By Sean Dempsey, 7/2/23
The Pastor awoke from a violent dream, and realized he could not move!
He desperately tried to will his legs out of bed. He begged his arms to raise from where they sat placidly against the bedsheets.
His body lay completely motionless; only his head would yield to his control.
Panic surged through him as he suspected he had become a paraplegic in the night. Somehow… He didn’t know how or why. But as the reality sunk in, he screamed for his wife…
Over the following days, the Pastor’s world collapsed in on itself. Unable to move a muscle, his lens shrunk to fill the size of his small bedroom. His reality was now contained to his bed, a small bedside table, a standing IV apparatus, a reading chair in the corner, and a few pictures on the wall—purchased, no doubt, from some Homegoods aisle or Walmart discount bin.
He soaked them all in. Details he once spent no time whatsoever in noticing he now obsessed over and drunk in like a thirsty man in the desert. The left side bed post by his feet had a scratch out of it he had never noticed prior. He had long deduced the wood was pine—oak seemed too unlikely to scratch in this way. The chair in the corner needed to be completely reupholstered. It was a damned ugly chair. He must ask his wife to replace it.
Months passed. Doctors and nurses came and went. Their conversations were a blur, and he eventually paid little attention to their administrations and gentle proddings. He lay on his bed and slept, and woke; he laid on his bed and ate through tubes, slept, then did it all again. Day after day. Night after night.
In fact, night and day made little difference to him. He had long ago told his wife to remove the ticking clock from their wall. It had almost drove him to madness in the first week alone. And he kept the lights on at all times, although to a setting akin to a muted dim.
His life now blended with the shading of his bedroom lighting.
His only exposure to the outside world came to him via whispers. Whispers outside his door, whispers in the dim daytime; whispers in the dim night… his world was now filled with haunting whispers.
Word of the Pastor’s condition had quickly spread throughout the close-knit community. Gossip filled the air, echoing through the walls of the church and seeping into the hearts of those who had once held him in high regard.
He felt their attention focused on him, and he heard them through his door. Through a closed door people always seem to think they can speak more loudly than they really should. But he heard everything.
Without the use of his bones or muscles, his senses seemed to amplify. He smelled smells more vigorously; he viewed lights brighter; and … he heard and perceived the muffled voices beyond his door.
“…but he no doubt held certain secrets…. some secret sin, I’d wager…?”
The whispers outside his door were there again. A conversation between his wife and some neighbor or congregant, no doubt. He silenced his mind so he could focus on every word.
“No doubt, Liz. No doubt, as I’ve said before; but for the life of me I don’t know what it was. He was a gentle man. He never once hit me. He never even raised his voice when mad. I’ve said before: he was, to a fault, the same man in church as he was at home. I highly doubt he had another lover; I’ve gone through his every correspondence and pried into the eyes of women at church seeking for a hint of jealousy or shame. But … I just don’t know. It is a strange thing. He has a cross to bear, for sure — the Lord alone knows his terrible sin. Oh darn, would you look at that; the paint here in this hallway, it too, is peeling again! … Well, yes, but he would always take care of that for us. C’est la vie. I will have to hire a handyman soon I suppose. Oh, do you think? Well, thank you. Yes, I may take you up on that. Yes, yes, I know it is starting to grow long. Quite embarrassing, really. I must have it mowed. The weather has been so nice lately, afterall, it is likely to grow faster. But, here, let’s move into the parlor so we don’t need to keep whispering…”
The days were long for the Pastor. He battled demons daily. Demons of boredom and monotony, mostly. He read. He prayed. But, more than that, he listened. Entire conversations came and went and he pieced them together over the dim seasons that passed slowly.
“Yes, the bed can come in here. I am so tired of that uncomfortable sofa downstairs. This will be a great improvement. My husband, well — of course you know. He’s just through there. No, no, he’s surely sleeping. Just keep your voice down to not disturb him. Oh, wow! Look at that big bed; it’s a beauty. It’s a long time coming, really. I, of course, can’t share that old, cramped and withered bed any longer. The medical equipment and all, well you know how it is. This plush one you’re installing is just the one I always wanted anyway. My biggest regret, of course, is having to move all my art supplies downstairs. Oh, you have no idea! Thank you for your sympathies. Yes, this has been such a trying affair. I thought I’d have this second bedroom for my studio forever. Now where shall I paint? It’s a travesty, really. In the kitchen like some pauper! It is really, truly a shame. Thank you! Yes, yes, that’s quite perfect. Here is a small tip for your troubles, sir. It’s windy outside; make sure you don’t forget to hold your hat…”
The Pastor’s family visited on occasion, their conversations usually tainted by self-centered worries. As they sat by his bedside one evening, their voices filled with concern. They lamented who would be responsible for seeing to the tax payments on their family’s summer cottage—as they did not have the funds between them to cover the annual bill in full. He, naturally, always handled these sundry details.
