“It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching.” ~Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
The old man was dying, as old men do.
He stared at the few rusty rings that held the white curtain around his hospital bed and thought about some things it just seemed fitting to think about at a time like that.
He thought about life, yes. Here, in the shadow of death, he thought of life. He thought about the numerous years and days and hours of his he had spent wandering the little roads and pathways of the world, crafting his legacy. He thought of the many faces he had seen, and of the woman he had loved, and of the children she had given him. He thought of the books he had read and the paintings he had made and the laughter, the constant laughter, that rang in his ears even now as his life faded like an echo, reverberating off the walls back to him, a reminder, a whisper, of something that was, but won’t be again.
Was he ready to die? His daughter Michelle had visited him last night; she had grasped his hand in hers, trembling, and told him that it was “okay to go now”. He hadn’t wanted to take her words to heart, but now he suspected that he had, because there was a strange pulling sensation in the pit of his gut and a sudden willingness to give in to it. To stop fighting. It scared him a little, that feeling. He didn’t trust it. How could he? He had spent the last eight months battling with cancer. They told him to fight. They told him to hang on.
He had said so much, he had done so much. He was scared of how the person he was, the life he knew, was seeping through his fingers like smoke. The more he tried to cling to it, the more it slipped away. With him gone, who would there be to remember – his graduation, his wedding, the days his children were born? Who would be around to hold the memories? Who would be there to call them back?
It will be like I was never here, he thought. Like nothing I did ever mattered.
And that was terrifying. He grew cold as the thought entered his mind. He looked down at his hands. The fingers, once strong and firm, were now wrinkled and thin with age. He turned to stare at a mountain landscape hanging on the wall in front of him. His eyes wouldn’t even focus on what he was sure, almost sure, was a breathtaking vision.
He cursed himself. Damn these two dead eyes, this pair of broken hands. Damn ’em straight to hell.
And so he cried. And the nurse came in to give him medicine and change the sheets, and she viewed his tears with a face that had seen many such tears being shed before. The old man wondered how many dying people this woman had watched cry, but the thought only made him sob harder, his shoulders shaking with the weight of it all. Soon, too soon, he would be in the ground. He would turn to bones. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
But then the old man got to thinking about everything his hands had done in his life, and everything his eyes had seen. He thought of the things he touched, the people he laughed and cried with, the places he left his fingerprints. He thought of the tree he had planted in the backyard, the photographs he had taken, and the music he had made, which had no doubt been swept off into the wind and was now playing gently in some quiet, unknown place of the world in which it would play on, even after he was long gone.
Maybe I have touched the world, in my own tiny way, he thought. Maybe we all do.
So there, in the face of death, on a hospital bed, the old man blinked away his tears and looked down at his hands, soft and aged, in his lap.
And he thanked God for giving them to him. He thanked Him for the chance to touch things and change things, to make things his own.
His broken hands became beautiful once more.
And when the nurse came in the next morning, the old man was still, and his small, soft hands rested gently on the rails of his bed, at peace.