were swarming around the spot where she had dropped the last of the bread, begging for more. After a long time she spoke again. As gentle as before. “Will, do you think he’ll parlay his winnings?”
I knew it was a cue. I had told her many times by then that I did not believe that what the clinicians call death is the end of things. She wanted to hear it again. Instead, for some reason I didn’t examine, I began telling her another story about the western journey. A young schoolteacher asked me if I would baptize her. Said she grew up in a church-going family but had never been baptized. She wanted it done by immersion. I asked the director of the center if we could use their swimming pool. He said that raised certain theological questions but that he would think about it and let me know next morning. There was a Corps of Engineers lake down the road, so next morning as the sun was coming up over the mesa we climbed the fence, as close to the “No Trespassing” sign as we could get, waded into the water and, in violation of both the steeples and Mr. Caesar, buried her from the old life and resurrected her to the new. It was the most baptistic I had felt in a long time. Troublemaker. Rebel. The left wing of the Reformation. That’s what we once were. But that was a long time ago. Déjà vu! Hallelujah!
Millie loved the story. She laughed and tried to dance around the pool. “I guess the next thing you know I’ll be asking you to baptize me.” Then, a bit embarrassed, patting me teasingly on the back, she added, “Like all those other cunts and camp followers.”
“I don’t push folks, sugar,” I said. “But the pool is ready when you are.”
“I guess we’ll know when it’s time,” she said, laughing, lighting a cigarette, trying to pretend it was all a joke. The cigarette was marijuana. She suffered from severe nausea, and one of the doctors had prescribed cannabis capsules. When she told him she was a pot smoker and asked for a prescription for some joints so her insurance would pay for it, he said it was illegal. They would pay for capsules but not reefers. She said the capsules didn’t have the same effect and she couldn’t swallow them anyway. “Now you make something holy out of that, Reverend,” she screamed. I was working with a country music group at the time, cooking on the bus to make some money. They called me Hop Sing, and I heard one of them say, “You know, Will Campbell is going to make some band a good wife. ” I told them about the cannabis capsules and Millie. They started what they called a “Joint Effort for Millie.” Everyone was supposed to contribute, and after each trip they sent her a little bag of marijuana. Each time I drove home with it I was scared. One day I counted twenty-three big towering steeples as I drove along. After that the love offering of the boys in the band to a dying woman did not seem at all evil.
In the beginning she had calmly told me that she had joined the Hemlock Society, a euthanasia group which originated in England. She read all the literature they sent and started storing up the heavy drugs so that she would have enough to end her life. Instead she clung tenaciously to the last shred of it. She agreed to an experimental spinal catheter where the morphine cheated muscular and vascular waste and went straight to the nervous system. And finally to a last-ditch feeding tube where food was funneled directly into her stomach.
We sat alone in the small public housing apartment. George Barrett, the lawyer friend who had defended black demonstrators during the Sit-in Movement, had pulled some strings to get it for Millie when her money was gone. She had been nauseous all day, and I sat beside her bed with the kidney basin half-filled with the cloudy stomach fluid. She could still talk, though the esophagus was completely blocked. However, she made no verbal request, gave no oral orders. Just kept gazing at the viscid liquid, occasionally raising her eyes upward. She repeated the same movements several times. I dipped my fingertips into the basin and held them there. Her eyes accepted the offering. I slowly crossed her forehead three times, saying no words. She closed her eyes as I did. In her own way, perhaps because fate had been so cruel, she was a woman of great inner strength. It seemed proper that the sacramental came from deep within her own body. Not ex opere operanto. Ex opere operantis.
The Hospice nurse called at five next morning.