In the final years of my life, I and most everyone I knew were burdened by the heavy yoke of existential dread, knowing the Angel of Death might have been around any corner. He could have appeared anywhere, in any number of forms — so many different ways to die which, during better times, never even occurred to us.
In those days, even the very old didn’t die of old age. One might be killed by the enemy or die of rampant disease or debilitating starvation. It might happen quickly or one might wait for the end, tormented by pain.
And yet, we fought on. There was no other choice but suicide. Some did choose that option. It was hard to blame them. The toxic stress flowed through our veins, carried by our blood, infecting every cell in the body with its black poison. It was more than many could bear — knowing that death would likely come soon, but not knowing how or when, not knowing how much suffering we might have to endure before the very end.
There was never complete joy. Even the few moments we managed of it, here and there – an embrace between old friends, a stolen kiss, some food in the belly, a familiar song or smell or taste that reminded us of better times — were always eclipsed by the shadow of the Angel’s ominous, black wings. The taint of blood, ever in the water.
The dread gnawed at me, ground me down. Like an automaton, I kept moving, putting one foot in front of the other, but it didn’t matter to me where I ended up. It was pointless to make a plan, to have a goal or destination. I had no control over my life and eventually gave up trying to exert any.
One day, I was caught by soldiers. I didn’t care enough to resist. One of them pulled his pistol out and took aim at my head. In that brief moment between knowing I was about to die and actually dying, I had but one emotion: relief. At last, the waiting and anticipation were over. No more waiting tensely for tragedy. The ending of my story was finally known. The tightly wound coil inside me sprang open and all the stress left my body, empty of it before the bullet hit my flesh.
Though I was gone, others managed to survive until it was all over. They lived, eventually, in peace and plenty, had children and grandchildren. But even in their many joys, they never forgot the shadow.