Now and at the hour
The story begins with my sister in law Sheila, who was married to my brother Tom. Now I loved Tom but he was not the nicest man in the world. He’d never been. Even when we were younger and innocent, Tom always looked out for himself. He died in 1982, killed in the line of duty, which might make you think he was a hero but at the time of his death he was under investigation for police brutality. The papers screamed about the miscarriage of justice. Tom was hard, and he was mean to Sheila, even in the early days of their marriage, not hitting mean but yelling mean. When he died it was quite the controversy, but his name has receded over time. My brother’s son, Tommy, was never the same after the scandal. He was a teenager then. He dropped out of high school, disappeared for years. When he came back he was sick–hepatitis, cirrhosis. He stayed with Sheila and she was just figuring out what to do with him when he got sick and died. This is a couple of years back but it all goes to show that Sheila didn’t have it nice.
Being sisters- in-law, she and I pal-ed around some. We were the seat fillers at various functions (Tom’s and my sister, Mags–she had a boatload of kids). We could be counted on to buy something at Tupperware parties, to spring for a raffle ticket, to crochet a blanket for the baby shower. Trouble was, when those babies grew up, we didn’t really see them. Mags was long dead; her kids lost to the suburbs. Just a few of us are left in the old neighborhood. Sheila lived two blocks over and worked at the archdiocese, retiring before Cardinal Bernadin died. She had friends from church, and a couple of gals from high school she played cards with, but Sheila’s social life was never go-go-go. After my brother died, she didn’t date. I never heard her talk about sex. Geez, she didn’t even wear shorts.
She endured so much pain with such fortitude that she must have been steel at the core. On the outside, she was soft, a matron of the ruffled and powdered variety. Her sweet demeanor was probably even more noticeable next to my sterner disposition. I’m aware that my nickname is “Lill the Pill.” Earlier in my life, when I cared more what others thought of me, the nickname hurt. Now, in what surely are my last years, I don’t resent it. It’s probably this orderly nature that keeps me living quite well alone, able to take care of myself.
In 1989 Sheila had a bout of colon cancer. They took out part of her intestine. It recurred in the ‘90s and they operated again. When it came back this last time, they couldn’t do surgery and she had other treatments for a while but eventually it got her. She was at St. Anthony’s Hospital. After a while the stream of visitors, never big to begin with, became a trickle, with the biggest drip being me. Toward the end I came twice a day.
I’d straighten the get-well cards, open the curtains, make sure the water was cold. I’d turn on the TV and we’d watch The Price Is Right, because Sheila was crazy about Bob Barker. We’d talk about the weather, the family, the neighborhood. Toward the end she was quieter, didn’t care too much if the TV was on.
“I’m here She,” I’d tell her, “do you need anything?”
More often than not she wouldn’t, and I’d sit with her and read my book.
One morning I got there and thought I’d turn on Bob even though Sheila couldn’t really follow it. I went to the little swing table by her bed to get the remote and she opened her eyes, “He came to me last night,” she said.
I forgot about the television. “Who?’
“The Lord Jesus.” She bowed her head,
“God came to you?” I bowed my head too, “I’m glad for you Sheila.” I guessed the end was near.
“Not God,” she said, “Jesus.” When she nodded again I realized she was indicating the crucifix on the opposite wall. She lifted a finger, the nails ragged and the polish worn. I wondered should I bring my manicure kit next time. “Jesus came to me Lill.”
I smiled, folded over the cover and sheet to neaten them.
“Off that cross and over to me.”
“What?” I stopped fussing.
She motioned I should put my ear to her mouth, “He was gentle.”
I stood up, but she wanted to say more so I bent down again, “Lill, He stood where you are now.” She sounded stronger than I heard her in a week. I looked at the crucifix: Our Lord bowing his thorn-crowned head in pain and sacrifice. His feet were particularly poignant; blood weeping from the delicate bones. Her hand grasped my arm. She nodded: yes, it was true.
I stood there quietly, hoping it would pass. After a minute, she continued, “Right there. His hands warm and soft. He touched my cheek,” she put her fingers there as if she could still feel the spot, “put his fingers on my lips and I no longer thirsted.” She let her fingers stay on her mouth.
I didn’t want to hear more. I looked at her eyes; they were clear, not glassy. I put the back of my hand to her forehead. She didn’t seem warm, but she had to be delirious.
On the bus home I considered what I’d heard about dying. I’d been told once that men die with evidence of sexual arousal but I didn’t know if that was true. I’d also heard that it’s likely we’ll leave a mess in our pants. This seemed plausible. And everyone has heard about the white light that engulfs and beckons. That made Jesus’s appearance to a faithful servant not so far-fetched. By the time I got to my stop I guessed it was a good thing Sheila had found such peace.
