(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, April 4, 2015)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ This is about two friends, two neighbours, some hard math (if not hard truth) and a dead musician.
Before you meet Friend #1, Anna, meet Neighbour #1, Gary. He’s a big man, laying motionless at the Juravinksi Cancer Centre with tubes and wires and the smell of death. Gary’s blood is full of cancer. It can’t clot. It trickles, like tears trickle, from his eyes. I wipe them.
My wife, a doctor not easily shaken, whispers. When she can’t, I continue: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” Short of a miracle, Gary will die. This, last summer.
Meanwhile, Neighbour #2 living across from Gary’s house, all of us in our Ancaster condo bloc, needed a hand. His caregiver, his mother, died of a heart-attack. He was losing his home, suicidal and unable to plug into needed supports.
I was leaving for Africa, so in this space I asked for help. I called Neighbour #2 “Kenny.” This is when Anna, Friend #1, stepped in. “I’ll go,” Anna wrote me. And she did. She took Kenny under her care – helped him move, helped him get his bearings, helped him into a community where he felt loved, watched him get assistance.
In an email, (we never met), Anna described herself as a 70-year-old Hamiltonian, a veterinarian who had lived many places, including Sierre Leone, where she and her husband had worked with CUSO.
“Kenny’s very happy with [his new dog] Bo,” she wrote me once. Another time, “The Lord does work in mysterious ways. We just have to have our eyes and ears open to what He wants to say to us.”
This was Anna’s motivation. Sure, you can do good things with other motivations. An American I knew in Africa, Friend #2, would tell you this. He’d also say there’s no such God as Anna’s God.
When learning about Gary’s cancer, he told me, “I hope for his sake he believes in an afterlife, not that I believe there is one, but it would certainly be comforting to think about while he waits.”
And so it goes. Nothing is new under the sun, not even skepticism. We’re all given choices and freedoms. This is the blessing and burden of life.
In “Pascal’s Wager,” mathematician Blaise Pascal framed it this way. Live as if God exists, discover you’re wrong, and find you’ve lived a disillusioned life that ends with nothing. Live as if God doesn’t exist, discover you’re wrong, and find yourself in a loss of infinity.
Friend #2 once told me that Pascal was a better mathematician than a theological thinker. (Pascal, actually, was both.) God, Friend #2 said, would surely see right through this sort of strategic faith. Then again, maybe God is more concerned with other things. Easterish things.
Rich Mullins, a poet-musician and theological thinker in his own right, would say so. He once imagined Easter’s God, Anna’s God, saying: “No man takes My life from Me. No man forces his will on Me. I am not yours to handle and cheapen. You are Mine to love and make holy.”
I’ve always appreciated these sorts of ruminations from this musical troubadour. In fact, this Easter, Mullins’ music will be sung in Africa and much of the world, even as it’s in Hamilton. In his death – Mullins died years ago in a car accident – his music took flight all the more.
So it’s now with Anna. It was a cold, wintry day in Hamilton. “There’s been a terrible car accident,” is what Kenny wrote me here in Africa. “Anna died.” I read in disbelief.
Her’s was an ordinary life. But Anna threw in all her chips, everything she had. Here I am, she said. I’ll go. Even to a stranger. Now Anna’s story, Anna’s song, is known across this community.
There’s more. Gary is still alive, in and out of hospital, still fighting, still on this journey, this womb-to-tomb march, not knowing his last day or hour or breath any more than you or I or anyone else on this spinning ball.
Ask him about his neighbour’s friend, Anna, though, and he knows that she left behind something beautiful.