I’ve just been published in a New Zealand literary journal called JAAM. The 2013 issue, JAAM 31, was officially launched on Friday night.
For those of you new to my blog who may not have trawled through all my fiction yet, I’m going to post the story here again. I edited it quite a bit before I sent it off to JAAM anyway, so perhaps it’s worth a re-post. If you’d like to get hold of a copy of the magazine, you can pick it up from good bookstores around New Zealand, or you can order it online (email them direct at email@example.com).
Nearly three years ago I held my father-in-law’s hand as he died after a lengthy battle with cancer. I wrote this story a short while afterwards, when the experience was fresh in my mind. I felt it very intensely and shed a lot of tears while writing.
Some of you may remember that I am currently appearing in the play Calendar Girls at a theatre in Auckland. (Yes, the one where we all get our gear off.) While it is hilarious fun, it is also a poignant and touching account of grief and how a group of close friends deal with it. So many of us have been affected, directly or indirectly, by the horror that is cancer. I treasure those quiet moments in the play when we feel the audience right there with us in our sadness. I dedicate my performance to my father-in-law, Carl. (Including the bit where I reveal my naked bottom. He would have laughed his head off.)
When I was little, just before bedtime, my mother used to wrap me in my dressing gown and take me outside to see the stars. “Who made them?” I would ask, my small hand finding its home at the warm nape of her neck. “God made them, darling,” she would whisper. “Our Heavenly Father hung them in the sky for you.”
I imagined a giant bearded artisan, his forge blazing and his hands gentle, engineering specifications regarding brightness and circumference being superseded by pure brilliance that needed no such signposts. Just a breath was enough to birth Orion.
I went to theological college. What else could I do?
Jump two decades and I am here, in this city where Orion can be seen from the Stardome and where my mother still insists God hung him. Every Sunday she worships in the penultimate pew then shakes my hand after the service and insists on me coming “home for lunch”. As if I don’t have my own home to go to.
When I sit down at her perfectly-laid table I flip out my napkin and lay it on my knee as if the table were an altar. Lunch is our communion. We break bread and drink wine and believe.
One day, opening her eyes after grace, she asked me about funerals. Were they difficult? Did I dread them? Did they make me question my belief in God?
I told her this story.
Not long after I was inducted into my first parish, I stood at the bedside of an old man who was about to die. He had been diagnosed with melanoma two years previously. It had started in his brain before taking up relentless, ravaging residence in his shoulder, his jaw, his pelvis.
This man was afraid of death. In the weeks before he passed I spent many hours listening to his fears and talking to him about what I believed to be the truth about the afterlife, but he could not take comfort from it. Perhaps what I was offering him sounded too good to be true. He had shared a house with fear and dread for so long that he could not bring himself to evict them. They brought a comfort of their own.
On the day he died he was in great pain. His breathing was loud and laboured, his tongue thick and dry as a desert, his body ravaged by the horror that is cancer, and also by denial. His family asked first for oxygen and then for morphine. As the first shot was administered the room expanded, full with the unspoken acknowledgment that the end was inevitable, and very near. I was asked to stay.
At around 7pm there was a sense that someone, or something, was coming. My parishioner’s breath slowed. The white of his skin deepened to yellow. The nurse on duty spoke quietly, urgently, knowing the family had only minutes: “Hold his hand. Kiss him.”
His wife leaned close, put her mouth to his forehead, and anointed him with tears. “Go,” she said, as if encouraging a small child towards his first day of school, “You go now.” His two adult sons, each holding a hand, called out “I love you, Dad,” as if their father was already on the other side of a bridge, or on a train pulling out of the station. They so desperately wanted him to travel with their love as luggage. “Oh, my Daddy” one of them whispered, kissing his father’s cheek.
And suddenly, there was no breath. He was no longer there. A deep peace overwhelmed me; a sense of having witnessed something unspeakably profound. It was the first time I had ever seen someone die, and I felt closer to God in that moment than I have ever done before or since.
Of course, it was not the same for the family, and I had to put aside my own, somewhat selfish spiritual epiphany in order to travel to a far darker place with broken people who needed me. But I think they sensed in me a travelling companion who was not afraid of the final destination, and knew that even as they were obliged to carry a burden of grief for a time, I would carry their hope for them until they were ready to claim it back.
There is beauty in death, I told my mother. As I prepare my church for a funeral, welcome family and friends, deliver the eulogy, consecrate the body, deliver a final blessing, I feel like I have conquered the enemy. Death, where is thy sting? For the fortunate subject of my ministrations, there is nothing left to fear, no hopes to be shattered, no illusions about life to be destroyed, no love to be tainted. Life, with all its unforgivable surprises, can no longer threaten.
It is not the same for those left behind.
Last week I took a funeral for a man and his little son who were killed in a crash on that ghastly roundabout in Royal Oak. I don’t know why there haven’t been more accidents there, it’s a ridiculous roundabout, fed by five roads with drivers determined to get to where they’re going as quickly as possible, more often than not failing to indicate and throwing only a cursory glance to the right as they accelerate towards the rest of their lives. Most of them get away with it; the man and his son did not.
The little boy hung on for three weeks before his mother made the decision to turn off his life support. I was told this by the mother’s sister when we met to discuss the funeral arrangements. The mother herself could not speak to me at all.
At the funeral she sat in the front pew, white as marble, still. I read Psalm 23 with as much shame as if I had been standing naked. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. She did not want God’s comfort. She wanted only to be in a third coffin, next to the large one and the obscenely small one.
And so, after the service, when I usually approach family members with words of comfort, I found myself standing in front of a fellow human whose universe had collapsed, and I could say nothing. We stood like that for maybe thirty seconds. Then she spoke, her voice a wasteland. “Did I do something wrong? Did He take them away for a reason?”
I thought about my childhood, and about my years of theological training, and about the limping heart inside this woman. I said, “I don’t know.” Honesty was the only thing I could offer her.
She accepted it. “Thank you,” she said, her voice stolen away by a sudden ghost of a breeze. Then she walked down the curved paving in front of my church towards the hearses. The undertaker was waiting.
My mother had invited me for dinner that night. The sky was clear and cold. When I reached her gate she came out to greet me. As she approached, her face full of the knowledge of what I had done that day, I found myself thinking about those nights many years ago when she would hold me, and we would look at the stars together, barely believing that the universe was ours to behold.
We stood for a moment under the jewellery box sky. Then I asked her something I had never asked her before. “How did you carry on, when Dad died?”
My mother smiled. “You were about to be born. What else could I do?”
As we walked inside together she took my hand, like she used to do when I was a child and we were about to cross a treacherous road.