Longer short story about a preacher's battle to restore hope after a trial of his faith.
|My entry for the classic story contest, spring of 2010.
Carl Wall could not remember exactly how long he and his wife had lain on the beach. The sun was warm on their skin and he had a fleeting thought that they needed to be careful not to sunburn. While the sun was warm; the partly cloudy April sky did not seem hot and Carl decided to ignore the suntan lotion for a while. He rolled up on his left side feeling the sand beneath him shift under his weight. He could hear the soothing lap of the ocean as he looked at his wife Beth lying on her towel beside him. Carl could still not understand why she had married him, but he was certainly glad she had. She was so beautiful that she took his breath away every time he looked at her. He loved her so much, but Carl was just a simple man of modest means and he felt he had so little to offer her. A bivocational mountain preacher working two jobs just to keep a roof over their heads, Carl knew Beth could have had so much more. She deserved better, he thought to himself as he admired her. Opening her eyes and looking at her husband Beth could read his every thought.
Rolling up on her right side on the towel to face him Beth turned her face to his and said smiling, “But you were all I ever wanted C.C.” C.C. was her private name for Carl Carson Wall and she was the only one who had ever called him that. Carl leaned forward and kissed her softly.
Looking over his wife’s shoulder Carl could see a seagull hopping toward their lunch basket with that curious hop that seagulls use on the beach. Carl waved his hand at the gull and shouted at her to get away. The gull cocked her head at Carl, and opened her mouth making a strange beating sound. She did not sound like a seagull at all, just a pulsing beating tone. The noise caused Carl’s head to pound and in a single horrifying moment of realization he looked down to see Beth’s face and body disappear. The cell phone on the dresser was making a pulsing beating tone of an incoming call and Carl was in his bed, alone. Well, his little dog was also on the bed, but Beth was gone, and had been for nearly two years now. Crawling out his bed into the cold night air Carl got to the phone just as it quit calling to him. His bare feet were cold on the floor as memories of the warm sun and sand faded away. Looking at the phone, Carl could see that the call was from the Lakeview hospital switchboard. Carl was the chaplain on call tonight and a call after midnight could mean only one thing, someone had passed away. Probably Larry Winters in ICU Carl thought as he found his shirt and pants.
Looking back at the bed Carl could see his Jack Russell Terrier, Daisy, curled up at the foot of what once was Beth’s side of the bed. The dog lifted her eyes to look at him but never raised her head.
“Oh, don’t get up on my account.” Carl said to the dog that he swore was lazier than a cat.
Looking at the cell phone again that doubled as Carl’s watch he could see that it was just after 2 a.m. Slipping on his loafers and sport coat; Carl eased out the trailer door and got into his car. If they call for a preacher in the middle of the night, Carl said to himself, they can live with one without a necktie. Backing down the driveway Carl dialed the hospital on his cell phone and got the central operator.
“Carl Wall here,” he said into the receiver as soon as they answered. “I am the chaplain on call tonight, you just called.”
“Yes, that was me calling, its Judy sir,” The operator said, “They called for you in ER. I left you a message on your machine.”
“I’m sorry Judy, I just got moving quick as I could. I am turning on 129 now. I should be there in about 10 minutes.” Carl said.
“Oh OK,” The operator said, “That should be fine. I will tell them in the ER. Just look for Debbie Wells when you get here.”
“Will do,” Carl answered back as he hung up the phone. He cracked the window of his aging Ford Tempo sedan and allowed the night air to wash away the last of the sleep from his mind. For a moment he remembered his dream, but then the cold air and the pain in his heart washed the memory away.
When he had signed up as a volunteer chaplain at Lakeview three years earlier Carl believed he had the world in the palm of his hand. A young newlywed pastor, he had in that same year graduated from college, married the girl of his dreams, and taken what had always been his dream job, pastor of a church. Not that Twin Oaks Baptist Church off Little Snowbird Creek was necessarily Carl’s dream church. The congregation of about 40 could only pay him part time wages and Carl had taken a side job as a title researcher at the county property office. That job was also only part time, but because it was for the county he could opt for the county health insurance. With both of his jobs and Beth working part time at the drug store in Robbinsville the couple had more disposable income then they had ever had in their lives and both felt they were the richest couple on earth.
All Carl had ever dreamed of was being a pastor. Growing up in church he had felt the call of God on his life when he was only 12 years old and had prepared for that career ever since. Being the young “preacher-boy” did not exactly make him popular with the girls. Carl had once worried about finding a girl that would share his calling and goals in life. Those fears had proven groundless when, in the fall of 1998 he and Beth had begun dating. Both were seniors that fall at Andrews High School and they had soon fallen fast in love. Beth had grown up in a similar church on the other side of their small hometown and was probably more devout in her religion than Carl was. For two years while Carl was away at the Fruitland Bible Institute the two had dated and written letters and just two weeks after his graduation they had married.
