Seventeen hours. Well, seventeen hours, fifteen minutes and thirty-three seconds, to be precise. No one else would note the time the police knocked at my door or the time I unknowingly said my final farewells. Not one person on the street would even know the police had been there.
They arrived like thieves in the night, stealing away my joy, my very breath. There were no lights, no rushed conversation, just two men standing with their hats in hand, telling me what no wife, no mother should ever hear.
“We’re sorry, Ma’am. Do you have someone to drive you?”
“No,” it came out as a breathless whisper, “only them.”
“We will take you then.”
Understanding dawned. They needed to be sure. It wasn’t a matter of want. They needed to know, needed to be sure it was them. I stood up and then fell again, my legs refusing to hold me. They rushed to catch me.
“It’s okay. We can wait. Take a minute.”
A minute wasn’t long enough. I eventually rose and walked to the door.
“Uh, Ma’am,” he hadn’t used my name since identifying me the first time, “You may want to put some clothes on first.”
“What? Oh, yes. Just a minute.”
I walked into the bedroom, refusing to look at anything. Everything a raw reminder that Frank was never coming home again, nor were the kids. I quickly threw on a pair of black sweats and a black hoodie. They matched the mood that hung in the air. In the washroom, I splashed cold water on my face in the hopes that this was a dream, a nightmare from which I could wake. My puffy eyes and red nose revealed the truth.
We drove in silence. I stared out the window, seeing nothing. The officers had turned off the radio, or turned it down. Either way, the only sound was from the tires on the pavement as we drove down the road. Tears made no sound as they fell from heartbroken eyes.
The town was asleep, and very few people were out unless they worked the graveyard shift. Usually, the silence of a town asleep brought me comfort. Tonight it just seemed weird and morbid, as if demons were on the prowl, robbing souls and stealing men.
I didn’t notice the car had stopped until the door opened. Cold air rushed to meet me, and the wind shook me into movement. I followed, like a dog being led on a leash down the last row, the final walk before life would end. The only difference was my life had already ended. It ceased the moment I opened my front door to them.
We walked in silence. At every corner we turned, people fell silent as if they knew my fate and the task ahead. Finally, they stopped in front of a grey door. The sign on the door had only one word, ‘Mortuary.’ My feet refused to budge.
“Take all the time you need.”
They were compassionate and gentle. It must be hard, I thought, delivering the news that your loved ones are gone. I wondered if they were trained in how to handle the situation.
“No, not really, Ma’am. We know how we would feel and then act accordingly.”
Shock registered on my face as I realized I had spoken my last thoughts aloud. I looked back at the door and tried to brace myself for what I would find. Still, my legs refused to move.
A gentle hand on my arm made me turn. “Zachary.”
“I’m here, Mom. We can do this together.”
“Okay,” I was in shock. He wasn’t really there, I knew this, but his presence calmed me, even if it was not real. “Let’s, go in.”
The two officers stood to the side as I walked toward the tables. Three starched white sheets and the cold pungent smell of antiseptic and formaldehyde filled my nostrils. It was a smell I would never forget.
The doctor stood silently beside the first table, waiting until I was beside it. What was he called? A Coroner? No, a Pathologist, maybe? It didn’t really matter, my brain was just trying to delay the inevitable, or perhaps it was my heart.
“When you’re ready,” he said. “No rush.” He placed his hand on the corner of the sheet but waited. What was he waiting for?
“Mom, it’s dad. Just nod, and he will show you.” Zachary stood there smiling down at me. When did he get so tall? I nodded, and the sheet was pulled back gently to reveal my husband.
“Frank!” There is no real way to describe the noise that came from within. It was a mangled cry, a stifled sob and sorrow all wrapped into a ball of loss and despair. Tears fell freely, splashing on his skin as I bent to give him one last hug, one last kiss. “I’ll love you forever,” I whispered.
When I stood up, Frank was there beside me. It didn’t matter that he glowed as if swallowed by the sun or had a smile on his face. All that mattered was he was there. “You can do this, ‘Midge.’”
Midge. He was the only one who called me that. My name was Magdelain, and most people called me Maggie or Mags, but not Frank. When he first met me, he called me ‘Midget’ because my tiny four-foot-six-inch stance made me look small to his solid six-foot-two athletic frame. After a while, he shortened it to Midge. It was both comforting and calming.
I looked at him, through him to what waited. Again, Zachary squeezed my arm and said, “You got this, Mom.”
I walked to the next table and stood for a minute. Taking a deep breath, I nodded to the man in the white coat who stood solemnly beside the table. My daughter. My beautiful baby girl. Tears gushed forth yet again. My vision blurred, but nothing could erase or hide the sight before me.
“Lily.” She was only sixteen. Her long hair, which normally shone like the sun, seemed dull against her now pale face. Thankfully, there were no markings on her face. Out of habit, my hand reached to smooth her hair one last time. I bent to kiss her and whispered, “Sleep well, my darling princess. I’m sorry I won’t be there with you.”
“Don’t be sorry, Mom.” Her words floated through the air. They sounded like music, a symphony of joy. My eyes rose to meet hers. Greener than I had ever seen them, laced with flecks of gold, they shone and twinkled. Like her father, she was bathed in a golden light, standing, almost floating, beside the table.
“Someone has to be here. I’m so glad it’s you. No one can plan a better send-off for us than you. We’ll be here waiting and getting things ready when it’s your turn. Come on, Mom, there’s one more to go.”
Zachary was no longer beside me. He appeared at the last table. Frank and Lily now stood on either side of me, a hand on each arm. They were my support.
