He stared out the window, considering the cloudless blue sky. From the bed in his third-story hospital room, he could see the tops of the trees in the parking lot below swaying softly with the light summer breeze. He wished that he could return to the marina, hose down the decks of his small vessel, and point its bow toward the San Francisco Bay. He would sail out to sea, allowing the wind to carry him and his boat in any direction it wished for as many days as he had left on earth.
He sighed deeply as he shifted his gaze back to the I.V. pole from which hung several plastic bags containing clear liquids. Three separate tubes carried the substances from the bags to his veins. He winced as he moved his left arm. Looking down, he noticed that a new bruise had developed where the nurse had unsuccessfully tried to reinsert the needle earlier in the day.
Just as he was struggling in vain to shift his weight and find a few moments of comfort in the narrow hospital bed, the door opened and a lanky middle-aged man entered the room. “Good afternoon, Mr. Kelley!” he said cheerily as he strode toward the bed. “The folks at the front desk said you requested a visit from a chaplain. I’m Pastor O’Grady,” he announced, as he extended his right hand.
“Pastor O’Grady?” he responded warily. “You guys don’t call yourselves ‘Father’ any more?” he asked, noting that his visitor was wearing jeans and a pale yellow polo shirt with what appeared to be a logo of some sort embroidered on the left pocket.
“With a name like O’Grady, I get that question a lot,” the pastor chuckled. “But I’m not a Catholic priest. I’m a Methodist minister. Did you wish to meet with a priest? If so, I can let the hospital folks know and they will ask Father Rivera to stop in and see you.”
“No, no,” he replied. “I’m not a Catholic. I’m not a member of any church. I just wanted to speak with one of you guys when you made your rounds.”
“All right then,” the pastor said as he slid a straight chair from the corner of the room over to the side of the bed and made himself comfortable. “Looks like your getting chemotherapy in that I.V. What kind of cancer is it?”
“The kind that’s going to kill me in a few months. If not sooner,” he said matter-of-factly. “I think I’m just going to tell them to disconnect me so that I can go home and die quietly. What do you think about that idea, Pastor O’Grady?”
“I think that whether or not to continue treatment is your choice entirely,” the pastor responded with equal candor. “If the treatment is not going to provide a cure, but merely extend the amount of time you have left, you need to evaluate whether the extra time is worth it. Do you have a family, Mr. Kelley?”
“No, Pastor, I don’t,” he said softly.
“No wife or children?” Pastor O’Grady pushed gently.
“Not a soul,” he said, looking down at the plain gold wedding band on the pastor’s left hand. “I used to have a ring just like that one. I wore it for many years after my wife left me.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Oh, let’s see . . . ” his voice trailed off and he looked back toward the window as he considered his response. “It was in 1973. So it’s been thirty-five years.” He nodded silently as he turned to again face the pastor. “Thirty-five years, Pastor.”
“A long time indeed,” the other man said thoughtfully. “By the way, why don’t you call me ‘Kevin’? We don’t need formalities. Is it all right if I call you ‘Jacob’?”
“Just Jake will do,” he replied. “‘Kevin,’ huh? With a name like Kevin O’Grady, how come you’re not a Catholic?”
“Because I converted from Catholicism when I decided to enter seminary,” Kevin explained. “I was raised in the Catholic church and most of my family members are still practicing Roman Catholics. I wanted very much to enter the ministry, but I had some theological disagreements with the Church, the primary one being celibacy. When I began dating my wife in college, she was a Methodist. I visited her congregation, met with her pastor, and things just fell into place. I realized that I was called to serve, but as a Protestant pastor.”
“I bet that was a big hit with your folks,” Jake teased.
“Not,” Kevin recalled, smiling wistfully. “But they got over it and even visit my parish from time to time.”
“A happy ending then,” Jake noted. “Good for you.”
“So, Jake, how can I help you? What would you like to talk about . . . your treatment options? Or your faith . . . ? Nothing is off-limits.” Jake was warming up to the minister.
“You seem like a straight-up guy, Kevin, so I’m going to tell you straight-up that I don’t have any faith. I haven’t been a believer in your God for a long time now,” Jake explained. “And I don’t think I’m about to start believing in him now, especially considering that he hasn’t given me much more time.”
Kevin smiled slightly, but let Jake continue.
“The reason I wanted to see you today was this. I’ve got some questions. Do you have any answers?” Jake challenged him, squinting his eyes to study the pastor’s face carefully.
