The Tortured Old Lady Who Died Holding My Hand When I Was 10

Last night, sort of out of nowhere, I posted this as a status on my Facebook fan page:

Visited old folks’ homes today. Once, when I was about 10, I was prowling around unattended in an old folks home. I came across an old woman, alone, in a room at the end of a hall. She called me to her bedside, and took hold of my hand. Wild-eyed, she began wailing of her sins: the affair she had on her husband; the daughter she sent away. “I don’t want to go to hell,” she kept crying. Then, still clutching my hand, she died.

People began kindly responding. A reader named Kim Johnson wrote to say: “I’m sad that you had to visit the home, and for this past situation.”

“My dad sold food to such places: school, hospitals, convalescent homes, restaurants,” I responded. “I’d hang out in the business while he and the kitchen manager were doing their thing. I spent a lot of time wandering the halls of old folks’s homes when I was a kid. When that lady was rearing up off her bed and, glazed-eyed, screaming about going to hell, I thought, ‘Whoa. She’s breaking my hand. This is horrible. This, right here, is why you have to live right.’”

And so ensued a spontaneous little dialogue between some readers and me. When you do that stuff, of course you tend to respond to whatever comment … well, compels you to respond. You read and digest them all, certainly—but (as you must) tend to answer only one.

Below are some of the comments of this particular thread, followed by my responses to them.

Comment: Wow, John. Just … wow.

Me: Her suffering was so absolute. At the very height of it—when she was sitting almost upright in her bed, and wailing to the heavens for the absolution she knew she was about to die without—I thought, “This woman, right now, is in hell.”

Comment: Have you thought about this a lot over the years or just kinda let it sit and gel in the back of your mind?

Me: It’s not exactly the kind of thing you forget, right? I’ve lived with it all my life. I was already kind of … obsessed with the nature of morality (if that doesn’t sound too precocious—which I know it must, but … that’s what I was). But I think it’s safe to say this incident pretty utterly eradicated any idea I had left that anything mattered more than making sure you were always comfortable with the state of your moral standing.

Comment: When people are that tormented—even if it’s buried a bit in the subconscious—it’s a mystery why the idea of church or picking up a Bible or talking to someone religious doesn’t occur earlier! If heaven and hell and where you’ll end up is …the prevailing thought on your deathbed, then you have certainly considered the whole philosophical question earlier in your life, when you perhaps could have altered the path or upped your chances. Not making light of this poor woman’s pain, but it does make you wonder if people even hear their own souls.

Me: Right? When the lady was crying/wailing, I kept thinking, “Too late! Too late! Damage done! Husband dead! Daughter estranged! Your agony won’t fix what you did!”

Comment: We’re not punished for our sins, but by them….amazing story J, and in an odd way an incredible privilege for you to share that moment with that woman…

Me: Yeah, it was! It was … weird, obviously. But I was, like, “What the heck kind of place is this?” Because she was, like, all alone in this room at the end of a hallway of what seemed to me to be all empty rooms. She was really alone back there. And what I especially remember was the light in the room. It was, like, cloudy afternoon light, coming through these white curtains over the large window on the wall right over her. The room was just infused with amazingly soft, thick white light. But her white gown and bed dressings were actually kind of glowing, because the sun was bouncing right off the curtains, down onto them. So, honestly (and I know I haven’t explained it well), it looked like she was on this illuminated, glowing little … platform, and was moving up through a cloud.

Comment: I have to believe that the holy one heard her cries. remember the thief on the other cross? He did not even ask for forgiveness. just “Hey. Don’t forget about me.”And Jesus said, “I will see you in paradise”

Me: I do think God heard her cries; I think God hears all cries. But I KNOW that woman died without relief. And it’s funny (but, you know, not in a ha-ha way, of course), because even when she was at the crescendo of her suffering, she STILL wasn’t really asking for forgiveness. What she was asking for was to not have to go to hell. It was a subtle difference, but I was really aware of it. I was thinking, “Man, she’s still not really giving it up.” It made me think she was deserving what she was getting. Because it was still all about her, if you see what I mean. That was actually as big a lesson for me as anything else in that moment: that people will take their crap straight into hell with them, rather than give it up.

