Dr. Gary P. Lightman On the darkest night of deep midwinter, young Gary P. Lightman begged his father not to die. Despite the fire dancing in the small fireplace, the single room of their home was cold. The elder Lightman lay on a small cot, his wasted body buried under blankets. His slumber was deep and his breath came infrequently. “Please, father,” Gary said, holding his father’s cool hand. “You cannot die.” No doctor attended to Gary’s father, for father and son were poor and unable to pay the physician’s fees. A kindly midwife had given Gary some herbs to ease his father’s pain. “This will help him pass gently,” she had said. “He will be at peace.” Not yet a man of sixteen years, Gary had no family but his father. Once his father died, Gary would be alone, penniless and without prospects for an apprenticeship. He was frightened. The room grew darker and a sharp chill swept over father and son. Gary P. Lightman left his father’s side to place one of their few remaining logs on the dying fire. Upon returning to the cot, Gary saw an old woman standing in the shadows by his father’s feet. Deep wrinkles etched her gaunt face, surrounding cold eyes that shone like twin blue flames. Her dress was of a black so dark that it seemed to absorb the fire’s light. “Who are you?” Gary asked. His fear of the strange old crone strangled him such that his voice was scarcely a whisper. “I am Death, young Gary P. Lightman,” she said. Her voice rasped like whispers from a tomb. “I have come for your father.” Gary shook his head. “No. Please, you can’t.” Tears stung his eyes as he pleaded. Death showed no emotion, only the stillness and quiet of the grave. “It is his time,” she said. “He is mine.” “No,” Gary said, his voice breaking. “He is all I have in this world. Please, can’t you let him live? I will do anything, even give my own life.” So great was Gary’s sorrow that Death was moved to pity. “I am not cruel, young Gary. The life light of every person must be extinguished in time. Tonight your father’s light grows dim and will not last until the morning.” “You are Death,” Gary protested, “surely you must have the power to delay his passing. How could one so powerful as you not have such an ability?” “You must understand, Gary,” Death said in her hollow voice, “that there are those whose fate is not fixed. These may escape my grasp. The fate of others is sealed and cannot be altered. Your father is one whose fate cannot be escaped. Tonight he is mine. Gary did not reply but only held his father’s limp hand and sobbed. Again, Death was moved to great pity. “What will you do once I have taken your father?” she asked. “I do not know. I have nothing. I know no trade and none will apprentice me,” he replied. “Rarely does a young man grieve his father so deeply,” Death said. “I cannot give you your father’s life, but I will offer you a gift. A young man of such devotion deserves comfort.” Wiping his eyes to look at Death, Gary said, “What can you offer that could bring me any comfort?” “I will make you a doctor. While you cannot save your father, you will save others. You will no longer be poor, but instead your skill will be sought by kings and queens who will reward you with riches.” “You will save those whose fate is not sealed,” Death continued. “When you are called to the bedside, I will be there. If I am standing by an ill one’s feet, their fate is sealed and they are mine. When I stand by an ill one’s head, you may save them.” Holding out a small tin, she said, “You need only place one of these leaves upon their brow, and they will recover. However, mark my words well, Gary P. Lightman. You must never administer the leaves when I am standing at the foot of the bed, for to interfere with a sealed fate is to bring doom upon yourself.” With trembling hands Gary took the tin and removed the lid. Inside were small leaves, like tea, the color of blood. Replacing the lid, he looked back at Death. “Thank you,” he said in a whisper filled with pain. Death nodded and said, “Now it is time for me to take your father.” She reached out to touch Gary’s father, then she was gone. Gary P. Lightman grasped his father’s cold hand. “Goodbye, father,” he whispered. So it came to pass that Gary P. Lightman became the most esteemed doctor in the land. From the poorest common folk to the richest of nobles, all who were beset by illness and injury sought his services. As promised, Death appeared in every sick room. Each time Death stood by the bed’s head, Gary had only to place a single leaf upon the ailing person’s brow to heal them. Within moments of the leaf’s placement, all suffering eased and life’s blush returned to their skin. Gary was known throughout