In my last post I wrote about how literature has the power to pull us out of our individual experiences and bring us to a place of mutual empathy with another whom we might not have otherwise met. A good storyteller introduces us to characters who will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Daniel Keyes first introduced me to Charlie when I was 13-years-old. In his 1966 novel Keyes tells the journey of a mentally handicapped man named Charlie who becomes the first human test subject for a surgical technique that has shown to increase intelligence in the laboratory mouse, Algernon.
Charlie undergoes the surgery and quickly becomes brilliant. At the height of both his intelligence and self-awareness, however, he begins to notice a rather steep decline in Algernon, which leads to Algernon's premature death. Algernon's decline and death prefaces Charlie's own, and Charlie is rendered moot to the eventual outcomes of the surgery.
Flowers for Algernon continues to haunt me because it was my first introduction to the cruelty of death in life. We all know our own fate, and we don't necessarily need an Algernon to remind us. Or maybe we do. Last spring I bought two pet rats per recommendation of a mentor to help pull me out of my head a bit. In that past year I had had a number of people close to me die and so in an optimistic gesture I named the first rat Zoe, which is Greek for life. Since all things are in balance I named the second rat Thanatos, which is Greek for death.
I quickly fell in love with these brilliant, loving, socialized creatures with personalities bigger than what most children have. They discovered many ways to escape their cage, steal chocolate, and then return to their hammock for a nap. Every time I walked into the room that housed their cage I became joyful and told them how lucky I was to have the company of such wonderful creatures of God.
The lady rats gave me nine wonderful months until Zoe came down with pneumonia this past Christmas Eve and died within a day. I held her in my hands as she took her last breath. It was the first time I have ever been present when life fluttered away.
"I don't think I can be a pastor," I told my dad half an hour later, "I don't have the emotional stamina."
"Well," he said, "Death is part of our call. And remember, we preach life in death."
Hearing the word "death" I remembered the other lady rat. I turned to the rat cage and saw Thanatos staring at me from her hammock. Seeing that she caught my eye she ran to the bin on the cage door, which is her way of telling me, "I want come out now."
I opened the door and let her crawl onto my hands. She trotted up to my shoulder and began licking my cheek. "I guess I do have a companion in death," I thought.
Though Zoe's passing was a horrible, gruesome preface to what we all must go through, it was also a wholly sacred moment. My little Algernon helped deeply connect me to all who have lost someone they loved. She helped me profoundly appreciate life that was both lived and is living. Zoe was my introduction to death, but she continues to boast life.