He rested with hands folded, fingers intertwined. I wondered if he had been praying.
I gently touched his shoulder, trying not to startle him. “I’m here from the chaplain’s office. Would you like to talk for a few minutes?”
He slowly lifted his eyes to me, nodded and opened his hands, lifting one to shake mine. I grabbed his near listless hand and lightly raised, then lowered it. I told him my name and asked if his was Alan. He nodded.
“How do you feel today, Alan?”
“Surprisingly well…” His voice was fragile, faint. “… for a man who will be dead soon.” Then, with more vigor: “Are you here to pray with me?”
“Would you like that?”
Alan replied: “I only know the Our Father. I wasn’t a praying person. But I went to church once in a while. My wife was religious.”
I asked him: “Do you believe in God?”
Without pausing, Alan offered: “I think so. At this point, I guess I should.”
I noticed the raised veins in his hands, blackened by frequent intravenous punctures. Alan had been at this for a long time, in and out of the hospital… dragged back and forth by cautious first responders summonsed by anxious neighbors. Alan lived alone, since Martha passed.
“Would you like to say the Our Father together?”
Alan posed: “They’re just words. Words you say. Words you say without thinking. When Jesus said them first, did he think people for centuries would just mumble them out without any meaning? Without knowing what they were even saying?”
I wanted to offer an academic response, I wanted to talk about the importance of those words and what they signified… but instead, I just nodded and said: “If we say them now, maybe they won’t be meaningless…”
He spoke the words from memory, reciting one after the next in the familiar cadence, like a train rolling along rails, as a wave coming up onto shore, then receding.
who art in heaven…
And he saw the times as a boy standing next to his mother at the church on Hartford Street. He would lean into her heavy gray woolen coat, feeling the coarseness of the material but warmth of the moment. Together, they stood there under the towering lights, in the shadow of brightly colored windows. And said those words.
hallowed be thy name…
And when the priest came to share a moment, standing by them when his dad died from a heart attack at work. His father was a silent, towering man who favored solitude rather than companionship. But Alan knew he loved his son; he just had no idea how to express it. The priest said those words by the side of the casket and Alan and his family followed along.
thy kingdom come…
Ah, and little Anna and Jules. Martha insisted they receive First Communion and Alan wasn’t one to disappoint Martha. She had a firm hand and a firmer soul. Anna and Jules had their Communion pictures, hands held upward like little angels in prayer, showcased in gold plated frames on the hallway hutch for as long as Alan could remember. Where are those pictures now, I wonder? Maybe Jules has them both.
thy will be done…
And the holidays. Martha could cook. She loved to entertain. Anna and Jules would help her clean the house, though cleanliness wasn’t the point. Being together was, as Martha would always say when Alan would complain that the girls had missed a spot on the mantle. Martha insisted on them saying a prayer together and instead of thanking God for the food they were about to eat, she always demanded they repeat the words Jesus had taught his disciples.
on earth as it is in heaven...
And the year Anna asked if they could attend the Easter Vigil. Alan felt as though they were there for ten hours. Sitting in darkness as the endless readings proceeded, though Alan did admit later that the point when candles were lit was inspiring. He told that to Anna because the whole thing was her idea. He wanted her to feel good about it. Alan thought about Anna.
Give us this day our daily bread…
And his mother. His thoughts wandered back to her. She was strong. She was right to teach her children about praying. She was right to show them how to be strong, even when life pushes you down into the dirt.
and forgive us our trespasses…
And poor Anna. She grew thinner and sluggish. It was the leukemia that got her. Poor Anna. She was the one who made them all laugh, who taught them all that despite hardships, hope would one day conquer. She said that even up to the end. His mother would have loved Anna. She was just like her. And Anna always had the big ideas, like going to the Vigil… and them all holding her tiny hand and praying the Our Father together as her body wilted down to nothing.
as we forgive those who trespass against us…
And Martha never let it go to waste, never let it be for naught. Like the time McKenzie broke Alan’s lawnmower but didn’t admit to it. Martha said: “Anna would tell us to forgive and forget.”
and lead us not into temptation…
And Martha. He thought about Martha. About her kindness. About taking this man and helping him to live, to become, to love. Her firm soul was all to his gain and he felt thankful for her.
but deliver us from evil...
And he pictured Anna and Martha holding hands together as their most beautiful selves. He had mourned these losses but now felt gratitude for what they were to his life. He longed to see them again. To hold them in his arms. To tell them thank you.
As he muttered all these meaningless words.