I’m tired of talking about myself. I don’t quite have the self-absorption of many preachers and bloggers, that I think the world is waiting with awe for every sweet bon mot that drops from my pen, or scrolls across my screen, since I use a laptop. I want to write for a while about people I have encountered in my ministry. Some of them will be people who have lived good lives, others are people who were exemplary Christians and Anglicans, some will be the people who have just struggled along, being God’s children. Some may impress you as saints, others as abject, perhaps unreconstructed, sinners.
I won’t be using their real names, although it will be impossible to change the setting in which I met them, as setting influences who we are and how we relate. Those readers who live in the locations where these anecdotes take place may recognize the people. Your experience with them may be different. I will write either about people who have now left this life, or who are so far away in time that I do not know what has happened to them.
Hetty lived in the community where I was pastor. She was a recurring name on every visiting list left by my predecessors. She was just about sixty years old. I don’t think she had ever had an income-producing job in her life. Her days had revolved around caring for her mother since she was young. She was a prolific knitter. It provided a supplement to her tiny disability pension and gave her a few treats in her quiet life.
She had never married. She had been born outside wedlock. Her mother, as far as I knew, had never married, and she was an only child. The extended family had lived on a hardscrabble farm on the edge of the settlement. They had been late immigrants, and the land they had obtained was swampy and cedar-choked. It wasn’t much of a farm to support several brothers and a sister, and then a single child. Hetty had a photo of herself as a child, sitting next to her mother. She had a pet chicken on her lap.
She was rather like a plump little hen herself. When I met her, she was trimmed down from being a very plump hen indeed. She still had the broody figure, and she habitually slumped forward in her chair and when walking, a result, I think, of a lifetime of sitting and encroaching arthritis. She would tuck her arms back along her sides, a habit from knitting, which just reinforced the hen-like appearance. Her eyes were bright, and her hair, growing back after chemotherapy, was a dark shock that usually stood up in three directions, like a hen’s comb. She was a survivor of breast cancer. The cancer diagnosis and treatment had come to define her life.
She had a hoarse, unmodulated voice. It would soar in volume as she talked, relating one of her many anecdotes. She was animated when she recounted her many doctors’ appointments, how the doctors were so nice to her, how they truly cared, how loved and supported she felt. Except for Doctor Margaret, who could do no right, being a woman doctor. I wouldn’t say Hetty was a hypochondriac. It was just that for the first time in her life, people took care of her. She loved all her (male) doctors greatly. I don’t know if they were appreciative of her love, but in her own way, it was innocent and faithful.
I called on her at least once a month. She did not drive, so she was dependent on neighbours and friends for shopping and entertainment. She wasn’t a television watcher. I suspected that she couldn’t follow the plots of soap operas or dramas, and her sense of humour was old world. English was not her first language. She spoke Danish all her life, with enough cousins and neighbours who also spoke it that she did not lose her language skill.
Hetty lived in a house trailer, or a mini-home as they are called here, which had been purchased with insurance money after the family homestead had burned, leaving her and her mother homeless. It was circa 1976, outfitted with a complete kit of furniture. I had lived in a similar model about 1978, so I recognized it. Almost thirty years later, she still had all the original, pathetic-quality furnishings and curtains. Then she had added knick-knack shelves, whatnot tables, slim wobbly bookcases, hassocks, baskets of yarn, folding trays and the most of the contents carried by W.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime in Presque Isle. She loved a good rummage or garage sale. The little house was overheated and usually smelled of hot cooking fat. It was clean, as clean as rotating Red Cross caregivers could get it. She was a great favourite with her caregivers, as she was almost always sunny and pleasant, generous and sentimental. Only once did I ever hear her speak harshly of someone who had hurt her feelings, and it was with a great deal of sorrow as well as a bit of satisfaction in having had the last word. She cried quickly and copiously. I took care to turn the conversation away from morbid subjects, though she had a relish for the details of horrible illnesses and injuries.
Her favourite entertainment was live country music. A neighbouring church always had a music night once a week in their parish hall. She was a regular. Someone would pick her up on their way by, and she sat there, week after week, tapping her feet, enjoying the hot sweet tea and cookies that were the regular fare. I believe she used to dance; it wasn’t anything I ever witnessed. I’d say her next favourite activity was a good funeral. My Danish congregants had a healthy and earthy attitude to death. They mourned their loss, but a history of famine, forced immigration, hardship in the new world, and the loss of children to epidemics, old people to pneumonias, and young people to accidents made them aware of death in our lives, daily. Cancers are common. Fatalities in the fields or woods and on the roads and trails were a yearly occurrence. We clergy officiated a lot of funerals. Good funeral sermons and some favourite music of both the modern gospel and antique Danish hymnal were expected. The cemetery burial ended with a traditional Danish hymn sung a capella. Our local funeral director, although not Danish, would lead it if no one else had the voice for it.
