The Lives of the Dead

Some of the most interesting people I meet are dead…

Archive for the category “life lesson”

The Waiting is the Hardest Part



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.





Tools of the Trade





I went to work as a carpenter’s apprentice when I was twelve years old.  My master was a man of considerable talent and I felt fortunate to learn my trade at his side.  He was generous with his knowledge.  He taught me to understand the properties and nuances of each type of wood – which was best for what purpose. I learned the intricacies of carving and joining, how to bend and shape the wood, how to work with expensive veneers, how to make glues and  mix paints and prepare varnish.

My master had a son, who was just a small child when I first came to work in the shop.  Although his father hoped he, too, would learn the trade, as he got older, the boy showed little interest in, and even less skill at, woodworking.  In truth, he had few skills in anything.  He was a lazy child, spoiled by his mother.

Although this was a disappointment to his father, I had become a kind of surrogate son to him. It was clear the boy resented the close relationship and comradery I had with his father, the mutual respect, the easy way we communicated. I tried my best to stay out of his way so as not to antagonize the situation.

As time went by and I became a fine craftsman myself, my master and I became more like business partners than teacher and student. I dare say, I might even have taught him a few things now and then. We worked well together, each focusing on what we were best at.  Our furniture was in high demand and fetched a good price, making us both financially comfortable.

We worked this way, in harmony, for many decades.

When my master eventually died, his son inherited the building in which the shop was located.  He took a certain glee in turning me out, forcing me to find other circumstances where I could ply my trade.

Before I left, however, I did something which weighed on me for the rest of my life. It put me in a state of perpetual spiritual doubt.

When I packed my box to leave, I added my master’s fine tools to my own – his augurs and braces and chisels, imbued with the sweat and oil of his capable hands. I knew they were his son’s birthright but I also knew he would not put them to good purpose. In his possession, the would molder and rust in a damp corner until they were no longer useful whereas I could use them to create beautiful things and to earn a living for my family.

I took them and I went far away, to a place where he would not find me.  It might have been more convenient for me to remain close by as I already had a reputation as a fine furniture maker, but I did not want the inevitable trouble from the son, which I certainly would have had, even without the theft of the tools.

I found work easily, and soon had my own shop. I used those tools to create some splendid and artful pieces, and my family lived comfortably.

There were times, over the years, when I felt remorse for having based my fortune, as it was, on a sin.  Who was I to decide that my use of the tools was more important than his desire for them?   But always, the feeling passed.  I told myself it would have been a greater sin for those beautiful instruments to remain unused, unappreciated, unloved.  If the son was angry or resentful that I had taken them it was not because he had any sentimental feelings for them (as I most certainly did) but rather that he was upset that I took, yet one more thing that he believed he deserved to be his.

My own son had a natural instinct for wood and eventually he inherited those tools. As did his son after him.

I still wonder if I did the right thing.


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