Original Online Fiction
It was two in the morning when the phone shook Francis from a deep sleep. “My mother’s dying,” the woman said, sobbing. “She needs Last Rites—now.”
Francis whispered, not wanting to awaken his wife, Eleanor. He asked the caller for her mother’s name and the hospital she was in and promised to be there soon.
“What is it?” Eleanor turned toward him and rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
“Someone’s dying,” he said. “I have to see her. Go back to sleep. You need your rest.” She had a classroom of second graders to teach in the morning.
Francis changed from his pajamas into a wrinkled gray suit and faded black shirt. He put on his white clergy collar. He drove to the hospital in his ten-year-old Taurus, its doors and fenders patchy with brown rust from too many winters of road salt. An early March snow slanted across the car’s headlights. Rolling down the window, he hoped the cold air would slap him into full wakefulness. He gripped the steering wheel and followed a snowplow up Main Street.
By nature he was a quiet, introspective person. At the moment, though, he felt irritated, even resentful, for being roused from his warm bed beside his wife. Francis caught himself; he was a priest, after all, and had been one for fifteen years. And human—a clergy collar did not make him otherwise. He remembered something his college chaplain had told him many years earlier when he was sensing a call to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. “Unless you’re willing to help someone in need, whatever the hour, then don’t become a priest. Do something else.”
He did. After college and newly married, Francis took a job as a newspaper reporter for his hometown paper, The Courier-Journal. He liked reporting, worked hard, advanced from beat to beat, and eventually ended up writing editorials. Then he and Eleanor got involved in church, and the call resurfaced. A few years later, at the age of 37, he went to seminary in New York City; three years after that, he graduated with his master’s in divinity and was ordained. He served his first parish back in Louisville. Two years later, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Binghamton, New York, called him to be its rector. That was ten years ago.
Francis reached the hospital, parked the car, and trudged to the Emergency Room entrance, the only one open at this hour. The snow felt good on his face; it crunched beneath his boots. His breath froze in clouds.
He felt alive.
Francis asked the nurse at the desk for the room number of Mildred Giacometti.
“Are you family?” she asked.
Francis shook his head no, then unbuttoned his topcoat, showing his clerical collar like a police officer flashing his badge.
“Oh sorry, Father. Go right on up. Room 408.”
Francis found the room: bare and dim, except for a yellow glow from a light over the sink. Medical technology surrounded the dying woman, blinking, beeping, pumping artificial life into her. Her skin was tattooed with black and red splotches. He recoiled internally.
The sleeping form of a man slumped in a chair, snoring. A woman sat at the bedside, her gray hair wound into a long braid and her face creviced with worry. “What took you so long?”
“I came as soon as I could,” he explained, trying not to sound annoyed. “The snow is heavy.”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been outside in two days.”
“I’m sorry. This has to be hard for you.”
“It’s hell.” She relaxed slightly. “I’m Carol, her daughter.” She began to sob, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her blouse. “That’s my husband, Jerry, over there—sleeping like nothing’s happening.”
“How’s she doing?” Francis asked.
Of course, Francis chided himself. What a stupid question to ask.
Francis wrapped his white stole around his neck. He touched the patient’s face. Her skin was cool and moist, thin to the point of translucence, revealing a spider web of capillaries.
“Hello, Mildred,” he whispered. “It’s Father Francis from Good Shepherd. I’m going to anoint you and pray for you. Carol is here—and Jerry, too.”
“Oh, Mama,” Carol said, crying as she stroked Mildred’s cheek. She leaned closer to her mother. “I love you.”
“Would you like to lay your hands on her with me?” Francis asked them. Tentatively, they pressed their hands to Mildred’s head and shoulders. Francis opened his prayer book. Touching the woman’s head, he prayed and then made the sign of the cross on her forehead with the holy oil used for healing and Last Rites.
They stood in silence. Mildred’s breathing was labored, long pauses punctuating each breath.
“Would you like me to wait with you?” Francis asked. “Until…”
“No,” Carol said firmly. “You’ve done what Mama needed. She’s in God’s hands now.”
Francis nodded. “God made her. And he’s with her now and always.” He extended his hand to Carol. She hesitated, then took it reluctantly.
“You let her down—after Daddy’s funeral. You don’t remember?”
“No, I’m sorry. What did I do—or not do?”
“At the cemetery, you said you’d visit her, but you never did. You failed her.”
“Carol,” Jerry said, shaking his head. He turned to Francis. “Padre, I’m sorry. She’s upset.”
