Dying in Whitmore Lake

14 November, 2016 — Ann Arbor and Whitmore Lake, Michigan

Jesus walks among the multitude, but they do not see him. The people are eating and drinking, working and resting, marrying and getting divorced. Jesus carries with him a basket and a pitcher, and he stops occasionally before one or another. Then that person sets down their burdens and gives him a small fish for his basket, and a cup of water for his pitcher.

The number of the people before whom he stops is one hundred and twenty: three, times five, times eight.

When he has stopped for the last time, Jesus walks to the hill where he can be seen by all the multitude, and faces them.

From his basket, he takes a living fish which swims and leaps in the air above his hand as he spreads his arms wide apart. From his pitcher in the other hand, he pours an arc of clear water that becomes a life-giving stream in the desert.

The crowd falls silent. From the sky, there is a sound as of great trumpets.

~

Michael Marek comes awake throwing his hands out to either side of him. They strike the car door on his left and the seat on his right, slightly shaking the small vehicle.

He blinks himself awake, realizes that he is shivering, and looks around at the parking lot of the rest area he stopped in a couple hours ago. The sunlight is starting to slant low across the rest area building in front of him. It’s time to get moving.

Outside, the chill is even worse than he expects as he hurries along a curving sidewalk toward the new-looking building. The sky is cold and clear, deep blue. Just a little ways up there, he thinks, is all the cold of space.

“Hello, father,” a middle-aged man says to him as they pass each other on the sidewalk. Mike nods and smiles automatically in return, but it hits him as he pushes though the door into the rest-area building.

Idiot! He thinks. Idiot! Hurrying into the restroom, he confirms it: he is still wearing the collar! The little white square stares back at him in the restroom’s dirty mirror. He put it on unthinkingly, with thirty years’ worth of habit, so to speak. Okay, I’m not much of a spy.

Thankfully, the restroom is empty for the moment. He unbuttons the collar quickly and stuffs it into the waste bin under an empty paper towel dispenser.

What is the source of his knowledge of where to go, and what to do? He doesn’t know, but it is there, and one of the directives in his mind is that he should go unremarked. He knows what the end of following these directives will be, and he knows that he could refuse them if he tried. But he has already been granted a vision—or something much more than a vision—of the world that would result from that refusal.

When he turns on the tap, the water comes out visibly brown. He nonetheless takes some in his hands to splash on his face and looks at the tired face in the mirror. Now he is just another middle-aged man, wearing an only slightly odd-looking threadbare black shirt. That will have to do.

Mike Marek knows that he will not refuse the task that has been given him to do. He only offers a quick, silent prayer that he will have the courage to do it well. Then straightens, and turns toward the door.

~

The feeling of an otherness in his own mind grows as he continues east from the Chelsea rest stop. It is not the feeling of a separate identity inside him, but more like remembering aspects of himself that have long lain dormant. These newly-remembered aspects of himself are what allow him to somehow know to turn onto a little highway called M-14, and shortly thereafter another called US-23. As though he knows just where to go.

The gradual feeling of awakening is the most exhilarating and strange experience he’s ever had. With more than half his mind, he is going over the events of his own life. There’s no reason not to, since it seems that his conscious cooperation isn’t required to reach his destination. In ten minutes, he has learned more about being a priest than he has in thirty years of vocation.

One thing that priests do: they comfort the dying. And, more difficult, they console the survivors. If you haven’t done this, you should definitely try it. Comfort a friend who has, on this day, suffered the loss of a loved one. See how much fun that is.

Now do it a hundred times.

Mike Marek has indeed done that a hundred times, and every time it was for a friend. Some closer, some less close. But even a man who has had so much practice at this most difficult of tasks—can he do it for himself?

Can he do it for himself, at his own death? Because he knows perfectly well now that it his his death that the Shining Man has called him to. He has accepted it.

Long ago he saw a movie in which Robert De Niro played a man who had been comatose for many years, and was awoken by a dose of some new drug. That’s how this feels. As he drives the last few miles north on US-23, Mike Marek feels that he is remembering great parts of himself that he has not known in the more than half-century of his life.

This is what it feels like, he knows now, to wake up at the time of your death, and remember who you always were.

In these minutes, he learns what it’s like to realize that you have comforted people as a priests gives comfort, only to realize that most of what you said was bullshit.

And then, at the end, you realize that all your bullshit was true after all.

It’s a pretty challenging revelation.

He parks his car on a road called Charring Cross Circle—Americans have never really gotten over the whole British thing, have they? Why is that? He has never been to London, but he is pretty sure that this quiet neighborhood in Whitmore Lake, Michigan is nothing like it.—a little circular subdivision a short distance from the highway, populated with formerly wealthy-looking houses, more than half of them dark.

Mike Marek walks away from his automobile without a backward glance, passes between two vacant mini-mansions, and sets off walking east-northeast, through forested land.

~

Half an hour later, after the sun has set but before it is quite dark, he come to a clearing between several small lakes, and knows that this is the place.

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked God, his dad, to let him skip the hard parts, if that would be okay. Michael Marek would very much like to ask God for the same dispensation (although he strongly suspects that he would get the same answer), but in this one thing—he wants to do better than Jesus did.

Ah, but that’s not right, is it? Because Mike Marek has not only asked to be let off, he already totally refused once—and got to see what would become of the world in the next twenty years because of his failure. Do you suppose Jesus was shown something like that? And, if so, what did he see?

Marek comes to the center of the clearing, the nearly-dark sky cold and clear above him. The cold penetrates his thin coat and uncollared black shirt. When he comes to the center of the clearing, he kneels in the wet earth. He has never in his life before this moment felt true fear, and true doubt. You can console people a hundred times, but can you really believe, at the end of your own life, what you have told them? You don’t really get to practice it, you know.

Deus meus,” the priest says into the great darkness, “ex toto corde pænitet me omnium meorum peccatorum.”

At the edge of the clearing, fifty yards away in every direction, the black trees touch the darkening sky. And as he speaks, at the edge of the darkness, there is a flicker of motion.

Can you believe what you have told them?

He feels tears on his face, and is ashamed.

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine,” he says, his voice shaking. “Domine, exaudi vocem meam.”

When the dark thing comes flying to Michael Marek across the grass, the end is quick.

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