A memoir of the death of a playmate when I was a a child, and reflections.
I barely knew Timmy McCue. He was a year older and a grade ahead of me in school. When you’re in third grade, you have almost nothing to do with kids in fourth grade, or maybe it is the other way around. But I knew Timmy. We went to church and Sunday School together; we were both in Cub Scouts. We just had different circles of friends.
But I will never forget Timmy. He was my first direct experience with death.
My mother’s father had already died when I was three years old. I had been the apple of his eye, and to this day I remember how much, how utterly unconditionally and completely my three-year-old heart had loved him. I had seen him in the hospital shortly after his surgery for stomach cancer, and shortly before his death; but I don’t recall ever actually being told he had died for good and all - just that after a few months he wasn’t there when we went to visit Grandma.
Later, when I was old enough to ask questions, I remember being told Grandpa had “died” twice on the operating table, but that the doctor had brought him back by direct heart massage.
“How'd they do that? It's inside him!"
“The doctor took his knife and opened up his chest really quickly to find his heart.”
My eyes were riveted to my Dad’s hand, slowly squeezing and opening as he answered my questions about what the doctor did.
* * * * * * *
When Timmy died, I was told in so many words. My Dad was the pastor of the church we both attended. It fell to him to console the parents and to do the funeral – and to break the news to me.
“Kids don't die. He’s not old!”
“You don’t have to be old to die. Timmy was very sick.”
“He didn’t look sick. He was just like anyone else.”
I guess I hadn’t noticed Timmy had not been around lately. We weren’t in the same Sunday School class or Cub den, so we just didn’t talk together much.
“People don’t always look sick, even when they are. Timmy had been sick for a very long time.”
“What kind of sick?”
Partly the question came from curiosity. From kindergarten, almost through college, I had wanted to be a doctor. Actually, I never said I wanted to be a doctor; I said I was going to be a doctor. I wonder how much hearing the story of my grandfather’s operation and how the surgeon had brought him back from the dead – not once, but twice! – had influenced my thinking. Jesus did that, bringing people back from the dead! But also I was insatiably curious and rather scientifically minded. My Dad had killed a snake right in our yard the summer before, and I had dissected it on my own. It was fascinating. I imagined taking it apart and putting it back together, and having it slither off into the long grass again, good as new.
“He had leukemia.”
“Leukemia is cancer in the blood. Cancer makes the blood not work properly, and if it gets too bad, then people can die.”
* * * * * * *
It was a long time before I understood leukemia even in a layman’s fashion, but I knew the word 'cancer,' if not its fullest meaning. In 1952, Jonas Salk had refined the first polio vaccine, and all the kids in school had gotten polio shots. Polio had terrified families in those days in ways it is difficult to imagine today. Even AIDS does not quite compare, because parents do not really fear their children will contract AIDS until they are perhaps teens and acting out sexually or with drugs. But polio could strike anywhere, anytime. Even President Roosevelt, still fresh in adult memories, had been struck by polio as a young man. Almost daily there were new reports of children who had died, children restricted to iron lungs, children permanently crippled by this horrible and dread disease. I already “knew” at seven that I was going to be a doctor, and that doctors cured people of diseases when they could. A great deal was made of Jonas Salk in those early days. Merely to say he was lionized by parents all over the country would be too mild. It captured my imagination.
“What's polio?” I asked my mother.
“It's a horrible disease that cripples children. Remember the little boy we saw in the wheelchair while we were shopping last week? He had polio. A lot of children die from it.”
“And now it won't happen any more?”
“I hope not. Now that there is a vaccine, maybe children won’t ever have to get polio again. When I was a little girl, smallpox used to kill thousands of people every year. Now almost everyone is vaccinated against it, so hardly anyone gets smallpox."
I knew about smallpox — I have the scar from the vaccination myself. My mother’s scar was unusually large. I could remember asking her about it years earlier.
“So after smallpox, polio was the worst disease you could get?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“What's next worst?”
Mom thought for a moment. “Cancer, I guess.”
“Cancer?” I repeated the word to sear it into my mind. I knew my mission in life. Cancer was the disease I was going to conquer. I would find the vaccine for cancer.
It would be several years yet before I would learn of cells in the body, how bone marrow makes blood cells, and how leukemia makes it produce too many white blood cells; but once again I was certain my mission in life would be to destroy cancer. It killed Grandpa; it killed Timmy. I would see it didn't kill anyone else.
* * * * * * *
“Timmy’s funeral is tomorrow. Would you like to go?”
“Yes.” I tried not to sound too eager. I wasn’t entirely certain I would like being there; but there was nothing on earth that would keep me from going if I were allowed to go. If nothing else, I was too curious to know what a funeral really was to miss it.
