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One day

Six writers describe what they would do today if they knew they had run out of tomorrows

By Various Writers

I would want my 11-year-old son to remember me. While I never miss a morning when I say to him, “I love you,” the depths of that love are unfathomable and the pain of its profundity akin to torment. W. H. Auden wrote these words in the past tense: “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song . . .”

I would rewrite them in the present tense. “You are my . . . ” Once, I thought that it bordered on idolatry to love anyone except God with such self-effacement. But now I know how God loves each of us. If I only had a day, I would write a letter, telling him that when I check on him in his bedroom at night, my heart breaks with love. I would make a video so he could hear my voice, see my face and know his dad.

Secondly, I would outline my funeral. We all know it is coming, but we never feel the noose until it is around our neck. I want to be “waked” in the church; I want hymns of praise to resound; and I want the Gaelic Psalm 117/150 by Arthur Cormack to be played just as it is playing now as I write. I want to be buried among my ancestors.

Thirdly, there is “junk” that I want to remove. Enough said.

Fourthly, I would take my son on that trip we had discussed but never got around to. I want to build one more sandcastle on a Caribbean beach.

In the evening, I would call my friends and tell them how important they have been and thank them for loving me through all the seasons of life and allowing me the blessings of being honest and open. Why do we always wait until the eulogy to say what should have been said a long time before?

Finally, I would have a nice glass of Merlot and sing The Parting Glass as I close my eyes. A clergy friend saying prayers for me as I leave would make my life complete.

Rev. Ivan Gregan is a minister at Port Wallis (N.S.) United.

As tempted as I am to say that for my last day on Earth I would still do my favourite things all on my own, I know that wouldn’t be right. In reality, I would tell my husband and my children that I love them and then go into the woods and spend the time in prayer. I don’t think I would be afraid of death. The presence and love of God have been very real to me all through my life. I think of death as passing through a door to a place where God will be much more present and real.

From my experience as a minister, however, I know that death isn’t just about the person who is dying; it’s about the whole family. While I may feel all that needs to be said to my husband and my children is “I love you,” they could well feel differently. They might want to say more, to do more. If one of them were about to die, I know I would want to spend every last minute with them. I realize I would need to be prepared to offer my family the same.

And yet I would have my own spiritual needs. Coming face to face with death might be far more unnerving than I realize right now when I am young and healthy. The more I contemplate this question, the more I realize I would need time to reflect on my relationship with God. And I would need time in prayer, just to be reassured that my faith is real and that God is with me, both in this life and the next.

As so often happens in life, it comes down to a question of whose needs are more important. In this case, would it be my family’s temporal needs or my spiritual ones? In true United Church style, I would seek a compromise: most of the time with my family, but at some point, an hour or two to myself somewhere outdoors in prayer. What truly matters in the end is that God will be with me, no matter what I choose to do. God is not limited by my choices. I hold on to the promise of our creed — in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.

Rev. Keltie van Binsbergen is a minister at Whitehorse United.

I suppose the angel would come for me at midnight. Raphael, I hope, the gentle guardian of those on pilgrimage toward God. So I am given one day. Not to complain, I have been granted 65 years of days already, and in good health.

I think I would make pancakes for breakfast. Yes, pancakes, redolent with memories of canoe trips and the mornings when our two-year-old grandson, Elijah, awakens the rest of the household by whispering in our ears, “Pancakes. Cawfee (he pronounces it like his Brooklyn-raised other grandma). Bacon. Bananas!”

Yes, on my last day, pancakes for breakfast and my unsuspecting family home to visit for some holiday or other, all dawdling around the table and finding ways to steal the front section of the newspaper from one another. We would solve the problems of the country over cawfee.

I would slip away to write a short last note to each. “Goodbye, I love you,” I would say. No surprise; they know that.

And then it would depend on the season. My father died in November. He dug the parsnips, put away his shovel and closed the garden shed for winter. He took the train south to celebrate his grandson’s birthday, came home and died. If autumn held my last day, I would do the same, satisfied at our readiness for spring.

If it were winter, I would go down to the lake. Baba would accompany me, pulling Elijah in the sled. I would ruminate in silent pleasure on 41 years with Baba-formerly-known-as-Jim. We would slide down the bank to the beach and walk out on the ice afterward.

Of course, it might be summer. I would weed and deadhead, and dig some yellow irises for my neighbour. I would persuade Baba to mow what lawn I have refrained from turning into perennial beds. He will appreciate it when they gather for the post-funeral party.  

But then again, it might be spring. Robins would sing all day. At midnight, Raphael would come to carry me to God. We would talk. “But God is here already,” I would say, pointing out the songbirds, silent in the night. And I would invoke the resurrection and refuse to go.

