Level 5: The Old Rugged Cross


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The Baby Hannah is an absolute rockstar. No Nathan can see her and not fall instantly in love. See her cost in the upper right hand corner? It takes one pink dose to bring into play. That’s as cheap as it gets! But what do you get for that one dose? Not much, right? Wrong, you get a 7/7 (not even Sauron is that big!) flier who gains you life and cannot be targeted by spells, destroyed, or killed as a result of lethal damage. She single handedly breaks the game! If you aren’t playing a pink Hannah deck you’re going to lose. Hannah is my perfect sister’s baby and my first niece. She loves television, especially Katy Perry music videos, and milk. Other than that she sleeps and makes my ovaries hurt. I love her more than anything, even Dungeons and Dragons.

Nathan, why you trippin’?

Eventually, we ran out of my sister’s pre-pumped milk.

“What do we do?” I asked my mom, The Baby Hannah crying in my arms.

“We’ll have to hook her up,” my mom shrugged, looking at her daughter snoring softly on the floor.

“But the THC. The Baby Hannah will get high.”

“What other option do we have?” My mom took the little screamer from me.

“We could go to the store and buy baby formula like a normal family.” I said for the hundredth time.

“Baby formula is full of chemical crap,” she returned the volley easily, rendering my point invalid, then kneeled and lifted her daughter’s shirt.

I turned away, not wanting to see my sister’s breasts, “Noelle’s milk is full of marijuana!”

We had been arguing about it for almost an hour. As usual, I lost the debate. Hannah latched on. Reflexively, my sister wrapped loving arms around her child. The crying stopped. For better or worse, my niece was about to get high.

“I’m going to see grandma,” I said, frustrated that my family was so strange.

“There’s a syringe in my purse,” my mother stroked Noelle’s hair, watching her grandchild feed, “take it to hospice and give it to David, but don’t let the nurses see you.”

“What’s it for?” I asked.

“Water,” my mom replied.

I didn’t understand, but I didn’t care. I dug the syringe and car keys out of her purse then drove across town to hospice. Night had fallen and the few stars that twinkled seemed distant and alone. They say the Milky Way used to shine like diamonds, but the orange glow of street lamps now drowned it out. That was fine with me. They were already dead anyway. I didn’t have much use for star corpses.

Hospice_GrandJunction

Hope West Hospice and Palliative Care. Where grandmas go to die.

I pushed through the automatic doors at hospice, their stiff appendages slow to respond. Inside, I found wide corridors full of warm wood, accented here and there with Art Deco furniture and pottery. It was strange to see such delicate refinement in this rural town. I wandered down several hallways until I heard worship music blaring out of one of the rooms. Inside, two of my uncles sat talking in the corner. They had moved to the back of the room and were hunched together on a plush sofa, leaning close so they could hear one another over blasting hymns. My grandma lay comatose in a massive bed, growling and rasping, her noises drowned out by piercing trumpets and crashing organ. I walked over to the night stand and decreased the volume.

As far as I know there is no word for someone who has the opposite of a Napoleon complex, but if someone invents that word, it would apply to my Uncle Craig. He is small and dainty, but also a badass. They way you can tell he's a badass is because he doesn't try to be tough. When he sits in chairs he often curls his feet under his butt like a teenage girl and he loves small animals and cute babies. He drives average sized cars and never brags. Despite his tiny stature and unassuming manner, the man oozes confidence, which is strange and awesome coming from someone so small.

My uncle Craig.

“Turn it back up,” uncle Craig gestured towards the stereo, his tiny frame and cowboy drawl unexpectedly forceful.

Gingerly, I twisted the knob to a quarter of where it had been.

“More,” Craig nodded.

I nudged the volume to an uncomfortable level.

“Louder,” uncle David said, pointing up with one finger.

What were they doing? I wondered to myself. The dulcet tones of elevator worship began to distort.

Uncle David gave me thumbs up, his voice lost in the cacophony. Were they trying to wake my grandma up? I was pretty sure it wouldn’t work.

I crossed the half-empty double room, trying to figure out what was wrong. David and Craig were discussing something, fervent looks on their Ukrainian faces.

“She said she didn’t know,” Craig said in disbelief, “she said it right to my face!”

This is my uncle, David Dvirnak. I lovingly refer to him as Agent Snuffleupagus. Stay tuned, I can't wait to tell you why.

David is basically the male version of my mother.

“Diane will straighten things out in the morning,” David replied.

“What’s going on?” I barked over the blare of the stereo.

“Shhh,” Craig put a finger to his lips, admonishing me to be quiet. I looked around the room, confused. We were alone, just my uncles and my grandma.

Craig motioned for me to come close. I put my head next to his, and he whisper-yelled into my ear, “They tried to give grandma pain killers.”

My mother was a fierce beast, strong and indelible. Her fear of Western Medicine had been passed down to her younger brothers, her roots of mistrust grown deep into their hearts.

“Fortunately, Craig was here,” David leaned in, his manic voice wild and alert.

“The nurse got real uppity,” Craig confirmed, “but I held her off.” Despite his diminutive stature, Craig was an imposing man. His face was deeply tanned where the shadow of his cowboy hat had failed to block the sun, and when he walked, it was nimble and lithe, like a gunslinger with six shooters strapped to his side. He had the way of a man who had woken endless times to deepest night and winter wind, then strode into the face of the storm, heedless of the cold, all to make sure his fences were holding and the cattle hadn’t froze. He was a man in ways that I would never be. “They think they know everything, these nurses,” Craig shook his head.

I remembered my own awful summer, how I rotted in my apartment rather than seek help, unable to eat or drink for 11 days. I too had believed my mother’s warnings, had pushed the doctors away until I was too weak to walk. There were times when Western Medicine did more harm than good, and others when it was the only thing that could help.

“Pain killers are good,” I tried to explain, my words lost in a swirl of raucous harps, “not all the time, but sometimes people need them.”

“No way,” Craig shook his head, “we don’t need no chemical crap,” he repeated my mom’s tired phrase.

“We made an agreement with these people when we moved Mom here,” David said, “they’re not to give her any medication without Diane’s approval.”

I looked over at my grandma, bedridden and dying, fighting for air, clearly in pain. My mother’s love was a potent thing— a potent, destructive thing.

“Dwight will be here soon,” said David.

Dwight was the youngest and most reasonable of the family. He would talk some sense into his brothers. I handed the mysterious syringe to David, “My mom said you wanted this?”

David took the syringe and looked around suspiciously, tucking it into his pocket like a spy in the movies.

What were they up to?

I walked back to my grandma’s bed and sat down on a chair, watching the sickly glow of fluorescents play across her gaunt face. She looked different somehow, like a stranger. Her hair was messy and and her skin was loose. She fought for breath in fitful bursts, the tortured slumber of an undead monster, surrounded by loved ones, assaulted by outrageous music.

My uncle Dwight drives fast and eats multiple plates of food at every meal. I used to idolize him and try to do the same. Turns out I have a small stomach and would rather leave early than break the speed limit.

My uncle Dwight.

Dwight came in, with his piercing eyes and hawk nose, with his broad smile and amiable hunch.

“Nathan!” David shouted. I looked over at my uncle. He was pointing up, gesturing for me to increase the volume even more. Reluctantly, I stood and twisted the knob a final time. Saxophone and piano tore through the room like a shrieking hurricane.

Dwight sat down. Craig leaned in and began to whisper. David stood, grabbed a pillow and moved to the nightstand. He pressed the pillow against an intercom mounted to the wall; his arms straight, his back arched heroically, as if he was holding up the building. I suddenly realized what was going on, why the music was blaring, why my uncles were speaking in hushed tones. They were afraid the nurses were listening.

Then I noticed a second intercom attached to the wall. It was a few feet away, just out of David’s reach. During times of high occupancy, a curtain could be drawn down the center of the room and a bed brought in on either side. The two halves were each equipped with their own communication system. I pointed towards the second device, trying to show my uncle that his efforts were pointless. David winked and smiled knowingly as if to say, we got ’em.

Dwight nodded his head and furrowed his brow. Whatever Craig was telling him, he was into it. The handsome Ukrainian sat on the coffee table, his back straight, his eyes wide, listening to his brother, amazed by the story, swept up in the conspiracy. I had always considered Dwight to be the reasonable one, but in an asylum the term was relative.

“I don’t think the nurses have time to listen in on our conversations,” I walked over to the table, hoping they would let me turn down the music.

“We need to post rotating watches,” said David, “I’ll take the first shift.”

They were circling the wagons, protecting their kin, like my ancestors long ago, they sharpened their axes and lit a campfire. Dark, powerful men, they were, wrapped in wolf pelts, peering into the endless dark, straining to see beneath the gaze of the incessant Milky Way. The wilderness lived in their blood, but the campfire had been replaced by hospital lights, and with the moon gone, the wolves had turned into nurses.

“Mom can’t be left alone,” Dwight said resolutely, rubbing the back of his neck with a massive hand.

“The staff is just trying to help,” I tried to explain. I understood their fear, but I had learned a few things that summer, “not all pain killers are bad. Sometimes you need dynamite to—”

“It’s about trustworthiness,” David cut me off, “and these people can’t be trusted. We told them, no medications without the go-ahead from Diane,” he gestured with one hand, “if Craig hadn’t been here,” he shook his head, contemplating the implications.

“Medicine can help,” I tried again, “not all the time, but in some cases people need it to get over the hump.”

“That nurse knew what she was doing,” Craig said angrily, “but I wasn’t having none of that.”

I looked at my grandma lying in bed, fighting for life, her essential grandma-ness already gone. What did it matter? Pain killers or not, the battle was lost.

“You guys head back to the hotel,” said David. “I’ll sit here with Mother until one, then Bryan can relieve me.” Outside the room, wolves and wind howled, hungry and cold, their icy fingers, their gnashing teeth. The forest was gone, but the world was still dark and full of magic. David loosened his axe in its sheath, preparing for the night ahead. Death would come, but it would not come unseen.

My uncles said goodbye, weariness and sadness washing over them. When they were gone, David walked over to the stereo and turned down the volume. He pulled the syringe out of his pocket and hid it in a box of tissues next to the bed. He sat next to his mother and gazed at her lovingly. “You were one of a kind,” he said to no one in particular, grabbing her work-worn hand tenderly, “I will always love you.” My grandma rasped and wheezed, her neck bent at uncomfortable angles, “I’m here,” David said, “David is here.” She turned towards him reflexively, or was it coincidence, the spasms of a dying husk? “Please don’t leave,” David asked, searching for the missing years. “What will I do if you go?” My grandma made no reply.

David went into the bathroom and filled a cup with water, then removed the syringe from the box of tissues and filled it with fluid, “Remember the time the cows got in the garden?” he asked. “They ate all the corn except what the beavers had stashed.” His voice was deep and tender. He hoped that something inside his mother could still hear. “You got so mad, I thought for sure we’d never be allowed back in the house.” With a squirt, he injected exactly two ounces into my grandma’s mouth. The liquid hit the back of her throat, triggering her gag reflex. Her body convulsed, swallowing and coughing violently. David replaced the cap and hid the syringe in the box of tissues, then set a timer for 15 minutes

“You were always so strong,” he closed his eyes, his voice began to tremble, “you taught me so much.”

He removed the damp cloth from her forehead, rinsed it, then came back and placed it on her brow, “Your orchard was the finest in Killdeer, the finest in Dunn county. I remember the shade beneath those trees, the way the dappled light made the grass look when you sent me out to pick a basket for supper. All those pies you made,” David laughed, tears falling down his face, “with the flakey crust and rich cinnamon. You added berries and topped each slice with fresh cream.” My mouth began to water, remembering the taste. “You were an artist!” He exclaimed. “The Picasso of pies.”

For hours we sat in that room, my uncle talking while I listened. He wept and moaned, laughed and reminisced, changing the washcloth and administering glass after glass of water in precisely timed, painful squirts. After each blast, he would replace the cap, return the syringe to the tissue box, and set the timer for another 15 minutes. His energy was monstrous, his words enthralling. Not once did he falter, not once did he repeat himself. The same delusions that allowed my uncle to believe he was part of an elite team of soldier-spies also made him a forceful storyteller. For three hours I listened, engrossed by the tale of this dark Ukrainian, this ancient bard.

“I have to go,” I said finally, my stomach growling with hunger, but David didn’t hear me. The past had taken hold, burying him beneath a blanket of memory. I left the room and closed the door quietly behind.

• • •

The next morning Baby Hannah was high. She lay in the pen at the foot of my mother’s Abraham Lincoln bed staring up at the ceiling fan like it was a rainbow road for ponies. Normally the little shrieker couldn’t stop moving. She’d kick her feet and cry or coo, a hopeless ball of energy; but this morning she was hypnotized, her eyes wide and unblinking, enamored by the twirling blur above her head.

My lovely sister.

My lovely sister.

“I feel horrible,” my sister groaned from the bed.

“You’re probably still high,” I said, wiggling The Baby Hannah’s toes. “You ate a week’s worth of pot cake in one go.”

“I think Hannah has the munchies,” my sister tried to raise her head, “she won’t stop eating.”

“She definitely has the munchies,” I laughed, staring at her dilated baby eyes.

“How did you sleep?” My sister rolled onto her side.

“I didn’t. You ate all the cake.” I was weaning off prednisone, but the doses were still high enough to keep me awake. I’d spent the rest of the night writing and pacing around the basement, feeling the madness grow. I’d have to find edibles soon or things would get out of hand. I didn’t want to start prophesying in front of my family.

“Bryan doesn’t want you living with grandpa,” my sister said, “I heard mom talking on the phone. He thinks that you’re obscene.”

“I am obscene,” I laughed, but it still hurt. “I offered to move over the mountains to take care of mom and help out where I could. Mom was the one who decided I should live with grandpa.”

“Bryan’s against it,” my sister said. “I guess he doesn’t like you.”

I understood. I was a wild man, and possibly dangerous. That summer, under the influence of prednisone, I came unglued, shouting and barking into cyberspace with a frenzied energy that still consumed me. I ranted and raved, posting naked reenactments of my decay for all to see. My family was mortified, a group of ranchers from a small town in North Dakota. They didn’t understand the artistic benefits of madness.

“Are you going to be OK with Hannah? I asked.

“Mom’s here,” my sister said, “she can take care of us.

It was early morning, the sun just peeking over the valley, a beautiful day if you ignored all the tragedy.

“I’m going to go see grandma,” I said, feeling guilty for the few hours I had spent away.

“Tell her that I love her,” my sister said, her voice still foggy with marijuana cake.

I went downstairs and drove to hospice. The building was quiet, with fresh staff and sleeping residents. From one of the rooms I heard a crazy woman yelling, “Help! Help! Save me!” She screamed, over and over again. I looked inside, but she was alone, the curtains drawn, sitting in a chair, crying out.

Bryan is a proud, wealthy man. The summer of this story, his son died of a heroin overdose. He was also diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and his mother got into a brutal car accident. I would love to ask him what he thought about that, about how easily his expensive armor was pierced by tragedy, but we don't get along.

Uncle Bryan.

In my grandma’s room, David had been replaced by Bryan. He was the eldest son with a fop of bouncy hair that would have seemed boyish on a man half his age. He sat next to his mother, his hands trembling with Parkinson’s disease, a proud man whose son had just died— brought low by life’s endless wheel. One of my two middle names was Bryan. I had been named after him, but that was as far as our connection went. He didn’t like me, and had told the family as much. I didn’t care for him either.

“How you holding up?” I asked, sitting down in one of the empty chairs.

“I’ve been awake since one,” he said, not looking at me. “Every 15 minutes, I suction her mouth and give her some water.”

“Can I get you anything?” I asked, trying to be helpful. There was an unspoken animosity between us, but the man was still family.

“The nurses finally got the message,” he said, ignoring my question. “They came in at 4:30 and said they were just going to swab her throat. They held up the swabs so I could see what they were doing,” he tapped his fingers on the arm rest. “They took her vitals about a half hour ago. Her temperature was normal and her blood pressure was 120/71.”

“Is that good or bad?” I yawned. I couldn’t sleep, but my body was still tired.

