Questions: an inspired fantasy
It was the second time my friend surprised me with a question that evening. After telephoning to make sure that he could now see visitors, I drove up to his house. I was the first visitor he had told yes, you could call by. He was delighted to see me and I even more so.
I did not let my face betray my feelings when we hugged. He had lost a lot of weight. His face, usually close to rotund, was now thin, almost haggard.
How are you, how do you feel, are you in pain? I asked in a rush.
I am not in pain, he said. I have now started to recover from this first phase. I still can’t believe that it hit me, though.
We had been friends for the whole of our working life and remained close now that we had both retired. We shared many of the same tastes, including a healthy disregard for those who thought and argued in absolutes when it came to religion.
We both had the best of health so the news he gave me when we were at their house for his youngest son’s birthday came like a bolt out of the blue.
I have cancer, he said simply, drawing me to one side. I am starting chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy, then the operation.
I stammered a few words. But… but you don’t smoke, I said, as if smoking was the only cause of the disease.
It’s not that, he said, it is rectal – in my backside. Now how on earth did that come about?
I offered no reply. He was speaking in a matter-of-fact voice, showing that he accepted his appointment with destiny.
We met regularly when he was taking chemotherapy and later radiotherapy. His relative serenity kept me from bursting out in style with my thoughts: What have you done to God? Why you? Why does he let this happen if he is truly there?
I am an out and out atheist and such thoughts had often burned within me. Asked about after life, I invariably trot out a quote by the philosopher Bertrand Russel – I believe when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive, he used to say. My friend was not gone to the same degree, yet neither was he religious in the practising sense of the word.
But while he was undergoing treatment before the operation he would tell me that many friends were offering prayers for him. I would smile grimly until he told me that he, too, had taken to praying, begging first of all for belief, then for succour.
That evening of the first post-operation visit he suggested we go out for a walk.
Is that wise at this stage, I asked him.
The surgeon had recommended it, he said. He wanted him to get back to his old routine as soon as possible.
We walked slowly, mindful that the stitches in his abdomen were still fresh. We talked of this and that. At a point he started telling me he had been about to make plans for his wife and family if he died. But you know all that and would help if it became necessary, he said.
We walked on for a while in silence after that. He stopped in front of a non-descript building at the side of the village church. The wooden door was open but a closed glass door kept me from seeing what was inside.
Would you come inside the chapel with me, he said, I don’t want you to wait outside though I won’t be long.
I had not been inside a church for years. I don’t even go to funerals to make sure I kept out of them. Though startled, I quickly said I would. It was a small bare room with about a dozen wooden chairs.
It was gently dominated by a light on a small altar at the back and what I understood to be the Host upon it. He sat down and I did the same. He made the sign of the Cross and, in a reflex action recalling my young days, I did so too.
We were the only two people there. He prayed in silence, his eyes fixed on the Host. I lowered mine and did not know what to think. It was as if my thoughts had rushed away from me. I felt no resentment because my friend had made me enter the chapel. I was gripped by a strange feeling which welled slowly inside me, as if taking me over.
After a while, my friend stood up, made the sign of the Cross and looked at me to see if I was ready too. I scampered to my feet and we went outside into the early evening taking the day over.
As we started walking back to his house he asked me another question: Do you believe in miracles? I was startled once again; he knew me well enough. He did not give me a chance to reply.
I don’t, much, he went on. I don’t even understand my belief in God. I just say Lord I do believe, please help my unbelief. But miracles, let me tell you this.
I saw my surgeon for a check-up yesterday. He is a friend as well as a very good surgeon. He had encouraged me a lot before the operation. Let me tell you something now, the surgeon said gruffly yesterday – you were touch and go. Before we started, I was less than certain I could take the tumour out without leaving you permanently damaged. I succeeded by a hair’s breadth.
Did all those prayers help? Who knows what miracles are, said my friend, more to himself than to me. I repeated his question in my mind and could find none of my old, bragging answers. I no longer knew what to believe…