The Pastor put their minds to rest and said it would be handled. His mother commented absent-mindlessly how much his front grass had grown. It was getting unruly. She seemed embarrassed.
Months turned into years. The Pastor remained confined to his room, his spirit crushed beneath the weight of isolation and indifference.
He had not smiled in a long time, he realized one day. His heart was wilted. Perhaps like his lawn outside. This thought would normally have drawn a small smile to his lips, but today it caused a single tear to fall from his eye.
His wife opened the door and walked in suddenly. She looked at him and spoke, “Dearest, how are you today? Good, good. That’s good, sweetie. You look well.” He had not spoken a word but looked at her and moved his eyes around the room. The ugly chair still sat untouched. Un-upholstered, and worn and ragged as ever. “I’m going out today after church. It’s Sunday morning, you know? Well, perhaps you don’t; but it is and I’ll be going shopping with Liz and Teri later. It is raining just slightly today, so I shan’t be gone long. Balmy! I just hate balmy weather, don’t you agree? Would you like me to pick you up anything while I’m out?”
The Pastor shook is head and stared at the wall. The nearest Walmart picture frame read Live. Laugh. Love in a cursive font.
“Well, it won’t be a bother. I’ll pick you up something nice. In any event, I will pray for you this morning, as always. The whole church is still praying for your recovery each week. How it pains me to lie to them each time someone asks me how you’re doing or if your spirits are up. But I do; I grin and bear the shame. I smile, as that’s my responsibility, of course. The cross I bear is heavy. But I do it with my head held high. You wouldn’t know the plight of the fastidious wife, naturally. You wouldn’t understand how much pain I shoulder and how much it hurts to smile thin apologies and thank them for their well-wishes. But, alas, I’ll let you go. No doubt you have some more praying to do. I hope one day it will be enough. Oh, did you know I can barely bring myself to paint these days? The lighting is all wrong where I have erected my new drawing table downstairs. It is a dreadful thing to paint without the right light. Better not to paint at all than paint with bad lighting. Ah, sweetie… How you seem to look thinner and weaker each day. I keep forgetting how little you eat. You must keep your strength up. It is only right!”
She sat there at the foot of his bed, as if waiting for a reply. But it was a perfunctory pause, and she didn’t really wish the conversation to continue much longer anyway. She just sat there, breathing. Looking around the room and breathing in the languid, stuffy air.
Finally she stood up and turned to go. The Pastor spoke for the first time since she entered. His eyes finally looked into hers.
“I’ve been working on a sermon these past months. I would like to tell it to you now.”
“Honey, can it wait? I will be late to church…”
He started speaking anyway. He began:
“There once were two brothers. The elder grew up and became a man of God and followed the great commission — he shepherded his flock with love and lived frugally off their tithes and offerings; the younger brother toiled for his supper in the fields and worked with his hands all his days.
Living long lives, they died on the same day, as fate would have it. They met Saint Peter at the gates of heaven and he beckoned to them.
“Why should you pass? How did you discover the peace of God?” he asked them.
The Eldest Brother spoke with pride and proceeded to explain his lifelong devotion to the gospel and to preaching the word of the Lord and bringing many to know Christ. “I earned my place in heaven for following God’s commandments and for preaching His message. I treated others as I would prefer I be treated; I loved God above all else; I spoke to large crowds and spent my years tirelessly perfecting my sermons to best serve Him. I found the peace of God through my persistent work in His service.”
Peter nodded. He turned to the second brother and asked him the same question: “Why should you pass? How did you discover the peace of God?”
The Younger Brother was silent and gave no reply. He looked at his elder brother and smiled, then looked back at Saint Peter. Finally he responded, “I deserve no sanctuary here. I followed no commission; I preached to no crowds. I worked the fields with my hands. I planted seeds in the ground. I toiled for other men and made them rich and prosperous. I took nothing that was not mine, but I am no great man for this. I found no peace, except for when I did not seek it. I am most certainly undeserving of the wonders beyond this gate. Let my brother pass and I will accept my judgment.”
Saint Peter nodded. And then let the younger brother pass.”
The Pastor’s wife stared at her husband, blinking. She then asked in a slightly astonished tone, “But why? Why did the ungodly man get permitted and not the other? This goes against everything we know is right.”
The Pastor looked at her wistfully and then replied. “The Younger brother found what he did not seek. The Elder allowed the path itself to distract him from his destination. Diversions are completely inescapable; but they cannot become a substitute for life and Meaning itself.”
His wife shook her head and sighed slowly. “Sweetie, you should get some rest. I will be late to church! I’ll be home in a few hours as I said. Oh, and I nearly forgot: I have an altar boy coming over later to mow the lawn for us. You probably don’t know, but it’s gotten uncivilized.”
“My dear…” he said. She stopped and grabbed the door with her hand. She turned and looked at him. “My dear, please turn the lights off on your way out.”