Yesterday, I was sitting in the public library reading an essay, when a 30 something year old woman
approached me and said, "Can you help me? I can't die." Those words were unsettling enough, but I was also in Sabbath-time mode: that is, my head was disconnected from engaging with the world around me and my attention was directed inward. It took me a few seconds to shake myself out of my Sabbath stupor. She, however, was undeterred and kept up her banter: "If I hadn't been tricked into signing all those papers I wouldn't have money coming into my mailbox. So now, unlike when I was in Florida - and homeless - I have a place to say and an income, but I no longer have the ability to die..."
When I eventually gathered myself - and tried to connect her words into some coherent narrative - all I could muster was, "Would you like to sit down?" I pulled up another chair and motioned her to join me at the table. She sat - and then the rambling continued. Her eyes darted around the library like a hunted animal. Her voice grew more frantic. "Why do you sense you are ready to die?" I asked. She paused briefly and then started in again about being tricked, paper work from Florida and a sense that she was doomed to live for ever. I tried another approach: "Are you telling me you are ready to die?" Quickly she replied, "No. I am not ready. I just know that my death has been taken away from me." And before I could go farther, she jumped up, told me that "I looked like someone she knew in Florida who had once helped her... but now I just don't know. I don't know..." and walked away.
The irony of this encounter was not lost on me as I had been reading a short essay entitled, "Listening vs. Hearing." And I confess that it took me a few minutes to refocus - and I wasn't very helpful. So while I was offering a quiet prayer to the Lord for her safety, all of a sudden she was back. "I just don't know, ok? I don't know why I can't die..." and all the rest. Di took my library books up to the check out desk so that I could continue. "Well, here's the thing," I tried, "all the people I have ever known who have lived and then died were ready to go. It could be that now just isn't your time."
I knew she was rattled. Probably bi-polar and off her meds, too. I was deeply aware that I had no tools to help her except kindness. (And, of course, if it was clear she was suicidal, making a call to the hospital and police to save her from herself.) But she wasn't going down that road. She sat again and thought, "Well I feel like I'm ready to die." We let that sink in. "But when you go to sleep you always wake up, right?" I offered. Exactly. "Well, my experience with lots of people is that we only die when our time comes." To which she nodded her head and walked away saying, "I just don't know..." I stopped her and added, "It is ok not to know. But here's something else that seems true to me: its best not to make any important decisions when we're confused and uncertain, ok?" To which she looked me deep in the eye, nodded a tacit agreement, but then walked off again mumbling, "I just don't know..."
Back in the car, Di said to me, "You can run but you just can't hide, man. This happens to you all the time. You're like a magnet for people who need a kind word. It happens in bars and train stations, in the grocery store, on the street and now in the library." I don't know about the magnet part, but there are tons of lonely, hurting people out there and I've been blessed to be able to speak with a few of them from time to time. All I have is time and a little bit of concern. I pray it is enough.
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