The Woodsman had been spitting blood all day. He kept a basin by his bed for the purpose and every now and then he would cough uncontrollably, reach over and spit a combination of blood, mucus and saliva into the basin, then lie back exhausted.
He was in the middle of one of these coughing fits when Maeve opened the bedroom door slowly and ushered in a grey haired woman at least 20 years older than the Woodsman. Maeve was happy to show the woman in to visit, even though the Woodsman was in distress, because he had left clear instructions that no one was to be turned away.
“This is Mary - she says she needs to see you.”
The Woodsman’s coughing was so bad he couldn’t speak but he nodded ascent. Maeve invited Mary to sit in the chair the Woodsman kept for guests, and departed as silently as she had arrived.
Mary sat in uneasy stillness and watched as the Woodsman continued to cough up blood, saliva and mucus. Eventually the persistent coughing subsided and the Woodsman drew breath, sighed and let his head fall back onto his pillow.
There was a long silence….
Mary had been married but was now a widow. She had lived and worked in the community nearly all her adult life as a house parent with her now deceased husband, providing a home for some of the villagers with special needs. The Woodsman knew her to see around the farm, but although both had lived in the community for over 35 years, they had never spoken in earnest.
Since her husband’s death 10 years ago she lived in Netherleigh Cottage, the community home for members who had retired from active duty.
….then Mary spoke.
“I’m so sorry to find you in this state,” she said nervously, “I really don’t know what to say.” Then Mary broke down - tears flowing in a steady stream.
“Are you crying for me or are you crying for yourself?” enquired the Woodsman.
Mary continued to sob uncontrollably. Between her gasps for breath she blurted, “I don’t know, I really don’t know – it’s all so horrible.”
“Yes,” said the Woodsman “Birth is painful.”
“Birth!” exclaimed Mary, “Surely you mean death.”
“Where is death?” enquired the Woodsman, “In all my years working in the woods I have never found it. In the woods I see life everywhere. There are the obvious signs of life - the great beech and oak trees soaring skyward and the hazel growing in the gaps left in the woodland canopy. But even when I was working in the depths of winter, scraping away the undergrowth to plant a fresh sapling, in the fallen leaves and rotting wood on the forest floor I could see teeming life, as the fallen trees and leaves were being turned into food for my little sapling, by the woodland’s abundant insects, microbes and fungi.”
“Everywhere I looked I saw life. I knew then that death is not the opposite of life - it is merely a transformation – of one form of life into another. Life never ends. It is eternal. Your crying is not the shedding of genuine grief, for such crying comes from the broken heart of lost friendship. Your tears are for yourself. You are crying because you are terrified of your own impending death.”
“You are right,” exclaimed Mary emerging from her outpouring of self pity, “I am crying for myself. I am terrified of dying.”
“You fear death because you fear life,” exclaimed the Woodsman. He took a long look at Mary’s grey skin, frowned expression, gnarled hands and sad eyes then continued, “The woman who dies every day, the woman who, before she goes to bed at night, forgives those who wronged her, and prays for the wellbeing of those who hurt her, goes to bed free from emotional pain - such a woman dies to each day. She travels light because she carries no burden. Your burden is great Mary, because you are full of pain, resentment and hatred – that is why you fear death. You fear death because you have never lived!”
“You are so cruel,” shouted Mary, “You may be dying but you know nothing of common courtesy. You are wicked!”
She stood up and left the room.