Christmas, 1998 / No. 2

The car ashtray was full to overflowing and her mouth tasted foul from too many cigarettes. As of Sunday last, she’d resolved to cut back, skip the morning pickup and keep to ten a day, max. She’d lasted only a day-and-a-half until the phone call. The ringing had jolted her out of sleep and at first she couldn’t understand who was speaking and why. She took in the words “social worker” but missed the woman’s name. Her voice was soft and placating but the words were formal, out of a textbook.

“I regret to tell you, your father, Francis Newey, is seriously ill. We recommend that you come at once if you wish to see him.”

She had a soft lilting accent that touched her words like a perfume, but Liz couldn’t identify what it was. East Indian? English?

“Miss Newey? ”

“Are you telling me he’s dying? ”

A slight clearing of the throat from the woman. “Yes, I am sorry to say that his condition is considered terminal.”

“Oh shit!” said Liz.

That afternoon she went in for her shift at the restaurant. She’d only been working there for three weeks and she was afraid they’d fire her if she asked for time off so soon. However, the manager, Edith, was sympathetic. “Of course you’ve got to go. We’ll hold the job…you and your father, were you close? ”

“No,” said Liz.

The drive to Toronto was long and tedious, and by the time she reached the edge of the city the winter afternoon had gone. A soft, wet snow started to fall, making the highway gleam black and slick. She switched on the wipers, which squeaked irritatingly. The rented car was the most basic she could get and even that had taken her credit card to the limit. She wondered if he’d left something to bury himself with, some insurance policy. Hey, maybe he’d made her the beneficiary. She grimaced at her own thought. Fat chance of that. But the thought of a legacy, some small amount to lift her up, was a moment of sweetness and she held on to it.

The defrost was inadequate and she rubbed at the foggy windshield. She was driving past a strip of rundown motels and she shivered suddenly. How many times had she woken up in one of those places, unable to remember a thing from the night before? Ten? Twenty? More than once she’d found herself with some man whose name she didn’t know and who was as sodden as she was.

Suddenly, there was the memory of beer, ice-cold, soothing to the back of her throat, parched from smoking. She pressed her knuckles hard under her chin. She wanted to stop. She hadn’t eaten anything since this morning. She could see a green neon light glowing through the sleet. Open. Surely she could handle a bar now. A bit of company would be nice. All she had to do was walk in, sit in a quiet spot, order a soft drink, get some food. She glanced upward into the rear-view mirror and met her own eyes. Tired eyes, lined and pouchy.

“Life begins at forty, Liz. You’ll get your looks back.” Trish, her sponsor, had said that, but she was ten years younger and had less to repair.

Liz shifted restlessly in the seat. Out loud she said, “Who am I trying to kid? If I walk into a bar now, I might as well kiss the last ten months goodbye.”

She reached inside her purse, which was on the seat beside her and touched a piece of paper, stroking it like a medallion. On it Trish had written the names of two people Liz was to call as soon as she arrived in Toronto. That helped. So did the rush of anger she felt at her own weakness. She changed lanes, moving over from the exit. The seductive strip of lights slipped away. Ahead she could see the tall office buildings of the downtown core, the perpetual lights promising life and activity. A sign told her she was only one kilometre from the turnoff. She wondered if her father was still alive. Perhaps there would be some telepathic communication when his spirit departed his corporeal body. If there had been, she’d missed it. She felt nothing.

Father Warren Clark sneezed violently. He was coming down with a cold for sure even though he’d been swallowing one thousand milligrams of vitamin C daily. And taking echinacea. He felt flushed and chilled all at the same time and the back of his throat was scratchy as a scouring pad. Surreptitiously, he checked his watch. Nine o’clock. He’d been up since five this morning and he was anxious to get home to the rectory where he could tend to his cold.

The man lying in the bed groaned and licked his lips, which were foul with white canker sores. Father Clark didn’t know him, but the regular hospital chaplain had also been stricken with the flu and Clark had been called in to pinch hit. The sick man had requested a priest. According to the duty nurse, there was only one remaining relative, a daughter who was driving in from New Brunswick. There had been few visitors, all of them volunteers from the cancer society. The nurse said she hoped the daughter would arrive in time to bid farewell to her father. Contemplating the emaciated body in the bed, Father Clark doubted this hope would be realized.