“I wish mine was that normal,” he grabbed the syringe from the box of tissues, readying the next squirt. “Trustworthiness,” he looked down at his trembling hands, at his broken mother, “it’s a dying commodity. We can’t leave Mom alone for a minute.”

“We’re lucky Craig was here,” I said, conceding his point. I had tried to argue with my uncles last night, but it wasn’t my battle, it wasn’t my mom.

The timer went off and Bryan removed the cap from the syringe. I braced myself for the violent squirt, for my grandma’s convulsing swallow, but Bryan had a different technique. He dripped the water slowly into his mother’s mouth. When enough had accumulated in the back of her throat, she swallowed mildly, growling quietly to herself. He continued the process until two ounces had been administered. I was impressed by his gentle touch, so soft and considerate. He wiped her mouth with a cloth and applied some Chapstick to her cracked lips.

We sat there, watching her breathe, watching her fight. I had only been gone a few hours, but she already looked better. Her skin was tighter and less pallid, her breathing shallower and more relaxed.

This, dear readers, is my mother, the incomparable Diane Dvirnak. Her casting cost requires one pot and one prednisone. Pot represents the holistic path to healing in this story, but you won’t know why for a few books. Prednisone is the symbol of madness, creativity and the Scientific Method used by practitioners of Exalted Medicine. Creativity and the Scientific Method, aren’t those things antithetical? No, they are very similar. I have an art degree and am working towards a second bachelors in engineering and I can assure you that the processes are almost identical. The only difference between art and science is intent. Artists attempt to create something that feels right and scientists are on a quest to make Things That Work. But for both creatures a sense of exploration and play are necessary. This subject will be explored in greater detail in Confessions, I just don’t know when.

The Lion-Hearted-Bulldog-of-a-Thousand-Paradoxes herself.

My phone rang, it was my mother, the Craterhoof Behemoth of healing. She asked me a bunch of questions about my grandma, about her temperature and blood pressure, “What color is her urine?”

I looked around for the bag that was collecting her waste, “Amber.”

“We should hook her up to a saline I.V.” My mother said, “The nurses won’t like it, it’s against regulations, but you should try.”

“You want me to hook her up to an I.V.?” I asked, incredulous.

“I want you to ask the nurses to hook her up to an I.V.” My mom explained.

I hung up the phone and told Bryan, “My mom wants them to hook her up to an I.V.”

Bryan stood and left the room, in search of a nurse.

“We usually don’t administer I.V.s to patients at this stage in their lives,” said the nurse as she walked into the room with my uncle. It was a diplomatically awkward way of letting us know my grandma wasn’t going to make it. “Oftentimes it does more harm than good.”

Hospice existed to ease a loved one’s passing, not to rehabilitate them. That was why my uncles had hidden the syringe. They were trying to keep my grandma alive in a place that was trying to choke her out. My family and the staff were working toward opposite goals. It made me wonder why they brought her here in the first place.

“When my sister comes,” said Bryan, “we want to have a sit down with the doctor.”

“I’ll let the scheduling attendant know,” the nurse came over to my grandma’s bedside. “Let’s get rid of some of these bracelets.” She began cutting the plastic hospital tags from her wrists. “What was your grandma like?” She asked me.

“This is her first nap,” I said, trying to explain.

Bryan left the room, his phone ringing in his pocket.

“She was always on the go?” Asked the nurse.

“She was incredible,” I nodded.

The nurse threw the plastic wristbands into the garbage, then began fluffing her pillows and rearranging the sheets, “What did she do for a living?”

“They ran a 10,000 acre cattle ranch in North Dakota,” I took my grandma’s hand into my own. It was the first time we had ever held hands. “Is she in there?” I asked, looking at the gaunt face, searching for that tireless spark.

“She can hear you,” the nurse tucked a blanket under her legs and adjusted the tilt of the bed, “I don’t know if she can process the information, but hearing is usually the last sense to go. If there’s something you want to tell her, she’ll be able to hear you.”

I began to cry. My entire life, we had never said much, and now that she was dying, what did it matter? I sat there feeling hopeless and alone, holding the hand of a woman I barely knew. Was sorrow just regret in disguise? If you loved someone well enough, would their death be a joyful thing?

