Death was coming. He could feel it. In fact, he could do more than feel it. He could see it, he could touch it, he could taste it—he could practically even smell the death lingering on the pale, withered sheets that hung loosely over his pale, withered body. There was no doubt about it—though he couldn't believe it, after all this time, this was the end. He knew that the 'life flashing before your eyes' cliché had been overused to—well, to death—but even so, nearly all he could think about was memories of how his life had been, and what it would be like from now on. Had it all really begun that long ago?
It had never been an easy life. Oh, sure, the first several years may not have been so bad, partially because he couldn't remember them as well and partially because as a child, understanding very little of the world around him, he hadn't been able to recognize many of the problems that haunted his family. How would a six-year-old have been able to grasp the full capacity of his parents' financial difficulties or of the struggles and conflicts that eventually drove the two of them apart? It wasn't until he was eight, however, that things began getting noticeably worse for them, as Dad was sent off to war and killed in battle, leaving himself and Mom to look after each other at home.
It wasn't until a few years later that his mother had been able to bring herself to tell him the truth—Dad had not died in battle or gone off to war at all, but had simply gone away, claiming that he no longer loved Mom and not wanting to be dragged down by the responsibility of having to care for his family. The gaping hole that had been left in his heart when Dad disappeared quickly filled with confusion and anger upon this realization. Obviously, nobody wants to be the object of rejection, to be abandoned by someone whose duty it is to care for and provide for them, and it had taken him a long time to get over the initial trauma of this. But as he grew up and gradually gained a greater understanding of how the world worked, one question, one seeming contradiction about the situation, haunted him above the rest. His dad had been a traveling preacher, and even in the relative ignorance of his youth, he knew that preachers were supposed to be good people, and that the God they always talked about was supposed to be good, too. Why, then, had Dad done such a horrible thing? He couldn't answer this question, but the implications of it all slowly amounted to bitterness inside him. If this was the behavior of someone who spoke for God, then this God was not somebody he wanted anything to do with.
Time went on, and life got worse. No, he didn't think it was bad at the time—after all, the drugs made him feel different, feel happy. They let him escape from the daily troubles of his teenage life, if only for a short time. Mom never knew about it, of course. She was often away at work, struggling to support the two of them, which gave him plenty of time between his household chores to spend with some of his neighborhood friends. Heh. Some friends. They had once offered him a drink and some smokes, and he immediately stepped up to the challenge and tried them out, lest he be shunned for cowardice at not taking them in. Since that first day, he had been hooked—hooked on substances which allowed him a high, a reprieve from the monotony of reality; hooked on substances which were slowly but surely eating away at his insides and hastening the death that awaited him now.
His mind skipped forward six years or so, to when he was done with school and out on his own. He was barely more than twenty and he was excited to be youthful and independent, wanting nothing more than to leave behind the difficult days of his past and the memories of a father who could have cared less. He was young, full of vigor for life, and it wasn't long before he fell in love—at least three times, he was sure. Oh, maybe he hadn't actually been in love with those first few girls he had tried out, but once she had come along, he had been practically sure of it. They had taken to each other instantly, gotten to know each other better, and spent a lot of extra time with each other. Those first few months with someone whom he actually cared about, and vice versa, had been absolute bliss for him.
It wasn't until a little bit later that the relationship problems began to slowly creep in and they had realized that perhaps they had rushed into things. Neither of them were sure what to do, whether they should stay together or not, but learning that she was pregnant more or less solidified the decision for both of them. Together, they decided to continue the uneasy relationship into marriage, for the baby's sake despite their own unresolved problems. A lot of hasty planning and one month later, the casual girlfriend had become the expecting wife.
It would have been an understatement to say that the marriage had had problems. Of course he knew that no marriage was perfect; they all had problems in some form or another, but this particular union sometimes seemed to be a lot further from harmonious than most others he had seen or heard about. Because of the rocky grounds on which the relationship had been formed, tensions between the two of them seemed to rise and fall unpredictably but inevitably. Some days they would have pleasant conversations, try to make the best of things, almost rekindle the semi-love that they had originally felt; other days, he would stay out late bowling with the guys from the office just to avoid his wife. As much as they both hated the inconsistency of it all, and sometimes even hated each other, things went on like this for years. He hated to do it to the kids, forcing them to grow up in a household of fighting, raised by two individuals in constant conflict with each other, but he didn't see much possibility for change in the situation.
In addition to their usual conflicts, he and she both had those particular habits that continually annoyed and frustrated the other. For him, it was the alcohol and cigarettes that he had fallen in love with earlier in life and was still holding onto now. He had tried to quit before, as much for his wife as for his own health, but he couldn't stay away from it. After realizing that she couldn't get him to stop entirely, she eventually convinced him to at least cut down on both, and do neither in front of the kids, a restriction which he grudgingly accepted.
