“Well, like I said, I slapped her the first time when she was pregnant with Timmy. She must have been about six months or so along. It just . . . happened. Before I even knew what I was doing, I heard the sound of my hand slapping her cheek.” He sat for a moment, breathed heavily. “I’ll never forget that sound as long as I live. Which, according to the doctors here, won’t be much longer. And brings me to my first question.”
“Shoot,” Kevin said, anxious to see whether the question he anticipated hearing would be the one that was actually troubling Jake. After so many years in the ministry, it was like a little game he played as he counseled his parishioners, hospital patients or the other folks who occasionally found their way into his church. When his prediction was wrong, he made a note, sometimes using the insight revealed during such exchanges to punctuate a point in his weekly sermons.
“After this cancer takes me . . . after I’m dead, will I finally stop hearing that sound?” Jake inquired matter-of-factly. “Because I’ve been hearing it every time I close my eyes for all these years. And frankly, Kevin, I need to know whether your God is going to give me some relief from that sound, given that he is taking me out ahead of schedule, so to speak.”
“Jake, I believe that you will find peace here, on earth, before you die, if you just ask for it,” Kevin said genuinely, making a mental note that he had accurately anticipated Jake’s question.
“Hhmmph,” Jake grunted. “Stock answer. I expected better from you, Kevin.”
“If you are truly remorseful and ask forgiveness, it is given, Jake,” Kevin explained, completely nonplussed by Jake’s cynicism. “But forgiveness is a tricky thing. Even though God forgave you long ago, you haven’t forgiven yourself. And until you do, you will never have any peace.”
“The best profit of future is the past.”
Jake stared at the pastor, one eyebrow raised in acknowledgment that Kevin’s response was precisely on target. Kevin waited, as he had on so many similar occasions, for Jake to continue telling his story and asking the questions that had been weighing him down for so many years, wondering if the conversation was going to proceed along the course he envisioned.
Jake reached for the top drawer of the bedside stand. “Let me help you,” Kevin offered, rising from his chair and walking over to the side of the hospital bed.
“Can you reach into the drawer and get my wallet?” Jake asked.
“Certainly.” Kevin opened the drawer, removed a plastic bag upon which the words “Patient’s Belongings” were stamped, and handed it to Jake.
His hands shook slightly as Jake opened the well-worn leather wallet from which he retrieved a small plastic bag and held it out to Kevin. At first, Kevin thought the bag was empty but, as he took it into his hands, he could see a single small piece of white paper was encased in it. Taking his reading glasses from their case, he perched them on the bridge of his nose as he held the bag up and considered the tiny slip of paper. From that vantage point, he could see that the type was faded, but it was a fortune — the type found in fortune cookies.
“The best profit of future is the past,” he read aloud, as Jake mouthed the words along with him. He looked at Jake quizzically, but waited for Jake to answer all of his unarticulated questions.
“About six months after she took Timmy and left, I went down to Chinatown for dinner with some of my employees. After dinner, everyone was reading their fortune out loud. That was mine. When no one was looking, I stuck it in my pocket, took it home, and have carried it in my wallet ever since. I was so stupid,” Jake said, shaking his head. “I thought it was some kind of sign . . . an indicator that I should keep the private detectives working, looking for them. I thought that stupid fortune was telling me that learning from my past mistakes would give me back the future. Boy, was I wrong.”
Kevin started to hand the plastic bag back to Jake, but he put up his hand in protest. “No, preacher,” he said sarcastically. “You keep it. Maybe it will bring you some good fortune. God knows it never did anything for me.” Then he added, “God knows. God. I guess he always knows where they are, but he sure never let me in on the secret, did he? Now I guess I’ll never know. I never had the chance to make things right,” his voice broke as he turned his face back toward the window.
“Jake,” Kevin said gently. “Tell me about the day they left. How did it happen? Did she tell you she was leaving? Was it a big fight that ended up with her storming out of the house, or . . . ? I’d like to know. If you want to tell me, that is.”
“Like I said, it was Christmastime. There hadn’t been much work because of the rain, so I’d had a lot of free time on my hands. Time to drink with the guys, play some cards, kill time. I wasn’t spending enough time with her — or Timmy — and she was very unhappy about it. So we fought a lot during those weeks leading up to . . . ” Jake shifted a bit in the bed, wincing as the needles from the i.v.’s dug further into his veins when he leaned on his arm in order to steady himself.
“Anyway, we were supposed to go to the company Christmas party that night, but we never made it. We ended up having a terrible fight. Thank God Timmy wasn’t there. She had taken him to her sister’s house to spend the weekend so that we could go to the party and get some sleep the next morning. So he didn’t hear us arguing when we were getting ready to go to the party,” he explained.