That was May of 2001, and at only 21 years of age Carl had a wife he adored, an associate’s degree from a bible college, and the job he had always dreamed of giving spiritual advice and guidance to his congregation. The world was a wonderful place and Carl had all the answers.
As much as Carl Wall had loved the idea of being a preacher, Beth Summerville had loved the idea of being a preacher’s wife even more. She shared the same feel of calling on her life that her young husband did and loved being a part of his ministry, but Beth had also seen how quickly a wife, and she hoped someday a mother, could disappear into the lives of their husbands and children. She determined early that she would be a part of and support her husband’s career, but she would have her own goals and life as well.
The young couple had first talked about marriage after dating only six months. In their mountain culture 18 year old grooms and brides were still not uncommon, but Beth and Carl had both agreed that he needed to finish school before they were married. That way they would be prepared to start their lives together. A devout Christian girl, Beth was resigned to living with her parents and waiting patiently for her knight in shining armor to finish school and come sweep her away to live happily ever after.
While she was waiting of course, Beth was going to work. Jobs have always been hard to come by in the mountains and Beth was looking for a job that would later allow her to support her husband’s ministry. She thought that she had found the perfect job at the Andrews Phamily Pharmacy (Beth thought it looked stupid, but the owner spelled it that way with two PHs instead of an F in family because they thought it looked cute). As pleased as she was working there it was the owner and pharmacist, Craig Martin, who challenged Beth to aim higher in her goals.
“Beth,” he told her one afternoon as they were closing up. “I don’t want you to think I am coming down on you at all. You are doing a great job and I am glad to have you here.”
Beth had that sudden dread and felt like she was being called to the principal’s office. She did not know what she might have done wrong. She listened patiently as her boss continued.
“I just want to ask you Beth, you know that to be a certified pharmacy tech you’re going to have to take the associates degree program at Southwestern Community College.”
Craig had already talked to Beth about attending school part time. The shop would pay for her training and Beth was actually looking forward to taking the classes. She had always been an excellent student. Being a certified pharmacy tech was becoming a goal for her and would give her some financial security, but Craig went on.
“Beth, what if you wanted more?” her boss asked her. “What if instead of being a pharmacy tech you went on and got a full pharmaceutical degree?”
“What, and be a pharmacist?” Beth asked, not sure what he was saying. “A pharmacist like you?” The idea was foreign to her at first. No one in her family had ever earned an associate’s degree and here her boss was talking about pharmacy school. That was crazy.
“Yea,” Craig said, “Why not?”
Beth did not know what to say. “Oh I don’t know Mr. Martin. I mean I really like my job and all, but you are responsible for so much. What if I were to a make a mistake? You know if you get someone’s medications wrong you could kill them. That is what you told me, remember? I just don’t know if I am cut out for that kind of responsibility.”
Although she expressed doubts, inside the idea appealed to Beth very much and she began researching how she could make that dream a reality. She began taking classes at Southwestern the summer after she and Carl had graduated from high school. Her boss was paying for them and Beth thought that she could never afford much more. Beth’s parents had little money and the prospect of a marriage to Carl didn’t seem to promise much financially either. Yet Beth thought that if she could become a pharmacist; she could give Carl and the financial freedom to pursue his ministry with more energy than he might be able to otherwise. It was a dream Beth was beginning to hope for, but it seemed so far out of reach.
For a couple months after Carl left for school Beth considered her options and then one day, while watching a college football game with her father, a way to pay for college came to her over the screen in the form of a commercial, the Army. She knew that her marriage was two years or so away. She could sit around and wait for Carl to come back for her (of course he came home about every other weekend), or she could go do something. Without telling her father or her boyfriend, Beth found an Army recruiter in the nearby town of Murphy.
Beth didn’t want to go off for years and be a soldier. She did not want a big career, certainly not one that would interfere with being Carl’s wife, but Beth learned that there were reserve opportunities where she could serve in the military and still support her husband. If she were to enlist now, the recruiter had told her, she could go to basic and advanced training and be serving only one weekend a month by the time her boyfriend graduated from Fruitland. She would be serving her country, and serving her fellow soldiers.
Beth took a test at the recruiting office that showed she had a very high placement score and her recruiter found her a guaranteed specialty as a pharmacy tech, in the army reserve. The job related to everything she was doing now, she would just be dispensing medications at an Army field hospital instead of a drug store in Andrews. There was a reserve unit in Asheville North Carolina where she would serve one weekend a month, and if a national disaster were to occur and the unit was mobilized then Beth would have an opportunity to help people and make a difference in their lives. Last but certainly not least, Beth would be eligible for the G.I. Bill and $60,000 worth of scholarship money to use when she got ready to attend pharmaceutical school. Beth signed without hesitation and swore her oath. It was one of the proudest moments of her life.