I knew what a funeral home was – from the outside. The president of our congregation was an undertaker, a name now out of style, almost as rare as smallpox or polio. His establishment was only a block from our house. I had even been in his yard once. I was with my Dad who was having an earnest conversation with Mr. Zirkle, no doubt about some church business or other. There was a ball in the yard, which I had picked up and was playing with. Mr. Zirkle’s dog was running around and barking. He caught the ball and ran with it into his doghouse. At four years old, I thought it was all a game and followed the dog inside. When I tried to take the ball, the dog bit me on the mouth. I remember being rushed to the hospital, the first of many times in the next four years, to get patched up. The scar is still with me, faintly on my upper lip and chin, but visible when I look for it. We had ridden in the hearse.
But I had never been inside the funeral home before. Wide-eyed, I entered the huge foyer, decorated something like a living room, but unnatural with everything perfectly in place. There were large paintings on all the walls, and the smell of flowers was very strong. Mysterious rooms branched off the foyer going places I hadn't the nerve to explore. People were everywhere in little groups, talking in hushed tones.
Before going, my Dad had given me instructions:
“Now don’t be afraid. There will be a lot of people there, and they will get in a line to pay their respects. Just follow them, and when you reach the coffin with Timmy in it, say a prayer, then come back and sit down.”
“What do I pray for?”
““You can pray that God take Timmy’s soul to be with Him in heaven.”
“Isn’t it too late to pray for that?” I thought; but I didn’t say anything back. I thought when you died, that was it: no more chances to repent and be saved, you either were already or you weren’t. Before he died, sure, pray that God would take him to heaven; but after, well, wasn’t his soul one place or the other already?
That’s a question that has come back to me many times in the intervening years, but that I have resolved in ways I doubt my Dad ever thought of. Sure, I’m a man of God, and I believe in heaven and Judgment Day and the separation of the sheep from the goats and that if you don’t come to love God before you die, it will one day be too late. But I don’t believe it in the way I did then, or for that matter the way many people - adults and whole denominations! - do today. There are so many ways in which I believe differently about these matters, I doubt I can do justice to the subject in any reasonably short space.
For one thing, I have realized that for God, time must be a meaningless concept. The Bible says that a thousand years are as a single day to God, which is an understatement. Eternity can’t just mean a long time, as I had thought then. It isn’t just lots of time, ages and eons extending forever; rather it is no time at all! Time is not just a tiny portion of eternity; time is an irrelevancy to eternity. Time is an artifact of creation, which has no existence or meaning apart from the created world. No creation, no universe, no stuff of the universe: no time! Time is a dimension, like space; eternity is dimensionless. Time and space have limits; eternity is limitless. Eternity has no dimensions because it is part of God’s Kingdom, which is without limits. In Eternity, the beginning and the end of creation are both now. There is no separation between yesterday and today and tomorrow, no waiting. God sees and is present at the beginning and the end of the whole of creation all at once, Alpha and Omega. We are stuck in time, waiting to see how it all comes out; but in God’s Kingdom, the beginning and the end comes together as a whole. That’s what I have learned omniscience means; not merely that God knows everything, but that he sees it all at once, because it is all present to God.
Which means past, present, and future are meaningless in eternity, too. We think of causes needing to be prior in time to effects; but where there is no priority of time, there is no such distinction. I can quite reasonably pray now for something that has already taken place in the past, because in eternity, there is no past. It might look like there is to us who are stuck in creation; but God would have no difficulty at all in taking my prayer today and acting on it … yesterday! Would I ever know if something in the past were changed? Who knows how much of one’s past could have been changed by God’s miracles in response to a prayer made ten years from now? Who knows how my prayer for Timmy’s soul, known by the God who sees it together with all of time at once, might already have been answered by the Spirit of God moving within Timmy from the time as an infant he was baptized?
* * * * * * *
I’m not sure what I had expected to see in that coffin. It looked like Timmy. He looked asleep, except his chest wasn’t moving, and his face looked - waxy. Curiosity overwhelming me, cautiously, secretively, gingerly I touched his hand. It was cold and too hard. It felt waxy. Dutifully, I said my prayer in my mind silently, wondering if God really could still do anything for Timmy if there were some kind of problem, but feeling sure there was no problem. Timmy was my friend, even if I had hardly known him. He was already in heaven with or without my prayer. My prayer just linked my will with God’s and joined the three of us together somewhere for which I had no words.
I never knew Timmy very well. But I will never forget him. He lives in timeless Eternity with God. He is always with me, and I with him.