St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology
10:00 PM - Promises

Ryan McCandless

Gregory Johnson was back on his ship and a cool breeze came from the North. The salt of the ocean tickled his nose, but this was home; the open Pacific with the planks of the little fishing trolley underneath his booted feet.
    “She’s the most beautiful lady you’ll ever see, Gregory,” a young man’s voice came from behind. Gregory’s blue eyes softened as he looked out at the ocean and thought of the first time he saw the tiny ship he would christen “Luna Marie” sitting at the end of the docks.
    “She’ll get you through a lot,” the voice came again.
    “Yes she has,” he murmured, somehow not finding his full voice.  The breeze had gone, but clouds seemed to gather in the west.  Gregory closed his eyes and put his hand on the cold metal railing on the starboard side of the boat.
    “We’ll get through a lot.”
    The boat rose and fell gently, continuously soothing him and he thought of the waves in front of him and behind him.  These gentle movements were his ground.  The cold railing was real and he understood it.  He gripped it firmer with his left hand.  There was not anyone telling him that it wasn’t there.  Solid, firm and he looked down to confirm this and his blurry eyes took in his hand gripping metal too shiny for him to understand.  No longer were there any water or waves, but the white mass of a wall.  His eyes became wide with tears as he began to question the pain that suddenly seared through his bones, the deteriorating effect of cancer.
Gregory looked around the simple white room and realized that the ship was just a dream.  He was in the care of some sort of hospital. He had frequented enough to notice that this wasn’t an ordinary hospital.  A calendar with a puppy on it was tacked above a dresser that held a bucket with tubes of ointment and baby powder bottles in it. A commode was placed by a large white cubby against the wall where he could see his black coat and white knit hat hanging. Those items relieved Gregory to see, but more was the relief that cords weren’t sticking out of him except for the catheter strapped tight around his right thigh. He pulled a hand to his clean-shaven face and remembered that someone shaved off his beard but left his mustache.   He wanted to sigh, but breathing was heavy under the pain. Instead the sound that came forth was a groan. A man rushed into the room and asked him if he needed his pain medicine. Gregory’s wince and nod brought the man back with a syringe that was quickly administered under his tongue.  The pain became bearable.
    Gregory watched droopy eyed as the man left and a younger man came and sat in a folding chair beside his bed.  The young man looked familiar to Gregory, but he couldn’t place him.  The young man held a book on his lap, and after a short time he began to read out loud.   His voice was young and smooth, somewhat in a middle tone.  Very pleasant, thought Gregory as an atmosphere formed in Gregory’s mind of a cool cloudy morning.  He found himself sitting upon a tall headstone in a cemetery not too far from the ocean.  The sound from the harbor bell hung dense in the air as Gregory kicked his legs back and forth.  He felt like he was ten years old.  He noticed a dark figure approach him wearing a navy blue pea-coat and a hat to match.
    “You know you won’t be buried here,” the man spoke in a low rumble.  He came closer.
    “I’m not needing to be buried, I ain’t dead,” said Gregory.
    “You’ll be buried over there,” the man pointed behind Gregory.  Naturally Gregory followed the man’s finger to see the small ocean side cemetery expand into a large endless field of dead trees and burnt grass.  “You’ll be known as 11-76, unmarked, next to the others like you.”
    “I’m not going to die.  I’m fit to be healed.”  Gregory turned as the figure stood a foot from him.  The man had no face instead it was like swirling darkness.  The man, if it was to be called a man, had dim yellowish eyes, if it they were really were eyes, and they seemed to grow wider.  Gregory looked away and jumped from the headstone.  It lunged at Gregory’s throat and the tight grip forced his eyes shut.
    “You deserve this pain that you brought yourself.  Keep it up.  You surely won’t die from it.”
    Gregory gasped and opened his eyes.  The young man was still there by the bed; he looked alarmed.  The young man stood up and approached him.
    “Do you need a drink?” asked the young man.  Gregory nodded.  The young man grabbed the cup with a straw in it.  He held it for Gregory as he struggled to suck and swallow the water.  After he had enough the young man put the cup on the tray table.
    “You got the story wrong,” said Gregory.
    “I can go to the next chapter.”
