Where I grew up, I knew a lot of farmers. The oldest and most experienced of them seemed to have an amazing ability when it came to the weather. Their understanding of nature was so great it seemed as if they could almost speak weather into or out of existence, as if they could bargain with the Earth itself.
When I asked them about it, how they could know the weather so well it seemed as if they were not merely predicting nature, but commanding it, they gave me all kinds of explanations: “I can feel it in my bones” or “see them cows layin’ down over there?” or “my daddy used to tell us…” or “can’t you smell it?” or “once you been out here long enough, you just know.”
I never understood how those old timers could do that, and I still don’t.
My uncanny knack for prediction, my own esoteric knowledge of the cosmos, my gift, if you can call it that, is of a slightly different nature than the weather.
I sense Death.
I can hear it, smell it, see it–taste it, even–in a way others cannot. I don’t know why, but I do know when. I remember the first time it happened, half a world away and years ago. I remember when I first discovered I knew, just like the farmer, things that others did not. And that, just like like the old farmer with the rain–I could bargain with the universe, argue with it, and even forestall it–if only for a time.
But the universe is implacable. No matter the relationship the farmer has with the thunderstorm, he cannot delay it forever–and no matter my relationship with Death, that most patient and personal of natural forces, it can only be delayed for a time.
People often avoid thinking about that truth until the end of their lives, until it’s too late to matter, until they realize they don’t fear death but more the possibility of eternal regret–regret of things done and not done, of words said and not said, of chances wasted and paths untaken, of lives out of balance like an overdrawn bank account.
Death arrives with a ledger not its own, but whether or not we are ready, it is there to collect. It is not Death we owe–Death measures us against ourselves. Death is only the messenger. The final value of our lives is measured at that instant–did we do enough with what we had to leave a net positive? Do our victories outweigh our regrets? Is the measure of our lives a sum or a difference?
I’ve seen all kinds of people go.
I’ve seen people whose lives are so far in the red they’d have to live a thousand years to make it right.
I remember one of those–it’s been two years now–a man in a car accident on Grove Road, at the intersection just before the interstate. He must have fallen asleep or something, because his pickup had drifted across the lanes and he’d hit a transfer carrying a load of railroad ties head on. His F-150 never stood a chance.
I’d been driving around all night, like I usually do, listening for Death’s quiet-but-not-quite-silent footsteps. I can, like that old farmer with the rain, hear Death, when I listen for it. At first I had to strain to hear it’s approach, had to sit silent and still to the point of emotional exhaustion, to hear Death’s ghostly trod, but by this point, like the farmer, I’d been out there long enough to just know.
I was first on the scene, well before the paramedics and the police. I could sense Death lingering there–waiting for me, I like to think. The transfer truck driver was out of his cab, staring at the man trapped underneath the big rig in the wreckage of the Ford. The trucker’s eyes were bulging wide and white in the darkness.
“He–I swear to God–I don’t–I mean, he was–was–was in his lane and then–all of a sudden, man–I–Jesus Christ–he just came over so fast,” the trucker stuttered.
I nodded. “It happens, man; it happens. You call the police yet?” I try to get everyone else away when I work, plus giving people something useful to do helps them get over the trauma more quickly, so I’ve been told.
“Ah–uh, no–I mean. Shit–I better call,” the man muttered. “I was just trying–trying to see if there was any–anything I could… uh, do, you know?” he finished, voice rising, looking for approval, for comfort, for assurance that everything was going to be okay, whatever that meant.
I nodded again. “Yeah, I know. I’ll take care of him, okay?” I told him gently. “You call 911 and set out some flares so no one else wrecks out here.”
The trucker nodded and climbed back up into the rig. I saw his face lit by his cell phone screen as I knelt by the driver’s side of the destroyed pickup.
I could feel Death’s presence, impatient and almost annoyed. No doubt there were other appointments to keep that night.
I’m sure the schedule is always full.
Where the transfer truck ended and the pickup truck began was hard to say. The two vehicles were intertwined like teenage lovers, all interlocked curves and sharp angles. The pavement was wet with leaking fluids and shards of broken glass sparkled like blood diamonds in the moonlight.
I reached into the mass of wreckage and felt a blood-slicked hand grasp mine.
“Can you hear me?” I asked only as loudly as it would take for whoever was inside to hear.
“Y–yes,” rasped a man’s voice, bewildered and afraid. “Wh-what hap-happened?” I shook my head at the question. So often, it’s the same–everyone looking for reason, for justification, as if they somehow expected the universe to admit it had erred–as if they could demand redress from fate.
