Before Bethesda

I have never been able to tell when God opened my eyes to His marvellous light of truth. It dawned gradually, I think; so much so that day had broken long before I felt the warm rays on my face.

What I can recall is when that blessed assurance became mine. It was simultaneously the worst and the best day of my life.

My husband was in hospital. He had a raging infection after his third dose of chemotherapy for metastatic bowel cancer and needed specialist care. They had scanned him the previous day, and the news was encouraging – it appeared that the tumour was responding to treatment. In the midst of a truly awful, bleak period of four months since his recurrence was diagnosed, this was more than a glimmer of hope.

So, imagine how it felt the next morning when his Macmillan nurse phoned to summon me to the hospital. ‘He’s a lot less well’, she said, ‘and you should come’.

I drove, I parked, I ran to the ward. She told me, as I held his hand, that we were more or less out of options. He could go to Inverness for extensive surgery, but they doubted he’d survive the journey. Besides, she said, he’d had enough, and only wanted my say-so to lay down his arms. It didn’t give me a moment’s hesitation. Donnie had been through enough; he had battled bravely, and not once opened his mouth to complain.

The ambulance came within the hour and took us to Bethesda. His family were there, and my sister. I cried then. But from then on, I was surrounded by what I have only ever been able to describe as a bubble of peace. If I called to God, it was with my heart, not my voice – but those prayers, He hears them too: perhaps even more so. My soul inclined to Him instinctively, because somewhere along the way, it had become His property without my knowing it.

Donnie lived a week after that; Friday to Friday. We were both in God’s tender care, I have no doubt about that. All of this I have said before, many times.

But what I have not done justice to is the instrument God chose. For the last week of my married life with the man I will love forever, Bethesda Hospice became God’s hands and feet.

I can’t recount every instance of their ministering to us, but I can tell you enough. The kindly-stern nurse who insisted I eat a proper meal at lunch and teatime; the one who brought me tea and toast each morning. Those lunchtime naps I was forced to take, away in a room by myself where I could weep, and pray, and then gather myself again to face everything. And halfway through the night, I would leave his room for a little while so they could tend to Donnie, making him more comfortable.

One evening, nearing the end of the week, I was exhausted. There’s a little room with a recliner and a sort of giant lava lamp. The nurse more or less shoved me in there, dimmed the lights and shut the door; within seconds, I was away. That nap refreshed me; but the memory of the kindness with which it was orchestrated remains to this day.

And I will certainly never be able to repay the nurse who sat with me as I held Donnie’s hand for the last time, who gently confirmed for me that he had indeed gone home.

All of this might have been so different. For many families in years gone by, it was – loved ones died in the clamour and bustle of a hospital ward. Or, far worse, inadequately medicated against pain, and frightened, in their own homes, helpless relatives looking on, unable to help.

That was before Bethesda. A group of like-minded people, largely drawn from the Christian community, sought to provide a facility for palliative care in the island.

Having been in receipt of that care, I see how inadequate a word like ‘facility’ is to describe Bethesda.

Because of the hospice – the staff, the people who raise money to fund it – I can look back on that week with no regrets. The merest flicker of a frown on Donnie’s peacefully sleeping face was noticed by nurses, and more pain medication administered ‘just in case’. They ensured that I did not worry for one second that he was suffering. He was, I can truthfully say, gentled into death.

They couldn’t take my pain away, but they did everything short of it. I could not have thought of or asked for better treatment for him, or for me.

I left there the night he died, his wedding ring clutched in my hand. Thanks to the care I had – God’s own care administered by human hands – it was possible to reflect upon a good death for my husband. Their tenderness made me strong enough to return home unbroken.

And home was not a nightmarish place, littered with hospital paraphernalia, as it might once have been, in the days before there was Bethesda. Because of that, I was returning to a cocoon of happy memories, to a place I had shared with someone who did not have to die there, our much loved home becoming his prison of pain.

I don’t think the authorities realise what they have in Bethesda. It’s the kind of place that shouldn’t have to beg for the resources to do what it’s doing – making the awfulness so much less awful for people who just need to be upheld.