Dwight came in with Craig, then Bryan showed up with the doctor. She was beautiful, with healthy skin and a purple clipboard. They stood in the room discussing the events of the previous night, recounting the the attempt to medicate my grandma.

“Your nurse came across pretty strong,” said Craig, “insisting that we do this and I said, ‘We ain’t going there.’ Then a little while later, she come back in and wanted to giver her something for pain and I said, ‘What are you guys doing!? I thought we had this cleared up,’ and she insisted. I mean, what is with you people?”

“I am very sorry,” said the doctor, with compassion in her voice, “and I hope you’ll give us a chance to win back your trust.”

“Trustworthiness is something that’s lacking in society today,” said Bryan sagely. “We come from a family where it’s pretty important.”

The doctor assured them that she and her staff would follow their wishes explicitly, and promised that it wouldn’t happen again.

“The neurosurgeon told us that she isn’t in any pain,” Bryan pressed the point, “but the nurse said she is in pain and kept trying to give her medication. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go with the neurosurgeons on this one.”

“I’ve never known anyone to break their ribs and not be in pain,” said the doctor. “But this is your decision, and we will respect it.”

“Thank you for taking the time to talk to us,” Bryan ended the discussion.

The doctor came over to my grandma’s bed and began checking her vitals.

“Why do you wear your wedding ring on the wrong hand?” I asked, wondering how someone so young could already be a doctor.

“It’s a silly story,” she smiled warmly. “My husband was playing flag football and he grabbed someone’s shirt and broke his ring finger. The finger swelled up and he’s never been able to wear it on his right hand again. So now I wear mine on my right hand too.” She checked my grandma’s pick line and recorded something in a book.

“Who knew flag football could be so dangerous?” I joked.

“Right?” She laughed.

Pastor Mark came in the room, “Hey guys,” he said warmly, “I brought you some get well cards that the children at church made.” He placed a stack of construction paper and crayon drawings on a table, “Where’s Alick?”

“Getting his hair cut,” said Bryan.

“I hope it’s a buzz cut,” I said, knowing that it wouldn’t be. For too long my grandma had controlled him, even now, a part of her was in charge.

“I better get my hair cut before Gaye gets here,” Dwight said, in reference to his unfortunately-named wife. “She’s pretty particular about my hair.” It seemed the Dvirnak men had all chosen wives who cared deeply about their husband’s hairstyles.

“Hello, everyone, I’m Denice,” a strange lady with dark eyes entered the room. She was tall and skinny with a severe face and home spun clothing, “I’m a social worker, here to provide emotional and practical support for families here at hospice. Are you the Dvirnaks?”

“We are,” said Dwight, approaching the woman and shaking her hand.

“Nathan,” David caught my attention, gesturing covertly, signaling that he wanted to meet in the hallway. I followed him out, past a few decorative tables full of flowers, stopping next to a painting of a moose. “Your mother is going to ask that an I.V. be inserted,” he said in a low voice, looking around suspiciously. “Both of us believe that Mother is trying to wake up,” he nodded at me maniacally, his eyes bulging with sincerity. “My brothers don’t see it that way. They’re just waiting for the end, but I can’t help it. I have special knowledge because I’ve spent so much time with Mother since being here.” He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one had snuck up behind him. “They say I’m trying to be a hero.”

“Who does?” I asked, slightly confused.

“Bryan,” he grumbled, “but that’s OK, because as I suspected—”

The friendly doctor who wore her wedding ring on the opposite hand approached, cutting David short, “Hi. I was told that I need to contact Diane, but I called and she didn’t answer.”

“Would you like to use my phone?” David fumbled for his cell phone, “It’s fairly germ free.”

“Oh,” the doctor watched him dialing my mom’s number, “do you think I should just wait for her?”

“Hey, Diane,” my uncle spoke into the receiver, “I’ve got Dr. Amy here, she wants to talk to you.” He handed the phone proudly to the doctor.

“Hi, Diane, this is Dr. Moler,” she walked down the hall, speaking with my mother.

“Bryan is strong,” David returned to our conversation, “but he has more weak points than strong points. He’s dealing with the death of his son and Parkinson’s and now this thing with Mom. His world is falling apart and he’s used to controlling things. Subjecting himself to—” Dr. Moler returned and handed the phone back to David.

“Here you go.”

“Any time,” David fixed her with his wild gaze. “What’s mine is yours,” he said a little too sincerely.

“Um,” Dr. Moler took a step back, a little confused, a little weirded out, “alright.” She walked down the hall, no doubt failing to imagine a scenario in which she would have to ask my uncle to use his phone again.

“Bryan has no guidance system,” David turned back to me, “he’s trying to navigate, but he’s not used to the chaos,” his eyes grew wide, delighting in the word. Chaos!

“So we’ve got to help him, right?” I tried to bring him back to reality.

“He’s in dangerous waters without a skipper,” my uncle cackled. His older brother was having a tough time, and he found it delightful.

“Let’s get back in there,” I gestured towards the room. “Families should be together during times like this.”

“Don’t I know it brother,” David headed back into the room, “don’t I know it.”

Inside, the strange lady with the homely face was talking to Craig, “Take some time to look through these papers,” she handed Craig a pile of forms, “and I’m here to help if you have any questions.”

“All of us kids have said that Dad’ll die of a broken heart,” Craig shuffled through the paperwork. Death, it seemed, was a complicated matter. 

“I’m David,” my uncle introduced himself to the strange, dark eyed lady.

“I’m the social worker here,” she said pleasantly, “and I’m also here to sing to her,” she nodded towards my grandma.

“Oh,” said David with a surprised tone.

The social worker pulled out a sheaf of sheet music with lyrics to classic hymns printed on them, “I was told your mother sang with the Sweet Adelines and that Amazing Grace was one of her favorite songs.”

“Eh,” David said skeptically, “I don’t know how she felt about that one, but I know for a fact that she loved The Old Rugged Cross.

“Are you sure?” The social worker pushed back, “Amazing Grace is quite the song.”

The Old Rugged Cross,” my uncle said with certainty, “that was her favorite.”

“I don’t think I have it in the right key,” the woman said, hoping my uncle would concede. Apparently, she really wanted to sing Amazing Grace.

“I can transpose it for you,” said David, “I trained for 11 years with a graduate from Julliard.”

“That won’t be necessary,“ the practical as well as emotional social worker finally gave in. “It might not come out as good as Amazing Grace, but I’ll do my best.” She stepped to the foot of my grandma’s bed and cleared her throat, “The Old Rugged Cross, by George Bennard,” she announced in a measured tone, signaling that it was time for my family to be quiet. Dutifully, we gathered around, each of us feeling awkward in our own way. Pastor Mark closed his eyes and folded his hands in prayer. The social worker smiled at the group, clearly glad for an audience, “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,” she began, her voice overly sweet and refined. “The emblem of suff’ring and shame…”

Her vibrato warbled and lilted, piercing the raspy breath of my dying grandma’s paper lungs.

“And I love that old cross where the Dearest and Best, for a world of lost sinners was slain…”

What was the point, I wondered, of worship music and hymns sung in a place so full of death. Did they hope to ward off the inevitable, to implore upon the mercy of their God in such a way that He would stay His bloody hand?

Her voice swelled as she crashed into the refrain. I inched closer, knowing that some day I would use the recording in my podcast.

“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, ‘till my trophies at last I lay down…”“

The old rugged cross, it was a metaphor for the trials of life, for the pain and hardship that is a constant of the human condition. It seemed that everyone eventually viewed their struggles as blessings, as crosses that brought redemption, but was this a human trait, or the nature of the universe itself?

My grandma lay in bed, fighting her last battle, stripped bare of everything that used to shield her from the truth.

“I will cling to the old rugged cross…”

The nurse said she could still hear. I hoped she was right, and that David knew what he was talking about, that this was her favorite song.

“And exchange it someday for a crown.”

The promise of suffering. The belief that someday our pain will lead to reward. I looked at the broken, struggling thing in that hospital bed, and hoped that it was true.

to be continued

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