“Well, I’ll give it my best shot. Hit me with the first question and we’ll go from there,” Kevin said without flinching, as he met Jake’s gaze head-on. In his twenty-two year career as a minister, he had encountered many people whose circumstances were akin to Jake’s. But he never grew tired of hearing their stories, each unique but always leading up to similar inquiries to which he was well-equipped and prepared to respond.
“I tried to find her, Kevin. I tried for years. I spent every cent I earned on private detectives and none of them could ever find a trace of either one of them. I wanted to make things right . . . I planned to, but she didn’t give me a chance. Finally, I had to give up searching for them because every investigator told me the same thing — that it was hopeless. So now . . . ” he turned his face back toward the window as his voice broke, determined not to let Kevin see the tears forming.
“I take it you’re taking about your wife . . . and there was also a child?” Kevin queried.
“Yes,” he said, clearing his throat. “We had a son. She took him and left me when the boy was five years old.” The two men sat in silence for a few moments as Kevin allowed him to regain his composure.
“We were living in San Francisco. Doing real well for ourselves. I have a construction company and I was making some real good money,” Jake explained. “Got a house, had a lot of projects going, the boy was going to start kindergarten that fall. But I got too full of myself. You know?”
Kevin nodded sympathetically as he continued listening to Jake’s story.
“I started drinking too much,” Jake added. “I had a little money, beautiful wife, handsome boy. I thought I had the world by the tail . . . I was invincible. So I started stopping in at the neighborhood bar after work a little too often. I told myself it was for business. Making contacts. And that was true to some degree, but that wasn’t all of it, of course.”
“Were there other women?” Kevin asked without emotion.
“A couple, but that wasn’t really the problem,” Jake admitted. “I loved her. God knows I loved that woman. So much that there has never been a woman since. Thirty-five years . . . never remarried. Never even lived with another one. I couldn’t. She was the only one I loved. But . . . ”
“Why did she leave, Jake? Did she find out about those other women?” Kevin adeptly urged Jake to continue.
“No, that wasn’t it,” Jake replied quietly. “It was something else. Something I’m not proud of.” He sat up straighter in the hospital bed and let his head fall forward onto his chest, closing his eyes.
Kevin again waited patiently, allowing Jake to tell his story in his own time and manner.
Without looking up or opening his eyes, Jake said, “I hit her.”
“I see. How many times?”
“I don’t know. It went on for awhile. Until one day, she left . . . and never came back.” Jake looked up and allowed Kevin to see that tears were streaming down his cheeks. “That next morning I was going to tell her how sorry I was and that I was going to get help. I knew I had a problem and I was ready to face up to it. We had a wonderful night and I made up my mind that in the morning, I was going to tell her everything . . . how much she and Timmy meant to me. I was going to ask her to help me find a place to get help. But I never got the chance.”
“That was the day she left?” Kevin pushed.
“It was Christmastime. We hadn’t been working much because it was a real rainy year. I’d been spending way too much time in the bar with my employees. A couple of weeks earlier, we had a big fight about it. She was upset that I wasn’t spending much time at home — and she was right about everything. Anyway, the first time it happened was when she was pregnant. I pushed her. I didn’t hurt her that time, but it seemed like after that, every time we had an argument, I put my hands on her.”
“So things escalated over the years?” the pastor encouraged him to tell the whole story.
“Yeah. I shoved her a few times. She would push my buttons and, especially after a few drinks, I would shove her out of the way and storm out of the house. I’d stay gone for awhile, sober up, come home. I’d apologize and we’d make up. You know?” he looked at Kevin, who nodded knowingly.
“Then one day, when Timmy was a baby, she made me so mad that I slapped her across the face. I put a welt on her cheek with my big ol’ rough hand . . . oh, God, I felt terrible,” his voice broke again. After a few seconds, he said, “You know, Kevin, I’m telling you things today that I have never told another living soul. Ever. I’ve never talked about any of this to anyone before.”
“How does it feel to finally tell someone?” Kevin inquired gently.
“I’m not sure yet. I’ve carried this stuff around in my own head for so many years that it almost sounds like someone else is talking, you know?”
“Yeah. Actually, people have told me that before. I think it’s a pretty common reaction after having carried a secret around with you for so long,” Kevin explained. “Would you like to keep talking or prefer that I come back tomorrow?”
“We haven’t even gotten to my questions yet,” Jake reminded him. “Do you have to be somewhere else?”
“No, I don’t, Jake,” Kevin responded. “Tell me how you ended up spending the last thirty-five years alone.”
Click here to read Chapter Two.