In this contemporary social issues novel, a retired Protestant minister takes a job as a cruise ship chaplain on a voyage through Latin America, only to discover that he is expected to calm refugees who are held against their will to make a vaccine from their own blood to eradicate their race.
While I stood in a wide-brim hat pondering the habits of Gladiolus “Kirov,” the call to a new life came. I was lost in gardener’s thoughts in the sunshine. As is often the case, I was busy feeling confronted by math as I guessed the number of inches between the “Stella de Oro” daylilies naturalized in my flowerbed. The “Kirovs” would nestle between them.
Older but not wiser, I’d forgotten my tape measure; then I remembered that my right foot was ten inches long. I had a little chuckle at God’s provision. How kind it was of him to make my appendage a stand-in ruler. If my foot had been just a half size bigger, fractions would have made me too nervous to plant a thing. A sleek-gray catbird called to me happily from the magnolia trees, but he didn’t know the math, either, so there I stood, special-order bulbs in hand, calculating and counting, in a spring wind slightly perfumed.
I was advised by the small print on the “Kirov” packet to leave not less than three inches but no more than five between companion plants, or about half an old-man-foot. Still, my ancient farmer genes were helpfully guiding me in another direction. As I rubbed the corms’ pointy tops with my thumb, their flaky tunics rustling under my finger, I gave up on the crowded daylily bed altogether. I had many other options. We were blessed with nearly an acre of yard, a veritable suburban kingdom, and I have to say it was a point of holy pride.
Pushing my floppy hat aside, I squinted to get a good look around my South Carolina property to estimate where I might plant my new purple-and-white, ruffled hybrid bulbs. Not under the sawtooth oaks—too shady. Not too close to the bird feeder—the interloping squirrels would dig up the bulbs. Finally, I reckoned that the gladioli would have to be planted in a due-eastern exposure against the brick backbone of the house, for abundant morning light and steady support for their statuesque stems. Like so many of us in this life, eventually the flowers would need something strong to lean on.
I mopped my brow with my linen shirtsleeve, avoiding the metal snaps on the cuff, which would’ve branded me with their searing heat. My eyes stung in dripping perspiration and sunscreen, and these dulled my vision for a moment. I blinked in a fluttering spasm to clear my sight. A trickle of salty sweat ran down the crease above my lip and into my mouth. I licked my lips. My beard that I could no longer remember as chestnut brown was wilting, greasing my collar with oily droplets that would complicate the stain removal in the laundry.
It was hot. With a sigh of resignation, temporarily defeated by Nature, I returned the bulbs to their mesh package. It would not be an act of kindness to put anything so fragile into strange dirt on such a day. The bulbs wouldn’t be able to make a home of it. The weather was too sweltering. I would wait for a day with protective cloud cover, which would shield both me and the bulbs. The morning advanced. As I thought about where I might get a good price for gas for the lawn mower, I had a powerful craving for sweet tea.
At 10 o’clock on this particular morning, the sun was already flinging pointed beams at Carlton Street, where I lived. It was Ash Wednesday, which jogged my landscaping memory in a way that I hoped wasn’t irreverent. Later that day, I would attend church services, but at that moment I turned from planting to shoveling out the living room fireplace to fertilize my flowerbeds. I went indoors, wiping my feet on the mat as I’d been trained, and set aside the brass-trimmed, wrought-iron screen that shielded the hearth. Behind the screen, a small hill of ashes lay ready for repurposing. It was streaked with multiple shades of grey, like my beard.
I mused as I worked in the fireplace, remembering the last time that I had, myself, administered repentance ashes. It had been two years. Parishioners in a long respectful line had lowered their eyes and folded their hands as they came forward humbly to me, their pastor, to receive sacred swipes on their foreheads. Stained glass reflections from above the altar had gilded the sanctuary carpets with vermillion circles. The air was solemn with ritual. Life and death and resurrection resonated in our hearts in the ancient rite.
I had never felt my pastoral responsibilities more acutely than when I was touching human flesh. The impression of skin on skull arising through my fingertips with electric urgency made real to me exactly what was at stake. For me, on Ash Wednesday, souls took on a near tangible, corporeal essence, and the repentance ashes reminded me that I had much work to do as a spiritual father before every person entrusted to my care inevitably dissolved into dust.