The man seemed to have lapsed into sleep. He lay still, the only sign of life was the laboured rise and fall of his chest. The white curtains were drawn around them but there was a murmur of a television set from the adjacent bed. It was turned up too loud and the bursts of tinny laughter were distracting. The priest stifled another sneeze and approached the bedside table. He had brought his viaticum case with him and he placed it down, moving aside the hospital paraphernalia of bent straws and swabs.

The older parishioners still referred to the sacrament as “the last rites,” but he was more comfortable with the new terminology of extreme unction. He was a young man and he tried to be a contemporary priest. He opened the case, which was of new shiny leather. This was, in fact, only the second time he’d had to use it, and he handled everything with pride and reverence. First, he took out the narrow silk stole, unfolded it, and put it around his neck. Next, he unscrewed the silver bottle that contained the oil. It was ordinary olive oil, but specially blessed. He bent over and put his hand on the sick man’s head. The skin was hot and dry, the life sap already draining away from the skeletal body. However, as he did so, the man opened his eyes. His irises were pale blue, but the yellow of jaundice almost swallowed them up. He recognized the priest’s vestments and he whispered, “Father, I am afraid.”

Father Clark had forgotten the man’s name, but he glanced quickly at the card above the bed.

“We are all afraid at the point of passage, Francis.”

Frank Newey has not been called Francis since he was baptized, but Father Clark did not know that.

“Would you like me to proceed with the anointing? ”

Newey nodded. The priest dipped his forefinger in the oil and anointed the dying man’s forehead, reciting a prayer as he did so. Then he took each of the parchment hands and anointed them likewise.

“…may God fill your heart with peace.”

Newey shifted restlessly. “Ronnie blamed me…his letter…” His hand plucked at the sheet. “Why is he sitting over there? Tell him to come closer, I can’t…”

Father Clark took the vial of holy water and sprinkled it on the sheets around the body.

“When the hour comes for us to pass from this life and join Him, He strengthens us with this food for our journey…”

Newey tried to raise his head. “Father, I must make my confession…my sins are mortal…Liz…” He muttered something indistinguishable and the priest had to lean close into the rank breath to hear him.

“I was bad…I let them down. All of them. Sue, Ronnie. Especially my Ronnie. I was bad…” His words were those of a child.

“I’m told your daughter is on her way here.”

The priest saw the fear come on Newey’s face.

“She hates me…” His voice sank and Father Clark could only catch a few words. He thought he heard “sorry” and took that as a sign of penitence.

“We will say the rite of penance together.”

This time, clearly and loudly, Frank cried out, “Liz!” and again, “Lizzie!”

The priest continued. “May the Lord be in your heart and help you to confess your sins with true sorrow.”

But death is too close. The sick man moved his head but Father Clark could not tell if he was nodding “yes,” or if he was trying to avoid his own pain.

“Francis? Mr. Newey? Can you hear me? ”

There was no further response from the man on the bed.

Father Clark pushed against the revolving door and stepped out into the chill night. He shivered as the dampness penetrated through to his chest and he held the collar of his overcoat up close to his throat. Fortunately, the rectory was not far away, just on the other side of the park. He had made the walk many times in all seasons past the derelicts that claimed the benches. Many of them he knew by name.

The two men were standing in the shelter of the south transept door. They were poorly dressed against the bite of the November wind. Ken McBride, the younger by a year, was wearing a brown woolen toque, stained grey track pants and a red summer windbreaker, which said “Canadian Tire” on the back. The other man, Henry Pereira, was bareheaded but slightly better dressed in blue jeans and denim jacket. They watched the slight figure of the priest coming toward them, hunched over against the wind and wet snow. Ken took a knife from his pocket and pulled it out of its sheath. Just to scare. Henry stepped forward first as Father Clark passed through the light of the lamp and into the shadows.

“Spare some change, mister? ”

“What? ” Father Clark asked not quite hearing because he’d slipped on a pair of earmuffs. But he was already reaching in his pocket for a handout. He stopped and came up with a quarter, which he offered to Henry. Ken joined his partner.

“That’s not much is it? Won’t even buy a coffee.”

