He surprised himself saying “Yes” when the priest asked if he would like to pray. He knew Lillianne was surprised when he accepted, but she didn’t say anything. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye as she took his hand and bowed her head. The priest put a hand on each of their shoulders and tightened his grip just enough to let them know they were in the hands of God.
His agreement perplexed him even as the priest intoned:
He hadn’t prayed in years, in fact wasn’t sure that he had ever prayed in a meaningful way, with that certain faith and fervency. Even his youthful mind had doubted the accuracy, veracity and reliability of rote reading out or repetition of dried text and images. It was something he had long borne because he felt that most people, his mother especially, had expected him to declare for the priesthood. Instead, he became the last disappointment for his mother when his other bothers and sisters had moved on in their lives and he was the last, best hope.
“… we lift up …”
Barry had helped him to get off the floor where he had fallen. Lillianne had hold of him by the arm, but couldn’t hold him upright when he had lost his balance. Barry had asked him:
“Dad, are you okay ?” over and over before he sat heavily on the bed and mumbled:
“I’m okay,” before drifting off to sleep again. He hadn’t given any thought to being naked in front of his son but idly wondered if Lillianne had had a chance to cover herself.
“… in prayer …”
His mother prayed, lifelong devout and prayerful even as life dished up one let down upon another. It saddened him to think that he most likely was one of those setbacks. Not only the forgone priesthood, but after the usual falling out between parent and son in the teenage years, they had never really reconciled, never reengaged that special bond, mother to youngest son.
They had been holding hands, softly, gently, when the priest had walked in. He had known Father Jonathan off and on over the last few years, interestingly enough, in groups advocating for anonymous group prayers for community residents who were ill. His participation, strictly professional, amused him even then, since he was singularly non-devout. Lillianne was sitting beside the hospital bed, quietly reading one of her mysteries while he was musing about how they’d come to this moment. Their quiet was natural, as they both worked with people all day and craved silence when alone or together, although it often meant that they missed out on important conversations between themselves in their pursuit of calm.
“ … (Name person prayed for) …”
He remembered Lillianne calling his name over and over in concern as he had jumped out of bed yelping in pain. She took hold of his arm. He remembered turning to her as he jumped up and down on the cramping leg, and then caught the other foot on the chair near the chest of drawers and lost his balance to his right, cracking his head against the window molding and sliding down the wall, suddenly unaware of anything but Lillianne calling his name over and over again.
“We ask you to take him in the palm of your hand and grant him the calm of your loving embrace.”
Another hospital room, his mother withering away as he held her hand. She was drugged against the terrible pain, semi-conscious, occasionally rattling off words and phrases, just sounds, that held no coherence when he tried to rehear them later. His inability to give value to these words, the last things he heard his mother say, cast him as Stephen Daedulus, who would not kneel in prayer at his dying mother’s behest. At the close of that evening, he had leant over and kissed her on the cheek and brow. They never “spoke” again and she had died within the next few weeks.
“Embrace also the medical staff, doctors and nurses and grant them the knowledge and learning that they may recognize his ailment and free him from those effects …”
At first they thought about concussion, but it was his heart. Allowing for the — “accident” he called it — last night, his doctor was not worried about the concussion, but the “flutter” — he called it — in his heart. The nurse would come and put the stethoscope, then her hand on his chest and, after a moment, say: “Can’t you feel that?” She motioned with her other hand, opening and closing her fist rapidly while moving the whole hand up and down in another rapid motion. When he shook his head, she grabbed his hand and placed it on his chest, then hers on top, asking again:
“You still can’t feel that?!” with a look of wonderment.
He had made a half-hearted reference to their hand and heart holding, but, beyond a wry smile, she wasn’t going there.
Several doctors and nurses had mentioned waiting for a natural conversion or they would have to shock him. He had responded that he’d had enough shock for now. He’d smiled and said:
“I’ll wait for my heart to convert, but it might be a long wait.”
“… so that he may continue to enjoy living life to the fullest …”
Once his sister had asked him about his abandonment of the faith. He didn’t feel defensive, but had gone into some of the reasons, mostly having to do with complete disillusionment with the church leadership but it was a refusal to accept faith in the face of empirical, obdurate facts to the contrary. He told her that he sometimes thought about his complete reversal of his mother’s devotion and how it meant, at bottom, that one was right, the other wrong — there was no middle ground — and that he loved her enough to hope, almost pray, against her final disappointment. But he also knew that no matter the final reality, he and his mother would never cross paths again.
“… and singing your praises. We ask this in your name …”
And that remembrance knifed into his heart as the first sob quaked through his body, then quickly came more. Gasping and weeping, he shuddered into speechless collapse, breath gone and mouth swollen with unspoken words of pity and sorrow, surprising Lillianne and the priest, but most of all, himself.
Hugh Adams lives in Trenton and works at a nonprofit organization in Ewing that promotes and sponsors voluntarism by mature adults, 55 and over.