Have you ever met Death?
She’s quite nice. Oh yes, and she is a she. Before I met her, I always imagined Death to be some sort of scary looking thing with a cloak—not quite human, not quite monster. Death is actually quite beautiful, to be honest. Nothing to be afraid of in the least; on the contrary, I imagine people wouldn’t dread the actual event itself if they knew Death. It’s not the first time I’ve met her—right now, that is. I’ve caught glimpses of her passing by probably a hundred times during my career; I’m a fireman, you see. I saw her carry away a heartbreaking number of people over the years, those who were broken beyond my healing hands, and I even saw her come for me once or twice. Hazards of the trade and all that.
She’s here currently, of course. Don’t worry. It wasn’t a surprise.
I welcome her as she lowers herself to sit beside me, taking the time to settle in before looking out at the vast forest beyond. As I behold her now—not in passing, not out of the corner of my eye, but seated beside her as an equal—I truly recognize how undeniably stunning she is. Her humble power and regal posture. It reminds me of the redwood forests of Sonoma county, where we are now. The trees have a certain way of making you feel...small. In a good way. Like there’s something majestic watching over you.
“Good to see you again, ma’am.”
“Oh, well that can’t be the truth,” she says with a sweet chuckle. I laugh and take her by the arm, coughing as I do.
“So, it’s for real this time, is it?”
“I’ll be honest, I always told myself I was ready for you. But now that we’re here, I admit I’m a bit afraid.”
Death sighs and puts her head on my shoulder. It’s silent today, like the air around us has already died. “Well, I’m here. I won’t let you go.”
I laugh again. “That’s a phrase most people would tremble at, coming from you.”
She smiles and holds me tight. “I suppose. You’re not like most people though.”
I nod and fall silent once more.
The trees sway back and forth, slowly, gently, soothingly almost, like a pendulum inside a grandiose grandfather clock. And yet, they tower above us indifferently, their agedness transcending the minutia of mortals like me, every human life but a blip of time held against the millennia they’ve ruled this land.
“Did you ever fall in love with that one girl? The one you were with all those years ago?”
I smile wide, the joy hardly containable at the thought of my now wife. “Tawni? Oh yes. Head over heels. Fell in love, started a family—three kids you know—got my white picket fence home and all that. It’s been a fairy tale, to say the least. I wouldn’t have planned it any other way, even if I could.”
“Oh, that makes me so happy. I have to say, I could have predicted it. They way I saw her look at you...”
“Well, full disclosure, I had just saved a man from choking to death, forgive the phrase. I imagine that helped woo her over, lucky me.”
Death laughs again, and I feel a wave of warmth rush through me, a comforting blanket in a time that seems so cold.
“What about you?” I ask, honestly curious. “Have you ever fallen in love?”
A sparkle flits across her eyes, and her face lights up like it’s her favorite topic. “I fall in love every day, Paul. Everyone I meet. Not very many people know it, but I love you all so much; it’s why I do my job, in fact. I can’t stand to see a single one of you suffer for very long. So, when your time comes, I’m there to take you to somewhere pain can’t find you ever again.”
My heart skips a beat at the thought, and a dark shadow passes over my face. Death must see it, because she looks over and nudges me in the side, giving me a questioning look. I take in a deep breath and train my eyes on the murky horizon. “Where is that? The place, I mean, where there’s no pain?”
Death pauses for a moment, and I can see she’s considering her next words carefully. Then, she releases my arm and brings her knees up to her chest. “White shores. An endless field, ever upward, ever onward. A kingdom. An adventure. It’s different for everyone. It’ll be different for you. But one thing I know is that you won’t be disappointed.”
“Have you seen it? For me, that is?”
“Is it hard to get there? Is it hard to die?”
“Oh, no, love,” she says, placing her hand on my back. “I’ll be with you the whole way. You have nothing to fear.”
A tear runs down my cheek, my worries now somewhat abated. My thoughts turn to my family and to the awfulness that they’ll soon be put through. I almost feel bad that it’ll be so easy for me, over so quickly, at least as Death so advertises, while they struggle with the inevitable challenge of losing a loved one. I can’t imagine what this will do to them. My oldest barely turned nine a few months ago. It’s not fair. But since when is life ever fair?
“Will they be there with me? Eventually, I mean?”
“Oh yes,” she answers, knowing to whom I’m referring, “but not yet. Don’t worry. They’ll be taken care of.”
We fall silent again, and I take the remaining time to dwell on Tawny and the kids.
A few more minutes pass, and soon I begin coughing in shorter intervals, with more force. It’s unbearable. The smoke is overwhelming, a suffocating pool of acrid air surrounding me on all sides. I can almost feel the oxygen fleeing from my lungs. Moments later, I see the wall of flame coming over the ridge, galloping down the hillside to greet me, faster than a freight train, just like all the others I’ve seen through the years, except this time I’m the one cornered by the inferno. Panic suddenly clenches my chest, and for a moment I consider running, but I know it won’t do me any good. I had hoped the rescue team would find me in time, but the instant I saw Death, I knew it wasn’t meant to be.
I pull out my emergency fire shelter, already knowing it won’t do a thing, considering how hot this fire is burning; but Death stops my arm before I can deploy it. She nods solemnly, and I drop the shelter, taking her outstretched hand.
“Are you ready?”
I close my eyes, squeezing out the last few tears from my eyes, feeling my hands shake uncontrollably as the moisture instantly evaporates from off my cheeks.