It’s 7:45 on an overcast Saturday morning and I can’t believe I’m already out on the road. Great time to drive, though; no traffic at all. It’s easier to speed, too, and I steal a glance at the speedometer—five miles under the speed limit. God, when did I become such an old man? Eh…I continue going fifty anyway. It’s relaxing.
This isn’t the first time I’ve made this trip; the men’s prayer group used to be a regular Saturday jaunt, but it’s been awhile. The music’s low and the wind lullabies its lyrics through the slightly-open window, causing my mind to wander. When was the last time I attended? It was soon after Bill died…that’s right…and Buddy was terminal with cancer.
Buddy had been fighting a brave battle for awhile, so the group was prepared for his eventual outcome, but Bill just up and dropped dead one day. Completely out of the blue. He said something to his wife, sat down in his chair, made a raspy guttural sound, and was gone. He literally croaked. I liked Bill. He was a hoot. And I missed him. It’s funny how the mind wanders.
Buddy died not long after on a Sunday. The choir had just finished the anthem and was slowly shuffling down from the loft. As I waited graciously for the ladies to file out (being the Southern Gentleman I am), I thought of him at home under hospice care. Something within me said to skip the sermon and pay a visit, so during the commotion, I slipped out the side and headed over.
When I arrived, I rapped on the door’s window and walked in like I always did. His daughter, rubbing his feet with lotion, gazed up from the hospital bed in the living room and eked out a half-smile. There’s something about Christians and feet—an innate servile thing. “Mikey! Look Dad, Mike’s come to visit you.” Buddy was oblivious, with the rhythmic hum of the respirator the only sound coming from his direction. The scent of aloe vera lotion cloaked the smell of impending death with a cool freshness.
I sat by his side and held his hand, said hi and talked to him awhile. He died moments later, before church ended, surrounded by his loving family, another close friend from out-of-town…and me. Had I stayed for the rest of the service, I would never have had the chance to say goodbye, and I loved Buddy. His daughter was one of my best friends and he was my quirky surrogate uncle.
It was the first time I ever witnessed a person die. I called the hospice nurse for the family and tried to reach a staff member at church, but everyone was still in the service and the answering machine picked up. What to do? I left a message.
“Brian’s number’s on my cell phone on the counter,” came a shout from the living room.
I cocked my head and stared at the smartphone like Neanderthal Man, but took it outside and started randomly pushing buttons and tapping the screen like I knew what I was doing. Ugh! My trembling fingers had grown huge and clumsy and sweaty and I worried I’d drop the phone and break it before ever figuring out how to use the damn thing. The door swung open, banging against the inside cabinet, as the other family friend ran to get a box of tissues from her car. I waved her over. “Argh. Phone. Brian. Ugh,” grunted Neanderthal Man.
She connected me and went about her business, grabbing the Kleenex and dashing back up the stairs, slamming the door behind her. I mumbled the news to Brian, then cracked the door and set the phone on the counter and quietly left. As I pulled out of one end of the curved driveway, a flash in the mirror caught my eye. It was the nurse’s Bronco pulling into the other end. For some reason, I needed to be there for that moment, and then I needed to leave.
I think it was all in preparation for things to come, and that’s why my mind wanders there today. Today is the first time I’ll face anybody from my church since Mom died.
The parking lot is empty as I pull in and stub out my cigarette. No biggie, I’ve got a key. Armed with a huge travel mug of coffee, I make my way up the breezeway to the side door of the fellowship hall and let myself in. It’s dark and quiet…peaceful.
Normally I’d brew a pot of coffee for the guys, but I don’t even know if they still meet. I only know I should be here in case they do. Something compels me to stay.
The silver clock ticks 8:15 as I swig down another jolt of coffee, and it looks like it’s just going to be me and God today. I allotted an hour for the meeting, so an hour I will stay. The peace and undisturbed meditation should do me a world of good.
