Emma and I went out to Northwood on Friday January 16th and stayed until after lunch Saturday. We had planned to stay a little longer, but it became clear that my father was not up to it. He was in some pain from the cancer in his femur, which had begun to grow again; he was was very weak and thin, he could not get warm, and he was finding it hard to keep any food down.
“You should get him into hospital, Mum”, I said to her as we were leaving. “Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
She shook her head; “He doesn’t want to go – he’d rather stay at home”.
“And who wouldn’t, if they had the choice? But can you really look after him here?”
“At the moment I’m alright”.
“Do you want me to stay and help you, Grandma?” asked Emma. “I can skip classes for a few days if you want”.
“That would be the last thing your grandpa would want, darling; it means a lot to him that you’re doing you’re nursing training and that you’re enjoying it”.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call an ambulance?” I asked.
“I’m very sure”.
“Well, you ring us if you need anything, alright? I’ll leave my cell on”.
“I have your number, and Becca’s too. I promise if I need help I’ll call one of you”.
I talked to her before church on Sunday morning; she said my father had been coughing a lot during the night and she was quite worried about him, but he still refused to let her call an ambulance. I asked if she wanted us to go back out, but she said no; it was better if the place was quiet for him. When I asked her if she was all right, she said “I’m a bit tired, Tom, but I’ll be fine”.
“Are you sure you don’t want one of us to come out?”
She hesitated, and then said “I’ll ring you later on in the afternoon, alright?”
“Of course; I’ll wait for your call”.
Rick called early in the afternoon to see what we were doing. “Alyson and I were thinking of getting some Indian food in”, he said, “and then it occurred to us that we’ve never actually had our three families together. I just got off the phone with Becca, and she and Mike are coming over. What about you and Emma and the extended family?”
“Today’s the first day of the new university term”, I replied, “and classes start tomorrow, so Wendy and Lisa are both horrendously busy. We’re trying our best to stay out of their way for a couple of days”.
“Oh, right. Well – do you and Emma want to come over?”
We ate our supper on paper plates in the den. The young people sat in one corner, talking quietly; Emma had brought her guitar with her and she and Eric had already played a few songs together. Alyson and Rick were in the easy chairs by the fireplace, and Becca and Mike took one of the couches, sitting close to each other, leaning toward each other for the occasional kiss. Rick had opened a bottle of wine, Mike had brought some beer, and Alyson had brewed some coffee for those who were not interested in anything stronger.
We were just finishing up the last of the food when Becca’s mobile phone rang. She rummaged for it in her bag, put it to her ear, and said, “Becca Masefield…Oh hi Mum…yes, we’re all here…”. She was silent for a moment, and I saw the expression on her face change. “When was he admitted?” she asked.
The conversation in the room stopped, and everyone was suddenly watching Becca; Alyson had just brought a fresh pot of coffee into the room, and was standing beside me, holding it in her hand. Becca was listening intently, and after a couple of minutes she said, “Right – I’ll tell the others. I’ll be there in a few minutes, Mum”. She closed the phone, dropped it into her bag and got to her feet. “Dad’s been admitted to the JR; they took him in an ambulance this afternoon. He’s coughing a lot and he’s having trouble breathing; it sounds like pneumonia to me”.
“You’re going over?” I asked.
“I’m going right now”. She held out her hand to Mike; “Will you come?”
“Of course”, he replied, getting to his feet; “I’ll drive”.
“Should we all come?” asked Rick. “What do you think, Becca?”
“You and Tommy and I should be there anyway; we probably won’t be able to see Dad for a while, but at least we can sit with Mum”.
“I want to come too”, said Emma.
“Right”, I said, getting to my feet; “Let’s go”.
We found my mother in an almost empty waiting room, sitting in a corner with a cup of cold coffee in her hand. When she saw us she got to her feet, the relief plain on her face; we exchanged hugs with her, and Becca asked what was happening. When she heard that no one had been out to talk to my mother for a while she frowned and said, “I’m going to find out what’s going on here. I’ll be back soon”.
