A few weeks later, Alberta surprised her children by entering the kitchen in a fashionable dress, with the desire to go to church. When they informed her that it was Thursday evening and not Sunday morning, she grew confused and disappointed. She looked at her watch – an old, but elaborate, self-wind timepiece – and couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong.
“Did you remember to wind it, Mom?” asked Jennifer, to which her mother closed her eyes in understanding.
“But I want to pray,” she affirmed.
On a whim, Robin phoned the church and discovered that the choir practiced every Thursday evening, and that the church would remain open until the session had concluded. “Come on, Mom, I’ll take you. The last time I was in church was … well, it’s been a long time.”
Her children insisted that Alberta’s wheelchair be utilized, but she refused, stating that it would only be embarrassing to have the choir spot her in such a condition. Ultimately, they compromised by placing the chair in the boot of the vehicle, in case it was required.
Though the evening sky had darkened the hour previous, the orange and yellow tinge of the bricks provided a subtle glow in the mist. But it was the structure’s tall and thin spire, Clerkenwell’s highest, that dominated the view, whichever direction people were coming from.
Alberta spotted it through the window and inwardly felt a moment of inspiration. It had been her family’s church in childhood and she had continued in attendance even though numbers had declined in recent years. It was a shame, she realized, since the church’s roots meandered back into the 12thcentury.
The car drove past the Charles Dickens Museum, causing Alberta’s mind to drift back and forth in time between the Victorian years, when England’s reach encompassed most of the world, to today when no one seemed to quite know the country’s future. She had been a true patriot her entire life. She loved her country’s history, had come to terms with its faults, but ultimately realized that her entire life’s story was wrapped up in the tiny island state that had given the world so much.
Robin pulled into one of the handicapped parking spaces near the side entrance and assisted his mother in walking up the small incline to the heavy oak door. Once inside, the lofty tones of the choir filled every space in the church. Eventually they came into the long sanctuary and took to a pew near the back. Robin had to admit that the music had made his own participation in the trip to church tonight a rewarding one.
He looked over at his mother, whose eyes appeared to be tracing the various outlines of the lofty sanctuary. The walls and pillars that held up the wrap-around balcony and even the flattened ceiling were eggshell in colour. The only real hues came from the darkened pews and the marvellous stained glass windows, especially the huge arched opening above the apse and choir loft that filled the entire sanctuary when the sun’s rays reached their way through it.
The full choir was halfway through a rendition of an anthem that soared, but Robin couldn’t place it. He wanted to ask Alberta, but her eyes were now closed. Then, a phrase from the piece caught his attention, and he recognized the words from the time of his youth.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
Alberta quietly sang along, the lyrics long ago committed to memory. Their meaning was unmistakable – life was transient, soon over, but the eternal lived on forever. It’s almost like she knew this would be the song they would practice,he reasoned with himself. Her time was almost over – “Are like an evening gone” – but a more meaningful place waited – “And our eternal home.” They were words and concepts he had taken to heart when sitting in the front pews with Jennifer and the other children, but, over the years, they had fallen by the wayside through neglect.
Yet hearing the words now, accentuated by powerful and disciplined voices, was having an effect he hadn’t expected. They drew him closer to Alberta by reminding him of the temporary nature of life itself. But the sheer assurance in the meaning – that life would go on, only in another form – blew away his indifference of many years, and brought out in him a yearning that it would all be true, that his mother wouldn’t just be gone, but, instead, patiently wait for his arrival. Could it be so? Would it be so?
Alberta rose to leave half an hour later, her heart moved and tender. She had been taking in the holiday carols the choir was rehearsing for the annual Christmas Eve concert, and her soul had soared in response. Even Robin had to admit that his soul felt somewhat lighter, perhaps even unburdened – not something he had expected. He felt gratified that he had offered to take his mother.
He had texted Jennifer to tell her they were on their way home and by the time they arrived she had poured them drinks – wine for herself, brandy for her brother, and the daily sherry for Alberta. She was delightfully surprised to see signs of contentment on both of their faces.
“Well, you two look pleased,” she observed with a smile.
“Actually, it was quite inspiring,” noted Robin. “They were rehearsing their Christmas pieces and we found ourselves quietly singing along. Mom hasn’t lost any of her voice.”
Alberta looked at them both, but remained in silence. At last, she said, “We were the only people in congregation. It’s really starting to go downhill.”
Brother and sister hesitated a second, wondering if she was confused or attempting some humour. When it became clear that it was the latter, all three laughed together.
“I’m sorry, both of you, for getting the time wrong. I actually spent the time listening to the music and winding my watch in the process. It’s working fine now.” Robin pursed his lips upon seeing that the watch face revealed a time set five hours behind. It no longer mattered. Alberta would be going to bed soon enough, and they could reset it while she was sleeping.
They sipped their drinks in silence for a time before Jennifer asked, “What made you decide to go to church when you knew it wasn’t the proper time?”
Alberta was staring out into that part of the garden where the stones were arranged and casually responded, “One has to prepare, I should think. It’s time for the soul to start settling.”
It was the language of her generation but they grasped its meaning and were saddened. They remained in silence.