The habit of hers which most frustrated him was a quite unrelated matter and had not developed until much later in their marriage: namely, she was becoming more religious—she had started reading the Bible and going to church every Sunday. Personally, he hadn't put any stock in religion since his preacher father had walked out of his life all those years ago. He didn't know whether there was a God, but if so, He seemed like a good person on whom to blame all the problems his life had contained so far. The kids, young and impressionable as they were, quickly took to Mom's newfound zeal; he, however, merely put up with it and was occasionally persuaded into coming to church with them, but the reality was that he wanted no part of it. The religion issue, with her encouraging him to 'get saved' and his constantly shutting her out, had let to even more conflicts between them, and eventually ended in divorce. Although he told himself, and his wife, that he didn't need them and would be perfectly fine without a family preaching to him all the time, the truth was that he had never felt emptier than the day they all moved out, leaving him all alone.
He had been fifty-eight when they left. For twelve long years he was alone—he lived alone, ate alone, slept alone, and spent his time alone, doing his best to suppress the agonizing feelings of despair and emptiness that plagued him mercilessly day and night. The drugs were still an addiction, but even they did little to fill the void in his heart. Of course, he still kept in touch with the family from time to time. He sent the kids cards on their birthdays and even got calls from the wife from time to time—though he longed to hear from her, to temporarily feel like he wasn't alone, he still somewhat resented hearing all about Jesus. She had sent him a Bible once and strongly encouraged him to read it. Resisting the urge to kill the memories of his wife and God by throwing away the volume, he tucked it away in a drawer somewhere for the unlikely event that he ever became bored enough to want to read it.
Slowly but surely, though it was bitter, dull, and empty, life went on. He had no friends, he no longer had a family, and having retired a few years back, he had no purpose in life other than to try to get what little comfort he could from money and material things. Many nights found him close to tears, though he never told it to anyone else. Who had he to tell? His own life was the only one left in his miserable existence, and he soon learned, to his dismay, that even that was being gradually taken away from him.
The reports had come during a doctor's visit when the doctor had examined the lung X-rays and noticed some unsettling abnormalities. All his years of smoking had finally caught up with him; an ugly monstrosity called cancer had appeared in his lungs and was gradually spreading. The news came as a shock, the last straw in a life of continuing misery. He went home, feeling more disturbed than he had in quite some time, and asked all the usual questions. How could this have happened to him? Was there anything he could do? Would he die, and if so, what would happen then?
It was the last question that stuck in his mind the most. He had never thought much about heaven or hell, but with death now so real to him, it became an important issue. Looking back on his life up to that point, he had a pretty good idea of which one he might be headed to, but he needed to know for sure. In spite of a heart which he had shut for so long, something compelled him to locate the Bible his wife had sent him and search for answers.
The book looked brand new; he wasn't sure that he had opened it once. He sat on his bed, opened the Bible, and began to read. He read about the world's creation and about a loving God who had put man on the earth. He read about man's fall from grace, and about how each and every human being had sinned and thus was separated from God. He read about deserving eternal death in hell, and about Jesus coming to Earth as a man, willingly give himself up to be beaten and killed so that those who persecuted Him and all others through history would could have eternal life. He read about grace and forgiveness for sin, about mercy and an all-consuming, all-powerful love. He must have read for hours, and as he did, all the bitterness, sorrow, and loneliness that had built up inside him for so long poured out of his eyes in the form of free-flowing, unrestrained tears, wetting the pages of the life-saving book as he prayed for the first time in his life.
"Jesus," he cried out. At first that was all he could manage. Eventually, he mustered up the strength to finish the prayer between sorrowful, repentant tears. "I've been such a fool," he said. "I've done horrible things…I've ignored you and pushed you away for so long. But now I know I need you. Please forgive me. Cleanse my heart and make me whole. Take me home with you when I die…and please, stay with me for the rest of my life. I need somebody who loves me, and you do. You love me so much. Thank you, Jesus…" That night, he cried himself to sleep, filled with sorrow and joy, remorse and redemption, with a new hope and meaning for the few years he had left.
From that point on, his life was changed. He still felt the pains of his past every day, but found comfort in knowing Jesus' love. After a few years, he was moved into a hospital, getting too old to take care of himself, having no reason to stay at home, and needed to be treated for his cancer. The only thing he took with him to his new home was his wife's Bible, which had become his most treasured possession. And that was where he was now, lying in a hospital bed, his minutes on Earth slowly ticking away. The treatments had helped for a little while, but they couldn't reverse the cancer, and it was taking its toll on him. Here he was, seventy-four years old, with a life that had begun with abandonment, been filled with loneliness, and was ending in solitude. But he wasn't worried or upset. He was content, pleasant, and waiting. He saw the loving face of Jesus, promising him that he would never again be alone. He saw his hospital room, the Bible laying on his bedside table, and the last remains of the life he was leaving behind. Then his eyes closed and he saw only the ineffable joy, peace and love that would be his for eternity.