After enlisting Beth was on an emotional high, but then she remembered that she still had to tell her parents and boyfriend. What are they going to say she wondered. Some people, like her parents and Carl, might have thought that Beth acted rashly, enlisting without first discussing it with those closest to her. From Beth’s perspective, she wanted to get it over with quickly before she lost her nerve. Much harder than actually enlisting for Beth was telling her parents and her boyfriend what she had done.
She waited for her father to come home and broke the news that night over dinner.
“Mom, Dad,” she said. There was silence at the table as they turned to her. Even her little brother Ernie stopped making noise.
“I have something important to say.” Beth continued.
Seeing their daughters frown and noting the serious tone of her voice a thousand ideas ran through her parent’s minds. They are going to get married nowher mother thought. She’s pregnant ran through her father’s mind first. Both of her parents thought this might have something to do with Carl, but neither had a clue what Beth was about to say.
“I eh, well,” Beth said thinking, Get it out girl, you sound like a stammering idiot
“I joined the Army today.” She finally said.
Her father, Floyd Summerville, gave out a snort of a laugh because he thought she was joking. Then he saw she was not.
“Wow,” He finally said, “Really?”
“Yes Dad, really.”
“Why?” her mother asked.
Beth explained how she had reached her decision. She told them about the college money and how it was only the reserves, not active duty. She explained how this would support her life later. She tried to put into words how this was an opportunity to do something for herself before her life was given over to a husband and children.
“Are you sure about this baby?” her father asked.
“Yes Daddy, yes I am.”
“Well then of course we are behind you.” Floyd was watching his daughter grow and change right before his eyes.
“I wish you had told us sooner. I would have driven you down there and stood by you. I think it’s a great idea.”
“Me to,” Beth’s mother added. “I would have liked to have stood beside you.”
“I am sorry about that,” Beth told them. “Once I made my mind up I wanted to do it before I chickened out.”
They hugged and cried. Inside Beth’s parents were both terrified about the idea of their baby girl becoming a soldier of all things, but what was done was done and they did want to support her.
Then she had to tell Carl. He was not quite as supportive as Beth’s parents. Carl loved and supported her but worried that this would somehow cause the end of their relationship. He was being selfish and realized it, but that did not end the fear inside him. Beth pointed out to him that they were not married yet and she could still do as she pleased.
“I know baby,” Carl had told her over the phone from school that night after she had told her parents. “I just don’t want anything to come between us. Of course I will be proud of you. I already am proud of you. You’re going to be a great soldier.”
“Oh thank you. This will not come between us C.C., it won’t,” Beth assured him. Continuing she said, “I have to do this. I know that now. Carl, when I first started thinking about signing up, I wanted to enlist for you. I wanted money for school and to support our family someday, and your ministry. But now I know I have to do this for me. Before I become your wife, before I become the preacher’s wife, before I become a mother, I want this one chance to do something real, something that matters, for me. Twenty years from now when we have this same conversation with our kids, and one of them wants to enlist, well I want to be able to look them in the eye with my head held proud and tell them I was a soldier. I am not just their mother but once upon a time I did something that mattered.”
“Well,” Carl said hesitating, “Being my wife matters too right.”
“Oh you know it does,” Beth told him. “But do you understand?”
“I think so,” Carl said. He was a little more scared than she was, but he was starting to understand.
Beth went off to basic training at Fort Jackson South Carolina. From there Private Summerville attended advanced training with the Medical Service Corps at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas. It was the furthest away from home Beth had ever been. She was homesick, but letters from her parents and Carl kept her going. A natural athlete and gifted student Beth had no trouble with the training and became an honor graduate of her class. In less than a year private first class Summerville had returned home as a fully qualified 68 Quebec Pharmacy Specialist in the United States Army Reserve.
Carl drove to Texas with Beth’s parents to see her advanced training graduation and was amazed at the beautiful, confident woman his high school girl friend had become. Beth could see changes in Carl as well. He was also growing up, and the couple looked forward to their wedding and their lives together more than ever.
In May of 2001 Carl and Beth were married at the Grace Baptist Church in Andrews North Carolina. Carl had just accepted the position as pastor at Twin Oaks Baptist Church nearby in Robbinsville and the couple moved into the church’s parsonage as their first home together. Beth was still taking classes at Southwestern Community College and was able to move her part time job from the Andrews pharmacy to one in Robbinsville. Throughout the summer of 2001 their lives were a happily ever after fairy tale of joy. The young couple spent every possible moment together. Carl loved being a pastor and when he found a second job in the Graham county courthouse their lives seemed complete. They even got a little dog, a Jack Russell mix they rescued from the humane society and named Daisy.
