Inspired by the Maranassati Sutta

The moment she was born Gemma knew she was about to die. By all accounts she was unlike any other child: she never got excited about Christmas and she never got upset when she was grounded. In fact her brother tells me she didn’t even bat an eyelid when her parents announced they were getting separated. It seemed Gemma had always just gone along with anything that was thrown her way, in the knowledge that she would only need to endure it for a few moments longer. And in her own way, she had breezed through life.

She had been the opposite to her brother Stuart, an excitable, feisty little boy. It was unfair really. Stuart had always cared, really badly. He cared when he found out there was no such thing as Father Christmas, and he cared when his parents were separated. And above anything else, Stuart cared that Gemma was always about to die.

Everyone had warned me it was no use speaking to Gemma, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally met her on the hospital ward last week. A big decision was about to be made. She was going to be discharged from hospital and, at age 86 and with various health problems, it was felt she could no longer live at home alone. It was my job to find out what Gemma wanted so I arranged to meet with her and her brother Stuart. They were sitting together quietly when I arrived. As I stood before them I burst into a long winded explanation about who I was and why I was there, until finally I asked Gemma the big question: “What do you want to happen?”

And then came the anticipated answer: “It doesn’t matter to me—I’ll be gone for good by tomorrow.”

Stuart, whose head had been lowered throughout our conversation, could take no more. “Gemma! The lady is asking you what you want, tell her what you want! You’ve been saying your whole life that you’re about to die and you’re still here! Well? Are you or aren’t you?”

I froze and the entire ward went quiet, every staff and patient turning their eyes on us. A few moments went by and still nothing happened. I could feel my heart palpitating and my palms beginning to sweat. Stuart’s face was red and hot and he looked as though he were about to cry. You could have cut the tension with a knife.

But Gemma was unfazed. She just sat there patiently, as if waiting for us to get it.