The Easter Story

by Craig Lowe

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    First-Place Fiction

    The hot November sun, glaring through the windscreen of our 1938 Ford pickup, was melting me like a block of ice. I glanced in the rear-vision mirror at my brother, Jason, who was pitching bales of hay from the back of the truck. He had discarded his shirt in an attempt to gain relief from the scorching heat, but now his back was turning red. I wiped the sweat from my brow and sighed. Flies buzzed in and out of the cabin. I could tell we were in for another fierce Australian summer.

    For Jason and me, it seemed as though life was little more than a never-ending round of farm chores. Now our work load had been increased. A week earlier, Dad had moved his things to the hospital so he could be with Mum. That left my brother and me to do all the work around the property. Somehow we had coped well enough. At least we had Bronwyn to cook the meals and take care of the house. At 15, it was no easy task for my little sister to make the transition from schoolgirl to housekeeper. A lot of things had been dumped in Bronwyn’s lap since Mum had become ill.

    “Hey Brad,” yelled Jason, “are we going to take a break soon or what?”

    “Yeah, we’ll do it now,” I said, pulling the old truck to a stop. I didn’t feel much like working anyway. Though I was only 19, most of the time I felt more like 70. I was so fed up with all of the hassles life had to offer, I often felt like calling it quits. But Dad had always said, “When you’re a Davis, you can’t just throw in the towel.” That philosophy had become a part of my way of life.

    “Hand me the water, will you?” I drank thirstily from the bottle that Bronwyn had packed with our lunch. The water was warm and tasted stale, but it brought welcome relief to my parched mouth.

    “If this dry spell doesn’t end soon, I reckon we’ll be in for a drought,” Jason observed as he ate a sandwich.

    “That’s the last thing we need right now,” I replied.

    I watched the cows grazing contentedly on the hay we had just given them as Jason talked on. Those cows were our livelihood. A big drought could easily put us under, especially with the debts Dad had to pay off. I remembered the year I turned ten. We had had no substantial rainfall for two or three years, and all of our dams dried up. Because there was so little water, our livestock were suffering dehydration, and feed was too scarce to satisfy their hunger. A bull, which would previously have fetched hundreds, was worth only a few dollars. Dad had said that if things didn’t get better soon, we’d have to move off the land. By my tenth birthday, things hadn’t improved. I remembered that day well. I had gone with my father to the paddock at the far end of the farm. He walked along in grim silence, clutching a loaded rifle in his hand. I had not been invited, and I didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. In my naivety, I thought we might be going to shoot rabbits. Imagine my shock when I realized that, instead of rabbits, we were going to shoot cattle. And when they were all dead, we would start on the sheep. As the first animal fell in a withered heap, I let out a strangled cry of protest. Dad turned to look at me, his dark eyes brimming with concern.

    “You go on back to the house, son,” he said. But I didn’t move. I stood in petrified silence as my father put those poor starving creatures out of their misery. I’m sure Dad was close to tears that day. I know I was.

    I looked at my watch, trying to convince myself that it was time to get back to work. Jason was silent, stretched out on the grass, hat pulled over his eyes. I took him by the ankle and gently shook his leg.

    “Come on, mate, let’s get some more work done,” I said. Jason took the hat from his face and stared dreamily at the sky. From the look in his eyes, I could tell there was some place he’d rather be. My brother was a dreamer, always plotting some grand venture that would bring him fame and fortune. Farm life was not for him, and it was no secret that he wanted a change.

    “You know, Brad,” he said, “when I get rich, I’m going to hire a bunch of men to do the work for me.”

    “What’ll you do?” I asked.

    “Go fishing!” he said, flashing me a broad smile. I laughed and gave him an affectionate thump on the arm. Jason had a way of making you feel good. He had always been that way. Even as a little kid, his personality had drawn people like a magnet.

    I stood up, dusted the back of my jeans, and started back to the truck. Climbing into the driver’s seat, I looked towards the house. I was surprised to see Bronwyn running toward us.

    “Hey, Jason,” I called, “You’d better get up. You don’t want Bronnie to catch you flat on your back. She thinks we’re out here to work.”

    Jason was on his feet in a flash. Then he straightened, and a serious look stole across his face.

    “You don’t suppose something’s wrong do you?” he asked, almost in a whisper. I felt myself stiffen with that awful sense of dread which accompanies impending trouble. Then, as if to confirm our fears, we heard Bronwyn’s voice, laced with panic, carried to us on the breeze. I ran to meet her, Jason hot on my heels. As we got closer, I could see her tear-stained cheeks.

    “What is it, Bronnie?” I questioned. I was fighting panic myself now. “Is it Mum?”

    “She’s hemorrhaging severely,” gasped Bronwyn. “She’s being operated on now. Dad just called from the hospital. He says we’d better get out there quick!”