    Gregory shook his head and put up a hand.  The young man sat back down and Gregory sighed, wanting the young man to leave.  The young man instead pulled a long strand of red string from his pocket.  Gregory could see the young man tying a series of small knots.   Gregory watched as the young man skillfully twisted the twine around his finger and then pulled the twine through tight to make the knot.  He watched entranced.   Again, he could smell the salt in the air and hear seagulls, the comforting lull of the tide welcoming Gregory.  He found himself winding string around his fingers and tied a knot to finish reinforcing the oldest of his fishing nets.  He glanced up and thought he had seen a young girl alone on the far dock.  He was reminded of his daughter the first time he met her.  He looked again and saw a young woman there.  She wore a white summer dress and a navy blue shawl.  The wind blew, but her clothes and blonde hair seemed to not be affected by it.  He stared in wonderment.  Soon he was next to her.
    “I never knew my mother,” she said staring out past the waves to the end of what seemed to be the world.
    “I never knew mine either,” Gregory took the young woman’s shoulder in his rough hand.  “You look like your mother.”
    “I know.  We all do.”
    “What do you mean?” Gregory said in bewilderment.
    “She birthed us all.”
    Gregory tried to turn the girl to see into her eyes, but she still looked forward into the waves.
    “What?” he whispered.
    “She’s been pointing you home.”
    “What do you mean?” Gregory asked. “I live here and no one pointing me anywhere.  Stop being so. . .”
    Suddenly the young woman was gone.  The wood of the pier they stood on quickly filled with grass and rolled up to a green expansive field.  There, on a bench by a tree, the young woman sat with her back to him.  He walked slowly up to her.
    “Gracie, I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he paused and reconsidered.  “Heck I’m sorry for not being there for you.  I,” Gregory stopped behind the bench.  Birds began chirping and he noticed the air was crisper, cleaner, with a hint of salt.  “I wasn’t meant to be a father.  That is why I had Cora, my sister, take care of you.  You were supposed to have met your mother.  I promised so much to all of you, but-- you see, plans change and I stopped making plans.  I tried doing nice things but I always ended up in trouble.  The trouble, well I enjoyed it.  I figured that was why I am suffering so much.  I deserved it for treating you all so bad.  What I put you through, I thought the suffering would be worse.”  
    Gregory sensed darkness over his shoulder. Something told him not to look. An aroma of sweet and bitter lifted his nostrils.  The coldness of the figure brushed up against him.
    “You don’t deserve pain, “ came a raspy low voice.  “That’s why you’re helping yourself to be rid of it.  Doctors won’t help you, family won’t help you- See, she hasn’t even turned around to acknowledge you.  It’s time to wake up, ask for more medicine.  Then you can go to the streets.  They are kind to you and you know what to expect from them.  See, you do have plans and these plans make sense, Gregory.”
    Gregory began to seethe inside.  He spun and grabbed the figure by the neck and spoke into the swirling darkness.
    “You liar! It is one or the other.  I am in need of help and you offer me confusion.”
    “Does she not either?” the darkness’s face became more formed the mouth looked twisted in pain.  Its eyes shook in fear.  “She knows nothing of your mother.”
    “My mother, and what do you know?”
    “Your mother was a prostitute, a common whore.  I only speak the truth.”
    “How dare you speak of my mother that way.  My father had the utmost respect for her.”  Gregory held on to the figure tighter.
    “The father that lamented life- he drained himself because he was responsible for her death.  He never paid any attention to you.  To you, the strong boy, ready to go on and make a name for himself in the Navy.  You had everything to prove to him, but he didn’t care.  Remember when you left on the boat.  He wasn’t there to send you off.  Your sister was there, your brother.  Dad was by himself in the office.”
    “Leave me alone!” Gregory pushed the figure to the ground.  “You’ve been in my mind making me speculate.  You are vile.  I’ve pain inside and you lead me to more pain.  This girl is all I have.”
    “Then why did she lead you here?”  The figure stood and pointed at the ground.  Gregory peered down and saw a small concrete medallion pressed into the manicured field.  On it was a number 11-77.  About two feet from it there was another with the number 11-78.  He spun around and saw headstones lining the area. The young woman still sat on the bench, but she seemed hunched in tears.  
    “I told you where you were to be buried.”
    “Shut up,” Gregory said to the figure.  He turned away from the figure and went to the front of the bench.  “Why did you bring me here?” Gregory demanded and stood facing her.  She sat with head in hands.
    “Do you want to be healed?” the young woman said and pulled her hands down.  Her blue eyes were filled with tears, but her face glowed.
    “Yes,” said Gregory, calming down at the sight of her.  He knelt down.