Under the circumstances, my memories are now mercurial things, coming in waves and then rolling away. I retired from the pastorate at the first indication that I could no longer remember the Lord’s Prayer all the way through. At the time, I let my mental faculties tell me when it was time to go, not my fatty liver or my bank account. In deciding, I managed to separate my emotions from my intellect long enough to objectively evaluate my effectiveness as a clergyman.
For example, I realized that I was no longer attracted to scholarly research. My reference books that I used in a consulting role for the synod went unused. I discovered that I wanted only my conversational Bible to read. I wanted the straight raw Word, marked at my favorite passages with silk ribbons, in case I could no longer remember their locations with the rapidity that I’d once possessed. So, although I still wanted to read God’s thoughts, I no longer aspired to formalize discussing them for a living.
Also, I lost the desire to write for the denominational magazine. Frankly, I didn’t care what anybody else believed anymore. I had done my best to educate and leave a worthwhile impression in that world of influence, which was buffeted by the latest social causes and controversies. Let people work out their own salvation.
I realized I was growing crotchety. Everything was an irritant. I could barely keep my patience when an infant began to bawl during his baptism, for instance, and I was unable to find the cacophony charming, as in years past. It made my stomach hurt. The slyly observant grandma in celebratory chiffon at the font narrowed her eyes when she saw me grit my teeth at the noise. How could anyone possibly think that her grandson was an aggravation?
Finally, and most dangerously, I had my first impulse to murder somebody when an argument arose in a council meeting over the new color planned for the ladies’ bathroom stalls. The final straw was when I stood to express my indignation, but I could not remember the name of the ignoramus who demanded that the color be pink and always pink, for that was the signature palette of true femininity. And how did what’s-his-name know? I was done with trifling things and trifling people. It was time to step down. Yes, I entered a kind of private journey with the Lord, a quiet walk where I could really be myself, and a stroll that I thought might be my final walk home to his heavenly house. I retired.
But on this Ash Wednesday, I carefully brushed away the cinders heaped upon the fireplace grate, getting soot into my shaggy eyebrows, and generally making a gritty, choking mess as I traipsed back and forth to the yard with my bucket full of nourishing calcium carbonate. It was oak ash in the bucket, not Palm Sunday fronds, but nevertheless the cinders put me in a penitential mood. “Remember that you are dust,” I quoted softly. “And to dust you shall return.”
Such is a theologian’s turn of mind. For the mature plants, I sprinkled the fireplace ashes around their roots, sifting the ash through my gloves, a handful at a time. I worked the ashes into the ground with my metal spade, sprinkling just a bit more on top of the soil where, hopefully, it would lie loose to repel the slugs. Loving the Lord’s creatures as I did, I could barely bring myself to actually kill a slug, and I preferred to inconvenience them until they left, if possible. With the newer plantings, I prudently dabbed around their drip lines. The wind picked up, but luckily it didn’t dislodge the ash and blow it into my nostrils, because I’d not put on a protective mask as I usually do. It reminded me too much of the sorrowful Time of COVID.
After all this fetching and digging into the earth, I looked up with satisfaction to the almost spring sky with my spade paused, midair. I inhaled deeply and smiled. I thanked God for everything that I’d ever survived. I’m sure I appeared to be giving allegiance to some invisible being overhead. Some would have thought me a pagan supplicant to the nature idols, kneeling as I was, there in the sun. The only thing missing was a drink offering. The thought of it made my mouth water for tea again. Then, unexpectedly, there was the sound of someone rushing. I recognized the jog of my spouse getting a move on.
What could that be? I ignored a plump robin’s chirp in the daffodils to listen to a curious conversation. Through the open kitchen windows, I heard my Candace trek to the ringing phone, greet a stranger excitedly, and then slam the screen door brusquely behind her, to run to the flowerbed where I knelt. The small webs of capillaries on my girl’s cheeks were flushed with pink excitement, and in the middle of the rosiness sat her prim nose, powdered with the white flour that she’d been using to roll out cream biscuits with her new marble pin. Candace bounced up and down in her madras tennis shoes as much as her seventy years would allow.
“It’s Majestic Waves Cruises!” Candy whispered, pointing to the phone. Her eyes were glowing with happiness. “I think we made it!” She punctuated her opinion with a little comic curtsy, as if it were necessary for talking to royalty, given the “Majestic” part.
