Friday, September 23, 2016

C'est Vrai

There is an old man dying in a hospital nearby.

Father Louis has had his 90th birthday. He is incontinent, bedridden, half-blind. One eyelid droops in his face, which is sunken and liver-spotted but still impressive in its bearing, perhaps because of his Gallic nose, rising whole and unbroken above long, chalky cheekbones. He has forgotten how to speak English. Now he speaks French in a soft country accent, the farmer's son swimming to the surface from seventy, eighty years ago. Who does he talk to? He talks to the church volunteers, a platoon of devout, middle-aged Filipinas who take turns tending to him. He can't remember their names anymore, but he keeps asking, and they soothe him: "Never mind, Father. We are your angels, we won't leave you. Speak English, Father. We can't understand." He gazes at them uncertainly, then resumes his low murmuring, his eyes wandering elsewhere. He is beginning to talk to people unseen, pausing politely for their replies ever so often.

The volunteer on duty sings hymns to distract him. They don't want him to fall asleep in the daytime too often, or he'll be up all night. She asks him if he's listening to her, and good-naturedly he insists he is, even when he's beginning to snore a little. She sings You are a priest forever, which is a song he knows - or used to know - and he begins to hum. At the end he pulls his chin forward, in an attempt to nod, and raises his voice: "C'est vrai." It's true.

It's true that he is alone and dying, without loved ones by his side. He is poor and suffering; the touch of the blanket makes him wince and call out in pain. He has lost his memory, his control over bodily functions. He depends on strangers twenty-four hours a day. It takes two of them to turn him over in bed, so if only one is present he must wait to have his soiled diaper cleared away.

But it is also true that he has seen years of glory in service: in France, England, Burma and Singapore. While other boys went to fight the Nazis, he travelled to the far East to become a missionary. When his parents died in faraway France, he held funeral Masses attended by his parishioners, the milk of human sympathy running freely in tropical climes. Now that he is on his deathbed, his angels gather every day to keep him company. They sing, chat, pray with him. They feed him carefully and laugh at his little remarks, like mothers fussing over a child.

I have always been a sceptic, but maybe my own mother was right - in a way. Maybe God provides, and angels exist, and to be tended so well in our last days is the best any of us can hope for amidst the pain and indignity. It's true and not true, at the same time.

Story credit goes to TK - one of the aforementioned angels.

No comments: