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Shard, continued

Continued from the story I started last week. (And just remember, this is a first draft, so it’s not perfect yet.)

——

My, he was dashing the day they met. Leaning against his truck, smoking one of them ever-present cigarettes. She hated the things, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t stand it for a pretty face. Him blond, tan, good-looking. Her short, dark, awkward. Mama said she’d never amount to much, but boy, when he looked at her that day, she felt like somethin’.

Why ever she believed all them lies, she’d never know. Women did stupid things in lust.

——

She’d always wanted a baby, a chance to do right by some small creature. That baby would be raised up proper, loving mother and all.

It wasn’t like Patience would get a chance with another man. At thirty-two, she’d been lucky to get a whistle from the town drunk. So when a luscious stranger walks into town—no past, no future—she took what she could. Patience weren’t no fool. She knew she was ugly, but that didn’t matter to him. He just wanted a warm body to keep him fed and clothed, someone to dominate. She could deal with the rest, so long as he gave her a baby.

Baby came eventually. Three months early after he punched her in the gut during a drunken fight. Couldn’t do nothin’, those doctors said. Dead before they reached the hospital. They let her hold that baby. Soft but cold all over. Tiny fingers and toes, each with its own nail. Beautiful. Turns out ugly mamas could have pretty babies.

Little thing didn’t even mind her crying all over him. Just laid there, still as could be. Perfect child. Poor thing couldn’t even take revenge. Patience would have to do it for him.

——

Patience made money only way she knew how—throwing pots. Not at people, as the fool man did, but with a wheel. Same way her Mama taught her. Only good thing she got from Mama. Couldn’t even get her looks, but she certainly got the talent with clay.

Sold them pots down off the highway in a little stand for them rich tourists. They always wanted a piece of the land. Let ’em have it, for all she cared. She had more important things to deal with.

——

Clean up this sty, he’d say. You’re a filthy pig. Who knows why I bother with you. Each punctuated with a slap.

He bothered because no one else would have him. Not for long, and certainly not for free. Soon no one would have to bother with him at all.

Days passed. The X became infected, but there was no money for the doctor since he’d destroyed all the pots she’d made to sell that week. No money for food, neither, but that wasn’t new. She’d lived through hunger. Besides, it kept her figure.

There was always enough for beer, though. Beer and cigarettes. Patience didn’t partake, but that only meant her money went to one man’s portion instead of two. A man could live on those things. At least he could.

Patience, now. She lived on hope. What hope did she have? None, really, but the hope of having hope. That had to be enough.

——

Potter’s clay stuck to her hands, coating the undersides of fingernails. She liked to scratch designs out with those nails, think of raking them through his eyes—and other unmentionables. Those rich people liked her style of pottery. Violent. Dark. Carnal. They liked anything that made them feel superior. Buy a scratched-up pot from a poor woman. Tell the story to friends. Changed a woman’s life with a measly twenty bucks.

Patience was worth more than that. But who would buy madness in the form of a pot for more than fifty dollars? Madness comes cheap, it does.

Madness. Genius. Same thing. The starving artist in his loft was genius, but the impoverished potter in her trailer was mad.

Now she was mad, but not how they thought. Patience, though, she could wait like no man. She would bide her time. Then they would all feel the force of her madness.

——

Mixing clay in her trough soothed her nerves. He was gone. Called his mama and told her he was leaving the crazy witch. Packed up his truck.

Never got far. Police came, said they’d found the rusted hunk of metal off the highway, broken down. No phone? No message? Dehydration, maybe, or rattlesnake. Coulda been anything. No body, though, so they’d search.

Days. Weeks. Months. None heard from that man. That was all he’d ever be to her. Him. Didn’t deserve a name. Not for all he’d done.

Patience was a free woman now, but she didn’t want freedom if it meant sympathy from the neighbors. He was cruel. They knew it as well as her, but they were all cruel here. Drunk men. Submissive women. That’s the way things were done.

Not for Patience.

Cards came. They went in the trash. Flowers showed up on the porch. They wilted. Patience had no need for pity when she felt none herself. She could survive on her own without a man. She’d done it before, would do it again.

——

The pots were exquisite. Never had such a fancy word described anything about her, but them folks with money said it ’bout them new pots she’d made. Since he’d disappeared, her work had far outshined everyone else along that stretch of old dusty road.

Red, they were. How could she get such a beautiful color on a pot? The marks, so violent. Looked gruesome, almost. But they bought them. Gave them as gifts. Told their friends about the genius potter off the highway. She made her money. Blood money, it was too.