Francis had a vague memory now of Mildred’s husband who died two years earlier from a heart attack. He probably said he’d check on her; that sounded like him. But as he recalled more clearly now, there had been another death, and he rushed to console that family.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said to Carol. It was the only thing he could say. He had learned that lesson a long time ago in his final year of seminary when he was doing his clinical pastoral education at a hospital in New York. The chaplain had given him invaluable advice: “All that emotion, it’s not about you. It’s about them. You’re in a privileged position, even a sacred one, seeing them at their worst but also at the point of their greatest need.”
Now, ten years later, Francis looked at Carol and Mildred, as white as the sheet she was wrapped in. He drew in a deep breath of calmness. This is about her. Her grief. I’m here for her now. “I’m sorry for not visiting your mother,” he said. “You have every reason to be disappointed. I’d be, too. Thank you for telling me how you’re feeling. Again, I’m sorry. I’ll check back in the morning. Shall I?”
“Yes, please,” Carol said.
He returned home and to bed. As he lay there beside Eleanor, listening to her breathing, he felt troubled for having failed someone who counted on him. He prayed, asking God to have mercy on him. Finally, he fell asleep until the sun came up, glinting on a new layer of snow.
Carol called him at seven that morning, just as he was leaving for the hospital. Mildred had died a few hours earlier. “I feel relieved. She’s no longer suffering,” Carol told him. “She’s in a better place now. Thank you for coming last night. I’m sorry I was angry with you.”
Francis assured her she had nothing to apologize for. He was glad she’d been honest with him about her feelings and hoped they could make a new start.
That afternoon, Francis visited with Carol over tea and carrot cake at her house and planned the funeral. The next day she and Jerry were in church.
A few weeks later, Francis’s mother called him. She said she didn’t want to worry him, which was why she hadn’t said anything earlier. But his father had gone to the doctor, then to a specialist for tests. The results were back. “Lung cancer—stage four.” She began to cry. “I knew it. He had that cough that wouldn’t go away. I kept asking him to see the doctor, but he told me to stop nagging him. Finally, he went. Now he’s dying.”
Francis felt helpless. They were hundreds of miles apart. “I’ll come for a visit, as soon as I can.”
“He’s getting treatment. It won’t cure him—the cancer’s too far along for that. But it might slow it down. Give him some more time. Help his breathing some. Sometimes, I think he’s going to suffocate at any minute.”
Francis promised to check back soon. He hung up the phone and sat in his study. He’d dealt with dying and grieving people all the time, but now death was invading his own family. He started to cry.
Taking a long walk that night, he cried out, “God, I don’t think I can take all this dying anymore. Maybe I’m not meant for this work after all.” He fantasized about being a reporter again. He did not know what to do next. “God, help me,” he prayed aloud.
A few days later his bishop surprised him at church. “How about lunch? I’m buying.”
At the little Greek diner up the street, Francis picked at his Caesar salad.
“How are you doing?” Bishop Alex Sherwood asked him.
Francis looked at his eyes, which were blue and kind, like his own father’s. The bishop felt less like his superior and more like a friend. “One Sunday, I’m going to look out and see just empty pews,” he said. “I’ll have buried the whole congregation.”
“I’ve felt similarly,” Bishop Sherwood said. “And I’ll assure you the whole congregation is not dying.”
Francis took a deep breath. “My father has cancer.”
“I know,” Bishop Sherwood said. “Eleanor called me yesterday. I’m sorry about your father.” The bishop patted Francis’s hand.
“I feel as if I am drowning in a sea of sadness,” Francis said.
“I know you feel these loses deeply,” Bishop Sherwood said. “And that’s because you’re a good pastor. You care for your people. And they know it. You’re a man of the heart. Such people are rare, even among priests—and among bishops, for that matter. Don’t keep these feelings inside. Tell God in prayer. Tell Eleanor—it’ll bring the two of you closer. And tell your lay leaders. Ask others to help you carry this burden. It’s bigger than one person.”
Several months later, Francis and Eleanor had just finished their bedtime reading and had turned off the lights. They held one another. He felt loved and secure. Then the phone rang.
“Fran,” his mother said. “I don’t think your father has long.”
“Jesus,” Francis said, more prayer than oath. When he’d seen his father a couple of weeks ago, he’d been weak, but Francis hadn’t expected him to decline so quickly.
Eleanor reached for Francis, putting her arm around his shoulder as he held the phone.
“Is he up to talking?” Francis asked.
“Hearing your voice will give him a boost.”
“Hi, Pop. I love you,” he said.
Emotions rushed at him: fear, sadness, helplessness, disappointment with God, who had not answered his prayers with a miracle. Tears poured out.
“Love you, too, son,” his father said weakly.
“I’ll be home soon. I’ll get the first flight out tomorrow.”
“It’s okay,” his father said, struggling. “I’m not afraid of death. There are worse things than cancer.”
