Once In A Lifetime
By JIM NICHOLS
I have mentioned before my fascination with the paradoxes of life, the opposites that must be simultaneously true and the tensions that we must accept. Lots of these paradoxes show up in scripture—for example, the last shall be first, Jesus is fully human and fully divine, if you think you can see, you are actually blind.
However, even outside a religious context (although I am not sure there is such a thing), in what most people would see as a completely human context, these tensions, these opposites, appear constantly. Sometimes, illustrations of this appear within a single hour.
In April about ten years ago, I lived in a mid-west city and was serving as a hospital chaplain. I was due to serve a 24-hour on call shift at the hospital the next day and received a phone call on the preceding afternoon. The communication was that the next day there would be the withdrawal of life support from a patient. I received the time and room number and a request to be there to offer support to the family and friends. The patient had had a series of strokes and the medical staff and family had concluded that a continuation of life support was not medically appropriate nor something the patient would want. The time delay in making the decision and implementing it was to allow other family members and friends to gather at the hospital. Typing those words is easy for me; making that decision for the family was not.
Soon after receiving that call, I walked to a nearby park. It was a warm spring day and there were many people at the park walking, lounging, and playing. They were dressed for leisure and casual activity except for one group of four people. The two males in this group of four wore tuxedos; one of the women wore a sleek black dress and the other woman wore a brilliant white wedding dress. There was a fifth member of the group—a photographer.
While I watched (along with others), the photographer carefully positioned the bride within the mixture of shadow and light. The grass was green and in the background was a stunningly beautiful water fountain, a major feature of this park. The fountain was not close but would be clearly visible in the background of any pictures. Judging from the number of people who stopped along with me to watch the scene, I am sure that I was not the only one captivated by it. Here amid the city with life going on all around, time was standing still for this bride; this was her wedding day. All the anticipation had led to this time in her life, a time never to be forgotten and now being captured photographically with a white dress and white-water foam in the background.
This park is near the hospital. The hospital is across the street from the park, a hundred yards from the bride. She was facing the hospital during the photographs with the fountain at her back.
The paradox was too obvious to miss. There were two special days occurring. One of the days was a celebration of youth and beauty and excitement. It was a day of special dresses and suits, of memorable music, dancing, food, family, and friends. The other day was a day requiring a decision that no one would ever want to make, but a decision that is made routinely. The latter could be also couched as being celebratory in a way, especially for people faithful to a belief in a positive afterlife, but, nevertheless, a day of significant sadness. Yet, here both scenes were standing clearly present. Both were real; both were common; both were, for those involved, once in a lifetime experiences.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain