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August 23, 2011
On dying alone and being keepers of sisters
We all die alone, no matter how many family and friends crowd into the room at the end. But before the final moment family and close friends can be a great comfort. Being connected to others who care for you and for whom you care helps us ease the hurts that life inevitably brings to all of us. We may want to be alone during certain times of crisis to process a situation or to make sense of things, but eventually we need the comfort and counsel of trusted friends and family. I suspect we all know this. It is the rare person who deliberately and consistently shuts out everyone. Everyone needs somebody—we social creature do not make successful islands!
That is why the striking complaint of the psalm writer—“no one cares for me” (Ps 142:4), evokes such pathos in even a casual reader. Apparently, the writer had reached a point in life where s/he felt completely isolated and utterly alone.
A recent experience brought home the psalm writer’s sense of abandonment to me with a force. We noticed an unusual number of newspapers in a neighbor’s drive, and took it upon ourselves to place them out of sight. Upon finding the back door standing open, and receiving no response from our knocking and calls, we called 911. The police found her dead on the floor of her home with only her dogs for company. I have since pondered at what point in the preceding days she may have died, and wrestled with the idea that had I been more observant, she might have gone to the hospital rather than the morgue. But she was a private person and we didn’t want to intrude.
We did our civic duty, I suppose—seeing something irregular, we checked, and called the police. But I can’t help but feel that perhaps a higher human obligation went unmet. We are all members of the human family and have obligations for each other’s welfare—even for those we do not know. Meeting that higher obligation requires a personal involvement of more than just a casual “good morning.” Clearly, however, there are limits to how involved we can be with those around us every day, but being sensitive to what is going on with even casual acquaintances is something toward which we should all aspire.
What I am suggesting, however, raises questions. For example: when does unsolicited care become unwanted meddling? Are care and meddling two qualitatively different sorts of intrusion in someone’s life, or are they both simply “intrusion,” and the only difference is a matter of perspective. In other words, what one person considers a welcome expression of concern in the mind of another person can turn out to be an unwanted intrusion.
It puts me in mind of Cain’s answer to Yahweh’s question: “how goes it with your brother Abel?”(Gen 4:9). Cain’s dismissive and curt response has become proverbial in our day: “am I my brother’s keeper?”—Cain says (Gen 4:9). Of course in Cain’s case he was his brother’s executioner! But it is the wont of proverbs to apply in a variety of situations—in my case Cain’s question became: should I have been my sister’s keeper?—meaning, should I long ago as a concerned neighbor have interrupted her privacy? A saying, attributed to Jesus, suggests I likely should have done precisely that: “Treat others like you want to be treated” (Luke 6:31), he said. The saying, however, assumes that the other party wants what you would have wanted under the same circumstances, and that may not be the case.
Cain’s answer raises another question. By intruding myself into her life unsolicited would I have been looking to meet her needs or mine? Or does that really matter if one is reaching out to meet what one perceives as a need of a fellow human being? The answer likely turns on what one perceives—yet, what I perceive about another may not be what the other perceives about herself.
After assessing a few of the vagaries of such unclear social situations, we are still left with the disturbing image of a woman dying alone with only dogs for company—and the plaintive complaint of the unknown psalm writer: “no one cares for me.”
What say you, gentle reader? Are we our sisters’ keepers?
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 3:39pm
Hey, Dr. Hedrick,
I had a similar experience 30 years ago when I was a new pastor. The elderly lady in the house next to the parsonage died during a summer heat wave. The tiny parsonage was air conditioned and my wife and I stayed comfortably indoors unaware of our neighbor's demise.