I remember reading a story about the stretching of time at the end of life, but I can’t remember who wrote it. In it, one wrongfully-imprisoned character found himself counted among the number of a group of prisoners sentenced to die by firing squad. The sentence was quite sudden; it was announced to him that in thirty minutes he would be taken out to the prison yard with a group of several other individuals. After half an hour of uncertainty, he entered the yard as the sixth in line for execution. Given the efficiency of the guards at the time, he was able to figure that these were his last five minutes alive.
Time began to unfold for him in a way it never had before. He took stock of his life remaining and divided it into manageable chunks. He would take two minutes to say goodbye to his companions. Though they had only shared a small section of the world and a small chunk of time, that was a whole lifetime ago. Now that they were to die together, they were decidedly brethren and he found that he loved them as his family. Two minutes would be ample time to express his feelings to them.
Two minutes he allotted to himself, for personal reflection. He would take stock of his life, address some pressing philosophical and metaphysical questions, and make his own peace with God. There was more than enough time in two minutes to find himself and prepare to meet his end. Two minutes was twice as much time.
The last minute would be reserved for a final look around. Though it was only the outer courtyard of a Russian prison, there was so much beauty to behold that he wanted to dedicate an entire minute to enjoy its splendor and marvel at this spectacle of creation.
He began to say his goodbyes. Turning to his fellow prisoners, he spoke in admiration and praise of them, even though their time together had been short. He lauded the men who were meeting their end with high heads and confidence. He consoled those who were weeping in despair, and shared his sympathies that fate had brought them to this end. His expression of love was sincere, he had never before loved any people with the depth of feeling he felt for these. With a whole thirty seconds left, he embraced each one of his kin and told him that he need not be afraid.
He turned inward to consider the kind of man he had been and the life he had lived. In his youth, he was prone to the common mistakes of that age, but he couldn’t say he regretted them. Those experiences made him the person he was today. The faces from his past rose to the front of his mind, and he recollected each of them fondly. He was filled with gratitude for having known them, though he would never see any of them again. He thought of his parents, now deceased, and was glad they made it to the end of their own lives before seeing him wrongfully imprisoned and sentenced to die himself.
“What a strange thing it is to die,” he thought, in this last minute allotted for personal reflection. “Just now, I am a man, living, breathing and thinking, yet in two minutes I will be nothing.” It was an unfathomable prospect; living was all he had ever known. He tried to console himself with the catechism, but found its reassurances dry and trite. So, piteously, he wept.
He wept, now third in line, and thought to himself, “oh, but if I should not die now, how I would live my life to its fullest! I would count myself the luckiest of all men and stretch the length of each minute so that none should be wasted! If I could have but five more minutes, it would be a blessing and I would live my life all over again! Why, O God, have you shown me the glory of this world only to take me from it?” In this last lament, he had a change of heart. He heard the selfishness of his words and recanted at the onset of his last minute. In the distance, beyond the prison walls, he caught the gleam of a church steeple and decided that all these emotions he felt, all of his life before these moments, all of existence itself was a testament to the greatness and mystery of God, and he, merely a man, was in no position to question the wisdom of it.
With an open heart and tearful eyes, he looked around him as if seeing everything for the first time. The garden presented itself in lustrous green displaying the miracle of life on this one tiny rock in all the universe. How many millions of years had conspired to bring about a single blade of grass, and here was a whole field! He saw specks of mica and quartz gleaming from the stone of the prison wall and marveled at this spectacle of man. From little more than grass, man had grown not only to survive, but to thrive and gain mastery over his surroundings, so much so that he could rearrange the elements themselves to fashion creations that sprung only from ideas in a mind composed of much the same matter!
A bluebird flitted down from the wall’s edge, and the spectacle was too much for him. He laughed through his tears, in spite of himself, unable to find words for the joy this little surprise had brought him. This bird thought nothing of him, maybe even now did not know he existed, and would fly away with the next rifle shot to light upon some other bough or stone. Life, which had gotten along perfectly well without him for the millennia before his birth, would continue uninterrupted and unhindered by his death. As the next prisoner in line was sent to the clearing at the end of the path, the bird was off and he smiled to himself. Yes, the world would be quite all right without him.