Then, on September 11, 2001 the world changed. Beth had the day off of work was sitting at her kitchen table studying when she received a call from her mother who simply told her to turn on a television. She called Carl at work and both sat, glued to different televisions when the second plane hit the second of the twin towers. Carl crafted the sermon of his life that following Sunday. He preached on the prophet Elijah and how the same God that brought Elijah victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel was the same God that fed Elijah during the years of famine.
“We may not be on the mountain victorious this Sunday,” Carl had told his small congregation. “You all know that we are not. But our God, our God, has been on the mountain. Our God has been in valley. He has seen his children through good times and bad throughout the centuries, and whatever our future, whatever our fate, we do not stand alone, but our all powerful God stands with us in this time of need.”
The congregation loved his messages and Carl was able to preach with passion for he truly believed every word he preached. He believed everything was going to be alright because God was on their side. Carl had no idea how fast the fall of the twin towers would affect his life and how quickly that belief would turn to doubt.
Everyone in Beth’s army reserve unit expected, and most of them hoped, that there would be some kind of response to the terrorist attack. Before September was over Beth had received orders for temporary active duty starting October 1st. While Carl stayed home in North Carolina Beth and most of her unit flew to Texas where they completed a mobility exercise. As they filled out paperwork and received shots Beth was sure that this was simply an exercise to measure how quickly the unit could deploy if they were needed. After two weeks of active duty Beth was sent home. By that time everyone in America could see the countries response to the terrorist attack as the invasion of Afghanistan had begun. Beth tried to be upbeat as she gave her husband the check she had received for 2 weeks of active duty, but both knew a storm was coming.
November 1st Beth received her orders. She had arrived home before Carl that day and got the mail as usual. She saw the Department of Defense letter and opened it first, thinking it was needless junk mail or something about her temporary duty she had just performed for the year. She quickly saw that it was not and read her new orders. Due to a critical shortage of military personnel in her MOS, Beth was being activated and assigned to a joint service field hospital at the Bagram air base near Kabul, Afghanistan. She was to report to Fort Bragg North Carolina as soon as possible to prepare for her deployment. As she read and then re-read the orders; the truth began to sink in and Beth began to tremble.
She was afraid, but afraid of what? She was not afraid about being deployed; she had trained for this moment for years now. Beth realized at some point that she was actually smiling. They wanted her! Beth was going to war. What she was afraid of, she finally realized, was telling Carl.
When Carl got home that fateful day dinner was on the table and Beth was waiting on him. He could see immediately something was up and Beth told him.
“But why you? Surely there are others who could do that job just as well?” Carl protested. He knew he was being selfish, but he wanted his wife to be with him.
Beth was crying now, but only because she had neglected to tell her husband something very important.
“C.C., I love you, but you need to know something.” She finally said. She was determined that nothing would ever be between them.
Carl waited for his wife as she continued. “When I was in Texas, I volunteered.” She eventually admitted.
Carl looked at his wife in stunned silence. He could not believe what he was hearing.
“Look,” Beth went on before Carl could speak, “We don’t have any kids yet, and you can do without me for a few months. Most of the other girls, most of the other soldiers, in my specialty, well a deployment would be a real hardship for them. A lot of them have kids and more commitments than I have. We can do this.” Beth was trying to be serious and sincere, but Carl could see she was smiling at the same time.
Carl looked at his wife and said with disbelief, “You’re smiling. You did volunteer. You really want to go don’t you?”
Beth was crying and smiling at the same time as emotions overcame her. She saw the disbelief on Carl’s face and tried to explain. “Well, yes and no C.C. I mean, I don’t want to leave you, honestly I don’t. But at the same time this is what I trained and prepared for. This is my chance. This is my opportunity to make my life mean something. Yes, Yes I do want to go.”
“Your life means something every day we are together.” Carl said in protest.
“I know you think so, but it doesn’t, not really.” Beth tried to explain. “C.C. I love you so much. And every week when you walk into that pulpit and you open your Bible, I just have so much admiration for you I can’t even express it in words. You make a difference. You’re making a difference in people’s lives every day. When their kids are sick or their parents die, you are the one they call. You're there for the most important moments in their lives. But what about me? I am just a side note, the faithful wife. It’s like your batman and I am not even robin, I am more like Alfred just fixing your lunch for you every day.”
