We are happy to offer this Guest Blog, a story written by Bev. Brazier
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE HANDS
By Bev Brazier
Sandy sank into her favourite chair.
“What a day”
Slathering on her brand new ‘save it for a special day’ hand lotion, (pumpkin pie spice scented, perfect for the season) she inhaled noisily. The smell did its work, and her shoulders relaxed a bit. She reached for the remote, then changed her mind.
It had been a crazy day. Maybe scent and silence were best.
She sat back, pulled the afghan up around her shoulders, and reviewed the day.
There had been a funeral that afternoon. As the United Church minister in this little town, Sandy was often the person to whom people went when they needed someone. She was happy to be there for them, but it took a lot out of her. Every death in a small place was felt by everyone; it was never a matter of being there for only one family. The funeral reception, hosted by the church women, had taken all afternoon, and then she stayed to help clean up. There were just too few church members, and they’d all been up to their elbows in egg salad since early morning. Sandy was happy to do more than her share.
It was a tiny church, dying slowly. A few faithful members, ageing too quickly, could simply not keep it open much longer. Everyone knew that.
Sandy had moved there, eager to be their minister. At the beginning, she had believed the mission statement in their “find a new minster” package. “To reach out to the community in the name of Christ”. It was a lovely vision; both theirs and hers. In the end, thought, all anyone could see was their life, oozing slowly away. Her job? To hold their hands until they died.
She sighed. Her mind and heart had been down this rabbit hole many times. “Here we go again” she thought. Reaching for her coffee, she wrapped her hands around the mug, for warmth and for comfort, and let the loop begin.
It haunted her. It didn’t need to be this way. Palliative care – this is what they needed now. What had she done, or not done, to let it get to this?
There were more than enough people in the village to keep it open if they wanted to, but no one wanted to. That was the simple, painful truth. No one wanted to.
Martha, one of the last elders, had said it best at a meeting recently. She was 83 – strong, stubborn, and faithful. A farmer, who knew in her bones that when you get a bad crop one year, you wait. You plant again in the spring and trust that there will be a better crop that fall. That simple trust had kept her, and the others, doing the same thing year after year at that church. They kept on keeping on, hoping and trusting that the young people would return; that the tourists would find them; that there would be a revival of interest in things of the spirit.
And when the revival happened, as it always does, it came neither to them nor to the church.
They felt betrayed. And sad. And guilty. And just plain tired. “We’re the last ones.” Martha said, her voice sounding old, almost feathered, for the first time. |Her arthritic hand shook a little as she reached for the teapot. How many apple pies had those hands made? Apple and pumpkin and the thick creamy rhubarb custard….all for the fall suppers that had kept that church afloat. Sandy felt a pang of almost unbearable sadness. Martha sipped her tea, set it down a bit too hard. “ The history books will say we’re the ones who let it die.”
The books would also say, Sandy knew, that there had been a time when it might have been different. An opportunity, a window. Years long, to tell the truth. A moment in time when they might have turned outward, hands reaching to the community, open to a possibility. They could have begun looking at things from upside down, or at least another angle. Caught the movement of the Spirit for a new time; found a new way of being the hands and feet of Christ for a community desperate for hope and meaning. But that moment had long passed, and after a few years of trying to pump stale blood into a dying body, the tired members had accepted what had become inevitable.
Sandy sighed again, shook it off. It went round and round, did this loop, and she needed to think clearly now.
After the funeral this afternoon she had stayed at the church, catching up on some paperwork. A knock at the door startled her. No one knocked around here. A woman and a little girl, vaguely familiar. Ah! The new family that had moved into the old Johnson house on the 3rd range. Sandy turned up her inner thermostat. “Hi! Come on in – you must be freezing. No one knocks around here – just come in. I’m Sandy”
The mom took one last drag on her cigarette, threw it on the ground and, breathing the smoke out through nostrils that had clearly breathed out smoke before, ground it out with the toe of her scuffed sneaker. The little girl, perhaps 6, kept her eyes down. They were holding hands, but not in a comforting way. The mother sort of dragged her inside.
“Would you like to come into the office? It’s a bit of a mess but I can make tea.”
They did. Sandy put the kettle on.
The little one looked up.
“I seen you at the school” She said, finally. Like an accusation. She bit her nails and waited for Sandy to defend herself.
“Yes, I was there last week for the assembly. You’re in Miss Wright’s class? I loved the song you sang.”
The kettle whistled. The tea was made. Lots of sugar and milk for the little one, black for the mother. Milk for Sandy. There was a jar of candy corn on Sandy’s desk. The mom said it was ok – “but only a few”. Names exchanged. Sandy. Marcy, the mom. The little girl was Rhoda. It didn’t suit her at all. Honestly, who names a child Rhoda? Maybe it had been her grandmother? The silence went on.
