Preparing to meet God: “What did you do with the Talents I gave you?”

My neighbour was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer only a couple of months ago. This guy worked for OPG for 38 years and during that time, he took one sick day. ONE. In 38 years.

He retired 18 months ago, and was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer about a year later. It was in his lungs, his lymphatic system and his adrenal glands.

His decline was astonishingly rapid…the man who was vibrant, full of life, hefting stone porch steps and organizing gardens last summer could now barely breathe or talk.

He showed up at my front door one day last winter to return a plate. He rang my doorbell multiple times, then came into my house and took a seat at my table. Maybe he ate a cookie. I might have served him tea; I don’t recall.

The main thing was, that we spoke heart-to-heart, Cancer patient to Cancer patient.

“I remember the day I realized I was about to come face-to-face with God,” I told him. “All of a sudden, I knew I was going to have to explain to Him what I had done with my life – I was going to have to defend my life, when He asked me: ‘What did you do with the Talents I gave you?’”

That year, I was in a purely self-centred mode. Maybe I was dying; who knew? Maybe I would never have another chance to fix things with God.

When I look back on the life that I have lived, I think I did a pretty good job of working hard and using the Talents God gave me to the best purpose possible. However, I did regret that I had not given away more money to charity. Granted, I was broke for the first 35 years of my life, but later, when I did start to earn real money, I did not give enough of it away.

I hoped that perhaps I could remedy this problem by forgiving a $17,000 loan I had given to Jewish woman who was engaged in an activity that was very helpful to young children. It’s a long story, how I came to loan her the money and how she came to not pay it back, but anyway, in my self-centred and optimistically manipulative mindset (being egotistical enough to think I could manipulate God), I accepted her invitation to meet up for a bagel and negotiated this deal with her:

“Look here, I am not asking you to repay this loan, not now, not ever. Just keep helping kids. However – if I die and have to explain my life to God, I am going to tell Him this was a gift, for which I should get some kind of charitable credit. Since I am Catholic and you are Jewish, I hope I’ll get credit in both religious traditions.”

(My Greek Orthodox neighbour Sylvia, who prays for me often, is under strict instructions to deliver this message to God if she meets Him before I do: “Rita can explain.” I’m a big believer in having people of all faiths rationalize my life to God, in the hope it will make a difference.)

My neighbour almost never dropped eye contact with me while I cheerfully blathered on during this long story. He was listening intently; he seemed to be getting great comfort from a conversation that addressed some version of his looming reality, rather than delusional optimism about defeating Cancer. We hugged “good-bye” several times.

I saw him a week ago. Three of his grandchildren were raking his lawn; both of my dogs were running around like idiots. He was sitting on his beautiful stone porch step in a bathrobe, and his voice was so weak and raspy we could not actually speak but we hugged a lot before we said “Good-bye.”

He died at 3am this morning, Easter Saturday. I am glad for every conversation and hug that we had. I hope his conversation with God goes well. I think it will.

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