Beth was trying hard to explain her feelings to her husband as she continued. “But this is my chance. We were attacked, and I can be part of our national response.”
“But you’re not a real soldier Beth.” Carl said without thinking. “You’re not going to go kill terrorists.”
Beth’s voice cooled noticeably and she sat back in her chair. “I am a real soldier.” She said with firm resolution in her voice.
“Oh I know,” Carl tried to explain, “I didn’t mean that, I just meant you don’t shoot people, you just – “
“I just what?” Beth asked. “I just give out my little pills. Yea, that’s all I do, but I am a soldier, a soldier first, pharmaceutical specialist second. This is my chance, and I am going.” She shook her head as the resolve grew in her spirit.
Carl realized how selfish his feelings had been and how important this was to his young wife. He still had trouble with the idea that she had volunteered to be away from him. All he wanted in the world was to be close to her. Carl could see that his only choice, if he really loved her, and he knew that he did, was to support her. Carl consoled himself with the idea that she was only a pharmacy tech in a military hospital. Her job in Afghanistan would be no more dangerous than working here in Robbinsville. Of course he was wrong.
Beth reported to Fort Bragg the next week and for two weeks went through specialized training and preparation for her deployment. She got her shots and filled out her power of attorney for Carl. She received her uniforms and equipment and a week before Thanksgiving she flew out. Carl had come to Fayetteville to see her off. On the runway in front of the plane they held each other a very long time. Beth assured him that she would be home soon and would stay safe. Carl gave her a wrapped Christmas present. It wasn’t much, just a gold bracelet, but he wanted her to have something to open Christmas morning. Beth’s orders were for a 90 day deployment, but they contained wording that said her tour could be extended for up to one year based on the needs of the theater. The couple knew that they would miss their first Christmas together as husband and wife, but Carl was already making plans for a huge 1st anniversary celebration where he intended to make up for it. Time ran out, Beth got on her plane and Carl drove home to Robbinsville. Beth’s parents had come along with him, but Carl felt very much alone.
Beth was proud of her ability to contribute to the military effort in Afghanistan. She could say her job was no different at Bagram than it would have been anywhere else, but she knew it was not true. She was helping in the treatment of men wounded in the defense of her country. Letters and phone calls to her husband were part of her regular routine. She missed Carl deeply, but Beth also loved the work she was doing.
In early March of 2002 operation Anaconda was underway and the hospital began receiving casualties at an unprecedented rate. Everyone was on 12 hour shifts and many were working longer hours than that. Beth was doing everything she could to help. She was now an E-4 specialist and when she finished her pharmacy duty she would help out in the other wards doing whatever she could. Sometimes she helped with physical therapy but mostly she just talked to the wounded men, trying to comfort them the best she could. Beth had a soothing voice and a caring spirit that calmed the toughest soldiers. The fact that she was rather attractive didn’t hurt. Most of the wounded were flown out of Afghanistan as quickly as they could, but almost all needed to write letters home explaining to their wives or parents what had happened. It was hard, emotional work and it began to take its toll.
One day she managed to call Carl in tears. It was the middle of the night in North Carolina. Not that Carl minded, anytime Beth got to call was a treat. She had just helped a wounded soldier by writing a letter home for him. He had lost his right hand and could not write the letter himself. With the soldier Beth maintained her calm presence, but later on the phone she fell apart. She wished for the first time she was home and could just crawl into Carl’s arms and let him make it all go away. The novelty had worn off and the true price of war was now clear to the little girl from North Carolina.
On March 12, 2002 Beth was standing outside the hospital smoking a cigarette. It was a habit she had picked up in Afghanistan and was sure Carl would disapprove of. She intended to never tell him, or her parents, that she had started smoking. In a combat zone Beth had found it did calm her nerves and help her cope. Beth continued to assure herself that she would quit as soon as she got orders for home. As she stood there smoking she saw three medics from the 1st battalion 138th evacuation unit running out of the hospital toward two UH-60Q Medevac Black Hawk helicopters. With them was one of the nurses Beth had worked with regularly.
“We are going to need more people.” One of the evac team members, a staff sergeant yelled over his shoulder at the nurse who wore a first lieutenant’s silver bar.
Turning to see Beth the nurse, who Beth knew only as Lieutenant Moore, asked her, “You up for a helicopter ride specialist?”
“Uh, Ma’am, I’m just a pharmacy tech, I’m not a medic.” Beth protested, caught off guard by the request.
“Can you hold on a pressure bandage?” the lieutenant asked.
“Uh, well, Yes Ma’am.” Beth replied.
“Then you’ll do soldier, come on.” The nurse told her making a follow me gesture with her arm.
