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.

Doing everything by the Book

In the last, difficult weeks of Donnie’s life, we spent a lot of time on planes and in hospitals. I say, ‘we’ because, although he was the patient, I went through it all in my own way too. My way involved reading. Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ were satisfyingly bleak and waiting-room long; they suited the mood, and they passed the hours.

And for a while, I thought they were going to be the last books I would ever open.

After Donnie died, I could not read. At first, it didn’t matter, and I barely noticed. There were other things to fill my time, other concerns to occupy my imagination. But, gradually, it started to worry me. I had already lost what felt like the greater part of my identity. The months and months of anxiety and nursing had ended abruptly; I was no longer a wife. Now, it seemed like reading had gone too – I simply had no appetite for it any more.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a big deal, especially in the context of my loss. But reading had always been part of me. I remember being endlessly chided for trying to bring books to the dinner table, and for walking from room to room, book in hand, nose buried in a story. Once, hilariously, my father watched me bring home yet another purchase and said in exasperation, ‘surely you have enough books now!’

Yet, some of my most treasured volumes are the ones he bought me because he knew how much I wanted them.

I think I worried him enormously by insisting on finding a new home for the bookcase full of theology texts I’d amassed while doing a short course with the Free Church. He must have despaired when I kept saying, ‘I won’t need them again – they should go to someone who will use them’. And although I’m not sorry that they joined the fledgling library of a now newly-ordained minister, I am sorry for the anxiety I must have caused my father in the process. Did he think I was turning my back on God?

Yes, books have played an important role in my life. I wish I had told my father about the devotional I read as a child that caused me to kneel and ask Jesus into my heart. It may not quite have been a conversion, but He never quite left me after that either.

By the time I was a widow, all these years later, I was also His completely. I had lost the ability to get absorbed in a novel, but was beginning to find a new identity in Christ. Wrestling with mounting concern about my reading mojo being gone, I began to tell people how worried I was that it was never coming back. Privately, I actually thought I was mentally ill. When I would try to make myself read, I could not finish anything. It was like a sickness when food turns your stomach. My sister in-law suggested that it was the result of my conversion, that perhaps I no longer cared for ‘worldly’ books. Okay, but I wasn’t exactly devouring Christian ones either.

Except for one, that is. The One. Morning and evening, and in those still stormy, tearful times in between, I reached for my Bible. Gospels, Pauline epistles, the beautiful Song of Songs, the melancholy Ecclesiastes, the inspiring Job, and the incomparable, endless Psalms. They all spoke to me in their different ways, and in my different moods.

This Bible that had been a dumb thing in my hands for so many years, it was transformed by the power of the Comforter. Now it was ministering to me in all my need. When I wondered what all this fog of pain could mean, it spoke truth into my heart.

The Bible is not just a book. It is the living Word of God and He reaches us through it. If I did not know this before, I know it now. Books, the very things which had once peopled my world, receded from me when I needed them most. They would have been no use anyway.

His Word, though, did the work. It caused me to feel my pain, to regard it through the lens of God’s mercy and justice. For all that people call it folktales and fairy stories, it does not provide a means of escape. We have got our means already; He from whose lips the cup did not pass. But the Bible helps us accept that, it helps us see where we fit into His plan.

It did not always use soft words, nor did it beguile me with pretty promises for this world.

But it does speak absolute, inerrant truth. It comes from the Lord, and it tells us what we need to hear – that is, not what we want, but what He knows is best for us.

Trying to run things for myself, I had begun to panic, and to struggle against what was happening. Actually, though, I see it now: it was as if God had taken the book from my hand, laid it down, and whispered, ‘listen to me’.

The more I listened, the clearer His voice became.

No, the Bible is not just a book. It is a direct line from God. There is no pain, no loss, no heartache, into which it cannot speak. But it’s got to come down from its high shelf first; and so do we.