They ate breakfast at the island in silence. Each bite was just as refreshing as the one before it, and he relished each food product she had stashed on his plate. The bacon and pancakes were what he could smell when he walked in, but they were far from being everything that she had cooked. There were eggs, corn beef hash, and a hefty tray of sausages as well. The granite countertop was covered in calorie-stuffed edibles. But hey, with children, it wasn’t often that they got the opportunity to gorge. They had both resigned themselves to maintaining a healthy household, which was why they exercised together, had Carl playing little league baseball, Emily playing recreational volleyball, and kept the place stocked with a majority of good-for-you food.
One other thing they were lucky to get within the year was time to themselves, the reason for Jenna’s surprising him with the information that she had called the animal clinic and requested the day off. She smiled at him as she ate as if she were teasing him.
As soon as they were finished, they didn’t even clean up the kitchen. Instead, they headed right to one of the sofas in the living room for some quality time. An hour or so later, they just lay there on top of each other, holding each other’s hands and talking. The conversation was a lot about the afternoon, when he would take their daughter out to get her gift. Then, they headed upstairs, spent another two hours in bed, and showered together. When done, they went their separate ways.
Though she did not have to work, a writer’s job was never done. He went to the study to see if he could tackle another few pages on his next novel. He stared at the blank page to chapter five, listening to the ruckus in the kitchen where she was taking care of what they hadn’t earlier when they were too preoccupied with themselves. He’d been working on this story for a while. It was one of his favorites, and he’d fallen in love with the idea as soon as it hit him. The book was titled Tears Unseen, and it was about a Christian family that is befriended by a man from their church who is faking his beliefs. In reality, he is a psychopathic serial killer who is using the church as his hunting ground. Soon, they find that they are being stalked by the man and the father will stop at nothing to protect his family. It would be a bestselling smash once it was finished.
But he’d been having a small case of writer’s block lately. He managed to get a few sentences down on the page before he couldn’t think. To help, he took a break and went to the kitchen for some more coffee.
Jenna was coming down the stairs when he passed. She was dressed in the clothes she would be wearing at the hospital later that evening.
“I’m going to do some gardening,” she said. She walked over and gave him a long kiss. “Stay out of trouble.”
He smiled. “Who me?”
She slapped his arm. “I mean it. I have a hard enough time with the kids, mister.”
“Of course, dear.”
He watched her as she opened the sliding glass door and stepped outside. The air that came through was warm and yet, also pleasant, the sour scent of grass riding upon it. He traveled over there after getting his coffee to watch her while she trimmed the bushes and watered and fertilized her flowers. There were several seed pouches on the ground behind her. Once she was done with the preliminaries, planting those would take her a while. But if there was one woman who could do hours and hours of gardening and never get bored, it was his Jenna.
He turned to the study and headed across the room to the desk. It was a corner desk. His MacBook Pro rested in the center next to the wireless mouse, the page he had been working on still alight on the screen. On his way, he stopped to peruse the shelves of books that lined the rest of the space. He was always into research, and if a friend or family member ever gave him a book on any known subject, he was going to read it eventually. Until then, he stored them in the study, and being of the orderly sort, he organized all the subjects in alphabetical order. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he organized each book within each subject in alphabetical order, and he always made sure they stayed that way. They all ranged from architecture, botany, cosmetics, and criminal justice to medicine, psychology, therapy, and virology. He even had a few books on zoology at the bottom. Anything that was fiction he separated to two bookshelves to the right of the desk, including copies of his own published novels. The books he was particularly fond of were the ones on religion and psychology.
To any other human, it may have seemed a lot to handle, but thankfully he had one talent that made it all possible: He could read extremely fast. Ever since he was first able to read, he could read a book the size of a textbook within two to three days, and novels he could finish in a day regardless of their size. He would often hole up in his room with a few books and not come out for hours. And he would retain all of the information he read. His parents were always baffled by this, and it may have been one of the only reasons his father hadn’t pushed him to sign up to become a Marine; he saw his son’s potential. But he also believed every man should make his own choices, and that helped as well.
He sat down in front of the computer, placing the coffee on a cup holder beside the mouse. He took another look at the page and sighed. No words would come. He was at a point when the serial killer was in his lair, and the reader would get the first glimpse of his kill history: thousands upon thousands of photos of all his victims he had taken after he had tortured, murdered, and mutilated them. He was the kind that would hold onto the past so that he could relive his so-called glory. But the man who was making his fictional world could think of nothing else.
For some reason, his mind went to his conversation with Dave. I know you’ve been struggling, he’d said. How, how, how? How did he know? God was a talker, or so he’d been told, but if that were the case, he hadn’t been hearing much from God lately. Life just went on, and he faced his problems like a man: with some hard work. He went through the motions for his family’s sake, but he wasn’t as connected as he’d once been. Jesus mattered more than anything a few years ago, but everything was perfect now. Why should he continue with the whole Jesus thing if everything was as it should be?
It was then, with that last thought, that he noticed his large black NIV Bible behind the laptop. It was there because, though he wasn’t as into his faith as he had been before, he still used the bible to research information for his novels. But right now, he wasn’t sure why it had caught his attention. He tried to ignore it, but something kept nagging him at the back of his mind. To do what, he didn’t know.
Instinctively – at least, that’s the way it seemed at the time – he reached for it. Once it was in his hand, he brought it to him and studied the paperback cover. Unlike Dave’s, his had not been used all that much, so the front looked brand new. The golden-etched letters of HOLY BIBLE were not faded; he could read it clear as day.
Alright, Lord, he thought. I’ll give it a shot. Show me something good.
He pulled the pages to the side releasing them in a blurry frenzy, reminiscent of a rolodex. Not looking at where he was, he stopped and opened it. He found himself reading Romans chapter 8. It was boring at first, but then he saw something that caught his interest:
5. Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds on what the Spirit desires. 6. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God…. 17. Now if we are children, we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
He was almost blown away at what he read. It was a direct answer to the question he had just raised. Why did he need Christ? By suffering he would share in his glory. But why suffering? Suffering sucked. No one should have to suffer. But Jesus sacrificed himself for you, he thought. That wasn’t the same, though. Or was it?
He shook his head. He was so confused. He had everything. Why did he have to keep up with God?
Unbeknownst to him, the Bible, now in his lap, began spinning to another place. When he looked down, he saw that it had stopped at chapter 10 of Mark. The title read: THE RICH AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD. Interested, he continued on to read:
17. As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”…21. Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
He’d read this passage a million times it seemed. Every time, he shunned the rich man who, being so caught up in his wealth, left Christ and gave up the eternal life he’d sought for so hard. Instead of following the Son of God and sharing his glory, he returned to his fortune as if it were–
Then, it dawned on him. He was the rich man. But how? He still went to church. He still put in the time to worship God. He still devoted himself to tithing. Whenever a service project arose, he was there to help out. His life was all for God. And in return, God had rewarded him with a beautiful family, a huge house in a wonderful neighborhood, and so much more. What else was needed? He was fine. There was no reason he should stop living as he was.
He went to close the book when he noticed that it was no longer in Mark. It had somehow jumped to the first chapter of James. He glanced over the text. This one was interesting, but he had no clue how it pertained to himself…not yet, anyway. It read:
2. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of many kinds, 3. because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything…. 9. Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position…. 12. Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
It made no sense. His life was perfect right now.
He slapped it shut, threw it back where it had been, and closed his eyes. All he could see was nothing, and that felt good. If only all the worries of life could just go away, all stress vanishing from the human race. Complete and total peace to take its place. Yeah. That sounded like a true blessing.
He turned off the computer and left the room. Nothing was going to come. If it were late in his career, he might’ve thought about giving up the profession. But he just needed to relax some more, maybe spend the day at a theme park and have some fun or something.
He went outside to help Jenna with the gardening.
They all gathered around the bed as the doctors began the process of lifting Emily from her drug-induced coma. She still looked so placid in her slumber that he was half inspired to stop them and let her die so that she didn’t have to suffer. But he needed her. She was his only daughter, his pride and joy. His heart wouldn’t be able to go on without her.
So he let them work. There were a few sputters from the monitor her IV was hooked to. He would’ve taken it as a bad sign, but then the doctor they had spoken to earlier injected some sort of serum into the tube and let it slowly drain into her system. Anxiety was building in all of them as they awaited results. Done with his tasks, the doctor just stood by the bed, joining them in their gawking.
They waited for what seemed like hours, but then her right arm moved a bit. He saw it in his periphery, but his eyes were glued to her face. He wanted those eyelids to pop open and for her to show all the professionals in the room that they were wrong; she still had all her memory. But they remained shut.
“Is it working?” he asked.
“Patience, Mr. Love,” he said. “These things take time.”
He would’ve loved to have patience, but that was one thing he had thrown away long ago. In any other circumstances he would’ve gladly waited, but this was his baby girl. He wanted to see results, now.
“Maybe you did it wrong.”
“Mr. Love, I have been doing this for thirty-seven years. This is not my first rodeo.”
“Everyone makes mistakes.”
“We are merely bringing her out of a coma. There is hardly anything that could go wrong. I took all the necessary precautions. Everything will be fine.”
Jenna touched his shoulder. “Honey, calm down. It’s alright.”
“Look,” Carl said.
They both turned to see her waking. It was slow, but she was coming out.
“Baby?” Jenna said.
The doctor held up his hand. “Give her a little bit to come to.”
Her eyes peeled open about as well as orange rinds. Stuck together by grimy yellow sleep, it was like trying to pry a steel-barricaded door from its hinges. He knew this because, like everyone, he’d had those mornings similar to this where sleep just didn’t want to leave. It clung to him and kept him confined to the bed for longer than he had intended. Like death, once it caught, it never wanted to let go.
Before he knew it, she was staring at them, though the eyelids were only half open. Little slits of darkness, he could barely make out the pupils behind them. But they were open; that’s what mattered.
She moved her arm and began pointing to a cup of water that rested on a tray beside the bed. A nurse near it picked it up, brought it to her, and aimed the bendy straw toward her mouth. She took a long gulp and then waved the woman away. Then, she took a deep breath and relaxed.
“Hey, angel,” Jenna said.
The white balls behind those slits shifted to her.
“How do you feel?”
“Where am I?” she asked.
He wanted to jump for joy and run laps around the room. The sound of her voice was like the sweetest honey a man could ever taste. But he refrained from doing so because there was still one thing they had yet to find out.
“You’re in the hospital,” the doctor said. “You were the victim of quite an accident.”
She heard him, but she didn’t respond. Then she looked to him as if she finally realized he was referring to her.
“Is that my name?” she said.
His heart, beating like crazy already, felt like it had broken free of its bonds and dropped a hundred yards to have a hugging fest with his intestines. He could feel his face starting to burn.
There it was. She didn’t even know her name.
“Yes, pumpkin.” Then he had to ask the question he had hoped would never arise. “Do you know who we are, Em?”
She examined them blankly, taking only a few seconds but each one of them cloaked in the illusion of minutes, hours, days. Time couldn’t actually slow – that was, of course, impossible – but in the worst periods of life, one could almost believe it did.
Then: “No. I’m sorry.”
Sweat poured from his face. He turned around and, placing his hand on the wall, exhaled harshly.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Jenna was the one to answer. “I am your mother, he’s your father, and this” – pointing to Carl – “is your brother.”
A tear rolled down Emily’s cheek. She looked to her grandparents. “And who are they?”
“That’s Grandma and Grandpa. They wanted to be here when you woke up.”
She began to cry. Marty had turned around and witnessed her anguish. His whole body was beginning to ache at the sight. “Why can’t I remember you?”
Saddened and angry, he marched out of the room and pounded the wall with his fist. His blood was boiling. Everything that had once been wonderful was now crushed and ground into fine powder. And God was at the center allowing it all to happen. Why, God? he thought. What have I done wrong? What do you want from me? I accepted your Son. I gave my life to you. What more do you want?
The hospital staff was still hard at work. He couldn’t see it, but he knew that there was a world outside that continued its operations. Even that evil little bean-stuffed cat gazed at him from the desk with its cruel smirk. Everyone could still live at peace, except him. He couldn’t even be remembered by his own daughter!
He whipped around so quickly that the old doctor looked as if he’d nearly crapped his pants. And that might’ve been the right reaction to have. Marty grabbed him by the collar and pinned him against the edge of the doorframe.
“Why?” he said.
“Mr. Love, I know you’re upset–”
“Really?! Do you?! ‘Cause I don’t think you do!”
“Please, calm down.”
“I warned you this–”
“Why is this happening?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Jenna came out. “Marty!”
He saw the concern on her face. Looking back to the doctor, he began to slacken his grip, hardly remembering how he had ended up holding the man against the wall. He felt like he had been in a drunken trance.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what got into me.”
“It’s okay. We’re all under stress right now.”
He shook his head, fingers caressing his eyes. “What now?”
“I don’t know. It’s obviously not good that she can’t remember anyone, or her own name for that matter, but it appears that she has retained all the knowledge she gained before the accident, meaning anything that she learned in school or from you or just from personal experience is still there. All that was lost was specific memories.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because she was thinking. She wouldn’t be able to have thought if she had lost all knowledge.”
He sighed. “So what do we do?”
“Well, the best thing right now is to keep it together and spend time with her. The more you’re there talking with her and answering her questions, the better the chances are of her re-gathering her memories. What she needs most is care, and that’s what we are here for. Once her skin has completely regrown, we can move her into therapy and proceed from there.”
“Are there any other options?”
The doctor looked grim. “I’m afraid not. Sorry.”
With that, he crossed to the counter, talked with the nurse who politely handed him a clipboard, and then ambled down the corridor to check on the rest of his patients.
Marty was beyond the point of stress. His back stung as if two hundred pounds of weight had been dumped on it, like a weightlifter whose eyes had been bigger than his strength.
Jenna approached him and took his face in her hands. “Be strong,” she said. “For me and for your daughter. Please.”
Then, she kissed him. The warmth of her smooth lips was more than soothing, enough so to make him forget where he was and what had had him so distraught. If only it could be this way all the time. No worries, no nothing. Just the plump, loving arms of peace to hold him and let him know that it would be alright, everything would be fine.
But just as soon as it started, it left. She released and met his eyes. She lingered for a second and then went back into the room.
He did not follow. He wasn’t ready.
Gardening didn’t go as well as his wife had planned. Rain off the coast made its way inland just as they were getting ready to open a bag of petunia seeds. In an effort to avoid the onslaught, they threw the pouch into the wheelbarrow and sprinted for the house. Unfortunately, they were not fast enough, and by the time they had arrived, they were soaked to the bone.
Finding the moment hysterical, they laughed at each other. It was stupid, they knew, but what was life if one couldn’t take time to enjoy the little things, disregarding their status?
Without towels there was no way to dry off before venturing indoors, so instead, they stripped of all their clothes and went in with them slung frantically about their bare bodies and piled within their arms. They made the hike to the second floor and changed into something more comfortable. Jenna was finished before he was – which was actually shocking for a change – so she hurried back down to the kitchen to start a kettle of tea.
He fell to the bed. Life was good. God had blessed him with everything.
As he sat up, a picture of his family at Islands of Adventure, one of Orlando, Florida’s best attractions, sitting on the nightstand drew his attention. They stood in front of The Hulk, his favorite roller coaster in the entire U.S. He smiled and did his best to stifle a laugh at the sight of his daughter, eleven at the time. If there was one food item his Emily couldn’t resist it was corndogs. She’d asked for one before they’d arrived at the ride and decided to take the picture, scarfing it down as if there were the chance it would retaliate if she was lax to finish it off. The aftermath of her battle, a scarlet ketchup stain on her right cheek, was present in the photo. It looked like she had accidently smeared her make-up (she was going through that stage where a girl’s looks are never good enough, at least in her own mind) before they had left the hotel that morning.
“What happened?” came his wife’s voice. “Forget how to dress yourself?”
He chuckled. “Why? You gonna come help me?”
He heard her laugh. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
He went to his dresser and dug out the rest of his clothes. When done, he ran downstairs to be met by the smell of a glass of hot, sweetened tea. She always kept the oven set to HIGH when she was making anything in the kettle, even when it was just water, so that it would be nice and hot in a matter of minutes. He joined her at the island, slipping two fingers into the ring on his coffee cup. He blew over the top of it to cool it off some and then took a swig. Jenna was watching him.
“What?” he said.
“Wanna take this out to the patio? I think it would be nice to watch the rain.”
