I was helping the old man sitting next to me find the prayer in the church program when I heard the cough. It made me jump out of my seat and then recoil in disgust as it echoed through the sanctuary. It started out as a harsh, brutal hack before softening into an extended wheeze.
The guy in the pew next to me — a nice man who inquires after my long dead parents every time he sees me — leaned over and said to me. “He seems to be having a pretty tough time.” He had intense expression of concern on his face.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.
He coughed again, and again that bagpipe wheeze blew through the sanctuary. I couldn’t take it any more. I got out of the pew and approached my tormentor. His face was red, his eyes watery, and he had the tense look of someone trying to hold his breath.
“Do you want me to get you a glass of water?”
He nodded yes, without opening his mouth for fear that an in-drawn breath would trigger another fit like a feather at the back of his throat.
I walked out the back of the sanctuary, down to the back stairs into the basement and then to the kitchen where I pulled a glass from the cupboard, filled it with tap water and started back. I dawdled a bit, looking at children’s Sunday school drawings in the empty classrooms underneath the sanctuary. I was in no hurry to get back to that cough.
As I came up into the narthex, I ran into Natalie Johnson, a former nurse, who told me she gave him a piece of candy and that maybe that would help.
“Does he still need the water?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said, patting my shoulder. “You’re a good deacon. Always tending to the sick.”
I walked in through the swinging door and walked down the aisle, tapped him on the shoulder and handed him the glass of water, still wearing the mask of concern. He took the glass and nodded in a gesture of gratitude, still not opening his mouth.
I sat back in my pew and waited to hear another hack, but was instead gratified to hear someone escort him out the back door.
The pastor was about ready to begin her sermon when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Barbara Blakesely, the woman who had led Patrick outside. She gestured for me to follow her into the narthex.
“I’m at my wit’s end. I offered him a cup of coffee and he said yes even though he wanted something stronger,” she said implying he wanted a shot of booze, a no-no in our church which voted to ban alcohol at church functions in the mid-1800s. “He’s out on the back step, smoking. He threw a cigarette into the mulch! Will you stay with him to make sure he doesn’t set the church on fire? He mentioned your name.”
I said yes, regretting the day I first introduced myself to him in the fireside room during the after-church coffee hour. I made the introduction to spite the other deacons who stayed away from him and his shabby brown jacket, dark pants and white sneakers. They really couldn’t be blamed because he was pretty off-putting. He spoke with a raucous, raspy voice and a faint lisp. His lower jaw moved involuntarily at times and his lips protruded awkwardly from his sunken cheeks.
Wanting to show the blue blazers and sun dresses what true Christian love was all about, I shook his hand, told him my name and asked him his. We spoke for a few minutes. I asked him where he lived — in town, what he did for a living — nothing (his mother just died), and if he had enough food in the fridge — “Oh, yeah.”
Before he left, I gave him my business card with my home number on the back and told him to call me if needed anything, fantasizing that he would knock on my front door like a peasant petitioning a benevolent noble. Neighbors would peer from their windows and offer up words of praise on my behalf.
He didn’t call, but he remembered my name in church next Sunday and smiled whenever he saw me. I used my acquaintance with him to harangue the other deacons for not welcoming the stranger in our midst.
“Do any of you know the guy’s name? It’s Patrick.”
I sat down next to him and asked how he was.
“Not too good,” he said. He held a cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other.
“Have you seen a doctor about that cough?”
“What’s he say?”
“He says it’s okay.”
“It doesn’t sound okay to me.”
We sat for a few minutes in silence. As I pondered what to ask him next, it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first coughing fit he had suffered, just the first one I heard up close. This fit, like the others, started at the worst possible moment — during a quiet moment of prayer, not during a hymn or anthem when it would have been drowned out. This guy was looking for some offer of humanity and couldn’t wait until the service was over.
“Patrick, you seem pretty lonely,” I said.
“Are you seeing a counselor?”
“Is he giving you any meds?”
From the ensuing conversation I learned he getting meds, was living in a group home, receiving disability checks and was still suffering from the loss of his mother, who by now, had died two years ago.
“I had a nervous breakdown after she died,” he said. “I was already suffering from a mental illness before she died, but things really got worse afterwards. The mind is a complex thing, David. It really is.”
“You want some more coffee?”
“Well, let’s go get some.”
“The fireside room.”
“Okay, give me a minute, I need to catch my breath.”
It took a while, but he got up off the gray granite steps and walked down the asphalt sidewalk that went alongside the church sanctuary. We went through a door into the back half of the church building and into the fireside room where the parishioners would gather after the service. We went into the room to find coffee and cookies on a long folding table adorned with a paper tablecloth and napkins. The pot, one of those shiny cylinders with a 100-cup capacity, just finished brewing as we entered. I even saw the light go out. In a few minutes there’d be a long line of people waiting to get their coffee and spend the next hour or socializing.
“I need to use the bathroom,” he said as soon as he walked into the carpeted room. I pointed to the corner and said “There it is.” After the door closed, I was struck with the vision of him suffering of a heart attack while he sat on the crapper. The thought of pulling the guy off the toilet and performing CPR on a guy with his pants down around his ankles made me grimace. When he walked out of the bathroom, shuffling like Lazarus from the crypt, my relief was immeasurable.
I handed him another cup of coffee and a few cookies and talked with him some more, about what I can’t remember, because I was too busy trying to figure out a way to hustle him out of the fireside room before church ended.
Mercifully, he told me he had to go outside to wait for the driver from the group home. I walked him outside and then to the end of the driveway. I stood a few feet away as he sat on a short stone pillar, staring at the clock on a church steeple across the street. By now church was out and a few people shuffled past us without saying a word. As the people walked past he kept speaking to me in that loud, raucous voice, ending every few sentences with my name. It was awful.
“I want to ask you something, David,” he said.
He waited a few moments still staring at the clock on the church steeple across the street before asking.
“Why aren’t you as friendly to me as you were when I first showed up?”
“What do you mean?”
“You used to come over and talk to me after church every Sunday, but now you don’t come over.”
“You know how it is,” I said. “I’ve been busy. I spend most of my time talking church politics. We’re looking for a new pastor.”
I looked at him, hoping he would make some offer of absolution. He didn’t move, but kept looking at the clock.
“I won’t ignore you any more. I promise.” Then, like an idiot, I asked where he lived, regretting the words as soon as they came out of my mouth. He told me his address. It was close to home.
“I wished you’d come visit me, David,” he said.
A van filled with residents from the group home pulled up. Patrick got in and sat next to a woman whose tongue lolled uncontrollably over her bottom lip. I told him goodbye and waved at the other passengers in the van and again to the driver, as if to say, “Sure, bring him back any time.” The driver waved back with a knowing smile. I cleared my throat and walked back into the church, anxious for a cup of coffee and polite conversation.
The following Tuesday, the pastor brought up the coughing fit at the deacons meeting. Her question was “What do we do when there’s a disturbance during the service?” — not “What the hell are we going to do with that old guy who coughs so goddamned much?” — which is how I would have phrased the question.
The pastor, an interim hired to replace a predecessor who left the church after a short but exceedingly controversial tenure (we ran him out on a rail), had demonstrated a striking ability to phrase things in the most solvable terms.
During her short time as pastor, she had waded into the dark corners of the church’s wounding history with the spiritual equivalent of a droplight and squeegee mop, and pushed all our Yankee dysfunction and taboos to the center of the room to look at and discard — if we were ready. It was tough going, like cleaning a flooded basement, but she was making some headway. We were about to buy a new hymnal, not replacing, but augmenting the hymnal we currently used, published in 1958.
“We need to have a clear understanding of who’s going to offer assistance to people if they need help,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s a woman with a baby crying or somebody coughing.”
It took a while, but we decided that one of the ushers would make the approach and that if they didn’t feel confident enough to do it alone, they would get a deacon or some other trusted member of the church to help them. If they refused to go outside or take the baby to the nursery, that would be the end of it, but somebody would at least make the approach.
The title of the sermon on the following Sunday was “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” — a homily on our responsibility to making sure the handicapped and frail are able to enjoy the Lord’s Supper just like the rest of us. She opened the sermon describing how, when she was a teenager, a nattily-dressed man without any arms came to her home one weekend and offered his feet up to be held during grace on Saturday evening, causing her to damn near fall out of her seat. She described how the guy ate with his feet, groomed himself with his feet and presumably tied his tie with his feet.
As it turned out, the guy was a nationally known preacher and a prominent leader in the denomination scheduled to give the sermon — which of course, he wrote with his feet — at her Dad’s church on Sunday morning. Then she went on to describe the ways people try to deny the presence of the sick and disabled around them, such as ignoring distress and suffering, averting our eyes when walking past or making only a perfunctory offer of fellowship before finding a pretext to walk away.
She was careful though. The only time she mentioned our church specifically was when she described the building, which had a warped plywood ramp that led into the back door, but not much else to help the handicapped enjoy our services. For example, we didn’t have any handicapped access to the basement, the balcony, or for that matter, the choir loft, which you have to admit, is a scandal.
“For example, anyone in a wheelchair who wants to attend one of our fellowship celebrations in the hall downstairs must be carried because we don’t have a lift of any sort,” she said.
A loud, raucous “How come?’ came croaking out of the last pew. It was Patrick, who must have sneaked in after the service started. The shout prompted a collective shudder. Ours is not a call-and-response type of church and obviously, this guy didn’t get it.
The pastor paused just a bit after the interruption before reading from her notes, explaining that the capital campaign was making a list of needed renovations and handicapped access was high on their list of priorities and that we should be willing to contribute when the time came.
That explanation seemed to be good enough for Patrick and he kept quiet for the rest of the service. Still, my shoulders didn’t relax until the first opening notes of the postlude that everyone takes as their cue to stand up and to say start talking after church. While the organ played, I walked to the back of the sanctuary, where Patrick was standing and making small talk with the people who had sat in the pew behind him. I guess they couldn’t ignore him any more and decided to at least say hello. Eventually, they left and Patrick gestured for me to come close. He wanted to tell me something private.
“Just between me, you and the minister, I feel a lot better than the last time you saw me,” he said. “That’s good Patrick,” I said, guessing that maybe they had finally gotten his meds straight.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“I’ve got some friends I want to bring to church next Sunday. Do you think it would be all right?”
“Sure Patrick. That would be great. We’d love to seem them. I’ll meet you at the back of the church and we can lead them in.”
I got to church the following Sunday 10 minutes late. I sat in my pew at the tail end of the pastoral prayers, right when the pastor asks God to hear our silent pleas and petitions.
For some reason this Sunday, I let God have it telling him that I was sick of the church and that if it weren’t for the little bits of grace he doled out like Easter candy, I wouldn’t be talking to him at all. It would be nice, I said, if he gave me a full plate of whatever it is he’s supposed to give us in return for regular attendance — even if I was only going through the motions. I told him I was sick of searching for him in my life as if I was trying to find bits of pork in a bowl of fried rice. And come to think of it, there sure as hell weren’t too many saints in my life to follow as an example.
I was in the midst of my rant when I heard a commotion at the back of the sanctuary. It was Patrick and his two friends I had promised to greet. From everyone’s gestures, I could tell the ushers didn’t want to let the three of them into the sanctuary until after prayer time was over. But Patrick wasn’t having any of it. He barreled past the ushers down the center aisle and gestured for his friends from the group home to follow him, like a shepherd leading a flock of sheep to safety. The parishioners looked on in stony silence from their pews.
“We’re all right,” he croaked to the ushers who approached. “We’re all right.”
I lept up out of my pew and over to the center aisle, remembering my forgotten promise to meet him at the back of the sanctuary. “Do you want to sit with me over here?” I asked in a loud whisper, gesturing back toward my pew.
“Thanks, David, but I can’t.” he said. “I need to sit with my friends. I don’t want them to feel like strangers.”
I nodded, scuttled back to my pew and sat down.
“You win,” I whispered. “You win.”