I put down the corms and tools. Could it be true? When we had retired from the church after thirty seasons, Candy and I decided to channel our unrequited wanderlust into outings on the Great Deep, the world’s oceans. Perhaps that’s what comes of an intense reading of Bible stories about St. Paul’s shipwrecks and his miracles done for sailors and island natives. After I retired from the clergy roster, I set about my own study of the mystical book of Acts, for my own edification, not worrying about being deemed heretical in the pulpit by a congregation accustomed to the limiting doctrines of our denomination. I became a freethinker!
I had longed to know more about the ways of the Spirit. I felt that more knowledge would be important for my personal growth as a Christian. In spending more time with St. Paul in my retirement, and reflecting on his closeness to the Holy Spirit, I found that I got inspired and positively agitated and wanted to go to sea. Imagine! What a wild goal for an aging man, and one worried about his fading memory! But if St. Paul could sail off into the horizon, and do so as an elderly man, why couldn’t I? I was still fairly hardy and vigorous, and gardening had kept me nimble. My memory wasn’t quite what it was, but I decided that no moss would ever grow on my old sinner’s feet, especially if somebody else paid my fare!
Taking a chance, then, I had put myself forward as a prospective Protestant chaplain for the cruise lines. I thought that I would be able to handle the duties, which I surmised to be comparatively light. I would no longer have to convene large committees, for instance. Candace, always my supportive helpmate, could not have been more pleased to aspire to cruising. To us, the seas were almost like role models: The oceans’ advancing years have not in any way weakened their vitality, and my wife and I wanted to follow suit. We could just see ourselves on the cover of AARP Magazine, in our sailors’ hats and billowing cottons and suntans. We deserved some fun!
Also, there was the significance of the work. Souls gliding on foamy cruises still require spiritual counsel, comfort, and care. People bring their problems with them when they go on a holiday, and new issues are bound to develop, too, particularly on the longer cruises. Regrettably, married couples still quarrel. Children still disobey. Conflicting world views, financial challenges, and the dynamics of interpersonal dominance don’t change on a vacation. The confines of shipboard life, even luxurious confines, can make existing relationship problems even worse.
Also, human mortality does not cease on a pleasure cruise. In fact, every year, hundreds of persons depart the ocean liner for the afterlife and expire at sea, via natural causes or through accidents or by all manner of illicit and criminal escapades. For instance, younger people traveling with known illnesses die unexpectedly. Older people thought to be in fantastic physical shape simply pass away in their sleep. Depressed people jump overboard, and drunks fall down the stairs. Then there was the man who accidentally ate a peanut, hallucinated from the allergy, climbed the mainmast, and hanged himself in the rigging, in full view of the crew and passengers watching from the main deck, completely aghast!
Yes, on the high seas, both souls and waters roil in subterranean shadows, and interaction with either is risky. Pastors are needed at sea. I can understand why the Lord sends them afloat.
Hence, my wife and I believed that we might be of some small, divine use on the oceans, and that we might also be able to see the world beyond Glenville, South Carolina, our home. Unfortunately, about a thousand other retired couples had exactly the same idea, though, which turned our desire to minister at sea into a competition. As far as I could tell, I had no special qualifications that would make me a standout candidate. I was a dedicated, but typical, Protestant pastor. To cruise and to be of service on the oceans, there was only one way that we could afford it: for me to go as a chaplain. If the Lord wanted us to sail, he would make a way, we believed.
But prior to this sunny morning, our hopes had lapsed. After about a year without a response to our job application (for Candy and I would submit together as a package deal or not at all), I had begun to accept that God had not called me to sail across the salty meridians in my retirement. No matter, then, I decided that I would plant flowers on my portion of terra firma and cultivate contentment. My spiraling sweet peas and overflowing clematis would serenely climb my twig tuteur, and they would bring God glory as my own landlubber’s fragrant Ebenezer. I practiced acceptance.
If I were not permitted by God to sail, then I would sow, and with perennials, too. We optimists plant bulbs, for we expect to be around for quite a while to take care of them. We intend to enjoy the fruits (and flowers) of our labor. If the Lord permitted me to live a long life, albeit on land, then I would be grateful for the grace, and plant determined things, things that root in hard, to endure. I was perfectly content to do my gardening on a solid, not a liquid, field, although my harvest would be flower buds, not seafaring souls.
Or so I thought.
