Richland, WA author Allen Johnson contemplates the end of days
On April 27, 2022, an expiration date was stamped on my forehead. It happened when the surgeon said, “Allen, you have cancer.
Although I am seventy-six years old, I never thought before that I had a time limit in my life. Oh sure, I knew I was mortal, but the end of my days was destined for a foggy day in the distant future. Not anymore. Today I have a new perspective.
Before that moment in April, I had a mission in life: to be the caretaker of Nita, my wife of over fifty-three years. Nita was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2017. At her peak, her weight remained constant at 125. She now weighs 86 pounds. Although it breaks my heart to admit it, she is easily confused and anxious about the most mundane things. She ruminates on her pill organizer, wondering when to take her medication.
Nita’s mind has not changed. She is now as she always was – soft and gentle as the rain. My love for her has not diminished either. On the contrary, it swelled – my heart filled with tenderness for the woman I have loved so deeply for so many years.
Today, when Nita is confused by the time of day — Is it morning or evening? “I smile at him. Not out of mockery, of course, but with a crush of affection. It’s the same smile that I reserve for children captured by the wonder of a new day. I smile at his revived innocence. And my soul vibrates with the desire to help him find his way, to assure him that all is well.
Those feelings haven’t changed and they won’t change either. But my responsibilities have expanded. Now I’m both challenged and honored to take care of both of us – and more.
As I drove home from my doctor’s appointment – knowing that my life was fleeting – I wondered how I should best live my final chapter, however long the story might be.
Suddenly I remembered three families in my neighborhood, all with children who wanted to take English composition lessons. When I got home, that was the first call I made. “Let’s set a date for the first lesson,” I said to one of the mothers.
I even started to visualize how the first writing session would go. I would invite young people into my living room. I would tell them that writing is an art of observation. “If you can’t see, you can’t write,” I explained. “Now watch every detail of my actions.”
Then I left the room, came back looking around the corner, took a step forward and took the step back. Looking over my shoulder, I move forward. My gaze drops. Frowning, I crouch down and pick up… something. Slowly getting up, I feel its texture. Then, as I slip the item into my pocket, I tilt my head. What was that sound, and why did it make my breathing quicken?
At the end of the scene, I would ask the children to write down what they saw – perhaps filling in the mystery a bit.
It was my first thought. Not to marinate in my misfortune, but to ask how I could make a small difference in the world. Is it possible that the magic of writing takes root in a child’s heart? Could this young academic be my legacy? And wouldn’t that be better than waiting for the final big sleep?
I don’t know how or when my life will end. I may have a good year. Maybe two or three or more. Really, it doesn’t matter much though I wish I was well enough to keep Nita safe until her last breath.
For me, the challenge, and ultimately the test of my character, is to find purpose in the days that remain: to be brave when I’m sick, to give when I’m well, and grateful when dusk drifts toward a starry sky.