Comment: Like you’ve pointed out, we spend so much time worried about the hell to come, and there are plenty of hells right here, right now, to go around. She didn’t have to die to go to hell, she’d been carrying hell around with her for years.

Me: It did make me think, very much, that no other hell could be worse than the one she was experiencing. I did think, right then, that the most suffering a person can do, ever, they can do here on earth. There was no way for me not to think that. The “funny” thing was, she had red hair—kinda like George Castanza’s mom. There was no way for me not to think it looked like her head was already burning.

Comment: I can tell this story is going to stay with me for a while. Thanks for sharing it.

Me: You’re welcome. Thanks. Over the last … gosh, 40 years, I’ve written that story about a trillion times. And I keep meaning to blog it. But … somehow all of a sudden I felt like kind of just laying it out real quick here. Weird.

Comment: I’m really glad you did.

Me: I am too. I could never write that story right. It was nice, to just not worry about it.

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  • laurie

    john i think it deeply and profoundly affected your psych..duh.. but I wanna believe that her saying I don’t wanna go to hell prompted God’s last effort at making his presense known to her and the holy spirit then speaking to her and taking her with me an optimist..look how it may have spoken to your were not aloud to hear the final conversation..i wanna believe she was saved.

    i also saw my father-in-law on his deathbed 5 years ago.He was in the finals throws of a deathfit..brain tumors had raveged his mind,as well as demonic ( i think) influences.He had turned yellow from his liver shutting down, and his teeth had fallen out, so his physical appearance scared me. My children and I, still pinning for his salvation, tried to talk to him..he actually growled and spit at us about Heaven, God,and not wanting a cross put on his gravestone.Those moments just seal my confictions about hell being really real.

  • Patty

    John, Has anything normal happened in your life? It seems every story you tell tugs at my heart strings. I can’t help but think the experiences you’ve accumulated to date are all for a purpose. You are here to teach us how to dwell in this life, take in the riches it has to offer, and guide us through experiences and memories we battle with. Thank you, as always, for opening your heart and mind to us.

  • Tim

    Hi laurie. As human beans, I believe we have convictions about heaven and hell. Whether they’re accurate or not won’t be known until we know Him as we are known by Him. I also believe (as a Christian) that those who are scared into the kingdom are just as much a citizen as those who have loved and found their abode in Him all their days. Hell is real, for sure. Jesus talked about hell. If I can’t trust Jesus to be honest about His teaching, I’m a bigger fool than an 8th level Operating Thetan with a busted e-meter.

  • Don Rappe

    Secret sins. But, someone knew.

  • Shadsie

    As obsessed with mortality as I am, I’ve never had anyone actually die right in front of me yet. At least she had someone to hold her hand? Who knows? Maybe she had an angel with her whom you didn’t see. Weird experience for a ten-year old child.

    A part of me – this is going to sound heartless – thinks “maybe she deserved to go out wailing.” I have a friend (semi-relative, one of my fiance’s relatives who is close to us) who has suffered a father who basically “put him away.” It’s a different kind of situation, but, still, the way it hurt my friend makes me think that the man I never met but have heard stories about would deserve to die with similar sense of regret.

    But, maybe in that moment of contrition, finally owning up – maybe she found God then.

    There are strong lessons in this. None of us are time-travlers. Whatever we do in life, we cannot take it back. Fix what we can the best we can, because one day it will be too late.

  • Robyn

    I can’t help but contrast that with my friend Lauretta Haynes who died in November. For her last week, several of us took turns staying at her bedside in the hospice, reminiscing about her life, telling stories, singing songs, cracking jokes.

    When she passed, it was to the strains of her favorite songs of praise and glorification playing on her CD player. Several times before she finally slipped away, she would open her eyes, sit up, and say, “It’s beautiful!”

    We should all have such a wondrous passing.