In a moment’s time, however, the terroir of my heart quickly changed. With one phone call from Majestic Waves, a longing that I had thought superficial emerged as from a deep, coursing wellspring. I was not so nonchalant and magnanimous about where I would spend my golden years as I had believed. Below the surface of my acceptance at being rejected for the coveted chaplain’s job, I still pined for the ocean world. Paul’s adventures at sea really had impacted me. I daydreamed about watching raspberry-hued sunsets from under a striped blanket on a deck chair, and in idle hours I could almost smell the trade winds wafting the scent of salt and cinnamon.
Also, I confess that I felt regret at never having made more money. As a pastor with a small congregation, Candy and I had never been able to put much aside. Throughout our whole marriage, we had made due with little disposable income. Perhaps a cruise chaplain’s salary would supplement my pension. It would ensure that we would never know serious deprivation and provide some rewards for all of our material sacrifices over the years.
I took the phone from my wife. Looking at Candace with a lump of anxiety in my throat, I wondered if we were actually going to live on a ship. My pulse quickened. Who would mind the tulips? Anticipation made my hand shake.
“Yes, this is Pastor James Atterley. How may I help you?” One of the most important conversations of my life in that instant commenced. It went very fast, too fast. In short, the phone call was a sales pitch, and totally unnecessary, for I was most assuredly already sold. In retrospect, I could hear the recruiter’s voice clearly but not God’s.
Candy watched my face intently for more insight. She stood first on one foot and then on the other. She grimaced. She grinned. She clutched her fingers on top of her head as if she were making a great effort to keep her enthusiasm from steaming out through her hair follicles. Her lips formed into, “Well? Well?” as the phone call progressed.
“An offer to be a cruise ship chaplain! Hallelujah! We accept!” I wasn’t coy. I didn’t negotiate. That deep wellspring in my heart became a gulley washer, and in that moment, I would’ve signed anything. My desire was stronger than my discernment.
Candace collapsed into an Adirondack chair on the deck. She was overcome with joy. I thought that she might hyperventilate. She fanned herself with her open hand.
I repeated everything about the job offer’s terms for my wife’s sake. “A nine-month tour of Latin America. Is that so? Very interesting. Free passage for myself and spouse. Outstanding! Conduct daily worship services, yes. Observe religious holidays, yes. Be flexible in a multicultural environment, naturally. Be available for private solace in unexpected circumstances such as bereavement, of course.”
The recruiter listed a few other requirements that I remembered from the original job application, such as a willingness to cooperate with the medical staff and a promise to emphasize customer service. “Well, it sounds wonderful! It’s like a dream come true!” I turned to my wife, who was beaming. “I’ll wait for your offer letter and start making plans to join Majestic Waves. We’re so excited! Thank you, thank you again!”
“There’s just one more thing,” Mrs. Kimball, the recruiter, said. She cleared her throat. Her tone changed. I thought I heard her become quite deliberate with her words, as a lawyer would be, or a policeman. “You will have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. You will never talk or write about this cruise. You will not even take any photos.” Mrs. Kimball then became the college professor, explaining everything to a lowly student. “Majestic Waves is bringing new services to the cruising public, and we want to be able to evaluate the results of this trip in private, with our experts, at first. We call it post-marketing surveillance.”
I had to keep everything a secret? That was odd. I didn’t like the sound of that. “Well, I don’t know. I suppose . . . ” I looked at my lovely Candace. I didn’t want to disappoint her by taking more time to consider this sterling opportunity. I was at a crossroads, and stumbling. I felt pressured but eager.
“We know it’s an unusual request. You’ll be compensated for complying,” Mrs. Kimball said. She then became the unctuous encourager. “We’ve eliminated a hundred other applicants to choose you, James. Many pastors would do anything for an opportunity that we’ve saved for you. Come join us. Be one of us.”
“How so? I mean, what do you have in mind, about compensation?” I could see that Candace was no longer even listening to the phone call and was already lounging onboard in her imagination. Her eyes looked faraway and gazing on cresting waves. She was thinking about getting a big fruity drink with a little umbrella in it. It would be painful for me to summon her back to sweet tea in a mason jar on the porch.
Mrs. Kimball continued her sales salvo. “We’ve planned a large bonus for you at the end of the cruise. Very substantial. In any currency you’d like, sent to any bank. We’re certain you’ll find it attractive. And it might be great for a person at your stage of life, after you’ve worked so hard. Pastors don’t make nearly what they’re worth, do they?”
