Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me!
“Abide with Me.” Lyrics by Henry F. Lyte. Tune EVENTIDE, William H. Monk, 1861.
“Wiggins? That you?” she asked the tall shadow parting the curtain. The body flickered and blurred before its shape found a stable focus, but that sometimes happened when specters came to visit.
The stranger, now distinct and close enough to share a smile, reminded himself that the old woman was not as lost as she looked. With distinguished familiarity, he posed himself on the edge of her deathbed and, like a priest consecrating the Host, laid a hand on her blanketed leg.
She goggled at him, bewildered but not bothered.
Confusion was a kindness in these conditions, the visitor thought; it was the awful moments of clarity that upset their dear constructed realities. When the aged remembered their husbands had departed more than a decade prior and they could no longer retain coherent thoughts, much less express them—well, that caused unfortunate damage to the delicate psyche. To make a go from here would require some tact.
“I regret to say I’m not your husband. I wouldn’t be that lucky, Ruth.” As he leaned in, his face glowed in a way that dead Mr. Wiggins’s did not.
Her pale eyes tightened and traveled the blue folds of his borrowed scrubs. Not a ghost then. But something. Doctor, she seemed to decide. Young and cocky and impertinent. He guessed that she didn’t appreciate a fledgling such as himself establishing a first-name basis with a respectable woman of her age. Ah, well, she would get used to it.
Seamus assessed her restraint and thought it best to introduce himself, knowing by instinct to speak up so she could hear him. “Hello. My name is James.”
Ruth’s eyes and mouth gaped, and she unconsciously spoke her thoughts aloud. “Must be a nurse. No doctor gives his first name without the last … or without his title. There’s Dr.—oh, what’s his name? Mc-something-or-other. But he’s short … and bald…”
Her mumbling dwindled. The young man on her bed was the express opposite of Dr. Mc-something-or-other. The room may have been dim, but even an old girl knew a handsome chap when she saw one.
“He looks like the bloke who models the Burberry suits in the papers. Didn’t know his name before. James, is it? And he’s Irish!”
Ruth nearly giggled, but the sound was sniffy and cracked. “Hello,” she offered, embarrassed by her noises. “I remember you from the adverts.”
Sea covered her hand with his. The feel of unsecured skin over flimsy bones was a favorite sensation he could afford at these quiet bedside soirees. As long as he remembered why he was here and didn’t dawdle, the action was irrelevant and his manners acceptable.
“Charmed to meet you, Ruth. Your son and daughter-in-law are down in the café. I expect now would be a good time…”
“You going to change the bedclothes?” she asked, struggling to sit up.
“Oh, blast!” Ruth scowled at the dangling catheter bag and gripped the sheet to her chin like it was her last dignity.
“Ah-ah. Relax, love.” He coaxed her back into the pillows. “No more poking and prodding. I thought we might chat for a bit.” No need to rush, he thought. There was still time.
“Why, that would be delightful!” Unforeseen energy flared at the suggestion of social company that wasn’t there especially to depress her. “If you just step into the kitchen and fetch my teapot. We can chatter over a nice cuppa.”
Sea was inclined to indulge these distracting domestic fantasies. After all, this wasn’t about him. This was Ruth’s scene to deliver; he was only there to offer direction and pull the final curtain at the end.
Promising to return in a hurry, he exited through the privacy screen and sidestepped the station of another insensible sufferer. He found leftover cups of beef broth on the supper tray by a chilly window that overlooked the shadowy countryside, glowing orange by the haze of the city’s streetlights and setting sun in the valley.
From its elevated whereabouts on Headington Hill, the John Radcliffe stood heedful of the steeples and towers of the famous Oxford skyline. Sea was a regular at this hospital, and he knew without seeing that the colleges in the west occupied buses and bicyclists and pedestrians headed home or the pub for the evening.
Clutching the cool plastic mugs with both hands, he hoped this would make do for the part of “tea.”
“Nothing better than a hot cup of tea,” Ruth chanted. Her head shook side to side, although she was agreeing with herself.
He toasted up the mugs and set them on the bedside tray table. “That is so … except for maybe a pint of ale.”
“That’s what Wiggins would say, too,” she said, trying to muffle her strange cackle with the back of her hand. “He sometimes spikes his tea with a jigger of whiskey.”
Sea always reminded the widows of their husbands somehow. What was the bloke’s forename anyway? Oh, right. Arthur it was.
In the midst of these musings, an unfamiliar opposition struck him: he didn’t want to do it. What he was sent to do, that was. But it wasn’t up to him to make that call. He answered to the Divine. No matter how much free reign he was given as regards craft and aesthetic, to not follow through was unallowable.
How striking. He’d not felt any reluctance before. This was Ruth Wiggins’s time; this was right and good. It was how the story was written.
Slightly troubled, Sea ignored the inclination and carried on. “How are you feeling?” he asked, settling himself beside her undersized form on the cot again.
“All right,” she said, chin quivering. “I feel … heavy-like.” She bit down on her lip with the admission.
Sea knew the ache of lingering. He saw her shame and released it in his way. Ruth seemed to sense this responsiveness, which she might have ascribed to his professional calling. But no nurse ever spent so much time with her unless they were sticking or scrubbing or shifting. No nurse ever sat down either.
“I must be making him up,” she whispered. “Another ghost.”
“You’re not. I’m as real as you. Only … different. You are a bold woman, Ruth.”
Although the poor dear endured shallow breath and a faulty heart rhythm, her spirit was still hale. And yet she hadn’t eaten in many days. She was ready.