“I don’t know,” I told him. “It doesn’t really matter now, does it?”
“N-no… I guess not.”
“Listen to me,” I said, “I am going to help you, but–”
“You a doctor?” he croaked. “You going to get me out of here?”
“No,” I told him softly but with careful solemnity. “No I am not. You are not going to get out, but–”
The man whimpered. “But–get–get–” the man coughed a wet cough and I felt Death lean closer–”–get me out! I don’t want to–to–”
“To die?” I asked. “Very few do, when it comes down to it–even people who’ve lived a good life. There’s nothing anybody can do about it, though. Not even a doctor.”
I paused and squeezed his hand. This next part is always the most difficult for people to understand. “As long as you are holding onto my hand,” I told him, “you won’t die, okay? You can’t die as long as I’m touching you, but–”
“Don’t let go!” he cried. “Don’t let me go!”
“I have to,” I told him. “I can’t hold Death off permanently–someday, it will be my time to die too, you know? I can’t hold your hand forever.”
The man sobbed.
“Listen to me,” I said. “I told you I would help, and I will, okay? Tell me what you want me to do after this. Tell me and I’ll do it. Do you–”
“Hold–hold my hand–” the man snapped. “Don’t let me die!”
“I told you,” I reminded him, “I can’t do that but for so long. Think about what I said. What do you want me to do? Most people don’t get this chance. Don’t waste it! Think about it. You tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.”
There was silence. There usually is.
Finally, the man sniffed from inside the wreck. “I–I–I–do you know… Phillip Mackey?”
“No,” I told him. “But I can find him.”
“Okay,” the man said, “Okay. Find him and… and tell him I’m sorry. Tell him I never–never–shoulda’ run his daughter off from the church. Tell him I was wrong when…” the man trailed off but resumed with renewed vigor “…I was wrong when I done it and I knew it–even–even then. You tell him I done a lot of things I regretted, but nothing… nothing more than that. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” I replied. “Is Phillip gonna’ know what church you’re talking about?”
The man sobbed again. “Y–yeah… He’ll know. I–I’m Jim Hicks. I–I was his preacher when his youngest–Stephanie–got pregnant and she wasn’t married. I… I preached hellfire and damnation for three… three Sundays. Stephane–sh–she ran away and… next thing…” the man sobbed and couldn’t finish.
I felt Death overpowering me, reaching into the truck, desperate to pry Hicks’s hand loose from my grip. I squeezed more tightly–it wasn’t time, not yet.
“Do you want me to tell Stephanie you’re sorry too?” I asked him.
“You can’t!” the man in the truck wailed. “You can’t! Not no more, not unless…” he sobbed. “I guess maybe I can tell her myself… if the Lord’ll let me…”
“Okay,” I said softly. “I understand. I’ll find Phillip Mackey and tell him.”
I took a deep breath. Now came the most difficult part.
“I’m going to let go, now, all right?” I told him.
“What happens then?” the man asked, less panic in his voice than curiosity. “What happens after… after you let go? I die–you–you said that–but then what?”
I shrugged. I have never thought of an answer better than the truth, despite all times I’ve been asked.
“I don’t know,” I told him.
“O-Okay,” the man said.
I gave his hand a final squeeze and he returned it. He let go first–which made it easier. I let go and our hands separated.
I heard the man sigh and felt the eerie presence of Death–that eternal champion–as it swept past me. Then the presence was gone, and I knew Jim Hicks was gone with it.
I always tell people they’ve got a chance most don’t, and it’s true.
What I don’t tell them is the other truth–that it doesn’t usually do any good. If a life is as far in arrears as some folks’, a stranger coming out of the blue to apologize to a wronged wife or say “I love you” to an underappreciated former boyfriend rarely means much. Like Shakespeare said, “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
As soon as I said the name Jim Hicks to Phillip Mackey, he slammed the door in my face.
I can only tip the scales but so much.
Not everybody is taken with his life’s ledger in the red, though. I’ve been fortunate enough to stave off death for a moment for some mighty deserving folks, too.
I remember a young kid in the hospital just last week. I usually don’t go to hospitals because it’s just too much–I can’t make it everywhere, and when I’m talking to one person I can feel Death all around me, taking people here and there. I wind up rushing, and that’s not right. That’s worse than not being there at all.
It kills me, I’d say, if it weren’t so ironic.
Last week, though, I felt Death beckon me, felt it reach out and nudge me with a bony finger and bid me follow. I did, and wound up at St. Francis, stalking the halls while Death made regular visits behind the doctors and checked the same charts and graphs.
