On Friday morning, Dad took Shasta, our shorthaired terrier with a white-tipped tail, to the vet. I didn’t even know the poor dog was sick. At seven, I didn’t understand illness and suffering. But my older sister, Betty, seemed to know. She waited with me in the living room, fingering her rosary beads and praying to Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals.
Near lunch, we heard the clatter of our Studebaker pulling into the driveway. Its engine died. The sound of Shasta’s jingling dog collar with his license and shot tags filled the summer air. The back door opened and closed. Betty looked at me and grinned.
Dad came into the living room holding the dog collar in a big hand. He stared at us and shook his head. Betty’s cheeks turned red and she burst into tears, ran to Mom and buried her face in Mom’s housedress. She stayed in her room all Saturday, whimpering and staring at snapshots of Shasta taken on our tent camping vacations in the High Sierra.
Betty wore a dark dress to Sunday Mass, celebrated by Father Kaminski, the almost-deaf Polish priest who took forever to finish all the prayers. One prayer at the end of the ceremony stuck in my head. It had a strange part that confused me, something about life being a vale of tears that we must suffer through before reaching heaven. What was a vale of tears? Was it like the veil my Aunt Lucile wore at her last wedding?
Mom chuckled when I asked her about it. “No, vale is an old-fashioned word that means valley. And the valley of tears is this life that we pass through before reaching happiness in heaven.”
“Really? Are people gonna be cryin’ all the time?”
“No, not all the time…but sometimes. Don’t worry honey, you’ll understand when you get older.”
I hated when Mom told me that…and she did it a lot. What was I supposed to think in the meantime?
In a few days Betty’s tears stopped. By the time Catholic School started in September, we had a new dog, this one an Irish setter pup we named Little Red. When I thought about Shasta, I remembered Betty’s High Sierra photos and my eyes started to drip, my chest ached, and I had a hard time swallowing. Was that what sorrow was all about? Would I have a whole life of this stuff before going to heaven? What kind of stupid God would make a world where people suffered, especially if he could have made one without it? And even at seven, I knew that “It’s God’s will” didn’t answer anything.
I lay on my back in the 24th Evacuation Hospital on Long Binh Army Base in South Vietnam. The NVA had shot up my left arm and shoulder during a firefight outside Phuc Vinh. A battle-ax nurse leaned over me to change my dressing. She took away the white wrappings stained yellow and maroon to expose a massive seam in my upper arm. A long row of Frankenstein sutures held the wound closed. Other smaller holes in my shoulder had been taped over. They burned and itched like crazy.
“You’re lucky, Corporal. You’ve got one of those million-dollar wounds,” the nurse told me.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ll be going back to the world in a day or so.”
I grinned and fought the urge to scratch my shoulder. “So, do you think my arm’s gonna be okay?”
“You’ll have to ask the doctor about that. But…I’ve seen a lot worse, and those boys healed up just fine.”
I lay back and closed my eyes. I too had seen and heard a lot worse and couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the hospital. When they’d wheeled me down the connecting hallway between the wards, I’d seen a tiny Vietnamese girl lying in bed with an arm suspended from a crossbar. It looked like it had been held over a barbeque pit and roasted. Damn napalm. She cried all day and into the night, calling out “choyee oyee, choyee oyee, choyee oyee” until her voice became part of the pattern of hospital noise.
Is that what we were expected to do in this vale of tears? Let pain and suffering fade into the texture of life until it became drowned out or disguised? And don’t we seem to venerate stoics for keeping the noise down, suppressing any outward show of suffering? I had a lot of time to think about those questions on the long flight home to California.
We descended on the remote country road into a deep valley, two dozen of us middle-aged and senior bicyclists on a three-hour sprint, training for an upcoming century ride. Leroy, our club president, led the way with me just off his back wheel. We’d been racing each other for the past half hour and my arm and shoulder hurt like hell.