Rick and Emma and I sat in the corner with my mother for a few minutes; her face was grey with exhaustion, and there were dark circles under her eyes. “What happened?” I asked, putting my hand on hers.
“You were right”, she replied apologetically; “We should have called an ambulance last night, but he didn’t want to come back into hospital, so I let him persuade me not to. I should have called Becca, I know, but I didn’t. Anyway, he didn’t sleep much; he was coughing all night long, and of course he had to sit up to be able to breathe properly. But even this morning he wouldn’t let me call an ambulance; it wasn’t until this afternoon that he got so short of breath that he gave in”.
Rick and I sat on either side of her, holding her hands, until Becca emerged from the Intensive Care Unit. She came over and sat down across from us. “You can go through, Mum”, she said; “They’ve got him on oxygen and antibiotics”.
“What about the rest of us?” I asked.
“I’ll just take Mum for now; there’s only room for two visitors at a time”.
So while my mother went through with Becca to the ICU the rest of us sat in the waiting room, talking and sipping coffee from one of the vending machines. After a while Alyson and Sarah arrived; Alyson slipped into a chair beside Rick, put her hand on his and said, “Any news?”
“He’s on oxygen and antibiotics. Mum and Becca are with him right now, but there’s only room for two visitors at a time”.
Emma and Sarah had been talking quietly together; Emma glanced at me and said, “We’re just going to wander for a few minutes”.
“Okay – don’t go too far, though”.
“Don’t worry – we’ll stay close”.
After about an hour my mother and Becca came out to us again. “He’s breathing a little better”, Becca said as we gathered around, “and they’ve told us that one or two at a time can go through and sit with him, if we want to. But it is getting late and they really want him to rest, because he’s exhausted from lack of sleep last night, so they don’t want us to try to make him talk”.
“Are you going to go home, Mum?” asked Rick.
“No, I’ll stay here”, she replied, “but I’ve been with him for a while; I don’t mind sitting out here for a bit if a couple of you want to go in and see him”.
“Tommy and Rick should go”, Becca suggested; “I’ve already seen Dad tonight”.
I saw Rick take Alyson’s hand as he glanced across at me. “Actually, if you don’t mind I’d like to go in with Alyson. Why don’t you and Emma go in now, and then we’ll follow you a bit later?”
I nodded; “That’s fine with me”.
So Emma and I went into the Intensive Care Unit together. My father’s room was small, and the space was taken up almost entirely by the large bed he was lying on and the various monitors and bits of IV equipment. The light in the room was dim, but we could see that the head of the bed was raised slightly; he was wearing an oxygen line to his nostrils, and his eyes were closed.
As Emma moved a chair over to the bed his eyes opened slowly; he saw her and tried to smile. “Thank you for coming, my dear”, he whispered.
She put her hand on his; “I love you, Grandpa”, she said simply.
“I love you too”, he replied. He turned his head on the bed, focusing on me. “I’m sorry – I know this is when you do your lesson planning”.
“Don’t worry about that, Dad”, I replied, moving closer to the bed and putting my hand on his arm. “And don’t feel you have to stay awake for us either; they want you to sleep. We’ll just sit here with you; if you feel tired, just let yourself drift off. We won’t worry”.
“Thank you”, he said in a voice that was barely audible.
We sat on either side of his bed for about half an hour, holding his hands and saying very little. Around us the subdued noises of the Intensive Care Unit continued; the low hum of equipment, the quiet conversations out in the corridor, the occasional sound of someone being paged or a telephone ringing at the nursing station. Gradually my father drifted off to sleep, and eventually I nodded at Emma and we quietly got to our feet and slipped out of the room. I put my arm around her as we walked slowly back toward the waiting room; “Are you okay?” I asked.
She shook her head, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes. “He’s so frail”, she said in a voice choked with emotion.
I stopped, turned to her and put my arms around her. She laid her head on my shoulder and for a few minutes we just stood there, holding each other, with the people coming and going around us and an occasional nurse giving us a sympathetic glance as she went past. I could feel Emma’s body trembling a little in my arms as she cried.
Eventually she looked up and gave me a teary smile; “Thanks, Dad”, she whispered, digging in her pocket for a Kleenex.