He agreed and followed her out to the reclining deckchairs. They set their drinks onto the glass table between them. Observing the downpour, he saw that the grass was already filled with muddy rivers and puddles. An insect’s waterpark, he’d always called it. The wooden privacy fence had turned a darker shade, the bright blue of the pool was starting to fade, and all the bushes circling the yard slouched beneath the weight of the water. Even the flowers were bent forward a ways. It was the hardest shower L.A. had had in a long time. All because Mr. Nicholas mowed his lawn today, he thought, with a smile.
He looked to his wife. She was hypnotized by the waterfall before her. He loved when she was like this because there was that glistening spark in her eyes that said, “Life is good. I’m so happy.” She had a glowing smile on her face, much like the one she’d had when he’d first talked to her at the concessions stand that day. Twenty-two years together, and she was still the same woman he had first met, aside from a bit of aging. There were stretch marks at the corners of her eye sockets, wrinkles beneath them and also above her brow, and she often struggled with dry skin. But aside from that, she was the same energetic, fun-loving girl he had fallen for. She still had that cute batch of freckles on the tip of her nose. Even covered in the folds of his old FSU t-shirt – a men’s Large which was far too big on her, someone who wore women’s Small – he was having trouble fighting the urge to just eat her up.
A muffled hum came through the open door. It had traveled from the direction of the garage, which could be entered through a door between the kitchen and the stairs. That was where they kept all his tools (he had a hobby of auto mechanics), his wife’s Honda, and the washer and dryer. It didn’t take him long to figure out that it was the dryer.
“Do you know the dryer’s running?”
She turned to him. “Of course, genius. I started it.”
“For what? You and I finished up the laundry yesterday.”
“For our wet clothes, silly. If and/or when this clears up, I’m going back out to do some more gardening.” As it turned out, later she would get her wish.
He was stunned. He hadn’t even seen her escape from the bedroom with his clothes. What else had he missed?
“It’s so beautiful,” she said, once more clutched by the storm. “If all humanity had to do was admire the amazing creations of God that would be just…awesome.”
“Yeah.” He wasn’t as taken by the sight as she was, but it was beautiful.
“I wonder if every woman has ever thought that way before.”
He kept silent, though he was thinking that some probably had, without giving the credit to God, of course, because God and the world were not the best of friends.
She grabbed her glass and brought it to her lips. Surprising Marty, she guzzled down half the tea.
“Since when can you do that?”
She smiled. “I’ve had practiced, Mr. Love. I wasn’t going to let you show me up.”
“So what did Dave want to talk about?”
There it was. He knew she wouldn’t be able to fight it for long. She always had that side to her that harbored shiploads of curiosity. The subject of his conversation with Dave had probably been gnawing at her the entire time.
“Where to start?” he said.
“The beginning, preferably,” she voiced, sarcastically.
He gave her the “very funny” look. “Thank you, dear.”
“Don’t mention it.”
He pulled out the card and set it on the table. He’d had it in his other clothes but had taken it out before he’d changed. Now, he slid it to her.
She picked it up and scrutinized it. “What’s this?”
“An invitation to a bible study at his house. Apparently I’ve been struggling.”
“You have? With what?”
“I’m not exactly sure. But I have. And Dave knew.”
“He said that God had told Him and had influenced him to pray for me.”
“I believe it.”
He looked at her. He had been watching a squirrel scamper across the top of the fence to find cover from the storm, but his wife’s response had caught him off guard. “Really?”
“Of course. What’s the point of having this faith if you aren’t going to believe in it?”
He couldn’t argue. She had him there. But it wasn’t that he didn’t believe. He knew Christ was there and that He was alive, and he had accepted Him because he knew that he needed Him in order to have true life. And God had already rewarded him for that, so what more was there?
“So, are you gonna go?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Depends on how I’m feeling when the time comes.”
She laughed. “If only it were that simple. Could you imagine leaving life to your feelings? I always used to think about that when I was little. I mean, I even thought about it so much that I decided to test it out one day.”
He wasn’t expecting this, but he found it interesting. “How’d it go?”
She was now staring off into the distance, much like Dave had done earlier. “Well, in order to leave life up to my feelings, I had to take it back from God. So, it didn’t go as well as one would’ve hoped. Don’t get me wrong, it was alright at first. I got up in the morning and felt like eating waffles, so I did. I’d toasted them before, so it wasn’t my first attempt. And my mother was fine with it. From there, though, it got crazy. I went to school and didn’t feel like doing my work. Instead, I sat there in class and nodded off, missing the lessons that day and getting yelled at by Mrs. Bakerley. Lastly, when we went out to recess (this was second grade, I think), one of the more popular girls got on my nerves, and since I was acting on my feelings, I put my anger into action, hanging her from the monkey bars by her ponytails.”
