Death loses a lot of his terror once you’ve met him. Shaken his hand and looked him in the face. He’s a weary thing, Death. Tired around the eyes, like he once felt the knife edge of loss himself, but has long since been bled dry of tears.
The first time I met him, he was standing on Bethany Beach in Delaware. It was a Sunday—the first day of our vacation the summer before I turned eighteen. My dad hobbled behind the rest of us. He’d had three back surgeries and moved slower than I did. That irritated me. I wanted to get to the beach, get in the water.
Eventually my mom and dad caught up with my brother and sister and me. Mom wanted to set up our umbrella away from everyone else. Dad didn’t. I just wanted to get in the water. I couldn’t know that Death floated out there on the waves, breast-stroking his way to the shore.
The first wave that wiped all of us out didn’t hurt my dad. It was the one after. Dad’s surgeries meant he didn’t get up fast. Death rode on the curl of the second wave as it picked up my dad like a toddler. He hung there for a moment, dangling by an ankle, and then the wave deflated and dropped my dad on his face.
When I cleared the water out of my eyes, I didn’t see Death right away. But I also didn’t see my dad—that is until my sister screamed. He was there in the water—face down in two inches of brine, unmoving.
Death has a habit of sucking the air out of your head when you meet him for the first time. It’s not his fault, I don’t think. You just don’t ever expect to meet him on the beach during vacation. When we rolled my dad over and stared at the shuttered windows of his eyeballs, I couldn’t really think. I ran to the people Mom didn’t want to sit next to and yelled for someone to call 911.
Those people turned out to be doctors and paramedics who happened to be on vacation, to pick our beach and our spot on a Sunday morning in September. They huddled around my dad’s inert form—a sepulcher of human bodies.
Death stood to the side. I couldn’t look at him, but I knew he was there. His hair shifted in the breeze as a short paramedic covered in tattoos pressed life back into my dad’s chest. I looked Death in the eye then. He nodded to me, turned around, and walked away.
Local emergency crews medevaced Dad to the hospital and we trekked back to the beach house where Death was sitting on the porch drinking our root beer. I went to take a shower, and he followed me. I washed the sand from my skin and Death passed polaroids over the curtain—pictures of a future he now held hostage—metal detecting and boardwalk fries.
Death isn’t petty, not really. He’s just a realist. Like the hole in your coat that keeps letting in snow. He sat with me in the waiting room of Baltimore Shock Trauma for a week.
I didn’t see him much after Dad was finally released. I did hear through the phone how he’d visited both my grandpas within the year, though. Once you shake Death’s hand, you don’t easily forget him.
Five years passed before I saw him again. And this time, because of the cancer, I knew he was coming long before he arrived. He mailed those polaroids this time. Memories that would never, ever come to pass. Mom cuddling my first child. Christmases at home, smelling Mom’s crescent rolls baking in the oven. Those futures were there, locked behind the filmy surface of Death’s relentless photos.
By the time he showed up at the house, everyone was just waiting. He swept into my old bedroom (I’d moved out for college, but had come back to see Mom one last time), hair combed neatly to one side. He stood in the corner of the room and nodded to my dad. They were old friends, now, too.
We sat on the bed and said our goodbyes to Mom. The birds outside had gone quiet, and even the sun seemed reluctant to peek through the windows—as if he would disturb the moment.
Then we heard a sigh from the corner of the room—a long noise, thin as a spiderweb, but warm somehow. Death had gone, and so had my mother.
Death loses his terror once you meet him. Once you’ve shaken his hand and looked him in the face. Once you’ve gotten those pictures of stillborn memories. Once you meet him, you’ll begin to realize that Death is a victim too.
Death is younger than we. His story began when the Almighty brought him into the world to sever our fallen forms from the mortal plane. His was a grim task, but also filled with hope. The Creator loved humanity even though we had damned ourselves. We rebelled against him and shattered the world he’d created for us to rule and enjoy.
But we were immortal—humans by nature never die. So God gifted us with Death—the promise that our physical form would crumble so that one day it could be remade. Death was born to hope—to cradle humanity in his arms and bring us into the embrace of the dust. To wait with us until the end.
As soon as Death drew first breath, however, the Accuser of humanity caught him with chains and bound him to his will. The tyrant Satan bid Death destroy. And destroy he did. That is why he’s weary. Death’s purpose—the hope he promised—came to him like a polaroid. A picture of a future imprisoned behind the Accuser’s hatred for the Creator. For millennia Death labored under the chains of Satan’s violent will.
And then a new human was born—younger than Death but older too. For he was human who was God. He met Death. Shook his hand. Looked him in the face. Surrendered to him. And set him free.
Death remembers that day—the day the Son of God died. It’s why he’ll sit with you on the porch and drink root beer. Why he nods with weary eyes. He’s been there too. He knows the knife-edge of loss. But Death also knows hope restored. The Savior freed Death from the chains of the Accuser so that he could once again pave the way to immortality.
Death’s job is soon over. The undying Son will return and bid us rise immortal once again. And in that day, Death will let go his breath—his task will be finished. He will turn from this mortal world one last time and die. For he, too, has a grave.
Born to die, Death himself will find grace.
Cover image by J. J. Thompson.