“Are you okay to go out there?”
“I’ll be alright for now; what about you?”
“I’ll be all right for now too”.
When we got back to the waiting room I saw to my surprise that Wendy and Lisa were sitting with the rest of our family in the corner. Wendy looked up and saw us coming into the room; she got to her feet, held out her arms to us both and hugged us. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“We’re okay”, I replied; “How did you hear?”
“Becca rang me”.
Rick caught my eye; “How’s Dad?” he asked.
“Sleeping soundly. Go ahead if you want to go in, but I don’t think he’ll wake up”.
“I think we will go and sit with him for a bit”, he replied, taking Alyson’s hand in his. “See you all in a little while”.
I sat down beside Wendy, and she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I shrugged; “I’m worried, of course”.
“Is he still coughing?”
“He’s sleeping pretty soundly right now; I think they’ve got him on a pretty strong dosage of drugs. He coughs a bit from time to time, but it doesn’t seem to wake him up”.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“No, but I’m glad you’re here”.
Lisa and Emma had sat down across from me; I smiled at Lisa and said, “Sorry to mess up your last night before term”.
“Don’t even think about it; I’m all ready for the morning”.
“What about you?” I asked Wendy.
“I’m done. We were just sitting watching a DVD together, actually”.
“What was the DVD?”
She gave me a playful grin; “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”.
At about ten o’clock a nurse of about my own age came looking for us. “I don’t think there’s going to be any change tonight”, she said; “Hopefully he’ll get a good sleep, and that’ll be the best thing for him. There’s no need for you all to stay here all night. Especially you, Mrs. Masefield; you look very tired, and I think you should go home and try to sleep”.
Becca was nodding her head; “You can stay at our flat, Mum; I’ll give them the number, and if anything happens, we can be here in five minutes”.
I saw my mother’s hesitation, and I took her hand; “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Mum”, I said gently, “But if you want to get some sleep, and if you’d feel better if one of us stayed here, I’d be happy to do that”.
“What about your work tomorrow?” she asked.
“I can call Kathy McFarlane and tell her I won’t be in in the morning. She’s my department head”.
“Are you sure that would be okay?”
“I told Kathy this morning that Dad wasn’t doing well; she won’t be surprised. Don’t worry about me, Mum; this kind of thing isn’t uncommon”.
“Well, if you’re sure you wouldn’t mind?”
“I’d be glad to stay with him”.
She nodded. “All right; I am actually feeling very tired”. Turning to Becca, she said, “Perhaps I’ll just go in one more time and see him before I go; do you think that would be all right?”
“What do you think?” Becca asked the nurse. “My brother and his wife are in there right now; would it be all right for Mum just to go in briefly before she comes home with me?”
“I’m sure we can bend the rules a bit”, the nurse replied. Putting her hand on my mother’s arm, she said, “Come with me, Mrs. Masefield; I’ll take you in”.
We watched as they went through the doors into the Intensive Care Unit. “That’s a relief”, Becca said to me; “I was hoping I could get her to go to bed at some point tonight”.
“Do we all have to leave?” asked Lisa; “I think I’d like to stay. I’d like to sit with him for a while, even if he is asleep”.
“By all means”, Becca replied gently; “If that’s what you want to do, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it”.
“I’ll wait out here for you”, Wendy said; “That way I can drive you home any time you like”.
“What about your work in the morning, Wendy?” Becca asked.
“Don’t worry; I’ll be fine.”.
Emma decided to go home and get some sleep, so we agreed that she would take our car. Rick took his family home, and Becca and Mike took my mother back to their place. “Ring me if anything happens, alright?” Becca said to me as they were leaving.
“Count on it. Go, and get some sleep. Mike, don’t let her stay up for half the night, alright?”
He nodded; “I’m on it”.
When everyone had left, I took Lisa through to my father’s room and sat there with her for a while. The lights in the room were all out now; the only illumination came from the door to the corridor, and the only sounds were my father’s laboured breathing and the ordinary background noises of the ICU.