“Look,” she continued, “I know it is a very hard thing to speak about death, but at this stage it’s a harder thing not to, don’t you think? It’s a date we all must face at some time, a riddle we must solve, a transformation we all must go through. We have faced it before as a family when your father passed, and now we must do so again. And we learned, together, that death isn’t the opposite of life, but part of it. Your father’s departure was sudden and we weren’t prepared, but we know what is coming for me and we’ve silently been preparing for months. It’s time to be silent no more.”
Nevertheless, no more words were spoken for a time. “Kids, I’m ready for it and I don’t want my passing to be the unmentioned presence in this house. My life has been rich … and remarkable, hasn’t it? And you two have been with me through it all. I need your company now.”
She surprised them when she burst into tears. In that moment, both realized that, by refusing to deal with what was coming, they had placed a remarkable amount of pressure on their mother. Like others of her generation in Britain, Alberta had remained stoical when crises came across the horizon; it was one of her greatest strengths. But the internal price she must have paid for all that calm and assurance!
Jennifer was the first to break the impasse and reach out to her mother in the spiritual realm. “It’s not as though this hasn’t caused me to think of religion, death, and perhaps an afterlife, Mom. But I have no answers and, so, didn’t know what to say.”
“That is the way of life, honey,” Alberta said, obviously relieved that the subject had been broached. “It’s not about the answers, or even the questions, but how the belief in a God, in a kind kingdom, in forgiveness, justice, the truth, in confession, and the belief in the decency of humans has benefitted us as a people. Despite our many mistakes, we are better for adhering to a moral life and to our responsibilities to others. Times of death are when we pay our dues to our faith, just as we do with the Greek philosophers the mighty poets, or the great artists. Our lives are richer for their presence, and our deaths should be as well.”
This was the mother they knew – astute, sharp, spotting things others missed, and building a quiet life on the principles passed down to her from previous times and from her ancestors.
Inevitably, this conversation, and the visit to the church, were instructing Jennifer and Robin that their mother’s trust in faith was an intrinsic part of how she was preparing herself for the end. They had underestimated it. But now, after she had so rationally presented it, they knew they, too, would have to come to terms with its importance in her life and make room for it.
“Mom,” Robin interrupted, “to be honest, when I was listening to that music tonight, I felt something in me rising in inspiration. And, as you said, I wasn’t questioning or looking for answers; the majesty of it all was just there, and I found myself quietly singing along with those carols because they were such a present joy in my life when I was young. I’m sorry that I’ve left the faith side of things off to the side as I’m trying to help. At the church tonight, I understood why it’s so important at times like now. Again, I’m sorry.”
Alberta leaned over and kissed her son on the cheek. “At times like now, I see again why your father and I have been so proud of you.”
Jennifer had been quiet because there was something on her mind. “Tell us how you see it, Mom … the religion thing, I mean. We’ve never asked you much about it, other than when we were young and before we moved off in our pursuits. Can you tell us why it is so important to you, especially right now? I think we’d like to understand.”
Thankful for the opportunity to speak of something she treasured, Alberta opted to keep it simple.
“I can’t fully say,” she began. “I suppose it was something passed down from my ancestors and I see such things as important. But I think it’s more because I just don’t want my death to be in vain.”
“Okay, you’d better explain that,” Robin said, slightly perplexed.
“I will try, but my thoughts aren’t as clear as they once were. I think that Christ died just as he had lived – sacrificial, kind, principled, devotional, and empathetic. But that death, regardless of how it occurred, proved the life had been real and befitting a noble soul. Your father used to often quote a saying from Abraham Lincoln: ‘A tree is best measured when it’s down.’ The life of Jesus, or any other great moral teacher for that matter, is best understood and measured when they are gone – just as we missed your father the most when he was gone. Death validates lives well lived, and that’s why my passing must be done well – not angry or resentful, inconsolable or bitter. My religious faith – with all those wonderful principles that have benefitted people around the world, religious or not – has been enough for me and helped me live because of its strength. I don’t want to let it down now by tossing it away like something no longer needed.”
She reached out and grasped both of their hands. “To be honest, my death terrifies me – not because of pain or humiliation, but because my mind may wander too far outside the boundaries of the good principles given to me. I don’t want to strike out in anger or violence at you, to resent others, or be a difficult patient. But how will I know, if most of my mind is gone? I want to pass with dignity, but how will I know?” Tears cascaded down cheeks that had known their share of tears over the years, and she seemed inconsolable.
“You’ll know because we’ll be your mind when it’s not there, we’ll be your hands when they can no longer caress. We’ll keep you in good standing, Mom. If your mind is going, your principles and high thoughts are still a part of you. We’ll surround you with those principles. We will live them as you have lived them. And, because we are with you until the end, we will ensure that you are recognized for what you are – an amazing woman, who lived the principled and compassionate life that God wished for her. You have done it, Mom, and your passing will befit all the ways your life bettered this world.”
Alberta moaned in a fashion that drew her children into her embrace. She said nothing, but she now knew her offspring understood, and that, whether she knew it or not, they would protect her life and help others to measure it when she fell.