Two middle-aged bachelor brothers lived next door to Christ Church. They kept a small farm. I think they made a bare living off hay and turnips. They were, as far as I could tell, indistinguishable from each other. They had names but I could never remember which was which. They were fairly short, fairly round, and wore layers of dirty odd clothing summer and winter.
Their most distinguishing feature was that they spoke a private language. On the rare occasions when I would have to encounter one or both of them, I had to have a local interpreter. I suspect the language they spoke was a proprietary blend of Irish Gaelic, English and custom-designed words. It was sibilant and full of soft vowels. I could not make out one word in their conversations that I could understand. Most people couldn’t. I had two elderly parishioners who had known the brothers all their lives, and were used to them, and could translate. The brothers understood me in English, but never answered except in this dooryard patois.
The brothers knew who I was, certainly. I don’t know if they recognized my truck or me when I drove to the church. If one or both were outside, feeding their barrel-shaped pony, or loading mysterious odds and ends into an old station wagon, they would wave, if the motion they made could be called that. They would suddenly raise one arm, straight up from the shoulder, the hand held above the head in an open palm salute. I would return it with my silly, involuntary, little girl wave, hand palm out at shoulder height, wiggled back and forth rapidly. They would shout a greeting that sounded like “Hoo!” I would nod and shout “Hi! Hello!” back at them.
They dug the graves in Christ Church Cemetery, the forlorn, windswept burial ground of their ancestors. The cliff face was dissolving into the bay, a foot or two each year. Storms sometimes clawed off swaths by the yard. The outlying white board fence was gone, and there seemed no reason to replace it, as the sea encroached more each season.
Bridie was dying. She had been dying for three years, her once robust housewifely body eroded by metastasized breast cancer. She had been a plump little hen, but in her last days was no bigger than a sparrow chick. Her daughter called me to the house one afternoon. Bridie was sitting on the couch in coat and hat, her handbag clutched on her lap. Her mouth was a thin line of discontent, the grey eyes magnified with unspilled tears.
“Mom is going to the hospital,” Lona explained. “We can’t get the pain under control at home.”
I had been a chaplain in an oncology unit. I knew what that meant. I knelt on the floor beside Bridie. “How do you feel about this?” I asked.
“I don’t want to go, but I’ve got no choice, it seems.” She snapped the words out, avoiding her daughter’s eye.
Her helpless anger and the unceasing pain were like lightening in the room. Her husband, Richard, came in from the yard and he and Lona helped Bridie to her feet, gently supporting her out the kitchen door, down the steps, and into the waiting car. I followed behind with her suitcase, shutting the door behind me. I put the suitcase in the trunk, kissed Bridie through the open window, and said I would see her at the hospital the next day.
I saw her every day that week, even if it were for a few minutes. I gave her communion, with her daughter at her side, when she was too weak to sit or speak. I dipped the wafer in the wine, touched it to her lips, and handed it to her daughter to consume. The cancer was in her bones, in her lungs, in her liver and kidneys. She barely smiled at me in her misery of morphine and unrelenting red pain. I never saw her alive again.
Lona called me on my cell phone at the end of the week. “Mom is slipping away, ” she said. “It won’t be long.”
I was in the barn. I went back to the rectory, changed from barn jacket and overalls into black skirt and clergy shirt, put on the black coat and drove the 25 miles to the hospital.
Dusk settling in the northern autumn air, Lona met me in the parking lot. Her father was already in the car. “She’s gone, ” she said. “I know there are things for you to do. I’d best take Dad home now.”
The nurse let me into the closed hospice room. Bridie lay on the bed, arms laid out beside her wasted body. The IVs were gone, though the needle holes were still apparent. Her eyes were half-closed, her mouth gaped, her false teeth already out. I gently pushed the eyelids closed. Warmth was still in her body. The funeral director would take care of the rest. The little mouth, once smiling and full of soft words, was open with a ghastly silent scream, a bit unnerving as I said the words.