We leaned into a tight left-hand curve with a steep drop on one side and a cut bank on the other. I braked hard and nearly went down. Leroy didn’t. He flew off the pavement and into the near-vertical bank. I skidded to a stop, dropped my bike and ran back. He lay at the base of the slope, everything at odd angles including his neck; the crash had cracked his helmet. The rest of the club caught up. Brakes squealed. Claire, our resident medic and a licensed nurse, ran forward and checked Leroy’s pulse. She shook her head. Our 2-G cell phones couldn’t find a signal. Jake and his son started CPR. After thirty minutes, they stopped. Some of the women in our group sobbed. The men tried to console them, with little success.
I think we all felt the shock of Leroy’s abrupt death. And after riding hard for miles, it hurt to stand still in the cold wind. Claire must have sensed my pain. We hugged and she held my hand.
“You know, he probably died instantly…didn’t feel a thing,” she said.
“Yeah, I guess that’s…that’s good. I shouldn’t have pushed him so hard.”
“It wasn’t you.”
“But we went into that turn way too fast and…”
“Hey, look, I saw you guys from the ridgeline. Something happened to Leroy and he just lost it.”
“What do you mean?”
“He didn’t even try to make the turn…just went…went straight off.”
“Do ya think he had a stroke or something?”
“The coroner will figure that out. But he was sixty-five, certainly old enough.”
“Aren’t we all.”
Our sag service must have gotten lost in the maze of back roads. Finally, a beat-up pickup with a bad muffler approached. We flagged down the driver and slid the body into the back along with my bike and Leroy’s mangled Motobecane. I climbed into the cab next to a young guy who looked like a college student. In silence, we drove in no particular hurry toward the nearest town with a hospital.
I thought about what Claire had said. Was dying quickly and painlessly an ultimate goal? Would it improve our trip through the vale of tears…for both the deceased and the survivors? At fifty-five, I had traveled through the valley far enough to know there was no escape. But maybe at the end, there was a way to minimize the suffering…for everyone. Did I even want to think about that? How would my wife feel? Would a quick exit be best, or a slow one, savoring every second of life?
Clearly, the Church condemned suicide or any kind of hastened death. But did that mean it also condoned suffering? And for what purpose? After all those years, I still couldn’t figure out why God had created the vale of tears. But I began to get an idea.
A strong rainsquall rolled onshore, drenching our coastal California town. My wife, Leslie, sat beside me on the nursing home’s enclosed terrace. We watched the spring clouds change the day into gray gloom. Our kids had just left after a brief visit.
“You’d think that after driving five hours to get here they would have stayed longer,” Les complained.
“This place probably depresses them.”
“I get that, coming from Visalia and Merced with all that stupid sunshine.”
I laughed and Les joined me. Tiny rivers of rain flowed down the picture windows, blurring the seacoast, making it look like an impressionist painting.
“Well, this spring gloom doesn’t seem to bother you much,” Les said.
“No, I like it. It calms my mind, relaxes me.”
“You know, ever since that day when your bike friend was killed you seem to be…”
“Happy…with me…with, ya know, most things.”
Groaning, I twisted my chair around to face her, admiring her long white hair flowing across her shoulders and down her front.
“I’ve told you about the vale of tears before, haven’t I?”
“You sure have, ad nauseum.”
“Well, after Leroy died, I started to think about all the time and energy we spend putting up with sorrow and suffering…and the news is full of the stuff.”
“Yeah, nothing unusual about that. What other choice do we have?”
“None. But what if there is no payoff at the end?”
“What do ya mean, payoff?”
“Heaven. What if there’s no heaven or hell, we just die like every other living thing on earth.”
“Now that’s a scary thought.”
“Maybe. But couldn’t we live our lives differently if we didn’t count on an afterlife to finally provide peace and happiness?”
“I’ve never really thought about it.”
“We could look for joy in the things we do every day, in the lives of the people we know and love…in the memories of those that have died…and not overwhelm ourselves with mourning the losses, or worrying about pissing off God.”
“So you’re saying you don’t believe in God or an afterlife?”
“Yes, exactly. And yet all these years I have lived a good life without religion or an expectation of salvation.”
“Well, bully for you. But what if you’re wrong?” Les smirked and leaned back in her wheelchair.
“If there is a God, it’s gotta know that I’ve lived an honorable life. And if there’s a heaven, it’ll be another found joy. I don’t expect it, but it be one hell of a bonus.”