    “All right, get in the truck,” I said. I was frightened, trembling. Saying a quick prayer, I climbed into the cabin and started the engine.

    At the hospital, we found Dad sitting alone, pale and tired.

    “Thank goodness you’re here,” he whispered. Although he tried not to show it, he couldn’t quite conceal the trembling of his hands or the catch in his voice.

    “I just want to save your mother from all her pain,” he said. “When we were married, I vowed that I’d always be by her side. Now, when she needs me most, I can’t do anything to help her. If I could trade places with her, I would gladly.”

    A subdued hush fell over the room as each of us settled into our own gloomy thoughts. I studied my father carefully. The experiences of the past months had taken their toll on his features. His hair had greyed considerably, and the lines on his face were deeper and more abundant. He was only 43.

    I thought about the previous December when a group of us from church had gone to sing carols at a home for aged people. My mother and I both had pretty good voices and liked to sing together. I had stood next to Mum, holding her hand as we harmonized in memory of the newly born Christ child. We sang the thoughts of one who had heard the bells tolling on Christmas day, giving sweet assurance of peace on earth, good will to men. As we sang the final line, Mum smiled at me and squeezed my hand. How I loved her! She was a Latter-day Saint in every sense of the word.

    Not long after that, things began to go terribly wrong. One night I was awakened by noises coming from another room. I got up to check and found Mum pacing the living room floor, her face a mask of pain. Tears coursed down her cheeks, and her hands were clenched so tightly at her sides that the nails bit into her flesh. When she found that she had been discovered, she sat down and buried her face in her hands, sobbing like an abandoned child.

    I ran to her side, and held her to me. “Mum, what’s wrong?” I asked anxiously. I hated to see her like this. It seemed as though her sobs came from the deepest parts of her soul.

    “Please, Brad, don’t tell your father you saw me like this,” she pleaded through her tears.

    “What’s wrong?” I persisted.

    Mum shook her head. “I wish I knew,” she said. “I’m aching all over. I can hardly stand it, Brad.”

    I groped vainly for something comforting to say. Instead, I said, “How long has this been going on?”

    “Three or four days,” she answered, sinking back into the couch. “The pain starts in my head and works its way down into my arms. It feels like it’s inside the bone.”

    We sat in silence for a few moments, and Mum began to relax a bit. The agony was beginning to ease.

    After that, I would lie awake at night, straining my ears for sounds of movement in the darkness. Sometimes I would hear the door creak as my mother crept outside to suffer in the privacy of the backyard. She had insisted that I say nothing to my father, so I let it bottle up inside me until it almost drove me crazy.

    But it wasn’t long before Dad found out the truth for himself. Mum would become exhausted for no reason, and she would fly off the handle at any little thing. Explosive anger was foreign to Mum’s personality. Dad worried about this strange behaviour, but when he questioned it, Mum shrugged it off. Finally, when she quit eating and started losing weight, Dad practically had to drag her to the doctor.

    That first visit to the hospital became a prison sentence for my mother. Nurses took a series of blood tests, which finally led to several minutes of sheer torture—a bone marrow biopsy. Soon a diagnosis was reached.

    Dad sat with Mum, whispering words of encouragement as she lay hurt and weak on the sterile white of the hospital bed. A doctor entered the room. One look at his face told my parents that the news wasn’t good.

    “We have the results of the tests,” he began. Dad couldn’t stop the question from coming out. “Is she going to be all right, doctor?” he asked.

    The doctor cleared his throat. “Mr. Davis, your wife is suffering from acute myelocytic leukemia.”

    Mum caught her breath. “What exactly is that?” she interrupted.

    The doctor explained as best he could, using a lot of big words that we didn’t understand. But one thing was very clear—Mum’s condition was serious.

    After that things really changed in the Davis household. Mum couldn’t do much in the way of housework, so we all had to pitch in and do our bit. Jason and I weren’t very skilled at washing and ironing, but worse than that was the constant worry and anxiety that we felt for our mother. She really suffered—more than anyone I had ever known. A series of drugs were prescribed for her to take at home, and every week she faced a trip to the haematology clinic for more tests and injections. The results were brutal, but she bore these things well.

    The doctors really did do their best. But their best wasn’t good enough. They just couldn’t get the cancer to go into remission. Finally, a lung infection put Mum into the hospital for round-the-clock medical attention. Dad, who couldn’t bear to see her suffer alone, had a bunk set up so that he could be constantly by her side.

    Now, we all sat in a little waiting room on a scorching November afternoon, waiting for the doctor’s verdict. When would the surgery end? Would our mother be all right? I guess we must have sat there for an hour or so before the surgeon finally made an appearance. He was a small man with a balding head and a grey moustache. Entering the room, he paused, studying the floor. My father stood up. “Doctor Wilson?” he said tensely. For a while, nobody made a sound. Then doctor Wilson spoke.

