Heaven, 9/11, and Anthony

In the summer of 2001 I worked at the VA hospital in Manhattan, talking to cancer patients about God. Or, more likely, listening them talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.

For the last three weeks of my tour, there was this guy named Anthony—he was probably my favorite patient all summer. He was in a four-bed room on the oncology floor. I went to see him every day. I’d walk in and he’s day “Hey, howaya? Want a chair? There’s a chair around here somewhere. I’m tired of people standing around. Have a chair.” He was loud and funny with a Brooklyn/Jersey accent and a football player’s body, about the same age as my dad. He had been a cab driver for decades. He talked with his hands and I could picture him as one of those chatty New York City cabbies who would turn around to look at you while he talked, one hand on the wheel and the other waving in the space between you for emphasis.

You couldn’t tell by looking at him that he was full of cancer. He’d had it for years; it kept moving around and showing up in different places. He explained that now it was in his guts, and he couldn’t bothered with radiation or chemo. They’d done surgery, but he was pretty sure it was still there.

Other than serving in the Pacific during World War II, Anthony had never been outside the United States.  But he knew a lot about the world—after a few visits I realized he was a self-taught historian who had drawn some fairly clear conclusions from his research. “We’re all screwed” was his common refrain. “The world’s a crazy place. Always has been, always will be.” Then he’d regale me with stories about Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, the Crusades, the first World War, Hitler, and lots in between. “We’re all screwed. I can’t wait to get outta here.”

He didn’t mean get out of the hospital. He talked all the time about his death.

“Where you gonna go?” I asked.

“Hmph.  Hell if I know….Get it?” He smiled. I got it.

“There’s only one place I’m going.” He looked away.

“Really? I’m not so sure.”

“Nah…I don’t believe in heaven. Why would God ever create heaven for such a miserable species? We’re all crazy, ya know that? Screwed. Burnt toast.”

For all his denial, it was Anthony who got me thinking about heaven. I was pretty sure he was headed there.

I thought Anthony would die before mid-August when I ended my ten-week stint at the hospital, but he didn’t. Goodbyes to patients are not the kind of things hospital staff generally go in for, but I did it anyway. I wanted him to know I’d enjoyed visiting with him and that he wouldn’t see me again. “Yeah, thanks. Thanks for checkin’ up on me every day.” That was it.

Right after Labor Day, I called my supervisor to ask about Anthony and learned that he’d died a week or two earlier. This was no surprise, but I shed a few tears nonetheless. In spite of his gregariousness, he had a deep sadness to him, and he’d been all alone.

One week later, 2600 people in lower Manhattan were killed as the result of two terrorist-piloted airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center towers. It was a surreal time for everyone in New York. The idea of any return to normal life seemed an affront to the reality of what had happened. The smell of death hung in the air from one end of Manhattan to the other. Moments of relief came, bidden and unbidden, to me and to people I knew: making an impulse purchase of flowers, being kind to strangers, finishing an academic paper on an obscure and irrelevant topic, smothering one’s children, lighting candles, escaping to the movies, spending as much time as possible with friends, starting a new craft project.

The first time I smiled was just a few days after the towers fell, when I thought of Anthony. I imagined him in heaven, realizing that he’d been wrong all those years. I tried to picture him in a state of unspeakable and eternal joy, and I couldn’t. Then he wouldn’t be Anthony. But I imagined him relaxing in a recliner with a favorite magazine, suddenly interrupted by a trumpet signaling “incoming!”. “What the….?” I heard him saying. “Oh, Geez….What have they done now?” And then a moment later: “Hey, welcome! I’ve only been here a few days myself. It’s real nice. Better than I thought. Have a chair. What kinda chair you like?”

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