Being in a church all alone is a little weird. I scout around for something spiritual to read—a Bible, or better yet, a hymnal—because I feel like I’m supposed to be in prayerful devotion or something. Meandering down the hall to the choir room, I check out the current happenings on the bulletin boards and flip one of the lists to tomorrow’s date, wondering if anybody dedicated flowers to me for my birthday (no, they’re for a 16th anniversary). Oh, well.
New chairs in the choir room. A lot of changes in a short couple of months. The director has straightened the room and has it looking nice and organized, but where are the hymnals? A faded blue book sits atop a box in the corner, old and forgotten. It beckons.
A Treasury of Hymns. I can barely make out the title; much of the gold embossing has worn away. “This will do,” I say out loud, as if there were someone else in the room to agree with me, then scurry back to the table where my coffee waits.
Glancing through the table of contents, I don’t recognize a single song title. The Spacious Firmament on High? Who uses firmament in a song? I close my eyes and picture a lanky old preacher with a long black coat, bad teeth, floppy Colonel Sanders tie, and a moth-eaten round brimmed hat. Jeebies. I flip further and see some old standards: Rock of Ages and Nearer My God to Thee and start humming while reading the words.
What year was this published? Turning to the front I discover it was 1953 by Simon and Schuster, but that’s not what grabs my attention. Inscribed is a note, dated 1955, to our former choir director from her mother, saying how proud she is of her musical service to the Lord.
A mother’s love.
I absolutely lose it. The fellowship hall has now become my private confessional, where I break down and cry out to God without words, only indecipherable gasps, sobs, and moans of heartache. But He knows exactly what I’m saying. He brought me here to have this conversation.
I don’t know exactly how long this goes on before finally calming to short, breathless whimpers, but I am exhausted. Amid the last of my panting and sniffling, in the dim silence of the room, I distinctly hear a soft voice, singing:
Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side.
Startled, my eyes scan the room and see no one, yet from somewhere unknown, the voice continues:
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Who IS that?
Leave to thy God to order and provide. In every change, He faithful will remain.
And then I realize the words, the music—this prayer in song—is coming from within me. I embrace the thoughts and finish the arrangement in full voice. It’s the first time I have sung in months, and it feels liberating. My burdens seem an eternity away.
It’s 9:00 and another car arrives; it’s the maintenance crew, here to repair and paint some lightning damage. That’s my cue to go as I slide my shades over puffy, tear-stained eyes and emerge into the comforting warmth of the sun. It was a great meeting.
Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with everything that life throws my way. This includes all the aspects of this writerly world: read, write, rewrite, read some more, blog, visit, comment, visit, comment, study, learn, revise, query, write, write, WRITE!
It’s easy to feel like I’m running in circles.
Perhaps this story is a little odd for a writer’s blog, but I tell it to show that, somehow, some way, I’m always exactly where I need to be, whether I recognize it at the time or not. To everything there is a purpose under heaven.
Had I not experienced the deaths of these church family members who were dear to me (and there were many others that year), I would have been ill-prepared to cope with the loss of my mom. God strengthened me for my biggest trial to come and I still felt like a weakling. I can’t imagine how broken I’d be if not for facing those earlier blows.
In hindsight, I see where He’s done that all my life; where He’s put me in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
I hear from other writers who tell me they should be doing this or doing that, who are ready to throw up their hands and quit, who cry out, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” As I contemplate that question, it dawns on me that I totally forgot about the Progressive Book Club this month…it just slipped my mind. Too many things on my plate have fallen by the wayside that I need to get back on track. I need to revise my novel. I need to finish that poem. I need to submit that short story. I need to write about Mom’s journey. I need to, I need to, I need to…
I begin to spazz out again.
And then I understand. Everything is on track. Everything is exactly where it is supposed to be. I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. God will hand me everything I need long before I need it. I only have to trust.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not unto your own understanding.
Acknowledge Him in all your ways
And He will direct your path.”
I realize this post is much lengthier than I normally write, or the average blog reader wants to read, and I appreciate your attention. I simply had to write until it felt complete. But the story is not finished. There are many more chapters ahead—for me and for you. We’re all exactly where we need to be.