Pipe Organ Serenade
The boy was brought into the chapel in a wheelchair and situated beside the second row next to where his father and little brother would sit. ‘Boy’, the preacher thought. ‘How can I still call this man a boy?’ Might have been when he left two years ago, having successfully lied about his age to get into the army a little early. He was clearly a boy no longer.
He thought the boy’s – man’s – eyes seemed bright with recognition and could track the preacher as he walked items to and from the pulpit preparing for services. But the angry scar across his head, the depression in his skull as though a piece had been blasted out, the shriveled body, all suggested whatever spark remained did not extend beyond his mind. He didn’t seem unhappy, the preacher thought, then wondered how that could be. Clearly, the preacher concluded as he went about his business while watching him from the corner of his eye, the man retained his perceptions and his self-awareness. But any ability to express his thoughts were gone. Any movements of his extremities to communicate had been taken. All but those eyes, bright green and expressive as a pipe organ and radiating serenity.
The day had seemed so filled with the promise of easy contentment when the preacher climbed into his Model-T that morning, oblivious to the man’s existence. He’d constructed a simple sermon based on Paul’s letters to the Corinthians that was little more than extension of other sermons he’d given a hundred times. The drive over country roads to his little church that backed against the woods had been pleasant and gloriously bathed by a kind summer sun. His modest congregation had been through well enough over the past couple years, first with Great War casualties and then those taken by the Spanish flu, the man’s mother having been one of those just a few months back. He’d said words over a half dozen for the former and just shy of a full dozen for the latter. But those traumas had seemed to have played themselves out. He felt the congregation needed simple, gentle forgiveness then sent home feeling good about themselves, cloistered from the harsh world beyond their little valley. It was, he was sure, a time for healing. No place now for fire, brimstone, judgement, or dogma. Should be that way all the time, he thought to himself as he drove along, bouncing over the road so enjoyably.
Then the preacher learned that the man had returned home from an army hospital just days before. He wasn’t sure how much the man’s family had known of his condition before he got there or if they even knew he was coming. No one had reached out to him for guidance – the mother would have, but the father was not so outgoing. There they sat now in the second row, the man in his wheelchair on the side, the father looking bleary-eyed, the little brother looking as always that he’d rather be fishing, the empty space where their mother had sat, and the empty space next to that where the man had sat before the war violently repositioned him. The congregation filed hesitantly in, the man and his family a clear illustration that they were not cloistered safe from the world and could not be any longer. They did not live in an isolated valley. There was no escape. The preacher took position at the pulpit as they settled themselves and looked to him for insight. The man in the wheelchair only looked at him with that deep, peaceful serenity as if heaven itself were flowing through him.
And the preacher thought, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, what the holy hell do I tell these people now?!’ And he wondered what might remotely bring context to the pain of these past couple years. What words could he offer that might provide even the slightest shield against the world? The choir behind him began their opening hymn and he looked to his notes, knowing that every song he had selected, every prayer he had scripted, every word of his sermon was wrong. Like the man in the wheelchair, he felt he had lost all ability to express his thoughts, or even to coalesce thoughts at all.
Then he looked to the wheelchair bound man himself, hoping to find an answer in his expressive eyes. And in fact, deep and abiding, the love he needed to find was there waiting for him.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.