I went back later that day. The afternoon sun was streaming in the window in Sheila’s room so my first order of business was to close the curtains. I pulled on the fabric and the grommets skittered across the rod. “Hey She,” I turned to the bed.
“He was here again,” she said.
I went to the bed, checked to see how full the little pitcher of water was. I looked down on her face, which probably mirrored my own. Her skin was wrinkled and thin as worn cloth. “Lill,” she said, “he came again.”
I smiled at her, realizing then I had expected this, knew from the way she spoke previously that this was not some fleeting idea. “Right here.”
“Here?” I asked just to make sure.
“Right here,” she said, “and he filled me with his spirit.”
“I don’t know if I understand.”
“He completed me.”
I poured her old glass of water into the azalea on the window, threw out the plastic cup, and poured a fresh one. “In case you need it,” I said.
“There’s the stained glass at church,” she said, “the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
“In the front?”
“Think of that heart,” she said. I could picture it. “The red.”
“Ruby red,” I said.
“That came over me, that red was all around.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had a lot of questions but I could not ask. If this were the end of Sheila, would it be nice to press her? Did I want to hear her answer?
I tucked in the sheets at the foot of her bed. “Need anything?”
“I’m set,” she said and drifted off.
I sat in the leatherette chair off to the side, listened to her breathing, looked at the crucifix on the wall. The curtains eclipsed the light but when I closed my eyes I could see the window’s outline, like an x-ray image, only it was dark red. When the nurse came in, I was startled awake. Sheila kept sleeping so I left.
At the bus stop I prayed the Hail Mary. When I took my seat by the driver I thought of the stained glass window—Jesus in his robes of pale blue and white, the golden flames, the heart in all its ruby anatomy, the crown of thorns piercing, and His fingers at the edge of the wound.
The prayer beneath: “O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in Thee.” I said these words in my head.
I stopped at the store to get a chop and a spud. Maybe it was the tabloids newspapers lining the checkout that made me think that maybe a man, a janitor or orderly, was going into Sheila’s room. The thought disturbed me.
At home I don’t know how long I chewed things over before I called the hospital and talked to the floor nurse.
Her name was Angela Petit.
“My sister in law,” I started slowly, “in Room 206 said something about a man in her room.”
“Well, she hasn’t had many visitors besides you,” she said, “not any really.”
“I don’t mean a visitor.” I didn’t know how to phrase it.
“No one else has been in her room.”
“An orderly or janitor?”
“No,” she assured, “and never without our knowledge. The nuns here, they run a tight ship.”
There was a moment of silence as we both considered what to say. “And you know,” her voice took on a quieter tone, “at the end, people can say things out of the ordinary.”
It was true. Sheila was serene not disturbed. I thought of what she said–how He filled her with His spirit, completed her; how she thirsted no more; how the red enveloped her; how Jesus touched her.
I considered Sheila’s life; for years she hadn’t had anyone. Who is to say what Jesus would do? He was all things to all people, our Savior, our Shepherd.
When I visited the next day, room 206 was empty. I was steeling myself for bad news when the nurse said Sheila had been moved. She was down the hall.
I popped my head in, “Sheila?”
The woman on the bed was a lot frailer than the one I’d left yesterday.
“Hi hon,” I said. Her white hair was flyaway. I tried to pat it down. Spittle had dried at the corners of her mouth. “You want some water?”
She moved her lips in what she probably thought was a smile. “You,” she said
“How are you? What can I get you—are you tilted up enough?”
She pressed the control to raise the head of her bed.
“I’ll give you some water,” I held the straw to her lips.
“When did they move you?”
“Last night,” she said and motioned me to come closer.
“Jesus came. Filled me with His Glory.”
“Jesus was with you last night?” I smiled as if this were a regular conversation. “I’m glad for you Sheila. I am. I believe He holds you in His hands.”
“We both have wounded hearts.”
Soon one of her roommates was being admitted and the room grew crowded. Sheila slept through the commotion but I felt like an interloper, so I left.
I looked out the bus window the whole ride home. I guess I knew even then I wouldn’t see Sheila again.
At her funeral, a pittance of mourners filled the first row and there weren’t enough pallbearers. The eulogy was by the young priest who never knew Sheila except for when he administered Last Rites. I couldn’t help but stare at the crucifix over the altar, Jesus aggrieved and beseeching. Jesus who needed our love. And we His.
After Communion, my sight went to the stained glass window, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so red you could practically drown in it. Oh Sheila.
Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words (Weighed Words LLC). Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.