Walking in the woods recently, I made the same request I usually do: I want to walk here another twenty years at least, please. Never mind that I’ve stretched out the end date a few years with the passing of time. I don’t want to think about one particular walk being the last one, though I know my body will eventually give out—I’ll break a hip, or a knee will pop, and that will be the end of climbing down into Clifton Gorge.
For the first time, I wondered if I’d want to know that a certain walk would be the last one. Would I want to have time to say goodbye to the tree I call the trinity sycamore, to that broad section of the path, to the turtles sunning on a fallen tree trunk, and to the moss? Or would ignorance truly be bliss? When I’ve known that certain eras of my life were coming to an end, I’ve made myself miserable over the last this and the final that. Perhaps it’s just as well that I have no control over this.
It’s likely not my call, of course. But speculating on it, even allowing the question to arise, I wondered about Jesus’ last days on earth. The Gospels make it clear he knew what was coming: he said that a woman who anointed him with oil was doing it in preparation for his death; he told Judas to go do what he did [betray Jesus] quickly. John’s Gospel records an intimate discourse to the disciples gathered for the last Passover meal together. The end must have seemed very fast: the arrest in the garden, the trials, the walk to Golgotha. Did the human Jesus wish he’d planned a little time with Mary and John before announcing from the cross that they were now mother and son?
“So teach us to number our days,” says Psalm 90, “that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Living with the awareness that our lives are fragile should produce a desire for wisdom in living well the few days we have.
I know this now in a new way, living with metastatic cancer, a diagnosis so unexpected as to render me incapable of taking it in. Four years ago I was in chemotherapy, bloated and bald. I’m very conscious of the contrast when I go walking in town, as I did this evening, joying in the purple and white crocuses, the pale sun, recalling that by this time last year, I was taking two or three naps a day and working a bit when I was awake. I am finally striving after a heart of wisdom in all my doings, the way I should have been all along.