I found myself led to a room on the third floor. I knew I was only a few steps ahead, so I pushed the door open and let myself in. The room was full of cellophane balloons wishing the boy well, flower arrangement after flower arrangement, and stacks of cards from family and classmates. The scene had the standard hospital soundtrack: the soft hum of electronics and the rhythmic, muted beep beep of various monitors. A young black boy of thirteen or fourteen lay in the bed, skin gray and body thin and flushed with sweat.
I remembered hearing on the local news about three boys who’d gotten meningitis. I could sense the coming dark and knew the boy and I weren’t alone.
When he heard the door open, his eyes fluttered open. Death took a step back and I had a mental image of it waiting just outside the door.
“Hey,” the boy said, voice flat and drained.
“Hey,” I said. “Listen–do you mind if I hold your hand?”
He nodded. “Yeah, you can–I’m not contagious. That’s what they say, but you know how that goes… It’s good to have somebody here, you know? My mom is usually, but… she’s with my sister right now… Jayla’s afraid to come up here…” I smiled and started to speak but he continued. “She’s not afraid, ‘cause, uh, she thinks she’s gonna’ get sick. It’s just–she–she don’t want to see me like this, you know?”
I took his hand. His grip was weak.
“I understand, I really do. What’s your name?” I don’t always ask, but this time I did.
“Marcus–but most everybody calls me Marc, ‘cept for my mom.”
“Okay, Marc, I’m Will,” I told him. “Listen, I don’t know how to tell you this–” I began.
“You a preacher?” Marc interrupted. “I know I’m gonna’ die, okay? It isn’t gonna’ scare me, all right? I’m way past that, you know? I’m young, but that don’t make me dumb.”
I smiled as bravely as I could. It was rare to find somebody like this–sometimes, I swear they help me more than I help them. “Okay, Marc, you got me. I’m not a preacher, though, but that is kind of what I was gonna’ say.”
“C’mon man, I know what’s up,” he said with a twinkle in his eye as if he’d gotten the best of me.
“But, it’s not that simple,” I told him. “Thing is, Marc, I have kind of this… gift, you could say. I know when people are going to die.” I remember getting a lump in my throat, which is kind of crazy considering I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’d had this exact conversation. “Marc, you’re going to go when I let go of your hand–but not until then, all right? I can’t hold your hand forever so–”
“‘Course you can’t,” Marc agreed. “You got to live too, you know? You can’t just park it up here for the rest of your life. But… if I go when you do, can you at least hold on ‘till my mom gets back up here? And maybe she can bring Jayla in too?”
“Yeah,” I told him, “I can hold on for that long. I tell you what else–you tell me what you want me to do for you after… after I let go and I’ll do it–anything.”
“I told Jayla I was gonna’ fix the basketball hoop in front of the garage,” he said without hesitation. “Me and K from down the street broke it by accident a coupla’ months ago and I never… never did get it put back up for her. You promise you gonna’ fix it?”
“I swear I’ll fix it, Marc, I swear,” I told him.
We sat around for a few more minutes and talked about the NBA finals. When I told him the Clippers had beaten the Spurs in game seven the night before, he laughed. “I told K Tim Duncan was too old!” Marc said with as much glee as his ragged body could muster. “I told him, but he’s always all over Tim Duncan!”
The door opened to admit a weary, well-dressed black woman who could only have been Marc’s mother. She arched her eyebrow at me and opened her mouth–no doubt to justifiably ask who the hell I was–when her son spoke first.
“Hey, Mom, this is Will. We been talking about the Finals. Did you know the Spurs lost? Make sure you tell K I told him they wasn’t gonna’ make it this year–don’t let him tell you he said it too, ‘cause he didn’t.”
“Okay, baby, I will,” she told him plaintively. “You okay?”
He smiled. “No, Mom, I really ain’t… Hey, listen, mom–for real–I don’t think I’m gonna’ be around much longer… I want to see Jayla, okay? Tell her it’s important.”
“Baby, baby, Marcus, you’re gonna’ be okay, all right?” the woman was in tears. “You’re gonna’ make it, don’t say that!”
“Mom,” Marc said with a sigh, “just please go get Jayla, okay?”
Marc’s mother dabbed her eyes with a tissue and disappeared outside the door.
“You can let go now,” Marc told me.
“But–but–you said you wanted to see Jayla!” I protested.
“I didn’t say I was gonna’ let go, Will,” he told me with a weak grin. “But when I go, I’m gonna’ go out when I wanna’ go, not when you say. It’s gonna’ be my call, not yours.”
“All right, whatever you say, Marc,” I told him and let go. I felt Death slip in the door without knocking, and knew it stood next to us, waiting. Marc held my hand.