“Basically, that night it was just more of the same,” he continued. “She warned me not to drink too much and embarrass her, I got mad . . . the next thing you know, I shoved her across the living room. She fell backwards and, as she felt herself falling, she put her hand out to grab something. What she grabbed was a branch of the Christmas tree, so, of course, it fell down as she did. Thank God it didn’t land on her, but all of the ornaments broke and that made her cry, of course. Which made me even madder.”
Jake stopped for a moment to collect his thoughts, take a few deep breaths, and control the tears that were welling up in his eyes. Kevin continued to wait patiently for him to gather the strength to keep relating the events of that evening.
“Anyway, we never made it to the party. I ended up pushing her around more after the tree fell . . . we said some really ugly things to each other. I hit her pretty hard. Caught her on the left side of her face and gave her a large bruise on her cheek and under her eye. Bruised up her arms and one of her legs pretty good, too. Some of those marks were probably caused by her fall in the living room when the tree was knocked down,” he said. He let his head hang down on his chest, his eyes closed, as he recalled the events of that night. Without moving, he continued speaking. “I stormed out of the house, of course. Went down to the neighborhood bar to cool off. Stayed there a few hours.”
“But Kevin,” he said, “something happened to me that night. I knew that was it. I knew we couldn’t go on like that. When I walked out the door of the house, she was standing in the living room, crying. All bruised up. I couldn’t look at her, so I had to get away for a while. It was like something inside of me snapped. I knew I wasn’t a man. No man does that to the woman he loves. No, sir. Something was wrong with me. And I made up my mind while I was walking down the sidewalk to the bar that night that things were going to change.”
Jake was speaking with a resolve that mirrored the determination he felt on that night so many years earlier. “I went to the bar because I didn’t know where else to go. But I didn’t drink. Nope. I didn’t touch a drop of liquor that night. I drank coffee. Several cups of strong, black coffee. Told the bartender, Eddy, to keep the coffee coming. He just laughed . . . figured I needed to sober up in order to go home, and I just let him think that. But I wasn’t drunk that night . . . and I’ve never been drunk since.”
With that, he stopped speaking and looked deep into Kevin’s blue eyes, as Kevin sat mesmerized by the story that was unfolding. “No, sir. I never took another drop of liquor the rest of my life.”
“Never?” Kevin asked incredulously. “You’ve never had any alcohol since that night? None at all? Note even a beer or a glass of wine?”
“Nothing. Not a drop. Not even a taste of your fancy communion wine,” Jake declared. “For all the good it did me. I’ve been thinking about checking out of this hospital and getting good and drunk. So here’s my next question, pastor. What do you think of that plan?”
“I think that, considering all of the medication you are probably receiving, that would be very foolish. You would most likely just make yourself sicker than you already feel,” Kevin replied matter-of-factly.
“Yup, I suspect you are correct, preacher,” Jake sighed.
“So what happened that night after you left the bar? Did you go back home?” Kevin’s own curiosity fueled his effort to keep Jake talking.
“I did,” Jake smiled softly. “While I was in the bar having my ‘come-to-Jesus’ — you should excuse the expression — moments, she cleaned up the mess, righted the Christmas tree, and rehung the few ornaments that hadn’t broken. She was in bed, but not asleep, when I got back. And Kevin, . . . ” Jake’s voice trailed off for a few seconds. “Well, let me just put it this way. That was the most beautiful night of our married life, if you get my meaning.”
Kevin smiled and nodded knowingly. “I’m a married man,” he said quietly. “I get it.”
“We didn’t do any sleeping that night,” Jake recalled gently. “I got into bed with her and she could see that I was stone-cold sober. I told her how sorry I was. She rolled over, looked at me with real sad eyes, and then came right into my arms like nothing was wrong. We didn’t do any more talking. Yessir, it was a beautiful night,” Jake said, softly clearing his throat.
“Sounds like it,” Kevin responded. “So now I’m confused. You told her about your ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment — your epiphany, as it were? What happened? Did you break your promises? Fail to follow through? Is that why she left you?”
“Nope. None of that,” Jake said, shaking his head as the bitter tone with which the conversation had begun crept back into his voice. “I never got a chance to tell her that everything was going to be different. Never got a chance.”
Kevin continued gazing at him with a puzzled expression on his face.
“The next morning — Sunday morning — we were going to have some breakfast and then pick Timmy up. I was going to tell her what I decided the night before. I had it all planned in my head. I was going to sit her down at the kitchen table, and promise her that I would never lay a hand on her again. I was going to ask her to help me find one of those groups . . . you know, where you go to meetings.”
