By: Ruth Z Deming
Africa is shaped like a voluptuous woman. And Uganda, beautiful Uganda, Uncle Ken told his niece Heather, is almost smack dab in the middle. He was a missionary in a scrappy little town called Busega, overflowing with lively pecan-colored barefoot children, brightly-clothed men and women of all ages who took an instant liking to Pastor Ken, as they called this white-haired, white-bearded man with the bouncing belly. It deflated as he ate the same foods as his parishioners, who walked nearly a mile to fetch fresh clean water. They carried it home on their heads.
Ken had been devastated when his wife died suddenly in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Coiled together in their upstairs bedroom, Ken had awoken to find his beloved Marcella as cold as a dead fish. And blue. He tried CPR, to no avail, as the ambulance sirened its way toward their house.
At the well-attended funeral at the Abington Presbyterian Church, one Tobias Heinline took him aside.
“Kenny,” he said. “Take a break from your printing company. Come with me in a week. I’m Uganda-bound.”
It sounded like the name of a song.
Kenny managed a smile. “Too soon,” he said, shaking his head. “Much too soon.”
“Do me a favor,” said Tobias. “Remain open. And pray about it.”
Ken went home to his empty house. Slowly walking up the stairs, he hung up his black suit and striped tie, changed into his blue pajamas, and closed his eyes under the covers. What an exhausting day this had been. The death of his wife of fifty-five years had not fully sunk in. Sure, he knew she was dead, he’d found her, hadn’t he? But he thought perhaps she might be waiting for him after the funeral in the living room or bedroom.
Snuggling under the white eyelet quilt had Marcy made for them, he felt the breeze from the open window. Why was it, he wondered, there was nothing as refreshing as a cool breeze, especially when it smelled of the fragrant purple wisteria blossoms from Marcy’s garden.
Hers. So much was hers. Her dressing room, only a hundred yards away, held the lovely clothes she would never touch again, and the porcelain white sink where she would never again dye her hair auburn, her original color before time turned it silver-fox white. Her kitchen, her refrigerator, with a container of lobster bisque she had made only two days before her heart burst like a ripe watermelon.
“Lord,” he prayed while lying on his back, tears sliding gently from the corners of his eyes. “Please show me Thy will. Is it too soon for me to fly to Kampala or Bosega?”
Instinctively, he held out his arm to touch his wife. In a few moments, he was asleep, but heard himself snoring which woke him up. When Marcy was next to him, that meant he must turn over and sleep on his side, the surefire snore cure.
At church, where Ken was an elder, they had watched a slide show of the miracles wrought by their missionaries – a dozen men and women – who built new brick houses, painted the interior of many a house, and put up several new churches, the outsides painted in breathtaking colors: aqua, maroon, yellow.
The missionaries were loved and respected for maintaining the tradition of the Ugandan people and not pouring God and Christ down their innocent throats.
Unable to sleep, Ken switched on his bedside radio. Marcy always fell asleep quickly and she often hurled out a cry, then awoke and whispered, “I was dreaming I was driving and was about to crash.”
The radio did its work, lulling him back to sleep, and when he awoke, he called his friend Tobias.
“Count me in,” he said. “Your prayers – and I suppose mine, too – have been answered.”
Beverly, his able assistant, with her slight mustache and bad hip, would be in charge of The Hatboro Print Shop until he returned two weeks later.
“Remember,” he said, over the phone, “we’re having a twenty-five percent-off sale to usher in the spring.”
“Aye, aye captain,” she said with a smile in her voice.
He and Tobias sat next to each other on the plane from Philadelphia International Airport to Heathrow in London. During the twelve-hour layover in London, the two of them played cards in an international café while they sipped on coffee, which, they both agreed was decidedly not as good as their own back in the states.
“Just can’t believe she’s dead,” mused Ken aloud. “Best woman in the whole damn world.”
“No one could cook like your wife,” said Tobias, “Pecan pie with homemade whipped cream? Wonder if they eat in the afterlife.”
They both laughed, as Ken picked another card.
Before Ken left home, he had called his favorite niece, Heather, to tell her of his departure.
“Oh, Uncle Ken,” she chirped over the phone from her studying desk in nearby Rydal, “I’ll miss you terribly, but at least you’re coming home unlike poor Aunt Marcy.”
“Praise the Lord,” they said in unison. Heather had thought quickly before mentioning her dead aunt and thought it best to keep Aunt Marcy in her prayers and also be open about it with Uncle Ken.
“And you’ll be a good lass,” he said, “minding your parents and studying hard for your LSAT, your law boards.”
“Oh, indeed I will,” she managed to laugh. “Neither man nor beast nor a Dairy Queen Blizzard nor video games will lure me away from my boring textbooks,” she laughed with that chipper voice he so loved.