Beth stamped out her cigarette and double timed, following the nurse and the evacuation team members onto the rear helicopter. She buckled in and put on a flight helmet. She could then hear Lieutenant Moore talking to her over the headset.
“No look here,” the nurse said motioning to Beth and pointing to her eyes. “When we hit the ground you stay on this chopper, you understand?”
Beth simply nodded. She was willing to do anything to help. This was exciting, but was certainly out of her comfort zone.
The nurse continued speaking through the headset, “The report is that there are 10 or 11 wounded men down there. The LZ should be safe enough, but we are going to want to hurry.”
“These guys,” she said motioning to the 3 other soldiers on the aircraft. “When we touch down they are going to run out and grab the injured men and bring them onboard. We have room for six in the litters on each of these choppers.”
Moore was now pointing to the litters onboard that were set up for the wounded as she continued to instruct Beth. “You just strap them down and keep pressure on any bleeding. I will start IVs or do anything else. Just stick with whoever I point you to and do whatever I say, OK?”
The nurse gave her a thumbs up sign and smiled at her. The confidence of the young officer was contagious and Beth was sure she knew exactly what to do. Petrified and overwhelmed, but at the same time excited and confident, Beth answered with a “who-ah”, the universal military term for yes.
Lieutenant Nancy Moore’s instructions to Beth were wasted. As the helicopters came in over the designated aid station it came under fire from a Taliban machine gun. The pilot veered off and waited while the AH-64 Apache gunship that escorted the two air ambulances turned the ground in the area the shots had come from into a living hell. Once the landing zone was secure the pilot came in landing the aircraft. They were not seriously hit and they loaded four wounded sailors from a Navy seal team, but the first litter on the chopper was already full when they landed. One stray round from the 50 caliber machine gun had ricocheted through the passenger compartment striking Beth in the neck.
Nancy grabbed the young specialist before she hit the deck of the aircraft and quickly wrapped a pressure dressing around her neck. The spurting blood seemed to slow down and she thought she was gaining ground, but then she realized that the reason the blood had slowed was that Beth’s heart was no longer beating. As the evac team loaded the seals Nancy tried to do CPR, but every time she let go of Beth’s neck the wound opened and with every thrust of her chest the blood just came out. Beth had bled out and was gone in less than a minute.
Two members of seal team Mako 11 had been killed that day and another 6 wounded. Yet these valiant warriors of the elite Special Forces shed more tears for the young pharmacy specialist then for their own brothers in arms.
Carl drove up the driveway to the parsonage at Twin Oaks Baptist Church and saw the full size sedan waiting for him. Noticing the government plates his first thought was that they were bringing him some news about Beth. Perhaps she was finally coming home,he thought. Her 90 day deployment was already a month overdue. Walking up to the porch he saw two men in uniform and wondered if they had been to Afghanistan or if they had seen Beth. The first one to great Carl was wearing gold oak leafs and offered a hand introducing himself as Major Gary Steward of the U. S. Army chaplain corps. For a moment the thought flew through Carl’s head that perhaps the army wanted him to become a chaplain. That would be cool, Carl considered for a moment, then Beth and I could serve together. Of course she would have to salute me he thought with a smile. Then the real reason, the only reason that two military officers were waiting on his doorstep hit Carl, and he collapsed sitting down on the front step.
That had been nearly 2 years ago now and the young preacher had never recovered. Once confident that he had all the answers he now often doubted the existence of a god at all. In the days after Beth was killed Carl had to tell her parents what had happened. Her body was shipped home and the funeral conducted in Andrews at the same church where they were married. The navy sent a member of the seal team to the funeral and he gave the audience a heartfelt address of what a hero Beth really was.
As he removed the gold trident from his uniform and placed it next to Beth’s body in the casket he told the crowd of family and friends, “A lot of people support what we are doing overseas right now. On my trip down here people walked up to me at the airport and called me a hero. A man I never met offered to buy me lunch at the Atlanta airport. People say, ‘thank you, for what you are doing for our country.’ Yet I stand in front of someone like Specialist Wall, and I feel like a fraud. Certainly this soldier loved her country and was proud of her service, but she did not just die for her country. She died for me. She died trying to help me and my buddies who were waiting on the ground that day. I am glad that she was a Christian, and I am glad that one day long ago Jesus died for her. Jesus died for her, but she died for me. I want you each to know that her sacrifice, your sacrifice, will not be forgotten.”
The crowd watched this giant of a sailor let tears fall across his cheeks as he turned to Carl. “I’m sorry brother. I got no magic words to make it all better. All I can say is thank you, and I will, we will, remember.”
The preacher who had been Beth’s pastor from the time she was eight until she had married Carl tried to follow the young warrior. He gave a message on how only God knows why things come to pass and how that Beth had accomplished more in her short life then most in the audience would never know.