  • Katie

    Just wanted to say the comment “We are not punished FOR our sins but BY them” really resonated with me. What an interesting thought, I’ve never thought of it that way. Wow.

  • Diana A.

    “I do think God heard her cries; I think God hears all cries. But I KNOW that woman died without relief. And it’s funny (but, you know, not in a ha-ha way, of course), because even when she was at the crescendo of her suffering, I was aw…are that she STILL wasn’t really asking for forgiveness. What she was asking for was to not have to go to hell. It was a subtle thing, but I was really aware of it. I was thinking, “Man, she’s STILL not really giving it up.” It made me think she was deserving what she was getting. Because it was still all about HER, if you see what I mean. That was actually as big a lesson for me as anything else in that moment: that people will take their shit STRAIGHT into hell with them, rather than give it up.”

    I think that there is truth in this. It isn’t so much that I don’t believe in the existence of Hell as it is that I believe that God doesn’t give up on anyone, not even those who have chosen their Hell over God’s kingdom.

    One of the ideas considered in Thomas Talbott’s “The Inescapable Love of God” is that the fire of God’s love and the fire of Hell are one and the same. God’s love is Hell for those who will not accept it, submit to it, permit themselves to be changed by it. For those who surrender, however, God’s love is Heaven.

  • Marilia

    This blog brought tears to my eyes. I like to think that it is never too late for anyone, regardless of their actions.

  • Don Rappe

    That sounds right to me.

  • Don Rappe

    I lost my last sibling on New years Eve. He had conspired with his wife to throw him a “celebration of life” 67′th birthday party two months earlier. As a result, he was able to enjoy his own funeral. He had a good time. I had never previously never heard of a brownie sandwich. A big soft fresh brownie stuffed between two large chocolate chip cookies. Too rich for ordinary eating, but excellent for this occasion. I had a couple of them.

  • Don Rappe

    Love casts out fear! Dementia is more a part of our death than our life, I think. Yet, it is a part of our life also. What was good will pass through the pearly gates with him, I believe.

  • Don Rappe

    It is very understandable why this story comes to John’s mind as he picks out a place for his Dad.

  • LazyTechGuy

    I don’t get it and maybe it’s because I’m rather slow at deciphering things that are written on the Internet. When I don’t understand the right tone, I generally get the wrong message from a blog post such as this, so forgive me for my lack of understand.

    But what I don’t get: were some of your Facebook comments meant to be sarcastic? They almost seemed that way to me, especially how a few were worded. You were so hard on her and her feelings. Were you being serious? Were you trying to show how sometimes a 10-year-old doesn’t fully understand something until much later and after much more experience? Sorry. I’m just trying to discern the intended message from your blog post. I’m always interested in what you say and I want to make sure I understand it.


  • StraightGrandmother

    This was the take away line for me, “that people will take their shit STRAIGHT into hell with them, rather than give it up.”

    John- I heard somewhere years ago this, “Rationalization is the greatest human need” When we are bad, we rationalize it, “Well she deserved it because she did bla blah blah and I was right…”

    As soon as I read, “that people will take their shit STRAIGHT into hell with them, rather than give it up.”

    I immediatly thought , “Rationalization is the greatest human need”

  • cat rennolds

    I was with my grandfather when he died. And he was scared. He had been a Baptist all his life, and I think he was afraid because he could not believe that he could be forgiven, two World Wars and Korea, if nothing else.

    He was so weak he was barely intelligible, and had lost so much blood they’d transfused 16 units in less than 24 hours, but he wouldn’t let go. He had the most terrified expression on his face. And he kept clutching my arm and mumbling, and finally I figured out he was trying to sing.

    Now I had not been in a Baptist church in a very long time, and I didn’t know the words. So I hummed the tune to my uncle, standing next to me, who is a Baptist minister. And we started to sing. And everyone else in the room started to sing, even the medical personnel. When we finished, Grandpa grabbed my arm again, and I picked up the next tune. And for 45 minutes we sang old gospel songs, and he stopped looking at us and stopped frowning, and started looking up over my head. and then he smiled the biggest smile and closed his eyes.