Google “grandma,” Pastor Ray thought, and you’ll find a dozen women in rimless glasses beneath hair like spun silver, not one of them capable of sin. But it was Grandma who told him that when bad things happen, they come in threes—first this, then that, then something else. Sure as anything.
“That’s paganism,” he’d told her years ago.
“Well, you’re the preacher,” she’d said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The Bible she kept on the kitchen table was so beat up it looked as if she’d kicked it around the yard. She was as pious as Samuel’s mom, forever serious about faith but committed to folklore.
Those words came back to him all day yesterday, because first there was Carol, his wife of 40 years, his darling; and now her sister, Mindy. Two dark nights already registered—two down, one to go. He was becoming a pagan.
He’d been heading downstairs toward the church office, but when he got to the council room he sat down because a blank computer screen would remind him too much of his own empty soul. Upstairs he could hear Maribeth, the janitor, her footsteps behind a dust mop over the ancient wood floor. A funeral tomorrow, and he had to preach. Not just because he was the pastor—a retired fill-in, half-pastor—but also because Mindy was family, his sister-in-law.
Church snapshots and bulletin covers lay neatly beneath the glass, a table-top museum of ex-pastors and anniversary programs. It wasn’t as if this room hadn’t suffered tragedies before. Put ’em in a line, he thought, and darkness would stretch from here to Chicago, same as any church. Maybe a million attempts at consolation too, some thoughtful, some not: “Jesus wanted another lamb for his flock,” “She’s another jewel for his crown.”
This time it was Mindy, his own Carol’s little sister. No one could have seen this coming. No one.
They were twenty years separate, Carol and Mindy. Grandma had Mindy when she was close to 50, at a time in his Carol’s life when her mother, with child, was embarrassing. “When you’re 17, you know your parents sleep together . . . well, you know. But it’s something you’d rather not think about,” she’d once told him. “I was furious.”
The two of them had not grown up in the same family or the same house, Carol long gone when her baby sister took her first steps. His wife had been a teacher—and a mom—when Mindy trotted to kindergarten half a continent away. But they’d become as close as sisters could be, some mysterious internal chemistry making them far more than friends.
And now Mindy was gone too, just two years and a couple months after her big sister. “Bad things come in threes,” Grandma had told her son-in-law, the preacher. “You watch.”
He looked up at the photo of a horse barn. Stockbridge was ancient. He remembered touring European cathedrals and thinking they’d make better museums than houses of worship because really, who’d want to sit in that kind of cold space, week in, week out, flying buttresses or not? Who’d want to preach there?
Churches old as Stockbridge felt like submarines without periscopes, places where the pious still believed horrors come in threes. Maybe that’s the text for the funeral sermon, he told himself—“Bad things come in threes,” Book of Grandma, chapter 4, verse whatever.
No one really knew how much he missed Carol. Sometimes he told himself he was finished crying, but he never was. He didn’t have it in him to say what he knew had to be said, just as surely as the floors had to be swept. He just couldn’t face that empty screen.
In his last charge, he’d mentored a rookie who’d told him over coffee that he’d never, ever done a funeral. “And it scares me,” the young preacher had told him. “This congregation doesn’t have many old people, so the death’ll be something really awful, you know?”
“They’re all bad,” Ray’d said reassuringly.
“Sure,” the kid told him, “but some more than others, right?”
Some more than others. Tomorrow he’d be in the pulpit for Mindy, who, like her mother, got pregnant when she was too old.“I’ll be mom to the baby,” Mindy had told him, “but strangers’ll swear I’m her grandma.”
“There are no strangers in Stockbridge,” he’d told her.
“Just sayin’,” Mindy said. “I haven’t cried as much since Carol’s funeral, Ray. Seriously—I bawled like a baby when the doctor told me. Drew didn’t know what to do with me.”
“It’ll keep us young,” Drew said. “That’s what I tell her.”
“He’s dead wrong, Ray,” Mindy insisted. “A baby will age us like nothing else,” she said as she dished up baked chicken in a sweet French sauce. He’d been having supper with them for most of the first month he’d been in Stockbridge. “And women come up to me—my friends. ‘I’m so jealous,’ they say.And I tell myself they’re lying through their teeth—“
“They’re dreaming, is all,” Drew said.
“Just dreaming,” she said, “but I got morning sickness that won’t quit.”
Outside of her husband’s presence, Mindy had told him she was scared. With her other kids she’d always counted fingers and toes right away, and everyone said, even her doctor, there was more likelihood of something going haywire. Down here in the office, he was more pastor than brother-in-law.
Mindy was 45 when she had a brand new little daughter. Three days later, without warning, she was gone. That was the story.
What was so damnable was that her dying could be explained. Some bit of placenta, just a tiny bit, stayed behind like an IED. Kerry Swanson, a doctor, was on the consistory. He sat right there in the consistory room and explained it as if the death of a mom was plain cause-and-effect. “DIC,” he called it, “a rare physical event.” She bled to death because her blood was actually too busy clotting.
There are times a pastor can’t help hating science. Mindy’s death was no “rare physical event.” In the twinkling of an eye, Drew became a single dad—three kids, one a newborn—and bereft of wife. DIC. It wasn’t DIC. Death was the enemy. Explaining made it feel as if something could be understood and thereby dismissed. There was no way to explain the death of two women closer to him than life itself. No way.
He needed to get up off this chair. Something had to be written.
Someone else was upstairs now. An extra pair of footsteps slipped over the floor amid the harmony of conversation.