For me, the hospice is symbolic of the Saviour’s love. There is an untouchable peace and dignity at its heart, even as the politicians and the money men wrangle over every last penny. Still, Bethesda stands as a beacon of all that is kind and caring. Established to minister to the sick and dying, used by God to draw near to His own suffering people, we surely cannot let it become a tawdry pawn in the hands of politicians.

I don’t write this as emotional blackmail – it wouldn’t work anyway; but as a letter of thanks to Bethesda, and praise to the God who established it for all such hours of need.

May it be there for others as it was for us.

No sheilings in heaven

I recently took my dog – a gangly, daft collie named Mr Roy – for a walk out to the Pentland Wind Farm. He loves it for pretty much the same reason it appealed to the developer: Wind. Mr Roy loves to feel the breeze rumple his hair. Sniffing and lolloping about, he barely takes any heed of our surroundings, wherever we go.

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On the other hand, I find the place conducive to much thinking. Its solitude promotes meditation.

My mind went back to a conversation I had with my father many times, about his grandfather’s sheiling, out beyond Loch Lacsabhat Àrd. He talked about it often to me, saying that it had a special, peaceful atmosphere. It was evident that, for him, the site of that àirigh had an almost spiritual significance. It held, of course, the sweet fragrance of memory – of people he had loved, and a departed way of life.

I understand that better now. His own passing was the first breach in our small family circle. And I nurse special recollections of places that were dear to him, and where we were all happy together.

Place, and people, and love: they are impossible to separate from one another.

As I walked along the road with Mr Roy, I thought about that day, twenty-five years ago, when my father and I drove out to the Pentland Road – an impromptu spin on an evening in late summer.

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We used to spend quite a lot of time together. A walk here, a drive there, evenings on the croft at Doune. Our conversations were real – about the place, about our history . . . and always, in the end, about spiritual things. He lived his Saviour for long years before he professed faith as an old man. I see that now too. At the time, it was just part of who he was, and I was too blind to see why we both always longed to talk about God while out in His creation.

On this particular day, however, there was something different. Even as he parked the car, I could see that his thoughts were gathering in a particular direction. At long last, we were going in search of his grandfather’s sheiling.

It was no more than an hour’s walk into the moor. Being early August, it was warm, dry and full of midgies. They hastened our steps and made conversation difficult, but did nothing to dampen my anticipation.

Eventually we reached the place where the àirigh had once stood, marked by a few stones scattered across the green sward. We paused just long enough to take some photos and to get our breath back. As we both surveyed the scene, our eyes met, and I could read the question in his. I nodded. Yes, I could feel what he had described: peace and tranquillity of the best and simplest  kind.

All these years it had been a memory to my father, and an enticement to me. We had spoken of it so often that I felt I too had been there. He was obviously afraid that we might go there only to find an ordinary moorland glen, just like countless others.

It was far from it. These many years later, as I took an easier route through the moor, along a road built by progress, I recalled that other walk. With my father going before me, the way had been easy, and the destination absolutely sure.

Afterwards, we talked frequently about the evening we found the sheiling. Our conversation had changed because now I had seen for myself all he had sought to describe. It had been so beautiful in my imagination, but its loveliness was enhanced once we were able to share that memory.

I know that we talked about God a lot. My father clearly felt His presence in the places that he loved. Sometimes, even now, when I sit in church, I remember when we would go there together, and the talks we had afterwards. It’s only human, I suppose, to regret that I didn’t tell him then what the Lord was to me too. Of course, I didn’t really know myself that He was precious, or that I was His. But I know it now; I know that He walked with us out towards the old àirigh. He witnessed the conversations on which His own presence lingered and, as we stood in contemplation of the place, God held us in the hollow of His hand.

At my father’s funeral, a woman I didn’t know said to my mother, ‘he’s in the happy land’. Her words stirred something in me. I knew she was speaking of a place that my father had longed for; that he was standing there at that moment, looking around himself and swathed in peace.

I realise now that this was the beginning of another journey for me – towards assurance. It took almost four years, and another loss, before my eyes settled on that green sward of memory. Then I saw what had been true all along: God leading me on a walk, not to a transient summer dwelling, but homeward to my Father’s house, in which there are many rooms.