Spotting Dignity in Death
--Pastor Jamey Nichols
Once upon a time there were two men. Through many years and famous victories, these valiant warriors often fought side by side in what their children considered a legendary comradery. They had been an undying duo both literally and figuratively. It was now late in the evening the night before their most difficult battle. The seasoned soldiers sat alone as they shared the anticipation of an imminent sunrise that would most likely be their last. They knew the foe was formidable. More than formidable, really. He had taken down dozens of others equally as mighty as they, and it looked as though he were unstoppable. The odds were against the two and this indisputable fact leaned comfortably with them at their fire as they reminisced stories great and small. If a passerby heard them, it may have only seemed an excessively indulged pair of chums fighting off bedtime. They laughed and guffawed into the night as they bantered memories that were well worn and well embellished. If this was their last evening together, it was fitting it be treated more as pre-battle revelry than a tearful farewell. These were warriors. Death had always loomed. She was an ever-threatening presence despite their heretofore capacity to sidestep her grasps. Lately her grasps were coming up handsful and this truth was not lost on either of them. Neither was it talked about.
By first light, the two friends were pressed into their battle regalia. Colors flew proudly over creased uniforms and gleaming swords. Muscled bodies flexed as the men emerged from their tents. As their steeled eyes met, one of the two had a glint that resembled pride and valor while remaining eerily opposite. This soldier was resolute and peaceful. However, his contentment was not the ready-to-live-or-die sort ubiquitous among warriors. His was a resolve more like that of surrendered inevitability in the face of a foregone conclusion. Unbeknownst to his companion, the yielded soldier held in his pocket a very small tablet. It was a form of cyanide. And, it was just the right amount to end things swiftly, “but only if necessary,” he lied to himself.
The battle unfolded the way many battles do when the attacking enemy is well armed and capable. Protectors vainly resist and children’s fathers become heroes in causes greater than themselves. Some enemies just can’t be beaten and wise soldiers know it when they see it. The difference is the way they fight their losing battle. While one warrior swings and slashes, another sits quietly by a stream or under a tree. While one is soaked in blood and sweat on the field of battle, another finds a solitary place on a grassy hillside for an afternoon nap from which he never awakens. The disparity is confounding. Some soldiers strain and strive to inflict any sort of damage to the enemy while others raise a white flag instead of a sword. The cold hands tell the clearest story—some are dirty and firmly clasped around hilts while others have interlaced fingers resting serenely on well-pressed laps. The battle scene screams out the polarized extremes. All the warriors dead, yet different. A juxtaposition of either and or. Two evident mottos: “Go down fighting,” versus “Can’t win, why try?”
After the two friends’ bodies were collected and buried, survivors gathered to muse over the devastating battle. The manner of death of the two soldier-friends was clear. One showed death across the wounds of his body, the other showed death in a white foamy trickle out of the corner of his mouth. Where two lives had seemingly run parallel over years, they diverged sharply at the last. A few survivors completely lauded both dead warriors. The rest completely lauded one and mostly lauded the other. Some survivors called both men courageous, others raised a questioning eyebrow. All the survivors wondered about cowardice—but only some of them out loud. The only group in clear agreement was a group of unrelated survivors a generation later who had just enough money in the war memorial budget to commission one statue of a local hero. And, even though a few chest-less chatterboxes published pontificated articles about expanded forms of dignity, the rest of the folks admired a statue reflecting what heroism really looked like.