Francis knew the truth of that statement. He’d found his father’s wartime journals in the attic and read them. A D-Day survivor, his father had seen plenty of death on Omaha Beach.
“See you soon, Pop,” Francis promised, but realized this conversation might be their last in this world.
Francis leaned into Eleanor. She opened her arms and told him that she loved him, that she was there for him, that the two of them would survive this together.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I know I’ve been preoccupied. Sometimes when we’re together, I’m somewhere else. I’m thinking about a sermon or dealing with a death or some crisis. And now that Pop’s dying, I can’t think of anything else. I’m afraid of losing him—or losing you.”
“I’m right here, Fran,” Eleanor said softly. “Just cry it out. Don’t hold it in. Let it out.”
He awoke the next morning in her arms. On the drive to the airport, he contemplated burying someone he loved; the thought terrified him. At the curbside drop-off, Francis held Eleanor tightly, smelling the perfume he had bought her at the Galleries LaFayette in Paris. They had celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in the City of Lights.
“You better get to your gate,” she told him. “I love you.”
He arrived in Louisville in the afternoon and drove his rental car to the ranch house in the South End where he had grown up.
“He’s sleeping,” his mother said at the door. He kissed her cheek and held her for a moment. “The hospice nurse just gave him something for the pain to make him more comfortable.”
His father lay in bed, covered by a blue blanket. He gasped for each breath, the pauses between each lengthening. A hint of ammonia hung in the air—the odor of death.
Francis sat down beside the bed and stroked his father’s forehead and cheek, cool and moist. He leaned over and whispered, “It’s me, Pop. I’m home. I love you.” He hoped his father would open his eyes and say, “I love you,” but all he heard was the death rattle of his lungs.
His mother brought him a plate with a ham on rye sandwich. “With extra pickles,” she said. “Just the way you like.”
Francis set the sandwich aside. His mother lingered in the doorway, looking ten years older than she did just a few weeks earlier when he had visited.
“I’ll let you two have some time together,” she said. “I’m going to lie down in the living room. Call me if you need me.”
Francis picked up his father’s Bible and read the 23rd Psalm aloud. Then he lay down beside him, resting his head on his father’s chest. He listened to the heart’s thump and the gurgled breath.
As he followed the rise and fall of his father’s chest, he thought he smelled Old Spice aftershave. The scent unlocked the vault of memory: Francis stands at the bathroom sink beside his father. He studies his father as he wipes the last traces of shaving cream from his face. His father picks up his shaving brush and dollops the foamy cream on Francis’s chin. “You’ll do this with your son one of these days.”
Francis and Eleanor always wanted children but contented themselves with being family for each other. Now he was the son, a grown man, but unwilling to let go of his father. He wanted to keep him here but knew that would only mean more suffering. He prayed and visualized letting his father slip into the sky, pure spirit set free.
His father gasped, and his chest went still. Francis waited for the next breath, but there was only silence. His father’s mouth gaped open, the gurgles quieted now. He leaned over and kissed his father’s stubbled cheek.
“Mother,” Francis called out and went into the hallway, calling her once more, before returning to his father’ bedside.
Eleanor came for the funeral and offered to stay on in Louisville. “I’ll be with you here as long as you want,” she told Francis, squeezing his hand. “I love you and want to support you.”
“I really appreciate your offer, Ellie,” he said. “I’ll be okay. I need to spend some time with Mother. Just the two of us. I hope you understand.” He also knew how difficult it was for her to be away from the classroom. He hugged her. “I appreciate you.”
Francis spent a few more days with his mother, and when the visit came to an end worried about how she would cope. His mother had never been one for sharing her feelings; his father had been the source of emotional warmth in the family. He could see the imprint of his mother on his personality.
“I’ll be all right, son,” she said at the doorway as he left for the airport. “Call me when you land.”
“I’ll be back to check on you,” Francis promised. “Call me if you need me. When you do, I’ll get the first flight out.”
“Don’t worry about me. You’ve got a church to take care of.”
Back home, Francis was quickly swept up in the swift currents of congregational life. When members of his parish asked how he was doing, he thanked them for their kindness, but assured them he was fine.
One morning, Bishop Sherwood phoned. “I’m grieving appropriately,” Francis reported, pleased with how he was handling his feelings, not letting them get in the way of his job. Francis thanked the bishop for the call, ending their conversation quickly before it went any deeper.
Most days, he left the parish office at noon and went home for lunch. The house was empty with Eleanor at school. He ate a bowl of tomato soup, drank a glass or two of burgundy, and fell into bed.
