To die alone

Jan 2nd, 2017 | By | Category: Ministry

Detective Inspector John River sat at his desk as a letter left by the deceased was translated, “we are born alone and we die alone.” The Netflix scriptwriter might have found many sources for the words, there are many possible renderings. The lines recalled a story told by a German, twenty years ago, in times before the Internet was all pervasive.

Gentle and very softly spoken, he had asked that he might tell a story at the forthcoming carol service. It would be his last with us before he left the country that he had adopted as his home more than fifty years previously. “It is a story from my boyhood in Germany”.

The carol service was packed, the church lit completely by candlelight and the music sublime. It was a celebration more than a service. We had Betjeman and TS Eliot as well as Scripture. The man was a folk hero in our community and when he walked to the lectern, surrounded by flickering candles, it was a magical moment.

“I would like to tell a story,” he said.

He told us of a little boy on Christmas Day in Germany in the 1920s. The boy received a sledge for Christmas and had to walk some way from home to find a hill on which he could ride the sledge. It was a sharply cold day with brilliant winter sunshine and the boy spent a very happy afternoon, walking to the top of a slope and sliding down, repeating the descent again and again. The afternoon passed and it was time for the boy to return home.

“The boy realized that he was alone. He was alone then and when the time came for him to die, he would die alone. I know this is so, because the little boy was me”.

There was a deathly hush in the church, but the storyteller was completely tranquil. At the mulled wine and supper afterwards, I had asked a psychologist in the congregation what she had made of the story. She shrugged, bemused by the whole thing.

There is loneliness and there is solitariness, perhaps the story was about the difference between the two; perhaps it was a story about the way in which the man would choose to live his life.

He made a table lamp for us as a parting gift. I gave him Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. He thanked me graciously and smiled, “Bonhoeffer came too late for me, by the time I had discovered him, I’d had to work out things for myself”.

I think he had probably worked out many things, had he been alive he would have made an excellent writer of psychological thrillers.

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