From Heathrow, the British Airways flight to Entebbe was eight hours in rather worn but comfortable seats, that both Tobias and Ken rolled back to allow themselves room to sleep. Ken glanced out the window and all he could see was darkness, as if a black curtain were sewn on the tiny window. Various pinging sounds in different parts of the plane lulled him to sleep. He dreamt he was in a submarine being chased by an unknown enemy. But sleep on he did until the orange sunrise greeted them in the morning like a huge smile.
They debarked on the tarmac at eight in the morning Entebbe time. The first thing Ken saw was the Ugandan flag.
“Isn’t she beautiful!” Ken said to Tobias, pointing upward to the multicolored flag: red, yellow and red stripes which surrounded what Ken would learn was a white-tufted crane. Its huge crown-like white tuft flapped in the breeze, seeming ready to fly right off the flag.
A man had been sent to escort them to the dusty town of Kampala, his red Jeep coated with a thin powder of dust. Ken and Tobias, who refused to be called Toby – thinking it sounded like the name of a frog – got in the front and back seats.
“It’s one thing to see this place as a series of slides at the church, but quite another to be here in person,” Ken told Tobias, leaning forward from the back seat.
They bumped along paved roads and dirt roads, Ken’s sleeping head fallen onto his chest, until they came to an abrupt stop that jolted him awake.
The driver cruised toward a grove of trees and small brick buildings. Ken imagined his Marcella standing in front of a brick building, tall and elegant, her nails polished as pink as a dogwood leaf, her silver hoop earrings swaying as she walked toward him, arms held out for an embrace. He hadn’t forgotten the taste of her kiss, warm as the wisteria-tinted evening breeze. “I suppose it will fade over time,” he thought. He remembered a scene from the movie “Rebecca,” where Joan Fontaine remarks about “bottling up an aroma.”
As they emerged from the red Jeep, hordes of children ran toward the two of them.
“Pastor Tobias,” they said in broken English. “We love you! You and Jesus,” which they pronounced more like “Chee-Chee.”
Tobias, in a lightweight white suit, wrapped his arms around the children, boys and girls alike, and kissed the tops of their fuzzy heads.
“Have you brought us gifts?” asked a night-black girl with pearl-bright teeth.
“Later, my child,” he said. “First, we must rest. You will learn to love Pastor Ken,” putting his arm around him, “my dear friend from the United States of America.”
Copying his friend, Ken opened his arms wide and the children fell into them, looking up into his pink face that hadn’t seen the sun for months since he’d quarantined himself at work, printing up wedding invitations; “Brighten your Smile” brochures for a dentist, and “Talking Flowers,” a two-week update on floral suggestions by Weber Flowers.
The two-week missionary jaunt went by quickly. Every day was a work day, laboring in the hot equatorial sun, splashing their heat-radiating bodies with water, and drinking from the communal trough. On Sunday, seventy-five people filed into a white-washed church with a sun-baked wooden cross on top. A wealthy individual from back home had donated an out-of-tune piano which old Faridah easily learned to play. “Our Savior, He’s a Comin’” and “The Little Lord Jesus” rang from the stuffy room through the windows and up to the very heavens where the Lord and His Son were certainly nodding their omnipotent heads.
Tobias would stay on a few more weeks. Ken raised his arms and blessed everyone before he got into the same red Jeep to head to the Entebbe International Airport.
The assembled boys and girls, adults and the elderly, raised up their arms to cheer their new Pastor Ken and chant: “kurudi nyumbani, kurudi nyumbani,” – “come back soon!” – words that echoed in his ears as the Jeep bumped over the roads toward the airport.
On the long flight home from Heathrow to Philadelphia International, a new feeling came over him. Uganda and its triumphs were left behind and forgotten. All he could think about was returning to his empty house. He clearly saw it, ringing with emptiness. Nothing he could do – strapping on headsets to watch a movie – reading his paperback novel – could budge the raging fear in his head. He pondered the miracle of flight that had taken him across the sea and the miracles he and his pastoral team had performed for their compatriots in a tiny town of forgotten people, the most beautiful people he had ever met, huge smiles with often rotting teeth, gloriously dark bodies the color of ripe figs, traditional folk dances of such mesmerizing intensity they rivaled the Bolshoi. And love and gratitude. And, cosseted away from the commercialized West, not a single one among them bore an ounce of greed.
Ken and Calvin of “Dave’s Best Limo” talked the whole ride home from the airport to Ken’s empty house.
“Africa!” said Calvin, shaking his head as he handed Ken his two small bags. “That’s a new one on me!”
Ken gave him a five-dollar bill and stood before his house. His once beautiful house which now stood as forbidding as an open grave. The white wicker chairs on the front porch were empty, seeming to mock him, as he turned the key and entered the house he dreaded as if a monster dwelt within.