Lisa and I were quiet for a long time, sitting across the bed from each other, but eventually she spoke in a voice that was only just above a whisper; “I’m really glad I’ve had a chance to meet him and get to know him”, she said.
“So am I”.
“Have you talked about the things you needed to talk about with him?”
“Yes; we’re good now”.
We lapsed into silence again, Lisa watching my father’s face, me glancing at her from time to time, trying to read her expression in the dim light from the corridor. Eventually she said, “I know this is going to sound a bit weird, but would you let me sit alone with him for a while?”
“Of course; it doesn’t sound weird at all”. I got to my feet slowly, stretched my stiff back, and said, “I’ll be out in the waiting room with your mum”.
“Alright; thank you”.
When I got back to the waiting room Wendy was sitting alone on the corner couch with her legs crossed and her glasses on, reading a small leather-bound book that looked to me like a Bible. She looked up and smiled as I walked over and sat down on the couch beside her. “Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Yes; she wanted to sit with him by herself for a while”.
“You don’t mind?”
“No, I don’t mind”. I glanced at the book in her hand; “Is that a Bible?” I asked.
“Yes; I was just reading the evening psalms”.
“From the Rule of St. Benedict?”
She grinned; “Good guess, but no – from the Book of Common Prayer. Do you remember the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer?”
“Yes, but more from my literature classes than the few times we went to church as kids. It’s written in Tudor English, isn’t it?”
“Yes – it dates back to 1549. Anyway, it divides the psalms up into daily portions, morning and evening, so that you read through the whole book once a month”.
“I didn’t know that. Do you like the psalms?”
“I really do. I love the fact that they’re not shy about expressing negative as well as positive emotions. They help me be real and honest when I pray, if you know what I mean?”
“I do”. I frowned; “Before Kelly died she and Pastor Ron had a really significant conversation about the psalms. She’d always enjoyed them, but for the last few months of her life she had a very close relationship with them”.
“Because of something he said?”
“Yeah. He was a widower, you see – he’d lost his wife to leukaemia – and he told Kelly about how the psalms had really saved his prayer life. He said when he couldn’t summon up the emotional energy to pray in his own words, he would just read the psalms until he found one that spoke for him, and then he would pray it and add his own specific twist to it. Kelly was really struggling with the whole issue of unanswered prayer at the time, to the point that she was finding it difficult to pray at all. That conversation made a big difference to her”.
“What about you?”
“I guess I’ve been fond of them ever since – for all kinds of different reasons. Of course they make me think of Kelly, but in a strange way they make me think of Jesus too. Pastor Ron preached a sermon about that once – about how the psalms were the prayers Jesus would have learned and used, and praying them was like joining our prayers to his. That stuck with me”.
She smiled at me; “A point of connection between us, then”.
“I guess so. They’re pretty important to Benedictines, right?”
“Really important – St. Benedict had a system of praying the whole book once a week”.
“Those monks had a lot more time for that sort of thing”.
“Yes – I tried to do that for a couple of weeks once, but I couldn’t make the time for it and it became more of a burden than anything else. But the monthly system of the prayer book – I can follow that”.
“Do all Anglicans follow that, then?”
She laughed softly; “I don’t think so! But my dad used to – he used to say Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer every day, and the psalms are part of that. It’s part of the prayer discipline Anglican priests follow”.
“Do you talk about that kind thing with him?”
She nodded. “I’ve had really good conversations with my dad since I came back to Christianity. He’s a really wise man; I look up to him a lot”
“How is he, by the way?”
“I think he’s okay; I’ve talked to him a couple of times a week since we got back, and I’ll go down again toward the end of the month. Mum’s feeling better now, too”.
“I’d love to go and visit them again, but with my dad’s health being so precarious right now…”
She put her hand on mine. “Don’t even think of it, Tom; they understand”.
“I like them, though, and I’d like to get to know them better”.
“They’d like that. They’re still very curious about you”.
“They have fond memories of last year when you and Emma came down with me. And since I told them that we’re definitely a couple now, they’d naturally love to get to know you better”.
“You know, it must have been great to have a dad who was so supportive of you when you were growing up. I never had that”.
“I’m sorry, Tom”.
