Death is real. While we are here on this Earth, I believe that we may have an opportunity to help make things right with someone before they die. I experienced one of these occasions while serving abroad. I didn’t know at the time just how imminent the death was, but still I was able to make a difference. And I was able to be grateful for what happened.
My companion and I were walking down a driveway alongside a five-story apartment building. On the left there was an old playground that kids had not played in because of the cold. We were missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serving in a little town called Miass, which is set deep in the Russian Ural Mountains. We were on our way to meet with an individual, about 50 years old, who had been meeting with missionaries for a few months. This was my first opportunity to meet him, and at that time I had no idea that he was going to pass away soon.
Volodya was an accomplished smoker who had spent a few years in a Soviet prison for a crime about which people could only speculate. I first saw his rusted steel door, the likes of which made me hold my breath as I passed the threshold; I feared what rankness there might be on the other side. It was dark inside; he was stealing electricity from his neighbor, and in order to keep from arousing suspicion he would seldom turn on the lights. The furniture was sparse. The wallpaper was a dark yellow. Perhaps it was a shade of the original color or perhaps his cheap cigarettes stained the original white.
We sat down and had a discussion about his smoking habits. We encouraged him that he could quit. In fact, he had quit before for about two weeks until some old friends knocked on his door. I didn’t comprehend his troubles, but I told him that it could be easy to quit. As a result, I learned that his temper could be easily sparked. However, I was not one to be intimidated, especially by someone who needed a cane to get up. Volodya had received a knife wound in his leg in a Russian prison years ago. I never saw the wound myself, but he told us that it was beginning to fester. He did show us his leg; it was turning black.
We would return often, receiving no answer to our knocks on his big red door. We could have peered into his naked windows, but I think that an underlying fear of what we might see always kept us from looking. Weeks would go by and we wouldn’t see him. I knew his gangrene was getting worse, but there was nothing we could do about it. There is something in each of us that wants to help, that wants to do everything that is possible to alleviate pain and suffering from another. There is also something in us that forces us to let time perform its dance and not falter. I also believe in a life hereafter.
On one bright day, we visited Volodya’s apartment and found him in his bed, somnolent. He awoke, and with joy that I had never perceived in him, he welcomed us. His body had left our realm of help and we could only help him spiritually. That day I shared with him my belief about an afterlife where he wouldn’t have to suffer. He was in tears and told us he loved us. And then we left. A couple of weeks later, while trying to visit him, a babushka told us that he had died. It was over. I was grateful for the opportunity that we had to touch his heart one last time. I still live with regret thinking that we could have healed him, somehow. But my own beliefs give me hope that he is not suffering and is maybe even grateful for those last moments.
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