Photograph by Olivia Harris, Story by Gaia Vince
I carried a couple of terrace chairs up the steep mountain track to the overhang, where Juan Carlos had agreed to meet me. And then I sat and waited, unsure if he’d show, half expecting him to cancel. It had taken me hours of persuasion to get him to agree to at least let me accompany him on this important journey.
It was his only chance – and my last chance to nail my job, no, my vocation, because it was a calling for me too. I was a counsellor at Viva Ahora, the emotional support charity for people at risk of suicide. I believed, as passionately as JC believed the opposite, that there was no god, no other life. This life was your one and only time to live and it was precious. We’d always agreed on that last, at least.
Actually, we’d agreed on a lot, JC and I – the priest and the apostate. He’d moved to the village twenty years ago, young and full of hope when I was a divorced, disillusioned drunk, busy renouncing my faith, family, upbringing. He patiently talked me through the dark times, agreeing to meet on neutral ground and never to discuss god. I refused to call him Father, this boy, half my age. And yet, our friendship grew. After I’d become a counsellor, we’d often meet to discuss the desperate cases that troubled our working days. JC saves their souls but I save their lives, I’d say.
Now it was my turn to save his.
The last year or so, our conversations had turned increasingly bleak. I’d always been one for dark humour, joking inappropriately about those “crazies” who called me. JC had listened and forgiven me – he understood that it was my way of coping with the troubles of people I’d cared for. I approached each case as a battle: me against another person’s misery. It was a fight I usually won, but occasionally lost, feeling hard the failure.
For JC it was different. He listened and he offered advice, calmly and when asked, gently suggested options and recited reassuring prayers. But he didn’t engage in a war with another’s demons or see it as a personal failure when his advice was ignored. For all his belief in a god dictating our lives, it was he, not I, who believed responsibility for people’s lives lay with them.
However, in recent months, this had changed. He was tormented by troubles. He became obsessed with a mother whose baby son died in a tragic accident, soon after she had lost both of her parents. This poor woman attended church daily and led a blameless life of charity and kindness. While she was mourning her baby, her husband suffered a fatal heart attack, and then she was herself diagnosed with inoperable cancer. JC visited her frequently in her home as she died painfully.
The episode initially left him maudlin, but soon he began cracking jokes and making fun of her suffering. I tried to understand. But JC became more extreme. “You see how powerful God is,” he would shout. “He can kill a family if he chooses, no matter what they are like. He murders millions of children with disease, creates droughts and floods, He is terrible, and yet I love him. I am being tested and triumphing!”
Soon, every meeting I had with JC would involve him dissecting another tragedy and end in rants about our ‘evil god’. I should have been delighted, but in fact it upset me greatly and left me concerned about his mental health.
I had to travel overseas for a few weeks, and when I returned, I arranged to meet JC in our usual bar. I saw at once, he was different – the mania had gone. He cut short my small-talk and told me he needed to explain something to me, and that for once I should suspend my scepticism.
JC had been on a journey, he said, to try to understand how the God he loved could hurt good, innocent people with disease and war and climate change. How could he hurt his children like this? I waited for the ranting to begin, for JC to start cursing God and calling him evil. But instead, he turned to me with gleaming eyes and announced that he’d worked it out. “We are in Hell!” he said.
I was conciliatory in response, explaining that although it sometimes feels like Hell, it won’t always, and there is a lot of good in the world…. But he cut me off. “No, I mean we really are in Hell. I’ve worked it out. We were all bad people in a former life and now this is our punishment,” he explained. JC then went on to list his evidence for this and his various “proofs”, but I tuned out, trying to process the change in my friend’s mental state. However, I was brought rapidly back to the monologue when he began talking about killing himself. This would be the ultimate proof, he said, because “if I’m not in Hell, then my devotional sin-free life will deliver me to Heaven, via Purgatory, where I shall repent this sin. Whereas if I am correct, and I am in Hell, there will be no escape, and I will not be able to kill myself.”
Suicide was my area of expertise, and I moved quickly on autopilot, rolling out all my usual phrases, but nothing worked to change his mind. The only thing I could get him to agree to was meeting me here, at his chosen place of death, to let me witness his last breath.
To my surprise, I saw him climbing up the path towards me. We embraced and he sat beside me on a chair. As I made to talk, he silenced me with a finger pressed against my lips.
“I have taken the pill already, it’s starting to act on me. Pray for my soul, while I go, please,” he said, finally.
Gaia Vince is a writer and broadcaster specialising in science, society and the environment. Her writing has been featured newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian and New Scientist, and she makes science programmes for radio and television. Her first book, Adventures In The Anthropocene, won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books in 2015. She blogs at WanderingGaia.com and tweets at @WanderingGaia.
Olivia Harris is a documentary photographer and filmmaker, based in London. She shoots documentary work with a particular interest in the changing power dynamics between women and men. She began her career as a photojournalist; initially picture editing for an online magazine, and then shooting pictures for Reuters in London and South-East Asia. She ran the Reuters pictures operation in Malaysia, and covered breaking news across the region. Her work has been exhibited around the world.