George Hickman "At the Foot of St. Demetrios"
No one knew when his last sermon was going to be but for many Sundays we held our breaths. As he chanted the hymn to the Theotokos, the pews were silent. Even the men who sat before the iconostasis humming a repeated “kyrie eleison” closed their lips between words. No one could focus on the Vespers that morning because we were all afraid. It was difficult for him to breathe and so he had asked some of us boys to read passages for him and we had said, “of course, father” but none of us had wanted to do it. Everyone feared what if he were to cough in the middle of our reading, or fall--would we become Judas? Would we be responsible? Would we ever be able to look this parish in the eye again?
It was my turn to read. I had chosen the Parable of the Lost Son because it was the one he had read to me on the day when I forced him to keep the church open. I remember it clearly, the way I raced up to him as he shuffled down the marble steps. The sun had just been traded out for the street lights and the air was harsh enough to redden my cheeks. He was in the middle of tugging a single key from the gates to God’s house, a shiny black glove encasing his leathery hand, as if preserving the scent of incense and the touch of holy water. I wondered if the gloves were to avoid contact with the unholy parts of the world--metal bus poles and elevator buttons--until he reached his modest apartment where his holy hands would make tea and flip the pages of books.
I stopped him just before the black gate and asked, “Are you closing the church now?”
“Is there something troubling you?” he asked.
Sometimes I would visit him without thinking of a story on the way. I wonder if he knew that I had never failed my history class or that my uncle had never hit me, he only yelled at me as if he wanted to. I wonder if he looked at my family squished together in the pew on Sunday and questioned how we put on such a good face in public. I wonder if he still gave blessings to my uncle the same, after hearing all my stories. I know that lying is a sin, but I wanted so badly to see him again. I liked being in the company of a holy man. I nodded and looked up at the white columns before us.
In my silence, he peered down at me like the icon of Christ painted on the ceiling of the dome with his tired eyes and omniscient frown. He lead me inside anyway.
Behind me, he closed the wooden doors and it was still cold enough that my breath puffed like the incense that used to drift out of his brass censer. He ushered me up the aisle and with one loud creak and then one slightly softer one, we sat together in the first pew, our thighs touching. When I’m in front of people I like, it’s easy for me to just keep talking. I like to let etiquette trap the two of us there forever.
As I told the story of the Parable of the Lost Son, I kept talking in the hopes of trapping him on Earth forever. I drew out my sentences, enunciated my vowels, I even pretended not to know how to pronounce “lecherously”, but my calculated pauses weren’t enough. I always wondered what it would be like to watch a holy man die, to watch his spirit lifted from him and expedited to heaven. But he died in the same hospital as everyone else I've known and afterwards no one would tell me what it had looked like. I imagine that his last breath was a little more peaceful than the others, his eyes a little more resigned. I imagine the people in the room felt a sense of awe, like the kind that made me ask him to keep the church open late sometimes. I like to believe it happened that way because otherwise I’m afraid all his hard work might have gone to waste. Or worse, that he might have had enough time to comprehend the ordinariness of his body, the unholiness of his death.