Dead men’s lips tell no tales, but her pots did. Red stories and brown ones. And, mixed with the right clay, very dark and black ones. But that’s what people wanted, so it’s what Patience gave ’em.

Nothing, however, was sweeter than seeing those bits of him leaving the stand each day as they traveled to the homes of the wealthy, tainting their perfect worlds with violence.

The Road to Alexandria

The guy two cars in front of us swerved and then suddenly there was an old man in the road, bewildered and scared. The car in front jinked left, right, left. The old man moved, too, but in the same direction each time, a macabre mirror-dance with an inevitable finale. His hands were held up in supplication, or rejection, as the car hit him and then suddenly he was tossed high in the air: an unfeasible, ridiculous flight.

He landed next to us, then was behind us as we lurched to a halt. I got out of the car, the old man sitting in the road, his bloody head in his hands, but I was transfixed by the realisation that there was little I could do, here in the middle of the dusty road off the Alex highway. There were men running everywhere and a group of four lifted the old man from the road as I stood, useless and bewildered. He was stiff in his sitting position as they lifted him and I realised with a shock that I had seen this position before, a dead old beggar being lifted out of the gutter of the covered souk in Halab. Sometimes Cairo reminds me of Halab in its relentless, remorseless movement of people and goods in the pursuit of marginal gain. And this old man reminded me of that old man, a victim of the tide.

His sandals were still in the road, being run over by passing cars, lorries and buses filled with curious faces pressed to the windows. Our driver and I darted into the traffic to get them back, I saw the old man’s keys, two of them tied together on a keyring with a see-through plastic die on the fob and walked out to get them. I handed the keys to one of the men huddled around the old man, sitting by the road in his dusty kandoura, a horrific wound in his forehead where he’d smashed it into the corner of the car window, I remember thinking stupidly how there was remarkably little blood, although his face was streaked with red. They were giving him water and then a traffic cop turned up.

There was nothing more we could do, so we drove off: three silent people in a car together with nothing to say.

Sexual demands of hens

Phillipa said: “I wanted to get some new hens, and I always fall in love with my lovely girls – d’you think thats what its talking about? Sans the sexual demands, of course!”

True story follows:

Speaking of hens with sexual demands, when living in Tokyo and roaming the bar district late one night, me and my buddy heard, of all things – bagpipes. That sort of catches your attention at 2am and 8 beers into the evening surrounded by people of identical hair color and averaging about 5’ 4” in height. So we followed the sound, probably the only time in my life I’ve ever walked toward bagpipes rather than away from bagpipes.

To our great surprise, and with our hearts leaping with joy, we discovered a parade led by an elderly Scotsman in a kilt playing the ludicrous instrument, followed by about 40 women, from age 18 (allegedly) to 63 and a half. We stood there watching these ladies (I’m being generous) marching and stumbling and staggering down the street following the pied piper like children of naughty parents, with feather boas wrapped around themselves, wearing all sorts of strange and wonderful feminine-like outfits of many layers and even more colors, reminiscent of an advertisement for a Nevada brothel in the 1890s.

My friend and I stood in amazement. Yes, it’s true we were semi-pickled, but not so much that we thought we were hallucinating. We hadn’t touched any absinthe that evening, although I must say it would have been an even more spectacular sight if we had indeed imbibed of the green nectar of the fallen angels, but then again we might have missed it completely if we’d been laying on the sidewalk counting the stars and giggling like prepubescent girls sneaking into an adult novelties shoppe.

But I digress. We weren’t hallucinating. There really were 40 gaudy, drunken, and quite possibly debauched, or at least eminently debauchable, human beings of the female persuasion, and we being two grown lads of the inebriated male variety were quite taken with this vision of color and variety strolling in front of our wide but somewhat reddened eyes.

It was at that very moment that two of the more outgoing personalities among this otherwise extroverted assemblage stepped out of the line following the piper, wrapped feather boas of yellow and maroon around my friend’s neck and mine, began dragging us into the death march with them, one of them saying (in a heavily intoxicated pre-menopausal Australian brogue), “Come with us, you sheep. It’s a hen party. We’re all hens and we need some cock.”

That’s when I turned to my friend, the one with the yellow boa looped around his neck like a noose from a John Wayne film, if John Wayne films had been directed by John Waters in the 1970s when acid was cheap, exotic and easily available on school yards anywhere, and I said to my friend in the chicken necklace, “I told you Tokyo is the greatest city on earth.”

We followed, or were led, or were dragged against our will, depending on to whom I’m telling the story, down the sidewalks of Roppongi while bagpipes played a mournful tune (do they know any other kind? can you play “You Are My Sunshine” on the bagpipes and still cry?). There were women in front of us, women behind us, all of whom had hours, or perhaps even days worth of non-stop alcohol consumption coursing through their libidinous veins.