The door opened again and Marc’s mom came back with a tall, slender girl who looked to be 7 or 8, braids and beads in her hair. The girl’s face was streaked with tears.
“Jayla,” Marc said. “You gonna’ make it, okay, girl? I’m gonna’ be watching out for you, you know? You got to listen to mom, all right, ‘cause I’m not gonna’… ah, be there, you know? So do what she says and study hard… you hearin’ me?”
“Good. This is Will,” Marc said with a nod to me. “He’s gonna’ fix the basketball goal up for you–he told me he would–and make sure you practice every day–I’m gonna’ be watchin’ from up there”–he pointed with his other hand to the ceiling–“and I wanna’ see you wearin’ that garnet and black when you get to college, all right? I wanna’ see you out there on the court, got it?”
“Marcus, baby…” his mom said, sobbing.
“It’s gonna’ be all right, Mom,” Marc said. As his mom and Jayla leaned in to hug him, he let go of my hand to put his arm around them. Startled, I reached to grab his hand, but Marc moved too quickly.
Just before the heartrate monitor went off, Marc nodded to me.
The nurses rushed in and I grabbed his hand but to no avail. A doctor shooed me out of the room and I found myself in the hallway. I got Marc’s address off a card attached to some flowers on a cart outside the room.
The hoop was up that afternoon.
I don’t know if Jayla will play basketball in college or even go to college. I just don’t know. All I know is that I tried to help.
People often say that knowledge is power, but that’s not exactly true.
I learned that firsthand a decade ago, in a sweltering palm grove next to an irrigation canal, southeast of an insignificant Iraqi town named Tarmiyah.
I never saw the artillery rounds, tucked in like sleeping vipers underneath a fallen palm tree.
I felt something though, a second before it all happened. It was the first time in my life I realized Death’s presence, and in all the years since, it was still the most intense I’ve ever felt it. I could almost see the scythe, could almost smell the dank must of the crypt. I felt Death’s tattered shroud as it swept over me.
Marquez was right beside me cursing Iraq’s spring heat when the world exploded.
I wound up a half-dozen feet away, ears ringing, blood stinging my eyes, right arm twisted at a grotesque angle, my helmet gone God knows where, my rifle snatched from my hands and tossed into the palm groves by the power of the blast. My right leg was still attached but my uniform was solid red below the thigh. I struggled for breath. I felt like Atlas himself was standing on my chest. I moved my arm to try to push myself up but realized that as badly broken as it was, it couldn’t sustain any weight.
A voice called out and I managed to pick my head up.
Marquez lay at beside me, moaning, in the shallow IED crater.
The blast had ripped him to shreds. His legs were gone and his right arm was a mass of tendons and bone and sinew at the shoulder. His face was burnt and his eyes swelled shut; his short black hair was matted with blood. Marquez mouthed something and his left hand reached out to me, grasping for something–anything. As I took his left hand as best I could with my damaged right, a shadow passed over us.
Above us stood Death, impossibly tall and dark in the sun-drenched palm grove. Somehow I understood, that while Death was looking at me, it was there for Marquez. I held Marquez’s hand. I knew–I just did–that as long as I held his hand, Marquez would stay with us. Death was waiting, yes, but it would wait.
I heard a voice. It was Harper, the platoon medic. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” he shouted. “Smith! Sergeant Sims! Help me out over here! Daniels and Marquez are hit bad over here, man!”
I heard Lieutenant Roberts yell back: “Doc, I need Smith over here with me workin’ on Lee! Can you spare him?”
I don’t remember the answer, but I do remember Harper and somebody else separating me and Marquez. I remember blubbering snot and blood and crying like a child.
“No! No! Don’t take him! I can’t let go of him! He’ll die! He’ll die!”
I remember screaming until I was hoarse, but no one listened.
I tried to warn them, but Harper and one of the other guys in the platoon pulled us away to get us onto litters for transport. I remember Harper and Roberts whispering to me, trying to calm me down, trying to soothe me, trying to tell me it was going to be all right. I remember seeing, out of the corner of my eye, a figure in a black shroud striding south into the darkened palm grove.
I knew the figure wasn’t leaving alone.
There was nothing I could do. There still isn’t. Death never picks the wrong house or the wrong day to show up. When Death arrives, the decision is Final. All I can do is delay–just provide a brief stay on the inevitable execution.
Oh, I’ve got knowledge.
But I don’t have any power.
David Dixon served as an active duty armor officer from 2003 to 2011 and deployed to Iraq three times. He currently lives with his wife and children in Mauldin, South Carolina.