Late one afternoon, Eleanor came home from school and found him asleep. “I’m worried about you,” she said. “You’re more tired than usual. And you’re irritable. It’s been going on for awhile now. Won’t you go see someone—please? I’ll go with you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Francis said. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Good Shepherd is a busy parish. That’s all.”
Eleanor sat on the edge of the bed. “No, something is different. It’s more than being overworked.”
“I don’t mean to be difficult,” Francis said, trying not to sound annoyed. “I appreciate your concern. Tell you what—I’ll think about talking with someone.” He went to his office at church to work on his Sunday sermon.
During the day, he kept busy, and at bedtime, after a melatonin or two, he fell asleep. Night after night, he dreamed that he and his mother stood in a dark, musty room like a cellar, looking into a casket. Inside lay his father’s body; then, another body took his place. I can’t be dead, Francis shouted in the dream. No, it’s not possible. He awoke shouting. “No. No. No….”
Each time he had the dream, Eleanor took him into her arms until he fell asleep. The next morning, he was exhausted.
Finally, he gave in to Eleanor’s pleas and went to see his general practitioner. Dr. Harris listened as Francis explained that his wife had insisted he come in. “She says I’m not myself, that I seem tired and cranky.”
“Is she right? Wives can be pretty perceptive,” Dr. Harris said.
Francis studied his hands, picked at a hangnail. He admitted to having a pain in his stomach for more than a week and diarrhea.
“It could be stress,” Dr. Harris said. “Maybe a flare up of your irritable bowel? You’ve got a tough job, after all. All those people to deal with, their personalities, and their problems.”
“This will probably sound crazy,” Francis said. “But I keep thinking that maybe I’m dying. It’s worrying me and has been ever since—” He paused. “My father died, a month ago. He had lung cancer. I keep thinking about him. Being with him at the end and seeing him in the casket. Missing him—knowing that he’s never coming back.”
After examining him, Dr. Harris assured Francis he was not dying. He was grieving. “I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems you’re repressing your feelings, pushing them down into your gut. And they’re letting you know they’re there. And they don’t intend to say there, silent.”
“You might be right,” Francis admitted.
“People grieve in their own way. And it takes time to come to terms with the loss. I’m sure you’ve told people the same thing. If you want, I can prescribe something to help.”
“I think I’ll be okay,” Francis said. “I feel better, just talking to you.”
His conversation with Dr. Harris soon faded as he turned his attention to other matters. He had a vestry meeting to get ready for on Tuesday night. He dreaded it: some members wanted cuts to the budget because pledge income was down. Francis wanted—needed—more funding, not less for the church to operate.
A storm hit on Wednesday afternoon, downing a tree on the church’s playground and stripping a swath of shingles from the church roof. Now, water leaked into the church and pooled near the altar. He was on the phone for hours, trying to find a roofer to make repairs and someone to remove the tree. He had not even looked at the readings for his Sunday sermon.
Overwhelmed, Francis wanted to cry, but he was out of tears.
On Sunday morning, he wished he could be anywhere other than Good Shepherd. At the 8 o’clock service, he felt as if he were watching himself conduct it, not actually leading the familiar prayers and rituals. When he preached, he droned the words of his homily. Mercifully, it was short.
The 10 o’clock service would be better, Francis hoped. At least it wasn’t Lent or Easter, Advent or Christmas—those times of extra prayers and special music. It was a typical sleepy Sunday, what the Church called “Ordinary Time.” But for him, after his father’s death, it was no ordinary time.
At the second service, Francis lost his focus a few times while leading the prayers. Thoughts of his father distracted him. He saw his father in the casket, then saw himself at the cemetery as the casket was lowered into the ground. His father was gone. He would never see him again. Francis felt a sharp stab of sadness in his chest right where his heart was.
“I’m sorry,” Francis said from the pulpit. “I don’t think I can go on. It’s my father, you see. I think about him; it’s all I can do. It’s as if part of me is missing, and all I have is this big emptiness inside me.”
Francis began to weep, crying for his father and also for all the people he had buried over the years. There had been so much death. Too much for one man, no matter how good he tried to be as a person and a priest. All the grief of those many months and years fell from Francis ‘s eyes and onto hardwood floors of the church.
Something shifted. Lightness rolled away the stone of his sadness, the way dawn drives out the night. It was love, Francis knew: his father’s love for him, and his for his father. He looked up at the congregation, smiling through his tears. “I feel it here.” He put his hand on his heart. “Love never dies.”
Eleanor was the first one out of her pew. She took Francis in her arms and kissed him. Carol and Jerry, who’d been coming to church every Sunday since Carol’s mother’s funeral, followed. One by one, the others in the church left their pews and encircled Francis. It was a day of resurrection, a day of new life.
Kenneth L. Chumbley serves as Rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, Missouri.