The monster of loneliness.
He felt like calling “Mar-CELL-uh,” but figured that would be a crazy thing to do. Steadfastly, he lugged his suitcases into his bedroom, their bedroom, and wishing for nothing more than to lie down and sleep, he stopped himself.
“Why should I sleep in my own bed?” he thought. It would bring him into that new roughshod territory of grief. He didn’t need to smell the place where his beloved had once lain, now buried in the Malachi Jones Cemetery across from Abington Presbyterian Church. Nor did he wish to visit her grave and lay a wreath on the stone which read, “Marcella Graham Graver”… A Woman Who Knows Love. Loving wife, aunt, volunteer. “Believe in Him in life everlasting.”
Managing to change into his blue pajamas, he walked into one of the spare bedrooms, a bright yellow, and pulled down the bedspread. He liked the quiet. And there he slept. And slept and slept. Until the telephone rang. Quickly, he took the phone off the hook, heard it slip onto the carpet, and fell back to sleep, as darkness draped the outdoors.
Ken Graver had no idea what was happening to him, nor did he care. His mind seemed to shut down, like someone closing the lid on a piano. The only time he left his bed was to go to the bathroom. And then he stopped even that, peeing directly onto the sheets. The phone remained unplugged. He heard the thud of the newspaper onto the walk and the sound of the mailman – he limped and dragged his foot – depositing mail with a thud into the hand-painted mailbox. Marcy had stenciled blue birds onto it. Her beloved birds. “The birds of hope,” she had called them.
Plenty of knocking on the door told him people were thinking of him, but did he care? “What’s wrong with me?” a faint voice said in his head, but it was as distant as the dark side of the moon.
Towards the end of May, as he lay face up in bed, licking his dry lips, he heard the front door burst open.
“Officer Robinson, here!” shouted a voice from the foyer.
“And Heather, too, Uncle Ken!”
Up the stairs they clambered. Ken shrugged and closed his eyes.
He and Heather rode in the back of the black and white police car to Abington Memorial Hospital. He remained there for two long months in the Buerger Building – the psych ward – while his mail piled up and his grass grew long enough for sheep to graze in it.
A white-haired doctor, with “Richard V. Worthington, MD” written on his name tag, became his personal psychiatrist. The two of them sat in the little monk’s cell that was Ken’s new room.
Worthington sat in a chair. “You’re not gonna like hearing this, Mr. Graver, but you’re what we call ‘treatment-resistant.’”
“What the hell is that?” asked Ken.
“It means your brain doesn’t respond to medication. The only way you’ll get your mind back is through electroshock therapy. Know what that is?”
Ken shook his head “no.”
Worthington, who was quite the dresser, with cufflinks bearing the initials RVW, explained the procedure. “You’ll have a series of twelve treatments, tiny electric zaps to your brain” – he tapped the side of his own head – “You’ll be anesthetized and won’t feel a thing.”
Ken didn’t for a moment believe he’d get his old self back. Whoever that old self was. That person, he supposed, who lived on Red Barn Lane. He had absolutely no compunctions of doing whatever was necessary to leave this miserable world behind and join Marcy in the hereafter.
Every morning as dawn lit up his monk’s cell, the nurse – African-American Linda was his favorite – would strap Depends on his lower parts and they’d travel via wheelchair to the basement where the treatments took place. Anesthesia seeped through a tube in his upper arm and the world went dark.
By the sixth treatment, Ken was joking, as he was wheeled from his room downstairs, “Off to the dungeon! Off with my head.”
Finally, Heather drove him home again. He grunted as he looked at his untended yard.
“Can you stay a while, Marce? I mean Heather?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. “Anything for you, Uncle Ken.”
Ken bounded up the front stairs, small suitcase in hand.
“Heather,” he said. “I can think!”
They sat down in the living room, artfully arranged by Marcy. Each of them sank into a blue love seat across from one another. The walls were dotted with photos Marcy had taken or with framed prints by Monet, Mary Cassatt’s “Breakfast in Bed” with a red-cheeked blond child, and the famous Goya print of the little lord in his blazing orange suit with white sash.
“Praise the Lord, Heather,” he said. “That was one voyage, to the hospital and back, I thought would be the death of me.”
He reached over to a marble-top table and lifted up a figurine of a shiny brown cocker spaniel with tilted ears. He stared at it, then put it down again.
“Marcy loved this,” he said. “You know, I’ve had a lot of time to think at the hospital. All I did was think. Think about my seventy-two years of life, my wonderful wife, the fabulous people I know, and most of all, I thought about my future. Seventy-two may sound old to you, my darling…..”
“Oh, no,” she rushed in to say. “To me, you will never be old. You’re too strong. Too stubborn.”