The funeral lunch was not neglected. A table of traditional foods was provided by the ladies of the parish. (We have one male cook amongst us, but he is kept in reserve for smorgasbords and fund-raisers where Danish sausage and other hearty meat specialties are required.) Hetty was a society matron at funeral lunches. She found herself a good seat, walking cane beside her, and we fetched her plates of sandwiches, delicate Danish creations of good homemade bread, sweet butter, sandwich meats and thin sliced vegetables and pickles, followed by another plate or two of the delicious and otherworldly cookies that only Scandinavians can produce. (I have acquired the knack of peparkakor, a spicy molasses biscuit.)
Hetty called me occasionally. She had need of a few groceries at the end of the month; she needed a new (to her) refrigerator, so would I contact the right people for that; she hadn’t seen me in a while and I’d left a card in the door while she was out. She had a bitter pride when she had to ask for help. People offered and she accepted. She might ask a favour but she posed it as if she would, when possible, reciprocate. She could not reciprocate with me. Not that it mattered. I am pretty nonchalant about helping people in need. But I could see the frown, the incipient tear when she realized that she was indeed bitterly poor, and she had to go to the church for help. She had to ask me. She liked me, but I was not the same as the wonderful priests in the past, Father Such, Canon Wonderful, Mr. Greatheart. I was just little Pastor Julie. She didn’t hold it against me, but my stature did not cast the same impressive shadow.
She called me from the local hospital one day. She had been admitted for surgery. She had a terrible hernia. I don’t know what caused it. I suspect a lifetime of poor health and inadequate diet was the culprit. I went in immediately to see her before the procedure. She was a fragile patient, the body weakened by cancer and its cure. It really was the worst rupture I had seen in a few years of chaplaincy and hospital ministry. Her skin had split. She was in pain, but she joked a bit about it, poking her finger delicately around the damaged navel. She had no inhibition in sharing scars and wounds with me, nor was I ever shocked by such. Ten years of shepherding had submerged forever any remaining squeamishness that had survived motherhood.
The hernia was repaired, but her condition worsened. She was taken to the big hospital in St. John, far from home. I went down to see her in the midst of her diagnostic routine.
“They got me here in Oncology,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
“What is your doctor’s plan?”
“X-rays and tests and ultrasound. But why am I in Oncology? That means Cancer.”
“Yes, it does.”
She talked a bit randomly about her cousins coming to visit, and gifts they had brought, and what the food was like. She liked her roommate. She liked the nurses.
She got quiet. I sat in the pink visitor’s chair and waited.
“Do you think I got cancer again?” she asked.
“What does your doctor say?”
“Nothing, He said it was tests.”
She got quiet again. “I got cancer again. That’s why I’m here. The medicine stuff is chemo.”
She started to cry. I held her hand.
“Can you go ask?” she said to me.
I went to the nurses’ station. I asked if someone could explain Hetty’s medical treatment to her. They arranged for a doctor to come in later.
I told her this. She shook her head. “It’s cancer. I know it. That’s why they got me here.”
“Yes, I think so.”
She covered her face and cried. Finally, she wiped her eyes and said. “I kept you a while. It’s a long drive home. My cousin will be in soon, really. I’ll be okay.” I said a prayer and left her.
She was transferred back to the local hospital. She slowly descended into more pain. Morphine didn’t help. The cancer was in her spine. Neighbours helped in the hospital, sitting with her, getting her comfortable, bringing her little treats as long as she could tolerate food. Her property had to be sold; she talked about the nursing home. She thought she would like it.
I sat a few spells with her. She liked to have me close when she was conscious, but that was getting rare. Her eyes would glaze as she lay half-reclining in the bed, propped with pillows. She would moan softly sometimes. She started talking to someone who wasn’t in the room. “What is she saying?” asked a caregiver who didn’t speak Danish.
“She’s talking to her mother. She’s saying, mother, help me, come get me.”
We looked at each other with troubled eyes, then back at the place by the window Hetty seemed to be addressing.
She died soon after that.
She had a good Anglican funeral, in the church.
I walked up the aisle ahead of the coffin, in my black cassock and white surplice.
“I am the resurrection and the life , saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth…”
Her cousin gave a eulogy. The lessons were read, I gave a sermon. We went out to the cemetery. She was laid next to her mother. “I’ve arranged for stones,” her cousin said. “For her, her mother, and her uncles. The family could never afford them. I can do that for her now. It’s the last thing we can give her.”
And so it is. The last good words to be spoken, the last gift, the hope of the resurrection.
“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”