“Sorry, that’s all I’ve got with me.”

“Give us your bag,” said Ken. The priest was bewildered, not even afraid. He brought the viaticum case close to his chest.

“I’m a priest. This contains sacred implements.”

If McBride understood, it no longer mattered to him and he made a grab for the case. Father Clark held on tighter. It was an ordination gift from his family.

“No—you can’t.”

For McBride, this is one more moment of frustration, one more obstacle to delay the easing of his consuming need. He punched the priest hard in the side of the head. Father Clark cried out and staggered sideward but did not let go of his case. From behind, Pereira hit him viciously and suddenly McBride joined in, showering blow after blow on the priest’s back and head. He fell to the ground, holding up his viaticum case as a protection. Rage burst through McBride’s body. He raised the knife and stabbed Father Clark in the back of the neck, the blade penetrating just below the white stiff collar. The struggle, which had lasted less than a minute, was over. Pereira grabbed up the case and the two men ran.

The lights had been dimmed for the night and the other occupant of the room was asleep, although the television set was still flickering. As Liz entered, a young nurse emerged through the curtains around the far bed.

“Oh dear. You must be Mr. Newey’s daughter.”

Liz nodded. “Am I too late? ”

“Yes, that is…I’m afraid he has passed away.”

“When? ”

“Just now, really. We’ve sent for the doctor.”

“That won’t help him much will it? ”

The nurse smiled uncertainly. “Would you like to see him? ”

Liz hesitated. “I suppose so.”

The nurse lifted the thin curtain and Liz stepped inside. She didn’t recognize the wizened man in the bed. She almost said, “There is some mistake, this is not my father.”

She approached closer and then she could see the familiar shape of the mouth, the jutting nose.

“I’m so sorry you missed him. He was anxious to see you,” the nurse whispered from behind her.

“Was he? What did he say? ”

“Well, just that really, that he wanted to see you. We had a hard time tracking you down.”

Liz sensed reproach in the young woman’s voice.

“We lost touch,” she said. She stared down at the bed. Her father’s skin was already turning grey and in the cubicle the air held the finality of death.

“Would you like to be alone? ”

“No way!”

The nurse was startled and she clasped her hands as if in prayer.

On the bedside table was a vase of yellow mums browning at the edges and a card with a dancing leprechaun on the front. Frank loved to boast about his Irish heritage. Liz wondered who had sent the card.

“He was quite a wonderful person, your father,” said the nurse in an appeasing voice. “He’s been with us almost a month and he never complained. And what a sense of humour. Always ready with a joke.”

“Really? He must have been saving them up. I never heard any of them.”

She scrutinized the gaunt face. There was a smudge of oil on his forehead, which shone in the light.

“Was he given the last rites? ”

“Yes, he asked to see a priest this morning.”

“I suppose you’re used to deathbed scenes, moving reconciliations and all that crap? ”

The nurse wasn’t sure what Liz wanted. “Sometimes that happens, but at this stage, the patients are…well, they are usually sedated and—”

Liz thought. “I had my speech all ready. I’ve been rehearsing it for years. What a shitty father you were, how you destroyed Ronnie. And Mom. I even wrote a list of all the times you’d let me down. Wrote them out. All the times you were such an asshole you made me want to puke. It was a long list, I can tell you that.”

She turned away to face the window and she could see her own reflection, shadowy and dark. Below she heard a siren wailing as an ambulance raced along Queen Street. The nurse had been saying something.

“Beg pardon? ”

“I said you might want to talk to Father Clark, one of our chaplains. He might have…perhaps there is a message. Your father might have asked him to pass on a message.”

Liz looked over her shoulder at the young woman. “Before he died, was Dad—”

She stopped. She hadn’t used the word for so long, the pain of it was like a shard of glass in her throat.

Maureen Jennings is the author of three series of crime-fiction novels, including one whose lead character, Detective William Murdoch, is the basis for the successful television drama Murdoch Mysteries. “Heat Wave,” which originally appeared in Taddle Creek No. 43, is now the basis for a new series of books, the first of which, Heat Wave: A Paradise Café Mystery, was published in 2019. That same year, her short story “Viaticum,” from Taddle Creek No. 2, was turned into a short film. Last updated summer, 2019.