Ruth opened her mouth to reply to the compliment, but her disadvantaged mind changed the subject. “Are you going to try to sell me a suit?” she said, brightening with the challenge. “Because I’m a hard sell. Wiggins has already got three.”
“I’m not,” Sea said with a wink. “That’s not why I’m here.” He leaned in closer and his expression turned grave. “I think it’s time you leave hospital, Ruth.”
Trembling and warped, her fingers picked at the pilling of the blanket, and her eyes cast wildly about, not landing and not seeing. “Oh,” she said.
Sea understood. Change was profound and frightening, and (apart from birth) leaving here would be the greatest transition of all. Sea didn’t change—not ever—and so he appreciated even if he couldn’t share her resistance. Although an uncertainty of his own was taking hold, and he was compelled to press on notwithstanding.
“Mister Wiggins—Arthur, I mean—he’s been asking for you.”
Tears gathered at the brim of her lower lids, and she clutched the nightgown at her chest when she allowed for the fact that her memory kept her husband alive while she survived—alone. “Wiggins is a good man.”
“Ruthie?” Sea used her late husband’s term of endearment. “Would you like to hear a story?”
She gazed up at him and smiled full, looking almost girlish. “I kept all my own teeth, you know. Well, nearly all.” A short frown knitted her face. “A story, you said?”
“You like stories, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, I like stories.” Ruth’s lips pasted together, making speech awkward and exhausting. “What sort of story is it?”
This was Sea’s favorite bit. “It’s a love story. But I must show you. Will you come on then?”
“A love story!” Ruth marveled, her cheeks hollowed. “What did you say your name was?”
“It’s James. And I want you to meet the Hero of this story.”
There it came again. That extraordinary rebellious notion. Why should he get left to do the endings? When would he get to be the hero of the story?
Sea told himself to come off it. He must not ask such questions. His role was worthwhile, and he’d spent his time making an art of it. He would not entertain insubordination; he would do as he was told.
He tried to recover and set his sights at the finish, rushing a bit. “But even if he’s not the hero, Wiggins’s got a part in the story, too. Now, we must hurry. The Hero is waiting keenly, because you, my dear, are his lady.”
Her smile faded and her brow wrinkled deeper. “That sounds lovely. But, young man, do you realize how old I am?” She hissed, scandalized, “I could be your grandmother!”
Sea hid a smile in his shoulder before he answered. “Em… You know, I don’t see an old grandmother. The truth is, I see a strong, fair lass, who is weary of this old myth”—he made a sweeping gesture to include all the infirmary props and pain and darkness—“and she is being called to a new adventure. So? The real story now.”
“How?” Ruth asked, her voice like the scratch of a pencil.
“You’re going to take a wee journey. Just close your eyes…”
“Like falling asleep,” she said, obeying.
“More like waking up actually.”
Her eyes fluttered open. “What about Wiggins? Will he know where I am—and my sister? Oh, God! I forgot to give her back her stockings. She’ll skin me alive, she will!”
“Shhh. I’ll let them know just as soon as we get you on your way.”
He stroked her head and she quieted. The white hair was weightless, and he imagined if he rubbed it between his fingers it would disintegrate like cinders. He could see straight through to a mottled scalp. Despite its temporary capacity, there was something tremendous about the human body … sacred even.
“Wait! I’m sorry, Ruth.” Sea hardly knew what he was saying. “Let’s not do this. Not now. I’m not feeling up to it. But I’ll come back another time.”
She recoiled. “What the hell are you talking about? I want to hear the story, you—whatever your name is! You can’t bloody stop now.”
Sea straightened himself, her insistence flinging him back to his senses. “Of course. You’re right. What was I thinking. Go on then?”
“Go on,” she allowed, closing her eyes again. “Sing to me, Wiggins.”
“What would you like me to sing, Ruthie?” This was a popular request: a last lullaby. He knew all the songs, too. He had recently performed a John Lennon for an old fellow with pneumonia.
“My favorite, please—‘Abide with Me.’ That would be lovely.”
He began to sing in a mellow baritenor: “…fast falls the eventide…”
Ruth mouthed the words despite her pressured breathing and, when she was able, sang along, a hushed incantation.
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see:
O thou who changest not, abide with me!
When he reached the end of the third verse—“Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?”—she threw open her eyes and peered at him again, unblinking and recognizing. Sea leaned away and studied her, impassive, to make sure she didn’t confuse him with the Hero. That would be intolerable.
“What took you all these years?” she said finally, managing to wag a buckled finger at him. “Do you know how long I’ve waited for you?”
Sea laughed for the shock of the accusation. She knew who he was! The audacity to scold him was impressive. But neither her question nor her irritation was unexpected. She softened with his laughter and sealed her sight again with a smirk, back on friendly terms.
“Who ever heard of the angel of death modeling Burberry?” She shook her head and chuckled soundlessly.
He held up his arms and looked down at his scrubs, bemused. “What? You don’t like my costume?”
“Wear something proper for your next escort.”
“I will. I mean no disrespect. And forgive me, madam, for the delay. Shall we then?” he asked, one hand cradling the back of her neck and the other hovering over her face. At her permission, he prepared to proceed with the slight yet paramount gesture.
He finished the last verse of the hymn:
Shine thro’ the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heav’n’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee:
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me…
“Amen,” they vowed together.
“It’s been a pleasure to serve you, Ruth.” As he uttered the last, Seamus clasped his palm and fingers over her nose and mouth, drawing the last rattled breath from her unsubstantial body.