“O ALMIGHTY God, with whom do live the spirits of just men made perfect, after they are delivered from their earthly prisons: We humbly commend the soul of this thy servant…”
Bridie had planned her funeral. Her daughter would speak, her brothers would sing, the bishop-elect, husband to Bridie’s cousin, would celebrate the funeral communion with me. Bridie – now Bridget again in the parish books – would be buried with her husband’s ancestors, across the road from the church, in Christ Church Cemetery.
I informed the wardens of the date of the funeral, and that the grave needed to be opened. And then I hit a snag, a big snag, the biggest snag one can hit at a funeral.
“The boys won’t open the grave,” one warden informed me. “I sent my husband to talk to them, and they said the last grave they would ever dig was Mortimer O’Reilly’s. And he is buried.”
I knew that. It had been my first funeral in the parish.
“Can we get Mac?” Mac did the grave duties at Sand Hill.
“No, he won’t set foot in Christ Church.”
“Even if I ask?”
She sniffed. No, not even if I asked.
I called the other warden. Now, there is a subtext to anything I write about this parish, and that is The Other Warden. An imposing good half foot taller than me, and weighing about twice my body weight, she surveyed the church, the parish, the world, and my pulpit with a cold and calculating eye. She had a hawk-like frown above a prominent chin, and with tightly curled bleached hair, she looked like a bird of prey poised to swoop. I was the usual rabbit she snatched squealing from the charred fields that were parish council meetings.
I secretly named her Mrs. Proudie, after the bishop’s wife in Anthony’s Trollope’s Barchester novels.
She informed me that opening the grave was Joe Wainwright’s duty to arrange, not hers. He was cemetery warden.
He was away, in the States, with sick family.
She could not be expected to arrange for a burial.
I tried a desperate measure. “But Bridie is your cousin!”
She was certain, I was informed, that Bridie was not a close cousin in any way, and that was by marriage only, on her mother’s side.
I called the funeral director. “I’ve got no one down that way.”
“What about Mac?”
“Mac won’t set foot in Christ Church.”
I called The First Warden. She did not answer. I called The Other Warden again. “I can’t find a soul to do this. You are a warden. It is up to you to arrange this.”
“I do not intend to do any such thing.”
“What do you want me to do? Dig it myself?”
“You may if you wish.” And she rang off the line.
I went to the garage to see if I had an appropriate spade. Then I went back into the house and called Lona.
“I can’t get anyone to open your mother’s grave.”
“Joe is away, the boys won’t do it, and Mrs…I mean, Susan said I might as well do it myself.”
“Not to worry, I’ll call my uncles.”
I went by the cemetery the day of the funeral. Two tocqued and bearded heads were visible in the family plot, just at ground level. Gravel and sand flew up into a pile at graveside. I went into the church lot and found the bishop-elect parking his car behind the building.
We carried our vestments into the church. There was to be a funeral communion, and there was nothing on the altar. I began pulling drawers open in the sacristy while he hung up alb and chasuble. We found linen and candles, paten and chalice. I drove back to the rectory for wine. Returning, I found him unfurling a parament. What we thought was a purificator, for wiping the rim of the chalice, was something the size of a banquet tablecloth. We desperately dug through drawers and cupboards, and assembled something like the proper kit for a eucharist.
Mrs. Proudie tacked into church, all yards under full sail. She went to shake hands with the bishop-elect. I drew her aside and hissed, “Not anything was ready!”
She looked down her pinched nose at me. “That is Anna Wainwirght’s job, not mine.”
“You knew she was away!”
“Someone set up the altar.” She deliberately crossed my bows and took her place in a front pew, positioning a substantial handbag like a cannon aimed right at me.
It was a lovely funeral. I stayed at the cemetery after the committal of the body, while Bridie’s brothers filled in the grave. We drove together to Bridie’s house.
I found the bishop-elect in the kitchen, which is a good place for a bishop of Irish descent. Bridie’s oldest brother found the bottle of Jameson over the refrigerator, and we had a silent round, in Bridie’s memory.