I’m watching Al’s fingers lift his chess knights in the day room of a maximum-security ward at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital for the criminally insane. Al’s an older patient just out of seclusion. Pasty white cheeks, grey stubble, slack mouth, intense brown eyes, with lids that drop unexpectedly, and flutter, and open once again. His fingers hold a castle’s head, then release it. He moves to a pawn, lifts its top.
When we get our first whiff of mortality, which typically happens in our sixties, we are inclined to take inventory of our lives. For the self-satisfied, this is an easy matter: one simply declares himself free of baggage and on an express track to heaven. But that is only true for God’s favorite children; the rest of us have a harder time of it. The bits of good we might have done fade like yesterday’s news. And sins long forgotten assail us like phantoms, leaving us as wary as thieves.