It’s odd how chance encounters — even total accidents — can start a train of thought and help you realise things you had not fully appreciated earlier. I guess that’s part of the inexplicable richness of experience. Well, that’s what happened to me last week.
I caught the end of an Owen Bennett Jones interview on the BBC World Service. The guest seemed to be struggling to speak. Whilst what he said was intelligent, even gripping, his articulation seemed forced, if not impeded. At times I thought I was hearing a voice machine, not a human being.
My curiosity aroused, I continued to listen. I soon discovered that Bennett Jones was talking to the Anglican Chaplain of Baghdad. Alas, I never found out his name but I did catch his story. It’s what I want to share with you today.
Six years ago the Chaplain was diagnosed with multiple-sclerosis. The Church of England decided he was too ill to continue work. They asked him to retire. But unwilling to give up so easily — and believing he could still serve — he opted to go to Baghdad. Thus he relocated to the middle of a war. Not the safe confines of the heavily protected Green Zone but the insecurity, uncertainty and violence of the Red Zone.
Yet the fight he has undertaken is not against the terror and trauma of post-Saddam Baghdad but against the demon disease devouring his life. Steadily, silently, relentlessly he’s struggled, one day at a time, to defy fate and keep alive. And he’s done it by leading a normal life. By refusing to give in. The strangled voice that caught my attention is symbolic of this battle. As I listened the sound seemed to become heroic.
In one leap my mind jumped back almost 40 years. To a dim dark classroom in the Doon School and Harper Lee’s To kill a Mockingbird. At the centre of that story is the struggle of an old suffering woman to wean herself off painkilling morphine so she can die unbeholden and free. At 16, I understood but I did not really understand. Last week, listening to the BBC, the penny dropped.
This is true bravery. I’m not diminishing the heroic soldier who fearlessly confronts enemy fire. Charging towards certain death takes extreme courage. But living with your death, as it steadily and irreversibly creeps up on you, knowing you cannot win yet determined to live with dignity, calls for a resolve that is tested every day, maybe even every minute, with no end in sight except death itself.
“What does Baghdad mean to you?” Bennett Jones asked his guest. As he struggled to find his voice I wondered what he would say. Was it not just a place to die?
“I think I’ve found myself here” he answered, the physical effort to speak clearly audible but so too a note of self-fulfillment, almost contentment. “I’ve discovered I’m an Oriental. I think and behave like everyone else here. I even prefer this food.”
In Harper Lee’s book, Atticus persuades his reluctant young children to visit the dying lady — ostensibly to provide a measure of distraction so she can extend her hours without morphine but, actually, to recognise and understand her battle and her bravery.
For me that moment of recognition happened while listening to Bennett Jones’ Chaplain. At first I felt stunned, like a boxer who’s been winded or, perhaps, someone who’s just received an electric shock.
Then little fragments of forgotten memory started to come alive. They seemed like dim lights at the end of the horizon. But soon it felt like a torrent tumbling out of the past. Finally, it became a jigsaw that miraculously fell into place. I don’t know how, but it did.
Like Atticus’s children, as a teenager I was too young to understand. Youth is too removed from death to know or feel the challenge it poses. But as you come closer to it, proximity can be revealing.
We give no medals for it and often we don’t even acknowledge it, but the quiet dignity of those who are bravely dying is a heroism that surpasses valour and strength.