I shook my head; “Don’t get me wrong – I’m not asking for sympathy, and I’m happy to be getting on well with my dad now. But I know I missed out on it when I was younger. I used to latch on to father-substitutes; I think I saw Owen’s dad in that way, and I definitely saw Will Reimer like that, too. I still do, to tell you the truth”.
“It’s only natural, with him being your father-in-law and you two getting on so well together”.
“Yes. I told him this summer that for years he had been the only real father I’d ever had. Of course, he was my teaching mentor too; I learned a huge amount from him”.
“Was there never any awkwardness between you because of him being your father-in-law?”
I laughed. “We got over it, but when Kelly and I first started dating, he was very protective of his little girl, even though she was in her mid-twenties by then”.
“In what way?”
I shifted a little on the couch, angling my body toward her. “Remember I told you about the time Kelly and I had what she called ‘the sex talk’?”
She smiled; “I do”.
“I think I told you it happened when she came back from Jasper for her cousin Corey’s funeral”.
“It was actually the day of the funeral; she came back to my place afterwards and we made some tea and cuddled on the couch for a while. I got the messages a bit mixed up and thought she might be interested in going further, but she straightened me out about that, and eventually we were both so tired from the week we’d had that we fell asleep on my couch and didn’t wake up until the phone rang at ten o’clock”. I grinned at her; “It was Will, looking for his daughter”.
She laughed softly; “Awkward!”
“Yeah. Anyway, Kelly convinced him that we hadn’t actually gotten up to anything, and it became a standing joke between Will and me for years after that. But that was what led to ‘the sex talk’; she wanted to have a conversation with me about boundaries, and what sex meant to her – the joining of lives, not just bodies. That was a significant conversation for us”.
“Yes. She made it pretty clear to me that even though we were in love with each other, she wanted to wait. So the first time we slept together was our wedding night”. I grinned at her; “Pretty old fashioned, weren’t we?”
“To tell you the truth, Tom, her point of view makes a lot of sense to me. And I’d have thought you’d have learned from past experience that when sex comes into a relationship too soon it can do a lot of damage”.
“You’re right, of course; I should have learned that from my experience with you, without Kelly having to lay the law down”. I shook my head; “‘Lay the law down’ isn’t the right way to describe it; she initiated a conversation, but she wanted to know what I thought, too. Still, she was pretty clear about where her boundaries were”.
“You weren’t upset about that?”
“I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed, but I loved her and I was willing to wait”.
She hesitated, looking away for a moment, and then she looked back and put her hand on mine again. “Do we need to have that sort of conversation?”
“What do you think?”
“Since you came back to England I’ve never felt you were putting any pressure on me in that way”.
“No. It’s a funny thing, but after Kelly died, it was like that part of me went to sleep”. I grinned at her mischievously; “It may be starting to wake up again though, so I’ll need to keep a close eye on it”.
“Is that going to be a problem?”
I looked at her steadily for a moment, and then I shook my head. “I don’t think so”.
“Are you sure?”
“Tom, you have absolutely no idea how much of a relief it is for me to hear you say that!”
She shook her head slowly. “It’s all tied up with Mickey and the fact that we had a sexual relationship so young, and then later on of course he hit me a lot, and – well, his idea of sex was pretty self-centred and controlling toward the end”. She glanced around quickly, as if to reassure herself that no one was listening, and then continued; “It’s not that I’m permanently scarred on sex or anything like that; it’s just that I really don’t want to rush into anything, and – well, to tell you the truth, I’ve been worried that you might want to, and that you might be really upset if I said I didn’t want to”.
“I’m quite all right with going slow – I honestly am”.
She looked at me, her eyes questioning; “So, since Kelly died, you’ve never…?”
I shook my head. “Never had the opportunity, and to tell you the truth, never had the desire, either. Like I said, it’s as if that part of my psyche went to sleep”. I grinned at her; “Since we’re getting so personal, how about you?”
“No. Not that I haven’t had the opportunity. Jeremy Bayly was after me for a while…”
“The organist at St. Michael’s?”
“Yes; he’s got a weakness for the prospect of an attractive roll in the hay. I’ve had to help him crawl out of more than one disaster that way”.