Carl was destroyed. Once so confident that he was on the Lord’s side he could no longer understand how an all powerful god could even exist. Beth had so much to offer, so much promise in her life. She was so dedicated to God and had given her life with the intention of serving as a pastor’s wife. How could God take all that away? Carl had no more answers and he resigned from his church. How could he continue to preach and teach about a god he no longer believed in? He moved from the parsonage and found a mobile home for rent in Andrews. He continued to work at the Graham county courthouse, but Carl’s ministry was over. He not only stopped preaching, but he stopped attending church altogether. There was only one part of his ministry that Carl continued. Twice a month he still showed up at Lakeview hospital to take his turn as chaplain on call.
When he had signed up to be a hospital chaplain Carl had visions of deathbed conversions and people turning to Christ in the hour of greatest need. He dreamed of being able to bring comfort and truth to people in their darkest hours. The truth had turned out to be quite a bit less glamorous. Typically a night as chaplain on call involved a lot of prayer with people. First he would make rounds through the pre-surgery patients, those admitted the night before and scheduled for surgery the next morning. He would pray with and talk with them and any other patient who had requested a chaplain’s visit. Then he would go by and see if there were any new babies. He would talk with the new parents and offer a prayer of blessing for the newborns. Then Carl would go through the intensive care ward and see if they expected any deaths that night. The entire process usually took less than two hours and then Carl would go home. If his cell phone rang during the night it was usually because someone had died. When that happened he would go in and meet with the family. They would select a funeral home and then Carl would call them so that they could pick up the remains. It had all become rather routine.
Carl often felt like a fraud as he went about his chaplain’s duties. How dare he pray to a god he no longer believed in himself? He continued because Carl wanted desperately to believe in God. He wanted God to be there. He wanted it all to be real, but in Carl’s time of greatest need he had simply found no one there that could comfort him or help him. How could God be there? Sometimes, in the course of his chaplain duties, there would be someone who wanted to talk. If a family member had signed a ‘do not resuscitate’ order or something along those lines sometimes they would want to talk about God and heaven or eternity. Carl could get through these conversations well enough. He still knew the Bible backwards and forwards, it was just that he personally did not know how much of it he still believed.
Just two years ago Carl had thought he knew everything, now as he pulled into the ER parking lot he felt like he knew nothing. In just a few moments he would walk into a room with a patient and family in need. They would look to him for the answers. They would be facing questions of life and death and would expect the preacher to have the answers that would make everything feel better. Carl did not know if he had any answers left, at least not any he believed in. Carl was expecting to find a family in grief and a loved one who had passed away. He checked his coat pocket for the funeral home business cards he kept there and resolved to do all he could to comfort and help the family. No matter what Carl still believed personally he knew where to find words that could still, sometimes, comfort others. Walking into the ER he saw Debbie Wells looking at the patient board.
“Oh hey Chaplain Wall.” Debbie called to Carl as soon as she saw him. She was a heavy set blond woman in her mid forties. An emergency room nurse for over 10 years she had seen Carl in the hospital many times.
As he walked over to her Debbie continued, “Room 4 called for you.” She motioned to the right curtain as she said it.
Dropping her voice to a whisper she confided in Carl, “Look I didn’t really want to bug you but she said she needed a chaplain, and they say we are supposed to call you guys.”
“It’s never a problem Debbie, glad to help. I wasn’t doing anything but sleeping anyway. What’s wrong with her?” Carl asked.
“That’s just it,” Debbie explained, her voice still whispering, “There is nothing wrong with her. Oh she is old and all, but basically in good health. Her name is Eunice, Eunice Thorpe. If you ask me she just got lonely or scared and wanted to talk to someone.”
With that Debbie patted Carl’s back and sent him on his way, there was one less patient for her to worry about.
Walking into the emergency room treatment area designated room 4 Carl saw an old woman lying back on the treatment table. He would have guessed her age in the mid 70s but he would have missed it by a decade. Eunice was actually 86 but her black hair, helped by her Native American heritage, was still coal black and made her look younger. When she saw the young preacher come in Eunice sat up with some effort. Carl introduced himself and sat down on the stool by the bed. “How are you feeling tonight ma’am?” he asked her.
“Pretty puny preacher.” The old woman replied. “I was at home tonight, and I drank some milk. It was sour, but it was all I had so I drank it anyway and then it gave me diarrhea.”
Carl did not know how to respond to that. “Do you live by yourself Eunice?” he asked.
“Yes,” the woman said with a smile. “I live all by myself. I have since my husband Sam died. Did you know Sam preacher?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Carl said shaking his head and taking the woman’s hand in his.