What could we do? We had to oblige and go with them. Neither of us were familiar with the strange ways and customs of the Outback, and figured it might be a giant cultural faux pas to refuse their invitation. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Saudi, eat the goat’s eye when offered. When in Tokyo, follow the bagpipes and drunken Sheilas. It’s quite rude to do otherwise.

The first thing I asked, once I removed the maroon feathers from my mouth, was “What is this parade about?”

The woman who had me on the delicate leash, I forget her name so I’ll call her Sheila, said “This is a hen party.”

“I know, you said that already. What’s a hen party?”

“This one’is a bridal shower.”

“Oh, how lovely. It’s kind of like the bachelor’s party in America where the night before the wedding all the groom’s friends take him out, get him pissed, hire a prostitute, and he wakes up the next morning with a sore rectum and a one-eyed goat and still has to write his part of the wedding vows before noon.”

Sheila replied, “That’s it exactly. Didja bring the one-eyed goat with ya?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“Well, surely there’ll be one around here somewhere,” she replied optimistically.

“This is Tokyo,” I said. “Usually one on every corner until you need one. I’ll keep an eye out.”

“Okay, you do that. Oh, hahaha, that’s a joke right there. I get it. Keep an eye out for a one-eyed goat. That’s lurvely, that’s what that is. Has anyone told you how cute you are when I’m drunk?”

“Not since last night, my dearest, but one never gets too fond of hearing it.” I was just making conversation, as I didn’t actually remember anyone saying that to me the night before.

“Tell me again,” she said, having already forgotten our earlier conversation since at least 20 seconds had elapsed, “why do we need a one-eyed goat at a hen party?”

“Dancing with a one-eyed goat bring happiness, prosperity, and fertility to the marriage, plus it guarantees eye-popping orgasms to the bride on the wedding night. Everyone knows that.”

“Oh yesh, of course. I had one of those once. Lost a contact lens.”

“So which of you lovely ladies is getting married tomorrow?” I inquired, as I was hoping to change the subject. I was quite tired of talking about one-eyed goats, or for that matter, goats with any number of optic organs.

“Ah, there’s three of them getting hitched tomorrow. And one of them is a real virgin. But she doesn’t want to be. Not on her wedding night.”

“Well, that would be totally unacceptable. I can see why she wouldn’t want that. I’m sure the groom would be absolutely devastated to find out – after he’d already vowed a lifetime of commitment – that the one woman he has promised to be true to for the rest of his life will spend hers wondering if that’s really considered large or not.”

“Precisely. He’s expecting an experienced and well-trained horse to ride, not wanting to break in a colt.” She eyed me, kind of winking, more of a permanent wink, like a stroke victim or a bad sty, reminding me once again of the one-eyed goat. Then she eyed my friend, opening her left eye this time and closing her right. “Are there two of you, or are you four?”

“Madame,” my friend finally found his voice, “don’t be silly. There are three of us.”

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Sheila replied. “Starling, c’mere Star,” she called out to a younger woman about 10 paces ahead of us in the parade. “Get your arse over here now.”

Starling, incredibly gorgeous, incredibly inebriated, so much so that she didn’t realize her skirt had hooked up on her belt on one side, so that her Old West outfit came to her left ankle but slightly above her right thigh, with a goodly view of the top bit of a pink lace thong hugging her shapely hip.

Whachu wan, Bee?” Star managed to get out some semblance of English before staggering three steps forward, two back, knocking into a light pole, then leaning forward and emptying her stomach of all its contents. Fortunately, she’d apparently had no food in at least 24 hours, as clearish liquid of vibrant colors is all that splashed on the sidewalk, like a group of children had spilled their snow cones. Only there was no ice in her delivery, of course.

“Oh, Star, are you okay?” Sheila, or Bee as I now knew, was very concerned. “You can’t get sick and pass out. We’ve only got twelve more hours to get you split before your wedding.”

“I’m okay, I’m okay.” She wiped her chin with the hem of her skirt, momentarily exposing both of her thighs and one crotch, including the entire width of the pink lace thong, which had twisted slightly askew. I considered pointing it out to her, or just reaching out to fix it for her, as that would be the gentlemanly thing to do under the circumstances. But then she let go of her skirt and it fell back to her ankle, and I had thus missed my opportunity at chivalry.

With that, the bagpipes stopped playing and the parade marched up a half dozen stairs into a pub that had been reserved for the hens. Tables spread with food. An open bar. Forty women in feathers and whisky. I felt like an Islamic Big Bird who had died a martyr’s death in defense of my faith.