It had taken a year for him to settle up with Carol after brain cancer took her. There was no music without her. For too many colorless weeks, he was angry she’d left. Anger is a sin. He understood that, but he was powerless to stanch it, so he tried to shift it to her, his wife. He was a pastor, after all, and he couldn’t be angry at God.
It passed when he’d stood there at her gravestone and told her that the six months they’d had together from the time her cancer was diagnosed until she breathed her last—that six months was a blessing. He’d witnessed cancer deaths that hung on for years, drenched in horrors no human being should ever go through. Carol’s six months allowed them to say what needed to be said, and when the end came, it was finally something of relief, if any death can be.
This one was so very different. “Surprise” was obscene understatement. Death amid new life, a darling baby girl, the house strung with pink streamers.
Upstairs in the sanctuary, someone was at the piano. Some vagrant melody floated down into the basement, one note after another.
He and Carol had had six months to talk it through, and her death still just about killed him. But this one—this one he charged up to an irresponsible God who left some bit of tissue behind, a microscopic murder.
He looked at his watch. Nothing was getting done. He jammed his handkerchief in the back pocket of his jeans and pushed himself away from the table because he’d lollygagged too long.
The notes plinked on the piano grew more distinguishable. Wouldn’t hurt to look, he thought.
He’d come to Stockbridge because people knew him; Carol had grown up in this church. He hadn’t filled a pulpit since her death, but Drew and Mindy and a stiff old letter from the council, something written in ancient language—that and Carol, from the grave, got him going. It was all of that and a deep sense of should—doing an interim stint at Stockbridge CRC was something he should do. He hadn’t anticipated funerals.
The woman at the piano was young, her hair pulled back in a ponytail behind a fluorescent pink band, as if she’d just come from the gym. Young as their daughter. A gray T-shirt. She looked up at the music in front of her, sang quietly with the line she tapped out on the piano, then stopped and looked around because she’d somehow felt him behind her. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, all the way across the sanctuary. “Am I disturbing you?”
He walked down the center aisle, hands in his pockets. “No, no, no. Just wanted to see who was up here.” When he got to the communion table, he stopped. “Place is so old I figured there were ghosts.”
“I sort of like it,” she told him from the bench.
“And you are?”
“Megan—Megan Brethhower.” Rolled her eyes. “Married a guy from this church,” she said.
“Got dragged in?” he said.
“No, no, no,” she told him. “We could have gone anywhere. Lots of churches around.”
“No kidding,” he said, pointing at the music. “You do this often?”
Big smile. “Yeah, but that’s not the whole thing.” Took a deep breath.“I’m a nurse.”
“Oh, no, you were. . . . ”
“No—but yeah, sort of, too.” She smiled.“Plus we’re in Drew and Mindy’s small group.”
Behind him, Maribeth was grabbing last week’s leftover bulletins from the racks.
“You’re OK with this?” he asked her.
“No,” she said, looking down at the keys. And just like that her voice broke. “But it’s what Drew wants.” Shrugged shoulders. “We were buds, you know—me and Mindy. Sometimes ran together. She was like my mom.” Shook her head, giggled a little.“She’d hate me for saying that, but she was.”
He nodded to tell her all of that added up, then he waved his pointer at the music.
“From the Messiah,” she told him. “You know it. It’s what Drew wants.”
What this young woman didn’t know was that Carol used to sing it in community choirs, had sung it maybe a half-dozen times after practicing forever in their home. She may have even sung it here. But this child here didn’t need to know. “You mind if I listen in?” he said. “I’d love to hear you.”
“I’m just tapping it out. I got to practice sometime, but I just had to sort of feel it here, you know, in this church, in this space, in this old building. I had to try to feel what it’s going to be like.” She turned back to the music. “I don’t know if I can do it,” she told him. “Pastor Ray, I want to do it, you know, for Drew—and for Mindy. It’s so beautiful, and I’ve done it before, but I don’t know if I can.”
“Well that makes two of us,” he told her.“I don’t know if I can do it either.”
He pointed once again at the music.“Go on,” he said. “I’ll be the audience.”
Of course he knew it, knew it all. “I know that my Redeemer liveth” begins with nothing more than a declarative sentence, and then builds into this marvelous baroque testimony. Yes, he knew the music.
With just one finger, she walked with him through every line, her voice much lower than Carol’s and couched in a reserve less purposely muted than simply made personal for him, as if she were taking his hand the way he knew it needed to be held.
“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand upon the earth.”
He knew every inch of that solo, had heard it from Carol a dozen times; but this nurse brought it home with a glow somehow warmer than he’d ever felt, ever heard. “And though worms destroy this body,” she sang, eyes closed as if facing an audience she wanted somehow not to see, “yet in my flesh shall I see God.”
He was alone. It was just the preacher and the janitor and the organist here, but this old piece and her warm voice was an offering, a gift.
“Yet in my flesh shall I see God.”
The line echoed through the emptiness of his soul. “Yet in my flesh,” some part of him repeated, “shall I see God.”
Time and eternity. Eternity in time.
He reached for his back pocket but didn’t pull the hanky.
That great solo had always been a performance, a transcendent testimony before millions or those who knew it too, knew every last syllable. But this time, in the dim light of the old Stockbridge church, what he heard from this young woman was somehow new, something he’d never heard before.
Yet in my flesh. Yet in my flesh.
Will I see God.
And Carol. And Mindy.
When she tapped out those last voiceless phrases, she looked up at him like a child.
“Thank you,” he told her.“Thank you ever so much.” He pulled out that handkerchief once again, but held it under his arm.
“Tomorrow we can cheer each other on, then,” she told him.
“You bet we will,” he told her. “We certainly will.”
He turned back to the pews, walked up the aisle to the back of the church, and went down the stairs to the study.