“AA?” Kevin interjected.
“No, one of those other groups for men who hit their wives,” Jake clarified. “I was going to get real, serious help. I knew that if I didn’t, things would keep getting worse and worse . . . Kevin, I scared myself real good that night. I was afraid that eventually I would really hurt her. Or Timmy.”
Kevin waited, afraid now that his suspicions about how Jake’s story would end were about to be confirmed.
“That morning, she told me to get a little more sleep. She was going to take a shower, put the coffee on, make us some breakfast. She got up from the bed and walked toward the bathroom. The morning light coming from that room was very bright. It was one of those sunny December mornings when it’s so cold you can practically feel the air. No fog, no clouds. The kind of day when they take the postcard pictures and write the songs about San Francisco. Just a cold, sunny, beautiful morning . . . like the night before had ended up being.”
“So I mumbled, ‘O.K., wake me up when breakfast is ready.’ I looked up at her as she was walking into the bathroom to take a shower. She paused for a moment in the doorway and the light behind her was so bright . . . I remember thinking to myself how gorgeous she looked standing there. She turned back toward me for a moment and I thought to myself that her face was absolutely perfect. At least the side without the bruises was. And I told myself again what a lucky man I was and swore I would never, ever again lay a hand on her or hurt her. She said, ‘All right. I’ll wake you up. Now you get some sleep.’ And then she added, ‘Always remember that I loved you.’ I thought that was kind of an odd thing for her to say, but I was half-asleep and dozed right back off.”
Kevin sat perfectly still as Jake continued relaying the details, horrified as he conceptualized the inevitable conclusion of Jake’s story. “She was gone when you woke up, wasn’t she?” he asked softly.
“Yessir, she was,” Jake said resolutely. “Gone. She had it all planned. I never saw her or Timmy again.”
“Jake, I’m so sorry,” Kevin said with genuine compassion.
“I never got a chance to tell her all the things I’d planned to say that morning. Never had a chance to get help and put things right between us or for Timmy. I woke up a few hours later and the house was perfectly quiet. I had the feeling that I had slept a lot longer than I intended to . . . you know that feeling, Kevin?” Jake asked.
“I do,” Kevin replied. “Like the first time your baby sleeps through the night and you know the moment your eyes fly open that you have been asleep way too long. You panic for a moment, until you realize that everything is fine. It’s a terrible feeling.”
“That it is,” Jake agreed. “And every morning has been like that for the last thirty-five years. Every morning when I wake up, I see my beautiful wife standing in the doorway with the light behind her. Before I open my eyes, I think I’m going to realize that it was all just a bad dream, and she’ll be in the kitchen drinking coffee, waiting for me. But every morning, I have that same feeling of panic when I realize that it wasn’t a dream . . . it really happened and I’ve never been able to do anything to change it. Imagine living your life like that for thirty-five years, Kevin?” Jake asked cynically.
“No, Jake,” Kevin said with genuine compassion and sadness in his voice. “No. I can’t imagine.” The two men sat in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds before Jake asserted, “Well, I have another question for you. This is the big one. The granddaddy question. You ready for it?”
“I guess so. Lay it on me,” Kevin replied, completely rattled by the manner in which Jake’s tale had ended.
“Think hell is gonna be any worse?” Jake asked somewhat defiantly. “Cause I’m betting that’s where your God is planning to send me . . . since I stopped believing in him all those years ago. Think whatever he’s got in mind for me after this cancer takes me out could possibly be any worse than what the last thirty-five years have been like?”
“Jake.” Kevin could say only the man’s name. Despite his years of experience at the bedsides of terminally ill or critically injured people of all ages from a multitude of backgrounds, he found himself at a complete loss for words. “Jake . . .”
“Looks like I’ve succeeded,” Jake laughed cryptically. “I was wondering if I could stump the preacher.” He continued chuckling to himself.
Regaining his composure, Kevin looked him squarely in the eye as he collected his thoughts. “Jake, I don’t believe that God has any greater punishment in store for you than you have already endured here on earth. You have punished yourself over and over by not being able to forgive yourself for what you did all those years ago. I can’t judge you. Only God himself can do that, but I believe that you are a man who has suffered greatly for his sins. You have a repentant heart and contrite spirit. I am going to pray to God to show you his merciful kindness in the coming days. And I’m going to ask him to give you the peace that passes understanding.”