He chuckled, wide-eyed. “How did you even get her up there?”
She grinned. “I don’t remember, but it was funny. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. It was shortly after that that I was sitting in Principal Dixon’s office with my legs crossed watching my mother hear about my misdeeds. I had never seen her so hurt before. There was a fire in her eyes that spoke of the incredible disappointment she was feeling. I had known immediately that what I had done was very, very bad. After receiving my punishment, I went straight home and gave the keys back to God. I never ever wanted to go through that again.”
He remained silent. His wife was not one who was quick to anger, so this was something that was hard for him to picture. But there were always times in childhood when lessons had to be learned. He hoped that had been what she was trying to point out because, to him, her story had seemed pretty random.
She was still gazing into the distance when he finally spoke up.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said.
She turned to him. “The point is that God surpasses all. If we were all stupid enough to follow our feelings, we would miss out on the miracle of His grace and mercy and love. He is freedom, and giving Him control is not limiting ourselves to anything but, rather, opening ourselves up to everything. All things are possible through God, and if the world would realize that, I think it would become a much better place. And if you were smart, Marty, you would go to this study, regardless of your feelings.”
It was then that they heard the front door opening. “I’ll consider it,” he said, as he kissed her and headed inside.
Emily was standing on the small carpet at the threshold that said WELCOME on it. Her white, glittered blouse and purple skirt were sopping wet, no longer puffy and bouncing because of the water. They hung limp as if the life had been sucked out of them. And her beautifully braided hair was matted to her head, which he always thought was the cutest thing in the world.
“Hello, Daddy,” she said.
“Hey, pumpkin. You’re home early.”
“Half day, remember?”
He’d totally forgotten. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Are we still going, though?”
He smiled. “Of course. Go change, and I’ll be waiting when you get done.”
She screeched in joy, and bolted up the stairs. The next thing he heard was rustling coming from her room.
He smiled. It was going to be a good day.
He followed the doctor’s advice. He sat in the room with her and his family for another hour or so answering her questions and explaining what her life had been like to this point. Emily took it all in and only cried a couple times. She had a strong heart and always would. That made him proud.
Toward the end, she seemed groggy. Sleep was imminent, so he had the rest of the family step outside and waited while she reentered the land of dreams. He took a look at Carl and noticed that he was also tired. He asked Jenna to take him back home to rest. She fought him, of course, but after a while he was able to convince her to leave. He also persuaded his parents to go, promising them that he would watch over their granddaughter.
Now, he sat in the chair beside his daughter’s bed caressing her unbroken hand. It was quiet and lonely, but he didn’t mind. It wasn’t until now that he began to realize how tired he really was, though. His eyelids became heavy and he wrestled with them to stay awake. It was exhaustion like he’d never seen. He began to experience the sensation where every noise, never mind its frequency, became audible. The tick-tock of the clock overhead sounded like drumbeats, the rolling of food carts became rockslides, and the prattling of hospital goers tarrying about outside the room became the ceaseless buzzing of swarming flies. To go along, every smell increased, whether they were pleasant scents or wretched odors. But the one he hated most was the nose-wrinkling smell of that pathetic rose. It made him cringe. Earlier, had it been any other occasion, he may have appreciated the smell. But with what had transpired, it was agonizing and caused him a migraine.
He was about to pass out when knocking at the door brought him back.
With effort, he turned his head to see Dave standing in the doorway. He sat upright with the speed of light, shocked by the sight. Why was he here? He was supposed to be hosting the bible study?
It seemed the man had on his Sunday best. The tan sports coat and red tie combination reminded him of baseball commentators (“It’s high to the sky! It may just have the distance! It’s going and going! It’s outta here!”). He wasn’t one who usually fancied long sleeves, but he had to admit that Dave was made for them. The matching dress pants added to the image, making him far too spiffy for this place. It was sure to be the one other outfit that didn’t agree with him, besides his wife’s gardening wear.