God forgive me, I discovered that I could be bought. I had never had any money to speak of in my entire life, and I was tempted. In my mind’s eye, I could see a little garden shop to own and manage in my golden years. We’d give it a snappy, catchy name. I could put a little painted patio set out front, and I could surround it with terracotta pots full of yellow nasturtiums. My friends would come and tell me what a beautiful store I owned. They’d stroke the brass doorknobs and admire the awnings. If I did well, I could play golf every Wednesday. Candace would be able to have a new stove. Maybe we could even afford to install a double wall oven, her absolute dream.
In only a few fleeting moments, my desire to learn more about the life of St. Paul morphed into a business transaction, and one laced with bait. I decided on the spot. I swallowed my misgivings. After all, what could the cruise line possibly have to hide? Their business was sailing languorously around in circles, in the sunshine, for heaven’s sake. Cruising was one of the world’s most harmless pursuits. It made people happy. I could even argue that it was a healing profession, restoring one’s health and vim and vigor, for everyone, even unbelievers.
I just had to make sure. I can say that I tried. “I’ll only be performing a chaplain’s services, correct?”
“I won’t be handling money on the sabbath or doing endorsements?” These were the two most potentially compromising activities I could think of at the time, how quaint.
“Not at all.”
I blinked and took a leap of faith. “All right, no problem. Yes, send the non-disclosure agreement along with the offer letter and I’ll sign it.”
“Fantastic! We’ll be sending the documents out today. Welcome to Majestic Waves Cruise Lines, Pastor Atterley! We know you’ll be a valuable asset. Good luck!” Evelyn Kimball’s enthusiasm echoed in my ears, which were tingling with adrenaline, and instantly she hung up, before I changed my mind. I never heard her voice again.
I looked at the cell phone in my hand. My heart was rising in my chest, beating as if I’d run a mile. I realized that I’d just made an enormous commitment, with very little information, to people I barely knew, in an act of spontaneity unequal to anything I’d ever done in a long, thoughtful, well-considered life. Lord? I prayed. Oh, Lord, I said.
Slowly, I gave the phone back to Candace. She kissed it and then kissed me. Her broad smile transformed my anxiety into guilt-free exultation. Everything was all right. Candace was happy. I had made my wife proud, every husband’s goal. I felt like a prize. I felt like a player.
“Ahoy, matey!” my darling said, rushing into my arms.
“Anchors aweigh!” I responded.
Then logic forced its way in. Regardless, I’m a planner. So much for the fantasy of opening my own garden shop. I sat down with my wife on the steps to the deck. “This means we should probably sell the house. It’s been on our mind, remember? I don’t want to rent out the place while we’re away, do you? No goal of being a landlord, right? We might even find a town where we want to resettle, maybe with some ex-pats, and never return, you know?”
Candace searched my face as I spoke. I hated to be the cause of her moving so sharply from exultation to reflection, but the issue had to be faced. I’d just decided off the cuff to move us to Latin America. All of a sudden, I was aware of all the details!
“Oh, James, I think it has to be sold,” Candace agreed. She reached out and held my hand, waiting to see if I had further comment. “We’ll be in the best position if the house doesn’t hold us back.”
The sale of our home had long been a painful topic, especially as we approached retirement, because it was related to another sensitive issue: God had not given us children and we had no heirs. In the early years of our marriage, we had hoped to fill our three bedrooms with cooing babies, but, over time and with the finality of infertility, our dreams for parenthood gradually faded. Of course, while God can do anything, he never healed us of some mysterious physical abnormality. Or perhaps it was a shortcoming in my character that had made God see fit not to reproduce my predispositions in our children.
Hope is a difficult thing to extinguish, though. It has a high-octane flame. Late into our forties, my mate and I had still tried to conceive. We kept our bedrooms waiting for offspring, down to piles of snowy diapers stacked inside the closets. We bought toys. We stockpiled coloring books. We refused to give up hope. In our own master suite, Candy and I still prayed every time after our lovemaking that in our embrace, a new life had been formed.
Alas, it never was, as the splash of thick red clots on white cotton confirmed to Candace every month during her woman’s time. My darling wife would sit in private, in the bathroom, and weep and weep. She felt paupered and bereft, completely inconsolable. Comforting her with gentle whispers was useless. Her shoulders stiffened at my touch.