Donna Sinclair lives in North Bay, Ont.

Would I wash the dishes or not?

One of my daily prayers is that “I might spend today as if it were my last.”

On a sunny June day, a doctor told us that my wife, Carol, had cancer. I might have puked if Carol’s fainting hadn’t distracted me. We were suffering the vertigo effects of having our future pulled out from under us.

Weeks later, we were in an auditorium with about 200 people. We were participants in a study with Dr. Alistair Cunningham. Upon receiving news of his own cancer, he embarked on a journey to train his mind to do the healing. Now he was scientifically measuring the effects of mindfulness training on cancer patients.

He asked us to journal about what we’d do if we only had one year to live. After we’d finished, he told us stories of people who had — upon receiving a doctor’s death sentence — dropped their daily grind and begun pursuing the life they’d always wanted to live. Living out their dreams instead of their “shoulds” — many of those folks, he told us, are living still.

That’s the day something shifted in me. I would learn to fall in love with my life the way it is today. I would also stop shoving my dreams into the future and begin taking daily small steps to bring the future into the present.

We dropped a few major sources of stress and invested instead in nutrition for body and soul. We kept playing, dancing, singing and creating. And, day by day, we turned to the Great Physician.

Would I do the dishes after I got the news? Maybe after I finished throwing up.

Rev. Allan Reeve is a minister at Trinity-Providence United in Bobcaygeon, Ont.

To be sure, it is a day for prayer. But not with words. And it won’t look like prayer — not the knee-bent supplications Mrs. Watson taught me when I began my life with Sunday school. Now prayer is more woven.

I will pray today more as a Hebrew than as a Greek — more in the conviction that the Earth is a delight and my body is a gift — than out of a desire to flee the Earth and finally be caught up in the air with the angels. I have loved this place, and God has been here, so I’ll pray one more long, last time today with my senses.

I will pray touching wood. I will go to where I can watch a tree, of any kind. I will go to my workshop, and I’ll find some wood that has died and now in its third day is being resurrected. I have loved the fragrances of woods. I have loved the infinite designs of the grain, some straight and long as though they know clearly their task, others curly, wandering. I will give thanks for what God has made out of light and soils and wonder what I will next be. “Like the days of a tree, so shall the days of my people be . . .”

I will pray eating — the great gift of Sabbath and Eucharist. I will end my days as I have lived them, tasting and seeing that God is good. I will head straight for the comfort foods. Chocolate, because I don’t think Jesus ever tasted chocolate, and I want it to be fresh in my memory so I can tell him how delightful it is. I will ask my daughter, or perhaps her daughter, to make me a batch of the fudge she has made for me each Christmas, from my grandmother’s recipe. A communion of saints. I will not worry, today, about my arteries.

And I will need to touch some people as I prepare to touch God in a new way. To remember the contours of my lover, the astounding softness of a child’s face and the electricity of being held. Knowing, finally, that we are not alone. That will be enough.

Rev. Doug Norris is a minister at Rosedale United in Toronto.

In the quirky Canadian film Last Night, the world is about to end as the result of an undefined but precisely timed astronomical event. During Earth’s final hours, ordinary people struggle to bring closure to their lives. The film’s protagonist, an unhappy young man, attends a family dinner, where his grandmother describes Aunt Margot’s plans. Margot and her congregation are meeting at a lake. Just before the final hour, the entire assembly is going out in canoes. “How excruciating!” the grandson shudders. “Imagine ending it all singing Kumbaya.” “Yes. Well,” his grandmother replies, “she is with the United Church.”

Most of us will not know when we have one more day, or be able to do much about it. Such opportunity falls largely to people planning suicide, and those who have been sentenced to death. Speculation about “my last day” thus puts me in rather dangerous territory. According to the Gospels, Jesus knew that his state execution was imminent. When he had one more day, he gathered some friends to share a ritual meal, sing a hymn and go to a mountain to pray.

Taking Jesus for my pattern, I would spend my last hours surrounded by the company of friends and the beauty of the Earth, a song of faith on my lips. Which, I guess, is not entirely unlike Aunt Margot’s congregation’s plans.

But Christianity gives us something more than a model for our final day. It has taken Jesus’ last night and shaped it into a sacrament that allows us to touch the world of final things over and over, with all the danger and possibility that dwells there. The gift of the Last Supper suggests that my true goal is not to end it all perfectly, but to strive to be as present to every day as I would be to my last: to treasure friends and faith, earth and song, however and wherever I can.

Rev. Sandra Beardsall is on the faculty at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon.

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