“Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever.”
The Bible was set down gently on the edge of the bedside cabinet. “Would you like me to continue reading, Mr Banner?”
For a long moment the old man lay silent on the bed. His eyes were closed, his head fallen to one side, a faint wheezing seeped from between crinkled lips. The words when they came were little more than a gasp, requiring his visitor to lean forward attentively.
“I’m not ready for this.”
“None of us are,” came the soothing response, words spoken straight from the heart, full of compassion and understanding. “But we don’t need to be afraid. Jesus has gone before us.”
The younger man couldn’t suppress a smile. That’s what it all came down to. Mr Banner didn’t need to hear any sermons. Neither would he make a deathbed confession – the ritualised dredging up of half-remembered sins, a desperate begging for forgiveness when divine pardon has long been ready for every man. No, he had lived a life of faith that sustained him even in this his final hour.
“Please read from Corinthians.”
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Once again the pages of the Bible were closed. Silence descended, interrupted by the rattle of laboured breathing. The medical equipment emitted a reassuring beep at set intervals but familiarity meant that neither man took notice of it. Only later would the change in tone signal an ending and a new beginning.
It was long past visiting time but no one came to complain. Curtains had been drawn round the bed to give a welcome illusion of privacy. Everyone understood. As Solomon of old had observed, there is a time for silence, a time when words are no longer called for.
“I’ll see my Edith.”
Just four words. Yet it took the old man more than thirty seconds to force them out. The loss of his wife the year before had been devastating. They had never had any children and had clung to each other through forty-five years of marriage. Mr Banner’s rapid descent had surprised no one. It is not unusual for the elderly to lose the will to live when one’s life partner passes on.
“You’ll see her soon enough. She’s waiting for you with open arms. All your old friends are. And so’s Jesus.”
“I see …” The words were voiced with surprising strength; gnarled hands gripped those of his visitor, suddenly anxious to impart fresh revelation.
“What do you see? Tell me!”
“I see …”
But the sentence was not to be finished. Breath had departed in that one final moment of ecstasy.
Softly the man rose from his seat and closed the now unseeing eyes. He bowed his head and prayed out loud, thanking God for the life just taken.
The nurse parted the curtains, drawn by the persistent whine of the heart-rate monitor.
“So he’s finally gone.”
The man merely nodded.
“It was good of you to stay,” she said. “I think it’s so sad when an old person passes away all alone.”
“It was the least I could do.” The words were choked, tears cascading down in tribute to a fallen hero. “Mr Banner was my pastor when I was growing up. My mother suddenly took ill when I was away on manoeuvres with my regiment. He sat with her all through the night and he was there when she departed. Mr Banner made sure that she didn’t die alone.”
The nurse reached out a hand and squeezed the soldier’s arm. “You did a beautiful thing. I’m sure your pastor appreciated your being here.”
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