“Oh you would know if you had.” Eunice said. “He was a great man, he really was. We were married over 50 years, did you know that?” Eunice was nodding as she asked him.
“No, that is really amazing,” Carl said. “How long ago did he, how long has he been gone Eunice?”
The woman stopped smiling as she tried to remember. She finally answered, “It has been years now preacher, it was 1993 when he died.”
“Sam had a bad heart.” She explained.
Carl was ready to go. He could see nothing he could do for this woman and suspected that she might be better off in an assisted living facility than living on her own.
“So Miss Eunice, I sure hope you feel better.” Carl said attempting to disengage from the woman and leave.
Eunice either did not notice Carl’s attempt to leave or did not care. She just kept on talking. “You know what?” she asked the preacher. “If I was God, I would sure do things different.”
This comment stopped Carl and he sat back down on the stool. On its surface the comment seemed almost blasphemous, but Carl had thought the same thing many times. Why did God allow things to happen as they did? Why was Beth still gone? It was early Saturday morning, but Carl had nothing planned to do tomorrow. There was no one to hurry home to except a lazy dog that he was sure was sleeping on his pillow. So Carl settled back and decided to stay a while.
Smiling at the old woman Carl asked her, “What? What would you do different Miss Eunice?”
The old woman’s eyes seemed far away as she giggled and told him. “Oh lots of things preacher, lots of things. If I was God, well there wouldn’t be no more sickness. No more getting old either.”
She seemed to relax and her mood grew melancholy as she continued, “No more pain. I would get rid of pain. I am so tired of hurting all the time. And people would not die anymore. And if nobody died preacher, then no one would be left alone, never again.”
There were tears in the woman’s eyes and Carl’s as well as she mentioned never being left alone. Carl held her hand and the two widows sat together in silence for a while. Then Carl realized that Eunice’s words seemed very familiar.
Carl began to flip through his bible as he turned to the woman and said, “You know what Miss Eunice? I believe you. I believe if you were God then you would do exactly the things you just said. But you know what Miss Eunice?”
“What,” she said looking at the young preacher.
“The God we do have, he is going to do those things too, just like you said. Look here.” Carl held up his bible for the woman to see.
Eunice would not have been able to read the print if it was three times as large. She was not about to get her glasses out either. She was simply too tired to read so she waved at the bible and told Carl, “You read it, read it to me.”
“Well, Miss Eunice, everything you just said, it’s all right here in the back of the book. Here in Revelations, in chapter 21, the next to the last chapter in the whole bible. Here John sees the new heaven and the new earth, he sees our future. And God himself, he spoke to John, and John tells us what God said. Here starting in verse 3 it says this:”
Slowly Carl read to her Revelations 21:3-5
“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”
“You see Miss Eunice,” Carl explained. “There is coming a day when everything you just said will come true. God has told us this. There will come a day when the death and sorrow and crying and pain, they will all pass away and it will be just like you said. God said it will be so.”
Smiling at him and squeezing his hand Eunice asked him, “Does it really say that?”
“Yes it surely does.” Carl answered her.
“And do you believe that?” Eunice continued to ask him.
“Oh yes Ma’am,” Carl replied. “I do.”
“Well,” the old woman went on grinning at him. “If that is true, if it’s true and you really believe that, well then I think you should be telling people about it don’t you preacher?”
The sun was breaking over the mountains as Carl pulled into the driveway of his mobile home that morning. For just a few moments he sat in his car and watched as the streaks of light bathed the world in a reddish yellow glow. For the first time since Beth died, outside of his dreams, Carl felt the warmth of the sun on his skin. He looked down at the Bible he was holding in his hands, and Carl tried to remember the last time was that he had been in church. Smiling to himself, Carl realized that tomorrow it would be Sunday and he would be in church. He was not sure where yet, but he knew he would be somewhere. He was a long way from being able to lead a church or serve as a pastor again, but Carl knew, he could feel, that somewhere in his heart something that was still broken had begun to heal. It was like there was a plant in there that was budding. It was a new spring.
Carl still did not know any of the answers. He knew that the next time someone asked why their loved one had died, or why God had allowed some other tragedy to strike, he would have no more answers than he had before. But Carl also knew that there would come a day when God would deliver on his word. God may never explain why the pain and suffering of life had occurred, but he had promised that there would come a day, when God himself would wipe those tears away. Then, and only then, the pain would be no more. Carl still hurt and still missed Beth, but he now had hope where there had been no hope just hours before. Hope that no matter how bad the pain was right now, there would come a day when it would get better. That hope may not seem like much, but it was enough, enough to make it through one more day. It remains enough to make it through one more day, and wait for tomorrow.