Kevin continued, “Someday in the not-too-distant-future, I believe that you will be given answers to all of the questions you are asking — all of the answers you’d like me to provide. But I can’t provide them because all of your questions really boil down to one question: Why? And that’s the one question I can’t answer. No one can answer it. So, in that respect, I’m afraid that I am failing you today. All I can tell you is that God loves you unconditionally and will never forsake you. All I can do is ask you to believe that — as a matter of faith.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured you would say,” Jake replied. Just then a nurse entered the room. “How are you doing, Jake? Is there anything I can get you?”
“No, I’m doing just fine,” Jake responded.
“All right,” the nurse said brightly as she checked the bags dangling from the i.v. pole next to his bed. “We’re going to be having dinner in about a half hour. This bag,” she gestured to the largest bag, “should be empty by then. You’ll be free of this one for the evening. You’ll get the next dose tomorrow.”
“No, I won’t,” Jake said calmly.
“Excuse me?” the nurse replied as she jotted some notes on a small pad of paper she had pulled from the pocket of the brightly colored smock she wore over a pair of green surgical scrubs.
“No more doses for me. No more medication. I’m going to go home tomorrow,” Jake explained. “This stuff isn’t going to help me. It’s only going to prolong the inevitable and I don’t want to spend my last days in this room. I’m going home to my boat and I’m going to spend my last days on it.”
“Have you helped him make this decision?” the nurse asked Kevin. Gazing at Jake, he saw the determination in Jake’s eyes, and replied, “Yes. Yes, I have.”
“Please get whatever paperwork I need to sign in order, because I am going to leave first thing in the morning,” Jake requested politely, but firmly. “I assume the doctors are going to want me to sign my life away — no pun intended — so they can be sure that I won’t sue them later. So please let them know what my plans are.”
“All right,” the nurse replied. “I’ll call your doctor right now.” She fluffed his pillows and let her hand linger on his shoulder for a few moments, as she asked, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“You’ve seen my chart,” Jake said. “Can you blame me?”
Moving her hand to his, she gave him a little squeeze as she smiled in silent understanding and affirmation of his decision before leaving the two men alone again.
“Would you like me to come back in the morning to be here when you check out? Can I give you a lift to your boat or help you in some way?” Kevin asked.
“No, Kevin, you’ve done enough.You just listened to me tell you things that I have never verbalized to anyone. You’ve helped me make my decision about how to spend what time is left to me. You’ve done more than I could ever have asked of anyone. There’s nothing more you or anyone else can do for me now,” Jake said. “You haven’t failed. You said it best, preacher. From here on out, I’m completely in the hands of your God, right?”
“The one you don’t believe in,” Kevin teased gently.
“Yup. That one.” Jake smiled at Kevin, as he stood and approached the bed. He reached into his pocket and removed a small vial of oil. Placing a small amount on his right forefinger, Kevin took Jake’s hand in his as he gently rested his other hand on Jake’s head. “Jake, child of God,” he said, as he made the sign of the cross on Jake’s forehead with the oil, “know that you are loved unconditionally and that all of your sins are forgiven. The one who gave his life for you has gone before you to prepare a place for you. Soon you will be there with him — in paradise. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Both men were overcome with emotion and unable to speak. Kevin simply squeezed Jake’s shoulder as he eased away from the bed toward the doorway and exited the room, knowing that he would never see Jake again.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning in the San Francisco bay. The night before, Jake had cut the motor and simply let his beloved boat drift with the current as he sat on the deck sipping a cup of hot cocoa, studying the lights illuminating the city he had called home his entire life.
The vessel was floating with the current past Alcatraz toward the Golden Gate bridge when he drifted off to sleep, confident that his remaining time was growing short because he was getting weaker and breathing with increasing difficulty. He could no longer navigate the stairs to the cabin below, so he wrapped himself in a couple of warm blankets and got comfortable on deck, dozing off as he considered the lights along the shoreline.
In the morning, he awoke just as the sun was rising brightly over the East Bay. He realized immediately that he did not have sufficient strength to stand, so shifted slightly and resolve to sleep awhile longer as the cool morning seabreeze caressed his face. He opened his eyes just for a moment and squinted into the sun. It was then that he saw her — as he had every morning since the day his life changed irrevocably. She was rising from the deck and moving away from him in the direction of the light. He smiled groggily as he considered how beautiful she looked with the morning light behind her as she turned her head slightly and looked back at him, revealing only the right side of her perfect face — the one without the bruises. He again heard her say, “I’ll wake you up. Now you get some sleep. And always remember that I loved you” just before he fell into a deep sleep from which he would not again awaken.
Click here to read Chapter Three.