Tinkers is the brilliant novel about one man’s last few days. Author Paul Harding expertly weaves narratives of George Washington Crosby on his deathbed with the retrospective life story of his father. Crosby’s dad suffered with epilepsy at a time when little was known about the disease. The elder Crosby lived a difficult life, painfully interrupted by his epileptic attacks. As is often the case with things we don’t understand, many people overreacted out of their fear. His inability to cope with this stigma eventually caused him to leave his family.
The other narrative thread of Tinkers involves George. In between descriptions of his body’s process of shutting down, Crosby looks back over his life. In particular, he developed a fondness for repairing clocks. More than a hobby, fixing clocks took on a spiritual purpose. As much as his father suffered with his inability to control his illness, his son delighted in imposing order on machines. It was as if he was attempting to repair his childhood by tightening each loose wheel and re-adjusting each troublesome gear.
As I read Tinkers and reflected on my experiences as a pastor, I thought about how “dying well” means coming to terms with fear. We all have a certain fear of the unknown, don’t we? Moreover, we have all struggled in this life. Everyone has regrets and anxieties that hang around like a loose bit of yarn, until we realize we are at the end, and then they threaten to unwind our very core. Tinkers is about facing these fears. We may not be able to go back in time and fix all of our mistakes; but I wonder if we can tinker a little with our memories. We can’t change the past. But like repairing a clock, perhaps we can make adjustments that will help us come to terms with what has happened and, hopefully, allow us to run smoothly again.
That is, until our time is up.
As mentioned, George’s father left the family when he was still a young boy. This was obviously a devastating situation with many painful memories. However, near death, George chooses to remember the time when his father came to visit him as an adult. George recalls his dad, now an old man, sitting in his family living room, surrounded by the grandchildren he is only now meeting. With this memory, George is able to let go and slip into the other side of time.
Perhaps the most sacred experience of my profession is the opportunity to be with people as they die. The more I witness death, the more I am convinced that a person has a measure of control at the very end. I can’t explain this, of course. But in terminal situations, the body seems to hang on until the mind can come to terms with the past. Maybe it’s waiting for a certain person; may it’s waiting to be alone. Whatever the case, may God’s spirit of grace comfort us, tinkering away until all of our fears are relieved.