“Are you some kind of priest?” That was Marcy.
Unbidden, a response Sandy kept to herself “Yup, I’m some kind of priest!” What came out instead was
“I’m the United Church minister here in town. That’s like a priest. Is it a priest you want? Father Cloutier lives in the city, but he comes here on Saturday nights. Would you like me to get in touch with him for you?”
“I just want someone to get rid of a ghost. Can you do that?”
Not the most theological response. Sandy tried again.
Ok she was going to have to do better than that.
“I’m not sure. Can you tell me more about it?”
Carl Rogers would be so proud.
Slowly the story came out. Rhoda had missed her bus after school at the beginning of the week. The second bus was going to be a half an hour. She had gone exploring and ended up in the graveyard next to the school grounds. She saw a little girl there, walking on her hands. She’s gone every day since, waiting for the second bus, going to the graveyard. Every day she sees the same girl, walking on her hands and smiling.
That was it.
It was a ghost, clearly, her mother said, and by the time Rhoda had told her about it, it had been three days.
“I freaked” Marcy said. “I know all about ghosts and I don’t want them around. I told Rhoda there’s no damn way – sorry Father – no darn way I want you in that graveyard ever again. Now Rhoda’s trying to walk on her hands all the time and the teacher says she’s sneaking into the graveyard at noon hour – YES, young lady, she told me – and don’t go telling me different Rhoda Elizabeth or I’ll smack you so hard – and….I just don’t know what to do”
Her hands instinctively fumbled for her cigarettes – she caught herself, stuffed her hands into her jacket pockets and began to cry.
Rhoda stared – eyes round and wonder-filled, – as if she were seeing a…well, you know. Clearly she had not seen her mother cry before. Her little hands reached out and touched her arm. Marcy sniffed, sniffed again. Sandy found the kleenex (never far from reach in a minister’s office). Marcy used three.
She stuffed them in her pockets, and a clean one for good measure, then reached out for Rhoda’s hand.
Slowly, Sandy got the story from Rhoda’s side. Yes, she had gone to the graveyard. No, she didn’t miss the bus on purpose that first time. She was watching the big girls shoot baskets. She wanted to play basketball some day. The uniforms were way cool. Yes, she saw the girl walking on her hands. No the girl didn’t say anything. She just smiled. No, she was not afraid. No, she didn’t want to stop going. It felt good. No she had not seen anyone walking on their hands in a book. No she was not imagining it. All the ghosts in movies and books walked on their feet , moaning, with their hands out in front of them….she liked this way better. The little girl seemed happy. Her feet were bare. She thought she might take her some socks because it was getting cold, but her mom –
here she looked sideways at Marcy, accusatory once more – her mom said no.
The conversation had gone on a bit, but the gist of it was that they’d meet again next week. Rhoda promised not to go to the graveyard until then. Sandy asked permission to go there with her, just the two of them. She and Marcy would have a Rhoda-free coffee before that happened. She had a feeling that the most troublesome ghosts in this situation were haunting Marcy.
“There are lots of things I don’t know” Sandy said….. “but I know this for sure. God loves all of us. When we are living, and afterwards too. God’s love is the strongest thing in the whole universe and nothing can take it away. The Bible says ‘when we are living, we belong to God. When we are dying, we belong to God. So, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.’ I love that.
I’m glad you came, I’m sorry I don’t have all the answers you wanted. I wish I knew but I don’t.
But you know one thing I know for sure? I like you both, and I think we can work it out together – what do you think?”
They shook hands, rather formally, Sandy thought. But a connection had been made. Flesh to flesh. And, always unseparable from it, spirit to spirit. (and perhaps, she thought, looking toward the graveyard, to spirit) – and certainly to Spirit.
As the old blue pick up drove away Sandy prayed for them: for Marcy, for Rhoda, for the as-yet-untalked-about-but-hovering-around-husband, and finally, for the little girl in the graveyard. Whether she lived only in Rhoda’s imagination or not.
Whatever was ahead for this little church the hands of the Risen Christ would never stop reaching out.
Not some pitiful movie zombie – but in the flesh and blood hands of those who simply touched one another for comfort or to ease pain or to say “you’re not alone”.
Not in rigid, disembodied truths that frighten and turn people away but in kleenex and tea and hug and handshake
People who are not afraid to hang around the intersection between life and death, heaven and earth, seeing what there is to be done to put an end to fear.
Sandy looked down – her coffee was gone. She didn’t even remember drinking it. She held her scented hands to her face – inhaled the spicy aroma. Not grave spices, not today. These anointed hands newly strengthened for service.
Across the road, in the graveyard,
a little girl walked on her hands and smiled.
My hope is that Bev will have published a book of her United Church stories. I heard another of her short stories a number of years ago at Tata Centre and have never forgotten it. Thank you for this story, as well!