the land for his remarkable healing and his certain knowledge of who could be saved by his remarkable gift. Though it saddened Gary to see Death standing at the foot of the sick bed, he came to understand and accept fate’s dictates. Indeed, he discovered a profound peace within himself. He shared this peace with the grief-stricken families of those whom Death took. Thus he also became known for his gift of comfort. His reputation grew until even kings and queens summoned the great Dr. Gary P. Lightman to their bedsides. He accumulated great wealth. Women sought his companionship and men sought his friendship. In time, he fell in love and married. His beloved wife bore him children, and his life was filled with happiness. Upon the birth of her fourth child, Gary’s wife fell ill. “Childbed fever,” the midwife declared. Clutching Death’s tin in his hand, Gary kept vigil by his wife’s side, prepared to administer the lifesaving leaf as soon as Death appeared by his wife’s head. To his dismay, Death appeared not at his wife’s head, but at her feet. Just then, one of Gary’s young children entered the room. She was but a toddler, and innocent. Upon entering the room, the child saw Death standing by the bedside and spoke to her. “My lady, what a pretty black dress you have,” said the girl. Death was startled by her words, and turned to look at the girl. Seeing that Death was distracted by his daughter’s conversation, Gary quietly pulled back the blankets, lifted his wife and turned her so that her head lay by Death. He then opened the tin and placed a leaf upon her pale brow. Death whirled to face him and raised her voice in anger. “How dare you. You have tricked me and spared the life of one whose fate was sealed.” Gary fell to his knees and begged Death’s forgiveness. “Please, my wife is my world and I could not let her go. Think of our children. They need their mother. You have my word, I will not ignore your words again.” Death considered him and was once again moved to pity. “You are a good man, Gary P. Lightman, so I will forgive you a single time. Do not ignore my words a second time.” With those words, Death vanished. Years passed and Gary’s wife bore him more children, until she became barren with age. All were hale and happy and brought joy to Gary’s heart. Gary’s youngest child was called Delilah. She was a golden-haired girl with a smile as bright as the sun. Her voice rang like the sweetest of bells, and her laughter never failed to warm her father’s heart. Though he loved all of his children, precious Delilah was the center of his world. On the eve of Delilah’s fifth birthday, the sweet little girl was stricken by grave illness. Gary’s wife wept and refused to leave Delilah’s bedside. She turned to her husband and cried, “Will she live? Tell me. I cannot bear to lose my child.” As Gary comforted his wife, Death appeared at young Delilah’s feet. “No,” Gary P. Lightman cried, tearing at his hair. “Not Delilah.” His wife looked up and screamed, for she had never before seen Old Woman Death. “Who are you?” she asked in fear. “I am Death, and I have come for your little daughter,” replied the old woman. At this, Gary’s wife became hysterical. She leapt to her feet and rushed at Death. “You cannot take my baby,” she said, falling at Death’s feet and grabbing at the black dress. In this moment, Gary saw that Death was distracted. He scooped up his small daughter and spun her around so that Death stood by her head. Swiftly, before Death could stop him, he pulled a leaf from the tin and placed it on the girl’s brow. Death’s eyes flared a brighter blue and her countenance darkened. In a booming voice she said, “Gary P. Lightman, you have defied me for the last time. Now you must pay.” With those words, Death took Gary by the arm as his wife screamed. Before Gary could plead for mercy, he found himself in a place of deepest darkness. An endless sea of candles, some tall and some nearly burned out, provided a light that barely penetrated the surrounding blackness. “What is this place?” asked Gary. His voice trembled. “Each of these candles holds the light of a human life. Some are tall, and have many years yet to burn. Others have very little time,” Death said. She picked up a very short candle. “This candle belonged to your daughter, whose fate was sealed. You have interfered with fate yet again, prolonging the life of one meant to die. Since you have healed your daughter, you must take her place. Your life is forfeit.” Gary smiled through his tears. “I gladly forfeit my life to save my sweet Delilah.” Death nodded and said, “You are a good man, Gary P. Lightman.” Then, with a pinch of her bony fingers, she extinguished the candle.