I nodded one last time and watched as the final sheet was pulled back, revealing my son’s face. “Zachary.” Everyone called him Zach except for me. I always called him by his full name. Leaning over, I brushed back the rogue hair that fell over his eyelids and kissed his forehead. “Oh, my sweet boy, life won’t be the same without you in it.”
I don’t know how long I stood there, but suddenly the room went dark. They were no longer there standing beside me. My job, for the moment, was done. “Goodbye, my loves,” I whispered before turning to go.
The officers stepped silently in beside me as we walked through the halls, ready to catch me should I fall. We drove back to the house in silence. When we arrived, the sun was peeking over the horizon. Neighbours were peeking through closed curtains, except for Julie, who was sitting vigil by my front door.
She rushed to the car, practically pulling me out, only to hug me tight. Once again, I fell apart. I turned to the officers to say thank you for all they had done and let her guide me into the house. When we sat down, I looked at the clock.
“It’s been seventeen hours since they left to go to the concert. Seventeen hours since I said, ‘I love you.’ And, seventeen hours since I hugged them goodbye.”
She ran and embraced me while the tears flowed. Julie was my closest friend. She heard about the accident on the morning news, and when she saw the car knew who it was. Pit bulls could not have kept her away from me.
For the next few days, Julie cooked, cleaned and helped me as I made all the necessary arrangements. She made the calls informing people about what had happened. Julie was the one who kept me going when all I wanted to do was curl up and die.
The day of the funeral finally came. It was as bleak and dark as my mood. Nobody wants to do this, I reminded myself as I donned my black dress and washed the tears from my face for the millionth time. People have to do it, and it comes and goes whether we want it to or not.
I didn’t hear the songs or the sermon and can’t tell you how I went from house to church to graveyard, other than to say it happened. There were many words of condolences, none of which eased the pain, but all were said with love and affection.
I waited for Julie to shuffle everyone back to the house so I could be alone and say my final goodbye. The sun broke through the clouds as I stood there, causing me to look up. There, as if floating on a cloud, were my loved ones. All smiling and looking down at me. They were surrounded by angels and someone else moving forward. Jesus. He stood beside them and smiled at me. “They are okay, but, my child, you must forgive him.”
I knew, of course, and nodded. I stared into the sky long after they vanished.
“Did you see that?” Julie excitedly yelled as she rushed to my side. “Please tell me you freaking saw that.”
“I saw them.”
“But did you see Him?”
I turned and smiled knowingly at her. Julie never was one for the church. “Yes, I saw them, and the angels, and Jesus. I need you to take me somewhere.”
Julie never questioned me or tried to tell me people were waiting. She would call the house and tell them all to sit tight. Most of my friends would stay, and those that couldn’t would call, eventually. On the way, I knew she had a million things she wanted to say about what we saw, but it would wait until after.
We pulled up to the jail where he was being held. Julie argued with them without success. I placed my hand on her arm and then turned to see the young man who had come that night. He looked up and saw me, and headed our way.
“Hello, Ma’am. What can I do for you?”
“I need to see him. Please. I will only be a few minutes. I know this is not a normal request, but I need to do this.”
He looked at me for a second and then nodded. “It’s okay, Charlie. I’ll take her back and stay with them at all times.”
Five minutes later, I stood before the man who had shot my husband and two children. I stood silently as the officer explained who I was and watched as the man’s eyes widened in horror. He was young, maybe sixteen or seventeen.
I looked at him, capturing every detail of his face, permanently etching it into my brain. Finally, I walked up to the bars on the cell so I could be sure he heard me.
“I forgive you,” it came as a whisper, but I repeated it more loudly than I had intended, “I forgive you. My heart demands justice, but my faith demands forgiveness, so I forgive you.”
I turned to go and then stopped, turning back to look at him once more. The look of shock and surprise was there. Good. I bowed my head, “Father, please forgive this young man for letting evil overtake him. Set him on a path of truth, love and justice. Please ease the pain in my own heart and let me not become bitter or angry for what he has done to me. I ask this in the name of your son, Jesus. Amen.”
I turned to my friend and the officer and nodded. There was no need for me to look back. I knew God would fulfill my request if this young man opened his heart to him. It was his choice now. I did not know how I would go on without them, but I knew it, too, would happen. I would stumble through life until we were reunited once more.
God would not be blamed for stealing my husband and children, nor would my heart turn to hatred. The work at the hands of evil is plainly visible for those who see through the eyes of faith. Forgiveness was called for and given, for him, for me.
There would be days in court to come and milestones to survive, but my family would be there with me, even when I couldn’t see them. Jesus, too, would be standing firmly, right at my side through it all, as would Julie.
My husband would be remembered as a hero who stepped in front of a gun in an effort to save not only his own children but many others. He had tried to talk to the drug-induced teenager holding the gun, but with no success. I was not surprised, and the pain wasn’t any easier to bear because of it.
For the remaining years of my life, my daily mantra would be, ‘I forgive him.’ I knew I would have to do it and say it thousands of times. Whenever my heart ached or I was tempted towards anger and bitterness, I would say it. God knew my hurting heart and was patient.
I know the number of days and hours since I last saw and held them. None stand out more than those last seventeen hours. Seventeen hours from ‘goodbye, have fun’ to sobbing in the kitchen with my best friend after identifying their bodies. Seventeen hours, fifteen minutes and thirty-three seconds.
© Leslie C Dobson
If you liked this faith story, you can find others on the Faith Stories link on Leslie’s website.