That same tattered brown bible was in his hand, the purple bookmark slithering out beneath the pages. There was something new, though: sticky notes with writing he couldn’t make out were stuck in different spots throughout the book. What were those for?
His neighbor looked grim. He shifted his eyes to Emily, and Marty was able to catch a glimpse of water just shy of spilling over the lids. His face had new wrinkles under his cheekbones, signifying stress. What had Dave so weighed down, he wanted to know. This was a man who lived for hardship because he found it to be God’s will, His way of strengthening one’s faith. Yet right now, he did not appear too thrilled with the burden he was bearing.
“How is she?” the man asked.
Marty shook his head. “We don’t know. She may or may not regain her memory.”
Dave sighed and took the seat beside him. He placed a hand on Marty’s shoulder. “How are you?”
He hadn’t even thought about that. He’d been so focused on Emily that there was no reason for him to be concerned about himself. She was all that mattered. It wasn’t fair for her to be bedridden like this, unable to do what a girl her age is meant to do: live. And though he didn’t want to, he couldn’t help but blame God. That’s where the frustration went. He was the cause. He made it happen.
“I don’t really know, Dave. I wish I did. This is the first time I’ve ever been through anything like this.”
“It’s hard. I know.”
Emily began to move, so they brought the conversation to the hallway. The two chairs beside the door had been well used, but they were now going to get some more action.
Marty sat in the first chair and watched the nurses work on. One stood by the copy machine beating it over and over as if brute force would make it cooperate. He was surprised when Dave trotted over and offered to help. Soon, he was digging around in the contraption until he had the paper realigned with the feeder. Such a simple fix, yet it had stumped the poor nurse. She thanked Dave, and he assured her that it was no problem before walking over and plopping himself in the other chair. That was Dave, someone ever so resembling the Good Samaritan.
“So, why are you here?” he asked.
Dave repeatedly pulled the pages down on his bible and let them fly, much like he had done with his own bible earlier in the day. “I heard the news through the grapevine, and I was led to come.”
He grabbed handfuls of his hair and exhaled loudly. “There you go again with the whole being led thing. What about the bible study?”
“Like I said, Marty, I felt I needed to be here.”
He kept silent.
“The Bible tells us to ‘mourn with those who mourn’. Romans 12:15. And I figured, who better to mourn with than someone who is not too right with Christ?”
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Dave was referring to him. He didn’t know why this upset him, but it did. What could he possibly be doing wrong?
“Thanks, but no thanks,” he said.
Dave became solemn. “What’s keeping you, Marty?”
“What do you mean?”
“In the midst of tragedy, you are so down that you look like you’re just about ready to give up on everything. You’ve heard time and time again that God is the way to fix that, yet you constantly run from Him.”
“If I knew why this was happening, maybe I wouldn’t be so reluctant to turn to Him. But the problem is, He’s the reason why all this is happening!”
Dave’s head twisted from side to side. “I’m disappointed to hear that, neighbor.”
“Oh, please, Dave. It’s not like you know what I’m going through.”
A tear slipped down the man’s cheek. “To the contrary,” he said, “I do.”
“Don’t give me all that crap that ‘God told you’.”
“Then, how do you know?!”
“My daughter died of cancer!”
Marty was speechless. What…? When…? She was such a nice girl. How was this possible?
Dave was shaking his head. “No, my other daughter.”
“What daughter? I thought Michael and Angie were your only children.”
His neighbor sighed. “They are…from my second marriage.”
“What are you talking about?” Marty had no clue. He’d been friends with Dave for over five years, and the man had never told him of a previous marriage. This was the burden Dave had been carrying with him. Emily reminded him of his own daughter who had passed away. Seeing her in that bed brought back the pain and anguish that he had already suffered through once.
His neighbor – no, his friend – stared off into the distance, something that had been going around a lot lately. “Her name was Carly. She was only four, but she was a fighter. Never in her short life had she ever let anyone give her any crap. ‘If they could give it, they would take it’ seemed to be her motto. There was one day in preschool when she had literally broken an older boy’s arm.” He laughed at this. “I always thought the world of her, but now I realize that I should’ve been more a father and less a friend.”
“How did it happen?” Marty asked.
“We never knew. You know how cancer is: It just shows up without reason and without warning. The thing is, though, I was much like you at the time. I wanted to blame everything on God, every single dang thing. At last, something had caught up to her that she couldn’t fight off, and I was so mad, furious. There was one point where my face actually turned red, and I felt as if my blood had been replaced with boiling water. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. But it was happening, all the same. Nothing I did would make time rewind. Nothing I tried would ever give me back the years I’d had with her. It had come to an end all too quickly.
“The worst part was that, when she passed away, I thought I was going to die. But my wife took care of that for me.”
Marty felt a knot rising in his throat. This was terrible.
“She wasn’t Saved like I was. The pain became too much to bear, and instead of coming to me or someone else for help, she decided to take the quick way out. Somehow she had acquired a bottle of prescription drugs somewhere in the hospital, and the next thing I knew, some other women came across her body in the women’s restroom. Suicide.”
Marty was baffled. He’d never heard a tale of such sorrow.
Dave began to cry. “I had to bury my daughter and my wife in the same day. I was so distraught that no amount of comfort people gave me could make up for my loss. I was almost ready to give up myself when I met Martha” – his current wife – “at the church I was attending. She was the leader of the adult small group on Sundays, and she keyed in on me right away. (Martha’s just one of those souls that can convince anyone of just about anything; that’s what I love about her.) Before long, she was talking me through my problems and explaining to me how God was always the answer. She showed me that I was lukewarm.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“In Revelation, God refers to those who misuse the gifts He has given them or don’t even use them at all as ‘lukewarm’, meaning that they are double dipping: they want to have a part in God’s story, but they also want to hold on to the things of the world rather than hand them over. He says that He would rather ‘spit’, or vomit, them out than waste His time on them any longer. He saw that I was becoming that and took one last effort to bring me back. The death of my family was used to wake me up and show me the error of my ways. I am saddened by it, but I also rejoice in my Father’s mercy. He rescued me like He does time and time again.”
He stared hard into Marty. “I don’t know what you’ve done, Marty. I don’t know how you’ve been living your life, but God is not the reason for your problems. Dark things happen on this planet that can only be found as the work of sin. Ever since Adam and Eve ate of the tree, nothing has been the same because man has separated himself from the will of God and the fellowship thereof. We always fail to understand that God is freedom and the independence we have inhibits us from sharing in that freedom unless we confess our sins and turn back to Him. He does not cause the trials we face, but He is able to use them to open our eyes or strengthen our faith. It may seem unfair what is happening to Emily, but it is not her fault. I have prayed about this over and over again, and God has shown me that your denial of a relationship with Christ is the reason He is allowing this to happen. You have constantly decided to use what He has given you for your own pleasure instead of for His will and this is the last chance He is giving you. He wants you to surrender everything to Him and trust Him.” He smiled. “When all else fails, trust God.” He pondered that for a moment like an artist who had discovered an idea that was beyond perfect. “It would be a much better place if everyone followed that bit of wisdom.”
Marty said nothing. A large pair of invisible hands had reached into his chest and begun to pry it open. He was breathing rapidly, and the floodgates were going to burst soon, he knew it. Dave was right, about everything. His father had said it was just an accident and that accidents meant no one was responsible, but somehow he knew that wasn’t true. He was responsible, just not how he had first thought. God was sending a message because every other attempt had just gone in one ear and out the other, and after this, there were no more chances. It was now or never, and never would have unimaginable consequences, he was sure.
Droplets started dripping down his face. Soon, he was sobbing. He should’ve seen this coming. That passage in James he’d read was a warning. He could see that now. God had tried. He’d tried so hard. But Marty wouldn’t listen. He had to continue being the wealthy, stuck-up author he’d always been. Earn and spend. Earn and spend. That’s all it ever was with him. He’d never sat down and recognized that all the wealth he’d had was a gift from God. Like the rich man who went away sad when Jesus told him to let go of his wealth, he had done the same. God had been speaking loud and clear, yet he had refused to hear Him. Now, He was hitting him where it hurt.
Dave was calm, through it all. It was apparent that this was not the first time he’d spoken this way with someone. He set his hand on Marty’s back and started to rub and massage. Marty paid no mind. The pain dragged in by awareness was too much.
After allowing him some time to calm down, his neighbor said, “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
Marty was tired of holding it in, so he did.