“So he was after you, was he?” I said with a grin.
“Yes, but I told him in no uncertain terms to bugger off!”
We both laughed; “A fine turn of phrase, Dr. Howard!” I said.
“Thank you, kind sir; I didn’t earn that doctorate in English for nothing, you see!”
I shifted a little in my seat; “Do you want some coffee or something?”
“No thanks, but you get some if you like”.
“No, I’m alright”.
I was quiet for a moment, and she looked at me curiously. “Is something wrong?”
I frowned. “You just said something that made me think, but maybe you don’t want to go there, and if so, that’s fine with me”.
“Are you talking about Mickey and me?”
“Yes – about his idea of sex being very controlling toward the end. We don’t talk about Mickey very much, Wendy”.
She shook her head; “I don’t enjoy those conversations”.
“Okay – that’s fine”.
She looked at me steadily for a moment, and then squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry – that’s not a good plan is it? It’s not right for me to wall you out of that part of my life”.
“I’m not interested in causing you unnecessary pain. If and when you’re ready, we can talk, but if it’s too hard for you, I understand”.
She opened her mouth to respond, but at that moment Lisa came quietly into the room. She glanced at us, smiled awkwardly and said, “Is this a bad time?”
Wendy shook her head. “Not at all; are you okay?”
“Yes, but I think I’m ready to go home now”.
“Alright then”. Wendy glanced at me as she was getting to her feet; “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll go and sit in Dad’s room. I imagine I’ll probably snooze a bit in the chair, but at least I’ll be there if he wakes up or if he needs anything”.
“How are you going to get home in the morning?”
“It’s only a fifteen minute walk”.
“I could come over in the morning and take you home, if you want”.
“No, I’ll be fine; you’ll want to be down at Merton early, and I’m planning on taking the morning off, so I might stay here until someone else comes in to take over from me”.
“Are you sure?”
I got to my feet and gave her a hug, then turned to Lisa. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yes”. She gave me a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for letting me sit in there for a while”.
“I’m glad you had the chance to be with him. Are you going to come back again while he’s here?”
“Is that alright?”
“Of course; he’d want it, and so would my mum”.
“Thanks, Dad”. She gave me a brief smile before turning to Wendy; “Ready?”
“Yes”. She glanced at me; “Ring me tomorrow, alright”.
After they left, I returned to my father’s room. He was sleeping on his back, his mouth slightly open; I could hear his breath rasping in his chest as I took my seat beside his bed. I watched him for a while, my mind wandering, and eventually I nodded off to sleep in the chair, my head resting on my shoulder.
I was jarred from sleep by the sound of coughing. As I opened my eyes I could see him in the dim light from the slightly open doorway, trying to push himself up on one elbow, his other hand clenched in a fist in front of his mouth. Ignoring the stiffness in my neck and back, I got to my feet, moved over to the bed, and slid my arm under his shoulders. “Here, Dad”, I said; “Let me help you sit up”.
He nodded, still coughing violently, as I slowly lifted him to a sitting position; I raised the bed a little, rearranged the pillows to support him, and then poured him a glass of water from the plastic jug on the table beside the bed. I held the glass to his lips, rubbing his back gently with my other hand as he took a few sips of the water.
Gradually his coughing eased, and he motioned for me to take the glass away. “Would you like anything else?” I asked.
“I think I’m all right, thank you”. He frowned; “Have you been sitting there all night?”
“Is anyone else here?”
“No. Mum was really tired, and we persuaded her to go and get some sleep at Becca and Mike’s. Rick and his family were here, too, but they left at about the same time. Wendy and Lisa came for a while; Lisa sat with you for half an hour or so, but Wendy took her home just before midnight”.
“What time is it now?”
I looked at my watch; “Just after four o’clock”.
“You really don’t need to stay, Tom; you’ll be tired out at school in the morning”.
“I’m going to take a discretionary day”.
“You don’t need to do that”.
“I’m going to do it, though”.
At that moment a young nurse appeared in the doorway; “Is everything all right?” she asked.