As for me, I had no words with which to accost the bloodstains. I kept my grief inside, silent, hidden. Eventually, we used the diapers that we’d stored for babies as common dust rags instead. That was a terrible day! Our aspirations were ashes. When my wife went to the grocery, I packed up the toys and angrily drove them to Good Will as a donation, incensed at our fate and vowing never to let Candy know how stricken I was that I could not fill her womb with a son or a daughter. Nothing but lifeless blood, only inanimate clots, came from me!
“You want to give all this stuff away?” the worker said as he unloaded my car at the drive-up. “The price tags are still on.” Some little bells on a puppet jangled as he unpacked.
“Mind your own business!” I snapped in a rare moment of pique.
Then, as best we could, Candace and I transplanted our desire for children into the nurturing of our flower garden. Some childless couples choose to love dogs. We chose Black-eyed Susans. It’s true, we never rejoiced at the birth of a long-awaited baby as Hannah and Sarah had done in the Bible, but Candy and I had been given each other’s companionship, as well as the shared delight of the flowers that emerged from the soil every season. In this way, we were fertile. We thought of ourselves as a couple of companion plants. Let God’s will be done.
We shared what we’d been given with our congregation. Often on Sundays, our roses graced the altar. Our lilies filled the narthex at Easter. Our gladioli were given as gifts at baby showers held in the church basement, which my wife and I did not resent at all, though childless. Our bearded irises were shared at funerals. Our peonies were grouped in arrangements on tables at the ladies’ fundraisers, and our camellia shrub clippings illuminated the dark corners of the church offices with their crimson buds at Christmastime. Our petite carnations even went to the prom in delicate corsages and boutonnieres, in a project the teens supervised that was sponsored by a local crafts store. In these ways, Candace and I made our contribution to the generations.
Our memories were full of relationships that had begun and flourished because of our garden. Technically, after I retired we had no reason to preserve any property that we owned for posterity, but finally selling our home and our garden to go cruising would be an official acknowledgement that neither children nor grandchildren would ever be in our future, and that we were not only infertile but also elderly. My fear was that we would have to be cautious not to see the home’s and the garden’s sale as the ultimate expression of our personal failure.
I might not have worried. After the job offer came, I don’t think that Candy ever pulled up the kitchen blinds again to look fondly at our backyard. The garden became a relic from a different era, something previously beloved, then forgotten. Candace disconnected from it, emotionally. To her, the telephone call from Majestic Waves was a sign of favor from above and the prompt to an unanticipated but wonderful future. The garden was no longer needed for fulfillment. “Gerard down the street is a realtor. Let’s give him a call,” Candace said.
And I did, that very morning of Ash Wednesday. I pulled my neighbor away from his woodworking bench to announce to his surprise that we were decamping.
“Gerry, my friend, we’ve decided to pull up stakes and hit the waters. We need you to sell our home. I took a job as a cruise ship chaplain.”
“You’re doing what? You’re going where?” Gerry asked. “I thought I’d see them carry you out one day,” he observed, rather insensitively, too, I might add.
A few weeks later, in late March, not only were my wife and I “home-less,” but also “furniture-less” and “yard-less.” Luckily, during our realtor’s open houses, the flowers on our property had looked their floral best, for it was springtime. The glowing forsythia bushes that lined our stone walkway pulsed like a neon arrow pointing to Eden, and the foliage almost singlehandedly sold the house. Candy complained that for his fee, Gerard didn’t have to do much but unlock the front door to let people inside. The property spoke for itself. Kindred gardener spirits were thrilled with our designs, and the fact that the flowers, shrubs, trees, and vines had been loved like children showed through.
Finalizing the sale of our home proved easy. In the real estate contracts, we set the date for the home’s transfer to its new owners, Drs. Jason and Jill Carmichael, both dentists, and fantasized more and more about the Grand Rapina, our new cruising “houseboat.” I liked the Carmichaels very much, but I couldn’t escape a vision that I had of them applying compost to the echinacea, and then sticking their fingers in my mouth, and that limited the prospects for friendship right from the start, I’m afraid. Jason and Jill had two little boys, and I’m sure they enjoyed building a treehouse. I hope they didn’t stomp on the Hostas.
As we cleared our home, folding, tossing, and packing, we had a crying jag when Candace put out on the curb the bassinet that we’d kept in our attic for so long. Years ago, I’d flung a bedsheet over it to hide it. At the time, it was next to impossible to dispose of the bassinet without Candy seeing, so, like my grief, I covered it up.
