As I was writing this story, my Word program froze several times, and I lost what I had written. This has never happened before. The fifth time, it occurred to me that Artemis was not happy with the way I was telling the story of her life and death. I lit a candle and prayed for her spirit to fly free like the gulls over the sea that I could see out my window and began again. The words in italic are the ones she added.
Yesterday morning I heard the church bells tolling a plaintive, “dong, dong, dong,” as they do when someone dies. Quite a few people die in our village in winter, and I did not wonder who it might be. You didn’t think of me? A few hours later, I saw the death notice on a telephone pole next to my car. My friend and neighbor Artemis died. The words “Theos voithos,” “with the help of God,” came immediately to my mind.
Artemis was born ninety years ago, in the wake of the Asia Minor catastrophe when thousands of Greeks were driven out of their homes in the land that was to become Turkey. Unlike many of the older Greek ladies I have known, Artemis was not a happy person. She grew up during the depression, the Second World War, and the Civil War that followed. She was beaten as a child. She married a man with a young son whose first wife had died in childbirth and then had three sons of her own. No daughters to help me out, no one to keep me company. When her husband died too young, Artemis ran the taverna known as The Clean Neighborhood on her own. Molivos was a very poor village up through the mid-1980s. Life was difficult after my husband died. It was not easy to keep the neighborhood clean.
One of Artemis’ sons took over the taverna some years ago. Artemis continued to live in the small two-story stone house next to the restaurant. In recent years, she was often sitting in her small front porch garden filled with flowers and pot plants when I came into the restaurant. I had golden hands. The flowers always grew for me. In the way that is typical of village women who were unhappy in their own marriages, Artemis tyrannized her daughters-in-law, particularly, because she was near-to-hand, the one who had married the son who took over the restaurant. Finally, someone to look after me. But they were always busy. They didn’t have time for me.
In her last years, Artemis was suffering from pain caused by a knee problem that might have been fixed with an operation she refused. I was afraid to die. Feeling sorry for her and for my friend, I decided to spend time with Artemis. My goal was to listen to her stories with compassion and an open heart, in the hopes that, knowing that she had been heard, Artemis could release some of the bitterness she held within her. You had time for me. You listened.
I did not think I achieved my goal. The pain in Artemis’ knee got worse, and she became more demanding and unhappy. I am sorry to say that in her last two summers, I avoided Artemis because I resented the way she was treating my friend. I didn’t understand that. You were my friend too. Still, whenever she saw me, Artemis would call out, “you know, don’t you, I love you very much.” There was so much sadness in me. Can a lifetime of pain be healed in a single summer?
In the fall, Artemis took to her bed. Women were hired to look after her. Most of them left within a week because she treated them badly. I wanted my daughter-in-law to look after me. This was my right, after looking after so many others myself.
Around Christmas time, Artemis took a turn for the worse. Her son and daughter-in-law were summoned from the village on the mainland where they spend their winters. Artemis improved in body, but not in spirit. It hurt all the time. I was afraid to die.
A few days ago my friend called. She was at her wit’s end. She had not slept in weeks. Artemis was crying and screaming all the time. I couldn’t stop wailing. Everything hurt.
As I waited for my friend to come for coffee, I thought about what I had learned when my mother was dying. My mother told me that she was afraid God had forgotten about her because she had not come to church in many years. After I shared this with one of my mother’s friends, she told my mother that God loves everyone and had not forgotten her. My mother died the next night.
“Maybe Artemis needs to know God loves her,” I suggested to my friend. If God loved me, he would not send me this pain. “I thought of that too,” my friend said, “so I called the priest to come to the house and asked him to speak to Artemis. He told her that he knew she had always come to church when she was able to and assured her that she was in good standing with God.” Then why does God send me so much suffering? Surely God does not love me.
“The priest offered to bring communion wine to the house, but Artemis refused.” What good would communion do me? “He insisted, saying that everyone who could not come to church took communion at home during the holidays. She agreed that he could visit on the next Sunday.” I didn’t wait for that priest. I died before he came.
My mother’s friend said that sometimes a dying person needs to be told it is alright for them to die. Her husband had been hanging on in a coma. Her priest told her she had to tell her husband he could die. As soon as she did, he let go. I suggested to my friend that perhaps Artemis needed to hear this too. What can they tell me? I’m afraid of dying.
Artemis died yesterday morning. Her body was washed and laid out in her home. I thought you would come. Following a funeral service in the church, she was buried in the cemetery in Molivos yesterday afternoon. You were not there.
I did not come to the house because I did not know. I did not come to the funeral because I had an appointment. I am sorry. I am thinking of you now.
I have come to the end of the story. My computer did not freeze again. You started listening to me.
I have listened to you, dear Artemis. Will you listen to me? God loves you. God loves everyone. There is no judgment and nothing to fear.
When I lit the candle for Artemis before beginning to rewrite her story, I felt her angry, in the ground, complaining of the cold. I am not there now. Open the window. I will fly free.
Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.
A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in the spring of 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in June 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.