“He woke himself up coughing”, I explained; “I gave him a little water, and things seem to be settling down now”.
She came into the room, glanced at the monitors and the level in the IV bags, and asked, “Is there anything I can bring you, Mr. Masefield? A cup of cocoa or something?”
“No, thank you”, he replied, settling back on his pillows, “but my son might appreciate something”.
“No – I’m fine”, I said.
“All right; don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything”.
She slipped quietly out of the room, and my father said, “I think I could have the bed down just a little, if you don’t mind, Tom”.
“Right”. I worked the buttons until he indicated that he was satisfied, and then I sat down again in the chair. “You seemed to be sleeping pretty well until you started to cough”, I said.
“I feel as if I did, anyway”. He shifted his body in the bed, angling himself toward me a little. “So Wendy and Lisa were here?”
“Yes; Becca rang them, and Lisa wanted to come over to be with you and Mum”.
“That was very thoughtful of her”. He hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Not that it’s any of my business, but how are things between you and Wendy?”
“We’re doing well”.
“Have you got any plans?”
“Are you talking about marriage?”
“We haven’t talked about it. To be honest, I think we’ll probably take it slow”
“Do you mind me asking about it, Tom?”
“Emma tells me she really likes Wendy”.
“Emma’s been amazing. I know how much she misses her mum”.
“I expect you still miss her too”.
I nodded; “I’d always thought that coming to love someone else might make me miss her less, but somehow the two things seem to be entirely unconnected”.
“But you and Wendy love each other?”
“I’m glad for you; you deserve a bit of happiness, after the sadness of the last three or four years”.
He turned a little on the bed so that he was lying on his back. For a moment we were quiet, and then he said, “You’re going to be able to be a special help to your mum in the days ahead. You’ll understand how she feels, more than anyone else in the family”.
He was quiet for a long time, to the point that I was beginning to think he had fallen asleep again. Eventually, however, he spoke in a voice so soft I could barely hear it. “Do you really think there is life after death?”
“If there isn’t, then Kelly’s life was a cruel joke, and I don’t believe that”.
“No”. He gave a heavy sigh, turning his body on the bed again so that he was facing me; “There are times when it’s easy to believe in cruel jokes, though”.
“Yes, there are”.
“Was your faith shaken by Kelly’s death?”
“Did you stop believing in God?”
“I don’t think I’d put it as strongly as that. What I found difficult was to keep my faith in the goodness and love of God”.
“Ah yes, I see; it’s no comfort to believe in God if God turns out to be a monster”.
“How did you get through it?”
I frowned, shifting a little in my chair to relieve my stiff back. “People helped me a lot. Not so much by giving me the answers, though – I didn’t respond well to that – but there were people who were willing to sit with me and listen to me, and not try to fix me. My pastors were especially good at that, but so were Kelly’s family, especially her Uncle Hugo”.
“Did you ever find an answer to the intellectual problem?”
“The problem of, ‘If God is good, why do bad things happen to good people?’ you mean?”
“Not an entirely watertight answer, no, but you and I are different that way; you’re such a logical person, and you find your way through the intellect. I’m more intuitive, and my Mennonite friends also taught me that a life of obedience to Jesus is an important part of learning to understand the faith as well. In fact, that may well be the single most important thing Rob Neufeld said to me after Kelly died”.
“What was that?”
“I don’t remember when it happened, exactly, but it would have been a few months after she died. Rob and I were having coffee together one day, talking about the fact that I was still struggling to regain my faith in a loving God. He listened to me for a long time, and then he said something very simple. He said, ‘If you were able to completely regain your faith in a loving God, what effect would it have on your behaviour? What would you actually do?’ And I said something like, ‘Well, I suppose I’d love my neighbour as myself – doing things to care for the poor and needy and doing my best to put the teaching of Jesus into practice and all that’. And he said, ‘Why not do it anyway, and see if it doesn’t help you regain your faith?’ I went away and thought about that a lot, and I said to myself, ‘What have I got to lose?’ So I gave it a try”.
“Did it help?”
“It did; it helped a lot”.
