Monday was a particularly beautiful fall day. The sky was clear, and the air had that wonderful cool crispness that made one feel alive and fresh. “A perfect day for a walk in the park,” Alex thought.
The park was large and hilly, with numerous trees. Benches designed for comfort and aesthetic appeal were strategically placed throughout. In the center of the park was a lake, the habitat of an assortment of ducks and Canada geese. Around the lake and meandering among the trees was a wide paved path connected to The Pines by a short, narrow path, much like the access to an interstate highway.
The whole scene reminded him of an Impressionist painting, perhaps a Monet or Renoir. As he walked from The Pines to his favorite bench in the park, he imagined himself stepping into such a painting, becoming a part of the peace and tranquility so beautifully captured on the canvas by the artist.
He liked to sit on a bench—“his bench”–located under an old oak tree on a hill overlooking the lake. During the summer, the tree’s foliage provided shade from the sun. In the winter, the absence of leaves permitted the warmth of the sun’s rays to reach the bench.
He especially liked the spring. As the days lengthened, the grass turned green and tiny buds appeared on the branches of the trees. Slowly at first, and then like the burst of cannon fire in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or the “Hallelujah” chorus in Handel’s Messiah, the whole park seemed to awaken
from a long sleep. The air filled with the sound of birds singing, children playing, and the aroma of blooming flowers. Spring was Mary’s favorite time
of year, too.
Today, as he walked slowly to his bench, he thought of how fall was so different, and yet so much like spring. The grass was no longer as green and fresh; the leaves on the trees were turning color and beginning to fall. He imagined an artist standing before a canvas with his pallet of colors in one hand and his brush in the other. Would he include the figure of a short, elderly man with rounded shoulders, a tweed cap, and a cane in his right hand walking through the park? Would the artist be able to communicate in paints on the canvas the emotions Alex felt? In the future, when people looked at the painting hanging on a wall, would their attention be drawn to the figure in the painting? Would they wonder who he was? What was he thinking? Where was he going? Was he just walking, walking and thinking?
When Alex arrived, he brushed the fallen leaves off the bench and sat down. He placed his cane firmly between his feet and placed his hands, one on top of the other, on its curved handle. He sat there looking straight ahead. Now and then a leaf would break free from the branch that had held it in place through the summer, and gently float down until it came to rest on the bench beside him. One landed on his cap, another on his lap, but he paid no attention; he
continued looking straight ahead.
A pageantry of memories flowed through his mind, memories of past joys and sorrows, images, sounds and smells, a montage of a lifetime. “And what was the purpose of it all,” he wondered, “to find oneself alone on a park bench, waiting for the last act of life’s drama?”
For the residents of The Pines, much of the time was spent in memories of the
past. And since the past could never be relived, such memories were always bitter-sweet and accompanied by a longing for the inevitable transition from the present to the future.
He noticed that the play of the afternoon sun on the lake created an illusion that was almost hypnotic. As the water moved ever so slightly, the reflection of the sun on its surface appeared to sparkle, much like it did on a field of fresh-fallen snow in winter.
Alex stared absent-mindedly at the horizon across the lake, where the top of a faded green hill touched the light blue sky. He saw a figure emerging above the horizon across the lake. At first he saw only the stranger’s head, then a little more, until he stood fully erect, silhouetted against the sky.
The stranger stood still for a moment, looking across the lake in the direction of where Alex was sitting. After a brief pause he began walking down the hill towards the lake. He did not walk as if in a hurry to make an appointment. Nor did he appear as if he were merely strolling through the park with no particular destination in mind. Rather, he walked at a steady pace, neither
glancing to the right nor the left, as if following a predetermined path to a
Alex watched the figure as he walked down the hill to the lake, and then proceeded around the lake. After rounding the lake, he turned and began ascending the hill to where Alex sat. All the time, Alex remained seated, his head still facing the lake, and his hands folded one on top the other on his cane, rooted firmly between his feet.
When he arrived at his goal, the stranger did not speak, or otherwise acknowledge the presence of the elderly man on the bench. He quietly sat down on the bench, staring straight ahead as if looking into the same time tunnel as Alex.
After a few long moments—or perhaps just a minute, Alex spoke.
“I’ve been expecting you.”
Neither one looked at the other, but continued looking straight ahead.
“You might have come sooner,” Alex continued, as if asking a question rather than making a comment. The tone of his voice had a note of disappointment in it, or perhaps even sadness.
“Everything occurs according to its purpose, its meaning,” the stranger replied.
Alex had a lifetime of questions, and now it seemed was the time to ask them. Would he be given answers, or would his questions be met with silence?
“Purpose? Meaning?” asked Alex. “Are you implying that there is a purpose to everything that happens in a person’s life, that life itself has some meaning beyond the moment?”
“Yes,” the stranger said, “nothing exists without purpose, without meaning.”
“Was there meaning in Willy’s death in a pointless war? Was there meaning in Mary’s death, leaving me here to wait all alone for my own death? Does life have any meaning?”
“The individual life is the most meaningful of all that is,” replied the stranger,
not so much as if answering a question as stating a fact. Then he continued. “All wars are meaningless distractions, but no one’s death is in vain.”
“Do you mean to preach to me?” asked Alex. “If so, . . . .” He did not finish his
sentence. He expected the stranger to interrupt him, but he did not.
Neither spoke. They sat side by side in silence. Then Alex continued, “I have
seen much, too much, of death in my lifetime. I have seen mothers bent over the bodies of their children, their hands clasped together, their faces turned up to the sky, eyes filled with tears and asking over and over, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’”
Alex sat, nodding his head as if deep in thought.
“Silence,” he said softly, “only Silence.”
Then the stranger spoke, “All the suffering and death would be meaningless, if as you suppose, there was no one there to hear, no one to see the tears or feel the anguish of abandonment, if in the end there was only a cold, dark silence. But it is not so, for death was conquered by death, and where death once reigned, hope now reigns.
“You speak of God.”
Alex turned his head and looked at the figure sitting next to him on the bench. The stranger turned and looked into Alex’s eyes.
“It’s only at the end of life’s journey that one fully understands the path taken. Only then do the answers to the questions of why and what for become clear. Until then, the pilgrim can only see in part.” Then he added: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
They sat there looking into each other’s face as if communicating by thoughts only.
After a few moments, the stranger stood up. He turned and faced Alex.
“Is it time?” asked Alex.
Alex stood up, and the two companions walked off together, retracing the path by which the visitor came. When they reached the crest of the hill on the opposite side of the lake, they paused. Alex turned and looked back across the lake. He saw the figure of an old man sitting alone on a bench. His hands were folded, one on top the other, on a cane. His head was resting on his chest, as if he were sleeping. He then turned back, and the two slowly disappeared over the horizon. In the distance Alex could hear the faint sound of music and voices, as if ahead they were celebrating a wedding.
(Copyright 2011 by Paul R. Waibel)
Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.