The call came, as they always seem to do, when the parson was engaged in completing a project that had been dragging for an indecent amount of time. It was one of those projects Ms. Parson seemed to have foremost in her mind when she thought the parson possessed some discretionary time.
It was a member calling to say she’d seen an ambulance leaving Houston Carver’s house a few hours before. “I was talking to Roger a few minutes ago and he said I should make sure you knew about this.”
“Do you know if Houston has had a relapse or something else?”
“How would I know, Parson?”
“I thought you might have called someone in the family.”
“Don’t you think that if they needed anything they would have called me?”
“Gracious,” said the parson, and then he bit his tongue. “Thanks for letting me know about this.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. Then she hung up.
The parson called the local hospital. Roberta, the switchboard operator, answered. “Hey, Roberta,” asked the parson, “how was the dance at the American Legion last Saturday?” Roberta was married to one of the deacons at a extremely conservative church. The parson was one of the few privy to the fact Roberta was not quite as conservative as her husband.
“Well, Parson, I didn’t stay long enough to judge them. When they announced there would be no dancing on the bar I got up and left in protest.”
The parson laughed and then asked, “Are you folks hosting Houston Carver in one of your suites?”
There was a pause and then Roberta replied, “No, Parson, we Houston’s not here.”
“Any chance he’s in the ER?”
“Hold on a minute and I’ll check.”
In just a moment she was back. “Nope, he’s not in ER. But if you promise to dance with me the next time I go to the Legion I’ll tell you where he is.”
“Well we be dancing the Tennessee Waltz or the Salty Dog Rag?”
“The Salty Dog Rag, of course.”
“You’ve got it.”
“Okay, I went ahead and called a couple of hospitals for you. He’s over at Regional Medical.”
“Thanks a bunch, Roberta.”
The parson got up headed to the bathroom where he showered and shaved. He then got dressed and headed to the car. It was a twenty minute drive to the hospital. The parson asked Rhonda’s counterpart what room Houston was in and headed up the elevator.
He knocked on the door and pushed it open slowly. Houston was not in the bed. He was sitting in the chair reading the newspaper. Except for the hospital gown he didn’t look a bit sick. But Houston was sick. He’d been sick a long time. The battle was hard, but Houston’s positive attitude so far had been equal to every setback.
“I expected to find you in bed,” said the parson.
“Well, I’ve had a little downturn, but they’ve given me some pep-me-up shots. I’m supposed to take them for several days, then there’s a couple of tests, and maybe some more surgery.”
“Where’s Edna?” asked the parson.
“I sent her home. She doesn’t need to be hanging around here until when there’s nothing going on. She’s been not just a wife but a true blessing these last few years; she’ll be here twenty-four and seven” Houston folded his paper and placed it on the hospital table. “Have a seat, Parson,” he said. The parson sat in the chair facing him. “I’ve got a feeling this is going to be a difficult one, Parson,” said Houston.
“What do you mean?” asked the parson.
“Well, you know, they can’t keep operating, experimenting, and doing all the things they’ve done over the last three years. I just have this feeling I’m nearing the end.”
The parson started to say something but Houston held up his hand. “I’m not being pessimistic, Parson,” he said. “I’m just recognizing the fact that I’ve already beaten the odds by living as long as I have after the diagnosis.”
The parson didn’t argue. He and Houston had talked before about what lay ahead. Houston was under no illusions.
Houston’s face contorted into the biggest smile the parson had ever seen on his face. “You sure look worried, Parson,” said Houston. “Remember three years ago when I was beside myself that I was going to die?”
“I do,” said the parson.
“I’ll never know what possessed you to say what you did, but, boy, it jerked me up.” The parson stared at Houston. “When I said, ‘I’m going to die,’ you said, ‘Of course you are.’” Houston laughed again. The parson smiled at the remembrance. “And then I asked you what heaven was like and you said: ‘How would I know.’ That wasn’t what I expected, Parson. But that was what I needed.”
The parson leaned forward to speak. Houston held his hand up again. “I wanted you to tell me about angels and choirs and all that shit, Parson. I was scared to death that I was going to hell. And when I asked you if I might you gave me the same answer: ‘How would I know.’”
Houston now leaned toward the parson. “I want to thank you for that. I expect if you had given me the standard brand answers that night I would have given up on this religion stuff. But you told me that you hoped after death we kept learning, that you couldn’t conceive of ending this life without growing and maturing in understanding in the next. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. It wasn’t very orthodox, but it sure spoke to me.”
Houston reached to the table and poured himself some coffee from the carafe. He held it out to the parson who declined with a motion of his hand. Houston took a long sip of his coffee.
“Don’t look so glum, Parson. If I die, well, here’s where I’m at now. If I die and there’s no afterlife I’ll never know it. But if I die and there is an afterlife it will be no time at all until I’m more theologically advanced than you.”
Houston laughed again. “Now get the hell out of here, Parson. You’ve got things to do. I’ll need you around when they do the surgery so you can sit with Edna.”
A few minutes later the parson walked back to his car and for some reason the opening lines to John Lennon’s “Imagine” kept playing in his mind.