    “Go, and be washed,” she said.  Her face became blurry to him and he tried to grab at her fiercely as she faded.  “No.  Don’t go. No.  Gracie!”   
    “Gregory! It’s okay,” Gregory awoke to his hands flailing wild.   A woman and a man came to bring him under control.  “Gregory, it’s okay, it’s just a dream,” came the concerned voice of a woman.  He brought his arms under control and wanted to kick his legs out, but there was resistance.  His body ached painfully.  “Gregory, it’s Sr. Jude Marie.  You’ve been asleep for quite sometime.”  The short little sister bent down to meet Gregory at eye level.  She stroked his hair.  “I wanted to talk to you about what we discussed a couple of days ago.  I brought some friends with me.”
    Gregory looked past her to see two other sisters and a man in clerics    “Gregory, this is Fr. Todd,” said Sr. Jude.  “Don’t be afraid.  He is only here to help.”  Gregory relaxed a little, but he still was apprehensive to the priest’s presence.
    “I asked you about people like siblings or friends that we could contact concerning you.  You don’t have anyone for us to contact do you?”
    Gregory shook his head and closed his eyes. The image of his sister driving away from the docks about 10 years ago was the last memory of his daughter, Gracie, waving from the backseat.  Any attempts to contact them were futile.  His father died years into Gregory’s navy tour, and his brother had died a day before his own wedding.
“Gregory, remember we talked about your condition?”
    Gregory nodded.  He could remember his tantrum about signing off on the DNR command.  Sr. Jude had a way to make things seem right.  She explained so clearly how suffering with bone cancer and other ailments would only increase if he were to be resuscitated.
    “I talked to you about a promise I made,” she said.
    He nodded.  A promise that he felt was impossible.  Gregory at first didn’t believe that any powerful being was able to help him achieve healing.  Somehow, now, he understood that his attempts to help himself really had pulled him into a worse condition. He had seen friends on the street realize this and their friendship diminish because he was just a bad influence on them.  The thought of being “healed” was truly only in what he sought, and it was so easy to seek to drugs, alcohol, and sex to take the pain away.  It was so unfulfilling though, and Gregory seemed now to see his thinking in a new way.
    “That promise can only come about if you believe that it will help you.  Gregory, we want what is best for you and can give you what is best for you.  Do you desire what is best for you?”
    Gregory nodded.  No one passes up what is best for them.    
    “Fr. Todd is going to ask you a few questions.”
    Gregory nodded again.
    “Gregory, these questions will affirm your thinking of the realities you experience,” said Fr. Todd.  Gregory closed his eyes.
    “Do you reject Satan?”
    Suddenly, Gregory’s mind flooded with black entities and the figure from cemetery grew into view.  The navy blue pea-coat and hat he wore became engulfed in the swirling cloud of darkness.  The form began to speak.
    “I’ve been so good to you, Gregory.  I’ve offered you so many better alternatives.”  
    Gregory opened his eyes and nodded his head at the priest.
    “And all his works?”
    Gregory nodded and in his mind he brought himself in front of the form and said,  “You have been deceiving me for too long.  It’s not about me anymore!”
    “Do you believe in God. . .”
    Fr. Todd’s voice crashed into Gregory’s mind and the form seemed to drip like black ink.  It faded disappearing with a flash of lightening and the cemetery came into view.  There was the tree, the bench, but the young woman was not there.   Instead a young man stood there by the bench facing Gregory.  The man was lit almost internally, divinely.  Gregory fell prostrate, as the light grew brighter.  He felt his heart warm as cool water came down his head across his face.   Three times he felt this wonderful sensation and the lifting of his spirit.
    “Stand,” he heard the young man say and touched his shoulder.   Gregory stood up and looked down at the end of the dock at his boat.  The young man was no longer there, but on the deck stood a woman in a white summer dress with a light blue shawl over her head.  She looked out toward the clear sea.  The wind had picked up and the dress began to flow with life.  Gregory felt the dock’s wooden planks settle under his bare feet as he walked toward the boat.  The air seemed cleaner without the scent of salt in it.   Gregory came closer to the woman.  The woman turned her gaze onto him and smiled.  He had never seen a smile as warm as this woman’s.  She offered him a smooth hand and said,
“You have been made worthy of the promises of Christ.”
“Mother!” he exclaimed as he bowed his head with tears rushing from his eyes.


"The Last Sunset" by Robert Healey