When my wife yanked off the fabric, wondering what it was concealing, she gasped. Tears streamed down her face. “Oh, our cradle, our cradle,” she moaned. Candace rolled it to the street as carefully as if it contained a live infant. She dropped it off and then went back to embrace it one last time. She was sobbing so that I thought the neighbors might hear her. I couldn’t help myself. I joined in. Our weeping spell was like a river of purged disappointments. We clung to one another. Then, blessedly, the pain was gone, like a wound that had been opened with a sharp scalpel and cleaned and stitched. We were absolutely, deeply, ready to move on.
At the last moment, as with any conscience-stricken father, I almost felt that I was abandoning innocent dependents by moving away. After all, I had seen these plants “grow up.” I left explicit written instructions for the new owners on how this plant liked to be fertilized, and how that one liked to be pruned. Secretly, I harvested seeds from my favorites, in case I should ever own a garden again, and kept them in a satin pouch in my Bible. Looking back, I take that reticence as an ominous sign. If only I had known.
We probably could have stayed with friends for free, but Candace and I relocated into a nearby motel for a few days before we joined the Grand Rapina, enjoying the quaint waffle house that was attached to the motel. I think now that, I, too, was severing emotional connections and anything that might have held me back from committing to our new future, so I didn’t want to rely on people I’d once been close to. It’s funny how human beings protect their vulnerability.
At the motel, we woke up every morning smelling blueberry syrup through the walls. After our daily breakfasts of pancakes and sausage, my spouse and I sat out on the restaurant’s patio, playfully affecting the identity of those who are well-traveled by ocean liner. We were evolving. We tried on our emerging roles as cruise ship passengers. It never occurred to us that we might not succeed. We aimed to become cosmopolitan voyagers.
For example, we developed an intense interest in checking the weather, as if all of our lives we had had reason to monitor the tempestuous paths of hurricanes, squalls, and tsunamis. We became suitably outraged by the very idea of port taxes. We had one quite pleasant afternoon pondering the advantages of dual citizenship. We decided to study a foreign language to be well-equipped for life abroad, but we could never select just one, for suddenly all of the languages under Babel seemed so very relevant and so naturally interesting. At last, Candace and I determined that it would be better to be conversational in at least half a dozen tongues, since we were going to see the whole world, which was rather more than what had been promised by Majestic Waves in a nine-month contract to Latin America, but we were ambitious and excited by our new prospects.
I must admit right now, we became blinded by our enthusiasm.
We had a dream with a moral motivation, and a way to finance it appeared. Doors opened. Obstacles vanished. Surely, the opportunity to become a cruise-line chaplain was from the Lord, we thought. Anyone would have believed so.
If Candace and I had sought more guidance from God, perhaps I would not be compelled to give this deposition about an international maritime catastrophe. I have been sworn to tell the truth to the admiralty authorities. Officials in high places assigned with dispensing justice demand to know what happened onboard the luxurious Grand Rapina, and why it occurred, and why I survived it. The world looks to me to give answers.
I am at a loss to tell them. The authorities seem to think that because I am a pastor, I have insights and explanations. I am not ashamed to say that I, myself, am traumatized. What God permits confuses me. I can’t explain the depravity of human nature that began with the Fall in the Garden. No evil of this kind was ever found among my flowers. Every day, I looked out on my garden and, like God, I said that it was good, only good.
How could a seventy-two-year-old-man, an educated, spiritual person, have been so wrong about a call from the Lord? God permitted me to descend into danger and terror, more than just my own, on the Grand Rapina. Why? I was not Noah, but like him, I found myself in a turbulent, sea-tossed ark, tasked with saving a people. A storm of medical horror came, for which I was unprepared. Would God have removed me from this misadventure, if I had consulted him more earnestly before I rashly gave up my South Carolina home? Or, was I, even with the weight of my doubts and uncertainties about to drown me, in the right place, fulfilling God’s will to help my brothers and sisters of color?
I’m not sure. On this side of heaven, I might never know.
For me, God did not walk on the waters and say, “Get out of the boat, and come.”
There was no rescue. He made me stay on the ship, with the others, unsafe in the storm.
St. Paul, can you tell me why?
Perhaps I do not know the Lord’s voice at all.
But I can use mine to tell you what happened.