“Uncle Ken, you’ve always been a thinker.” She reminded him of the many talks they’d had over the years. They both enjoyed discussing The Brothers Karamazov and the famous chapter on The Grand Inquisitor. They’d also read most of the short stories and plays by Anton Chekhov and of course the devoutly Catholic Flannery O’Connor.
“Reading these authors,” said Heather, “was like having them over my house, having them sit at the dining room table and serving them dinner.”
Uncle Ken laughed. He got up from the loveseat and paced around the living room.
“Everything in here reminds me of my dear wife, God praise her name.” He went over to the living room window and pulled open the white blinds embossed with a pattern of blue birds and green maple leaves.
“Heather,” he said, turning her way and seeing, as if for the first time, her lovely oval-shaped face and red curls falling to her shoulders.
“Everything looks new to me now. Everything. This may be what they call an epiphany, what do you think?”
“Epiphany, huh! Sudden understanding, I guess, of something you never knew before. How exciting!”
“Well,” he said. “Let’s just say…. different… a different sort of thinking.”
He stared at her.
“Honey,” he said. “I no longer believe in the Almighty.”
Heather jumped up from the love seat.
“Uncle Ken!” she said. “Are you sure? Are you sure about this? Your whole life has re……”
“Oh, I’m sure,” he said. “As sure as any man can be.” He pointed to the long mahogany desk under the window. A huge Bible, with large print, sat open on the desk.
“Oh, it’s a wonderful book,” he said, walking over and fanning the pages. “Absolutely beautiful, gorgeous prose. But how can it be true?”
Heather said she often had doubts herself.
They kissed goodbye on the porch. Ken waved as his niece drove away in her gray Nissan Sentra covered with fine green powder, an offering from the spring foliage.
Ken still prayed. He lay in bed and prayed or walked around his house hands clasped in prayer. He knew he may as well be praying to the maple tree and its falling seedlings or the yellow dahlias growing in Marcy’s rock garden.
“Lord,” he prayed. “My life has lost all meaning. Whatever shall I do?”
His prayers were answered. Another epiphany. Two in two months. He was nothing if not obedient.
Within two months Ken sold his stationery shop for a good price to one Mark Amos, who promised to keep Beverly, with the bad hip, on at the shop. He also sold his house on Red Barn Lane for a good price. Most of the beautiful furniture went to the Impact Thrift Store, which picked it up in a graffiti-marked truck.
“Who needs earthly goods?” he thought, and kept a couple of dozen of Marcy’s trinkets, stashing them in his black backpack he took aboard the plane back to the Entebbe Airport.
The Ugandan flag welcomed him back. Ken saluted the flag with what he now thought of as the sex-crazed crane, one leg lifted up as if he would fly away to meet the woman of his life.
“Welcome back, Pastor Ken,” said the driver of the red Jeep. Sitting in the front seat, Ken watched the arid lands pass by, the small clay houses, small groups of people bent over hoes as they planted sweet potatoes – the reddest and sweetest he had ever tasted – as they finally coasted into Busega.
“Nangila,” he said to his driver. “Please take this small token of my appreciation of your careful driving.”
He tucked a long string of Cloisonne beads of every color imaginable into Namidia’s hand.
“My late wife’s,” he said. “Aunt Marcy’s.”
And there they were as he got out of the red Jeep. Namidia had already slipped the beads around his neck.
“Karibuni! Karibuni!” Ken called as he looked over at his people. People the world had forgotten.
Like schoolchildren, they were overjoyed to see him and encircled him, the man in khaki-colored pants, belted over his thin waist, his head covered by a Phillies’ baseball cap, and his shining blue eyes.
“Please,” he said, looking at his people. “Call me Uncle Ken. Can you say that?”
“Unka Ken.. Unka Ken.”
“Perfect,” he said. It sounded like a Swahili name. “Unka-ken.”
From his backpack he handed them gifts, handfuls of Marcy’s trinkets and figurines: the small brown cocker spaniel, a white and blue Lalique bowl, necklaces and jewels of all kinds (his niece Heather had eagerly put on her aunt’s ruby earrings), several tall coffee mugs, one reading Starbucks, the other, Dunkin Donuts, and bouquets of bright silk artificial flowers that would never die.
Oh, they would get dusty, for sure. But they’d never die. And these trinkets would never have to worry about an Afterlife. And neither would Ken. But never would he breathe a word about the books he was reading: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Ecclesiastes or The Preacher from the Old Testament, and Bob Ingersoll, known as “The Great Agnostic.”
He laughed and felt like a college student as he shelved the books in his new room, where the red clay of the earth glimmered in the distance and the hot burning sun seemed to say, “Welcome home.”
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, has had her work published in lit mags including The Writing Disorder, Ray’s Road Review, and Hektoen International. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group – www.newdirectionssupport.org – for people and loved ones affected by depression and bipolar disorder. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.