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A few years ago, I joined a group of people who were keeping a lengthy vigil over a dying man. He was a priest and a teacher, a man of great passion, who loved and was loved deeply. Cancer of the bone marrow was racking his body; heavy medication could not hold off the ceaseless tides of pain. That he was confined to a hospital bed made everything worse. Over a period of weeks we took half-nights with him in an informal rotation, helping him go to the bathroom, bringing him water, but most of the time—if my watch was typical—just sitting in a chair, positioned in the wedge of light that comes from the corridor through the half-opened door, trying unsuccessfully to read. Whenever I looked at him lying in his dim corner of the room I couldn’t help thinking that the cancer had made him younger: he was thinner, of course, but not yet wasted, and his hair was rumpled like a boy’s. The creases in his face, his mottled skin, were obscured by the darkness. I could almost imagine that I was merely sitting up with a sick child, one who would soon recover and resume his games and laughter.

Once, at about two in the morning, he raised his head from the pillow and looked at me for a few moments. I thought he might be wondering who was there, since he had had so many companions-which may have been reassuring (we hoped so) but was certainly confusing. “Is there anything I can do for you, Joe?” I asked. “Just pray, Alan,” he whispered—so he did know who I was—and laid his head back on the pillow.

I did attempt to pray, of course, leaning forward and closing my eyes, but my concentration lapsed; I was still wondering why he had raised his head to look at me. And I was also wondering—conventionally but inevitably—why this good, kind man was suffering so. After a few moments I lifted my own head, and as I did a glint of light pricked the corner of my right eye. I turned and saw, on the table a few feet away, a flower arrangement, from which rose a balloon. The balloon was printed on one side with an absurdly familiar image, a bright yellow smiling have-a-nice-day face; the obverse was made of silver foil. It was that foil, caught by the slant of light from the door, that I had seen. Just as I looked up, the barely perceptible currents of the air conditioner touched the balloon; the smiling face, which had been turned toward Joe, now rotated, gravely and formally, until the face was pressed against the wall. If Joe, who was for the moment lying on his back, had opened his eyes, he would have seen the reflection of his broken body in the balloon’s cheap and silly mirror.

To a man who wanted his son healed, Jesus said, “Except you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.” I too desired signs and wonders, but this ludicrous spectacle? It was simultaneously banal and grotesque, or rather grotesque in its banality; it was wholly unsuited to comprehend or to represent the enormity of what was going on in that room; it was what one might expect from the pen of a high school junior in his first creative writing class; above all, it was unworthy of God. Better no sign at all than this foolishness, no answer at all than this travesty of revelation.

My face flushed with resentment, even anger. Thinking back on that moment now, it seems to me that what angered me most of all was the transparency of the symbol: any fool could read it. My training as a teacher of literature, which among other things is training in the interpretation of symbols, was scarcely needed here. Still, I found myself elaborating, bringing to bear on a nonexistent hermeneutical problem an array of pointless and common illustrations from Bible, prayer book, and literature. God had turned his back on Joe; the Lord would not make his face shine upon Joe, would not lift up his countenance upon him, or give him peace. And if Joe sought to see God’s face, he would see only his own sad and ravaged one—however imperfectly, and through a glass (a silver foil glass) darkly. If he were granted anything, it would be self-knowledge: his battle with cancer was, in the old Greek term, an agon, in which the essential contest was not with one’s opponent but with oneself and one’s limitations.

As such notions marched through my mind—just as they might had I been preparing for a Lit 101 course—I chastised myself for frivolous academicism. But I couldn’t help myself; that’s the way I think now. I recalled Hector and Achilles, facing one another outside the gates of Troy: Hector looks upon the great shield made by Hephaestos, with its images of the civilized world of dance and harvest, law and wine, that world which he loves and which he is about to lose forever; while Achilles stares at his own armor, now worn by Hector, the visible and palpable token of his obsessive commitment to the warrior’s calling. There were symbols that did justice to the agon; in the hospital room where I sat gazing blankly at a cheap balloon, were none.

When Joe died, almost a month later, his funeral suited me much better. It was held in the spare and stony church where he had ministered for many years; the music was, for the most part, old and beautiful; the liturgy was rooted in the most ancient traditions of the Christian faith. Here at last were the symbols adequate to the event: stone, cross, bread, wine, solemn and resonant words. We seemed appropriately distant from the dismal sterility of that hospital room.

I did not ask, from the onset of my pitiful epiphany to the conclusion of the burial rite, or indeed for a long time afterward, what need Joe had of “symbols adequate to the event” of his illness, or what comfort he could have drawn from them. He may have needed them very much, or not at all; but I didn’t ask. I even forgot to keep wondering why, in one of the nights of his dying, he had struggled to lift his head and look at me. For such neglect I desire his forgiveness.

I desire it because I think differently now than I did then. Two years after Joe’s death, in the same hospital in which he had suffered and I watched, my wife gave birth to a son. Slowly, then, it came to me that the multitude of cheap and tawdry symbols that accompany American births, as well as American deaths, could do nothing to reduce the dignity and the enormity of that event. As I sat in a room very like Joe’s, in a chair indistinguishable from the one in which, however petulantly, I had received my sign, and looked at an oddly familiar arrangement of flowers accompanied by a celebratory balloon, I thought (struggling to hold my newborn son) that in fact the energy went in the other direction: the event lent its dignity to those symbols, and endowed them with a curious weight, a ludic solemnity, that on their own they could neither have possessed nor represented. After such an experience, the memory of my absurd revelation no longer brought anger. Now, when I remember the reflection of Joe’s body in that foil balloon, I still sometimes think of Hector of the shining helm and brilliant Achilles before the walls of Troy; but the distance between the two worlds no longer seems so great, nor the comparison so frivolous.

Alan Jacobs, a frequent contributor to First Things, teaches in the Department of English at Wheaton College.