Wednesday, February 6, 2013

. . .And a Time to Die

It was in the dog days of summer, when we woke up hot and stayed that way all day. The cotton had been laid by for the summer, but there were other chores that had to be done in the oppressive heat; primarily canning vegetables, which meant keeping the stove on most of the day. The heat had wearied us, wore us out, and we were ready for something different.

Miss Hattie lived just up the road, a five minute walk for young legs. She was ancient. She had been ancient all my life, and I was just a little bit scared of her. Sometimes, we would do little chores for her when we visited, like bringing in a load of wood for her cook stove, and she would give us cookies.

That summer, Miss Hattie took to her bed, worn out, no longer able to bake cookies or wave to us from her porch. I never knew what was wrong with her; just 'old age', the grown-ups would tell us. It was the custom then to 'sit up with the sick' twenty-four hours a day, to be there if they needed a sip of water or their pillow adjusted. My parents visited, my dad staying outside with the men and Mama sitting with the women inside the stifling bedroom.  I wanted to stay outside, but the grownups urged us to go in and say hello to her. When I did go inside, I stayed only as long as it took to speak to her, then I fled the room. I was so scared that she would die while I was in there with her that I couldn't breathe until I was back outside.

Miss Hattie lingered. Grown-ups whispered that she couldn't last much longer. Some grew weary of the waiting and wished she would just 'slip away' but it would have been disrespectful to say it out loud.  Some of the men outside, whispering in the dark while passing a quart fruit jar around, speculated that it would be nice if she passed on a Friday, so they wouldn't have to miss any work to attend the funeral. Miss Hattie lingered, occasionally showing brief signs of improvement.

When Miss Hattie finally passed, we shivered in cold winds as we stood around the open grave. She had held on to her life longer than anyone thought possible. Everyone was amazed that this ancient, feeble woman found the strength to keep breathing in and out as the sun rose and set and rose again.

Death cannot be wrapped in a convenient package.

Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.  Psalm 90:10

Last fall, I gathered the last of the tomatoes, picking even the green ones, when the chill in the October air meant there would be a frost that night and everything green would die. I had planted the tiny seeds inside, watched them sprout, transplanted them to the garden, watered and fed them, kept the weeds away, gave them a stake to lean on, and rejoiced at the first tiny tomatoes. The plant had given me wonderful tomatoes for salads and BLTs and to slice to eat with my peas and okra. It had also produced thousands of seed to keep its life going. It had completed what it was made to do, and it had done it well. There is a time to die.

I believe that we are all given this gift, this precious gift, of life for a specific purpose. I pray that I will not waste it, will not take one day for granted, and will be able to complete my tasks before my time comes. I pray that I will use every minute, that I will see the sunrise and hug and laugh and share. There is a time to die.