He looked away again, and for a few minutes neither of us spoke; I was beginning to feel sleepy, but I was also very conscious that something significant was happening between the two of us, and I was anxious not to miss anything.
He cleared his throat. “I lost my faith in my first year of university, you know”.
I was astounded; “I had no idea that you’d ever had any faith to lose”.
“No, I’ve never talked with you about that part of my story. I’ve very rarely even talked about it with your mother”.
“Do you mind me asking about it?”
“No, I don’t mind”. He turned his head to face me again; “I’m not sure that I’d ever had any sort of really intelligent faith, but when I was young we had been churchgoers. I was confirmed when I was eleven, and I remember that I took a real interest in the confirmation classes. But then I started having doubts”.
“Well, ironically, it was the confirmation classes that prompted them. That was when I read the gospels seriously for the first time, and it seemed to me that the church I knew was nothing like the sort of thing Christ had in mind. My father, for instance, went to church every Sunday and wanted his children to be regular churchgoers, but in his personal life and his professional life I couldn’t really see the sort of thing Christ talked about – you know, turning the other cheek, and not storing up for yourself treasures on earth, and so on. And so I began to wonder – was it all just an act? Did anyone really believe it enough to practice it?”
He shifted his body a little, and I could see that he was trying to get comfortable in the bed. “When I went up to Oriel I attended chapel regularly and I still considered myself to be a believer, although my attendance had more to do with the fact that I enjoyed the music than with any real faith. I took some philosophy classes in my first year and my teachers were all agnostics or atheists with very strong arguments against the existence of God. They also taught me that you didn’t need Christianity to lead a decent and good life; there were all sorts of people living good lives without being Christians. Gradually what they were saying came to make more and more sense to me. I’d had a troubling sense of unreality about my faith for a long time, and in some ways it was a relief to abandon the pretence and adopt an outlook that seemed more honest and consistent with reality as I was experiencing it. I’d never seen a miracle and I’d certainly never met any Christians who didn’t lay up for themselves treasures on earth, so why carry on with the charade?
“Still, to a certain extent I did carry on with it. I knew my father would be very upset if he knew I’d abandoned Christianity, and anyway I still wanted to sing in the chapel choir. I didn’t actually stop churchgoing until after I left university, but I’d been saying the creed with my fingers crossed behind my back for years by then”.
He was quiet for a moment, but somehow I knew he was not finished. I could hear two nurses talking quietly out in the corridor, but in the darkened room the only sounds were the quiet hum of the various monitors and the rasping in my father’s chest.
He cleared his throat again. “When you mentioned what your pastor said about practicing the teachings of Christ, you reminded me of how I lost my faith. I think it would have made a real difference if I’d seen someone actually making an honest attempt to live out the things the gospels say. They wouldn’t even have had to do it perfectly; just an honest attempt would have got my attention, I think. But the truth is, Tom, that until you and Emma came back to England I’d never really known anyone who tried to do that”.
“I’m sorry, Dad”.
“You’ve got nothing to apologize for. As I said, you and Emma are the first people I’ve ever known who seem to be making an honest attempt to live by the teachings of Christ. And I’m not going to claim that you’ve succeeded in making a Christian out of me, but I will say this – you’ve succeeded in giving me doubts about my doubts”.
“That’s a real compliment”, I said softly. “Thank you – can I pass that on to Emma?”
“Yes. In fact, I might talk to her about it myself”.
“Do that, Dad; it would mean a lot to her”.
He nodded slowly. “Well, son, I think I’m going to try to sleep a little more. How about you?”
“Yes, I think that might be wise”.
“Don’t you think it might be easier if you stretched out on a couch in the waiting room or something?”
I grinned at him; “You really are trying to get rid of me, aren’t you?”
“No”, he replied; “In fact, I very much appreciate the fact that you’re here. But I’m not good at falling asleep when someone’s watching me”.
“Okay – that I can understand”. I got to my feet, leaned forward and put my hand on his arm. “Are you going to be all right? Is there anything I can get for you?”
“No thank you, son. Try to sleep yourself, all right?”
“I will”. I squeezed his arm, and then turned and slipped out of the room.