    “We tried,” he began. I could see that this was a hard speech for him to make. “We couldn’t save her.”

    There was stunned silence for a moment. Then Bronwyn burst into a flood of grief. My whole world had just fallen apart. I felt a bitter anger welling up from the deepest recesses of my soul. I had prayed desperately that my mother would be cured, but God had done nothing. Why? A gentle breeze danced in through the open window, played briefly in the corners of the room, then left the way it had come, carrying with it my faith in God.

    The funeral was held on Tuesday morning. I didn’t go. I couldn’t stand to see them put her into the cold earth. Besides, I had been to LDS funerals before. Always they were so cheerful and positive, telling us to have faith in God and that things would be fine with the departed loved one. I wasn’t sure I even believed in God anymore. I went fishing in an effort to forget the pain I was feeling.

    I arrived home as the sun was sinking in the evening sky. My fishing expedition had been a failure, and I badly wanted to speak to my father. Jason and Bronwyn were solemnly seated in the living room, but Dad was nowhere to be found. I went to look for him in the yard.

    When I was a little boy, I had a pet dog called Bunyip. He was my best friend. We were inseparable. But one day Bunyip was bitten by a snake and died. I was shattered, and there was nothing my parents could do to console me. So my father went into one of the fields and painted a huge smiling face on a large granite boulder. He called it the Happy Rock. After that, whenever I felt sad, I would go to the Happy Rock, and my sorrows seemed to magically vanish.

    It was here that I found my father, perched atop the boulder, its great, smiling face showing the strains of time. He looked pathetically vulnerable as he sat, gazing sadly at the retreating sunset. I quietly announced my presence. For a moment, he didn’t respond. Then a wistful smile briefly crossed his sun-browned face.

    “I guess the old rock has lost its magic,” he said. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw my father cry. Again I felt bitterness within. How could the Lord give us a Christmas gift like this?

    Weeks passed and I quit going to church. There was nothing there for me. A few people visited, encouraging me to go back, but I wouldn’t listen. How could I ever feel comfortable in church again?

    One day I got a call from Sister Robinson, the Relief Society president. “Oh Brad, I’m so glad you’re home,” she said. I immediately felt my defences go up. If this was something to do with church, she could forget it.

    “Yes, Sister Robinson, what can I do for you?”

    “Well, it’s like this,” she began. “I’m supposed to be at the hospital tomorrow to read to some of the children, but I won’t be able to make it. I was wondering if maybe you could go in my place.”

    “Gee, I don’t know,” I started to object.

    Sister Robinson cut in: “Brad, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I don’t know who else to ask.”

    I finally agreed to go because I didn’t know how to refuse her. Putting down the phone, I wandered into the living room. With four days left before Christmas, it looked as if the Christmas spirit had passed right over our place. There were no decorations, no trees, no Christmas cards. Instead we had sympathy cards lined up along the mantelpiece. If my Christmas was to be miserable, at least I could try to take some of the Yuletide cheer to some little kids in hospital.

    At the hospital the next day, I was assigned to a frail little girl named Marcie. They told me she was nine years old. She looked about four. She was hooked up to some kind of machine which kept her alive, yet she smiled as if she hadn’t a care in the world. I felt awkward, dressed in my robes of self-pity, while she lay upon her deathbed as cheerful as spring sunshine. We visited for a while. As we talked, I marvelled at her wisdom and perspective. I didn’t know what was wrong with her—I didn’t have the heart to ask. She knew that she probably wouldn’t see her tenth birthday, yet she wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t bitter.

    I surveyed the pile of books at her bedside. There were many to choose from. “What would you like me to read to you?” I asked.

    She pointed to a worn copy of the Easter story. “That one,” she said.

    I picked it up. “Honey, you don’t want to hear this. It’s Christmas,” I told her.

    “No,” she repeated, “I want to hear that one. It’s my favorite.”

    So, during the hot Christmas season, I read of the sufferings of Christ to a little girl who loved God. When I finished, she was staring into my eyes with a look that pierced my soul. Placing her tiny hand into mine, she said, “I have lots of pain, but never as much as Jesus had. When I’m really hurting and I’m all alone, I speak to the Lord because he knows how I feel. He loves me.”

    I hurried home that afternoon because there was someone I wanted to speak to. When I got back to the farm, the first place I headed for was the Happy Rock. It was out of sight of the house and was an ideal spot for what I was about to do. Dropping to my knees, I opened my mouth to pray, but nothing came out. My heart was thumping. Finally, in desperation, I cried out, “Oh God, where are you?”

    From a million miles away, deep within my own mind, I heard the glorious tones of an orchestra. The music grew louder, until it crashed over my being like a wave from the ocean. Then, as clearly as any spoken voice, I heard the words of a favorite carol: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep . …’”

    Handlettering by James Fedor

    Illustrated by Paul Mann