In the category of interesting people I've known I must place Maggie, who was my neighbor when I lived in a set of apartments in around my thirtieth year. She was an interesting character for a number of reasons. She still worked full time as a nurse in a nursing home - on third shift, no less - even though she was in her late seventies. She was a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian, which I found interesting, especially their doctrine of conditional immortality (as opposed to the traditional orthodox position of endless punishment for sinners), and she gave me some literature which detailed their thinking on this and a number of other subjects. She was very active despite her age and drove herself everywhere she went, even some twenty or so miles away to a local SDA community where she shopped for healthy foods for her vegetarian diet. That interested me, too. And partially with her help I managed to make the switch to vegetarianism (something I had been interested in for quite a while for philosophical reasons). She gave me a recipe for something called Special K Loaf - a vegetarian meatloaf substitute using that cereal as the main ingredient. That recipe (which is quite delicious and the recipe is now widely available on the internet) did the most to help me over the transition to a meatless diet, which I rigidly adhered to for over a year. (It was a fun experiment, but I slowly went back to including a little meat in my diet, which is the way I still eat - a part-time vegetarian at best.)
Maggie was good company - slightly cranky, but still lots of fun. She was intelligent, informed, and motivated. She did all of her own cooking, in fact, all of her own everything, living alone as she did. Her son lived in Ohio, but she had a niece locally she was close too and who kept an eye on her. Even though she was quite the Christian, she still made a big-to-do over Halloween, and decked out her apartment entry with ghosts and monsters and made certain she had some sweet treats for the children.
So for nearly a year this fascinating lady was part of my life and the life of my then live-in girlfriend, who was also very fond of her. We spoke to her one morning as she arrived home after her shift of work at the nursing home. As always, she was full of plans and went over with us her agenda for the days ahead. She complained of some discomfort in her shoulders, which she was attributing to overuse of those muscles while moving a patient around in his bed. We thought no more about it as we said goodbye and gave her our wishes that she would have a restful sleep.
Later that night, well actually around midnight as I recall, I was lying on my couch watching TV in front of my open front door. It was early spring and I was enjoying the pleasant night air. There suddenly was a prolonged period of knocking outside my door which I went out to investigate. Stepping outside on the porch I encountered Maggie's niece, who told me the nursing home had called her because Maggie failed to show up for her shift. There she was knocking away to no answer. She told me she didn't know if Maggie was dead-to-the-world asleep or - long pause - simply dead. There was a mail slot in the front door which I then pushed open enough to see Maggie lying peacefully there on the couch, illuminated only by the flickering glow of her television. Immediately I drew the conclusion that those shoulder pains might have been something other than sore muscles, even though she was in good health and had no history of heart problems. I told her niece to wait and that I would go get the complex's maintenance man, who lived on-site and who I knew quite well.
With the maintenance man we were able to gain entry to the apartment through the back door. Maggie's niece ran immediately into the living room and grabbed her aunt's arm. "She's already cold," she exclaimed. One look at Maggie's sweet face was enough to assure me that it was her corpse we were now viewing. I still remember all this very well because it was quite traumatic for me. Maggie was my friend and I had grown fond of her over the months. Her niece's shock and grief were heart-rending, and I stayed with her until the ambulance came to remove the body to the funeral home and the police made their routine investigation to assure it was a natural death. I was also there for her when she placed the call to Maggie's son in Ohio to break the news to him. Sad. Very sad.
At this particular point in my life I had left my childhood religion and embraced agnosticism, if not outright atheism. Still, Maggie's death impacted me emotionally and I found myself rethinking anew this whole business of life, death and the human hopes of immortality. According to her theory she had merely went to sleep awaiting the great resurrection day when God would restore her to life. According to mine, she had passed into peaceful nonexistence. Is this life all there is? Could there possibly be more? Is hope in life beyond this one vain and pointless? I'm agnostic (but can't deny harboring some wishful thinking).
Maggie was my friend and I remember her fondly all these years later. She never tried to convert me and, of course, I never tried to deconvert her. She was content to let her life speak for itself. And I was impressed by her simple, purposeful life. She was a good and decent woman. Maybe that's the most important thing - not the ideas we cherish or strongly believe, but rather our commitment to decency and kindness toward our fellow creatures. That is what Maggie was about.