Soon the women were dancing with each other. A pole stood erect near the big semi-circle booth in the corner. It did look a bit like a stripper’s pole but it wasn’t, just a decorative piece of the architectural support structure. But the evening started going downhill quickly when one young, lithe, nubile creature grabbed the pole with one hand, held a martini in the other and a cigarette between her lips, kicked her heels into the air, somehow spinning herself up the pole to about two feet off the floor, where she hooked an ankle around it, let go with her hand, leaned back until her long, thick brunette hair brushed the hardwood dance floor where the disco ball lights flickered and flashed, cigarette still clutched in her luscious lips, martini held aloft in one slender hand.

Everyone cheered her as she pulled herself back onto the pole using only the strength of what must have been some tremendously toned thighs, slid down the pole and took a bow. She returned to her seat with her drink still in her hand, never having spilt a drop.

At that moment, a line of women from age 18 (allegedly) to 63 and a half lined up at the pole, each waiting her turn to do some of the most sexy, erotic moves known to mankind. It seems most of them had never actually tried it before. Very few of them were young, lithe and nubile. None of them were anywhere near a state of sobriety that allowed for muscle coordination or reasonable fear of injury and death.

They lined up, encouraging and cheering each other on.

“Do you know how to kill a roomful of drunk women?” I said to my friend, who was still brushing yellow feathers from his jacket.

“No, how? And why would you want to?”

“Oh, I don’t want to. Of course not. Talk about cooking the goose. Anyway, you walk into any bar in Roppongi, you put up a stripper’s pole, and you electrify it. It would be like watching one of those bug zappers on a summer night in the Mississippi delta. Bzzzt, zap, pfffzzzt. Next. Just moths to the flame. Drunk women cannot resist a pole.”

My friend replied, “I think we should get out of here before someone gets hurt. We’re Americans. The Japanese police will blame us first, and we don’t speak Japanese. Those little metal sticks they carry look like they’d hurt.”

“Oh no,” I said, “those little sticks just put you right out. You don’t feel a thing until the next day, and it’s hard to tell a concussion from a hangover anyways.”

“I’d feel better if we left now,” he said.

“And leave a roomful of highly inebriated hens with varying degrees of sexual demands? Are you crazy?” I paused and looked around again. “Okay, maybe you’re right.”

So we downed our drinks and headed to the door when a 50ish, slightly plump and completely trashed matron landed flat on her back on the dance floor, having fallen from a height of about 5 feet up the pole, which she had scaled like an obese monkey on a palm tree. We turned to see the commotion, all the women rushing towards her, while the next woman in line jumped onto the pole and began swaying her hair to and fro while licking her lips and closing her eyes halfway as she stared across the room at me.

We took the opportunity to grab another beer as we headed out the door. We walked aimlessly a couple blocks down Gaien Higashi Dori, sipping our beers.

“Just think, buddy,” I said, breaking the silence. “Just think what fun we might have had if we’d stayed at that hen party.”

“Yeah, we probably should have stayed. So where to now?”

“Let’s hit McDonalds. I’m starving.”

“Dude. That’s what I’m talking about.”

…and Robb’s here too!

Finally made it here to the hang out with you kids. Anyone home? Do I have to be approved or something?

What if God was one of us?

I think this needed a new home, and this was the perfect place.


Phone rings one morning at a publishing company’s office:
RECEPTIONIST: Carper Hollins Publishers, how may I direct your call?
RECEPTIONIST: Is Mr. Hollins expecting your call?
RECEPTIONIST: Are you an agent or an author?
RECEPTIONIST: Have you submitted a query letter first?
RECEPTIONIST: I suggest you visit our website at http://www.carperhollins.com first, view our submission requirements, and see if you believe we’re the right publishing company for your work. Have a good day.
[CLICK]

Later that day:
RECEPTIONIST: Good afternoon, sir. May I help you?
RECEPTIONIST: I’m sorry, your name again? Is that your first or last name? Oh, I see. Yes, I remember you called earlier.
RECEPTIONIST: I’m sorry, I don’t see your name on Mr. Hollins’ appointment list.
RECEPTIONIST: No, I’m sorry, he doesn’t take drop-in visitors. He’s much too busy a man to be able to accommodate everyone who would drop in unheralded. No, I’m sorry, not even God gets to see Mr. Hollins without an appointment.
RECEPTIONIST: E-mail is out of the question. Too many possibilities for viruses. No, I’m not saying you’re contagious. Yes, hard copy a query letter via snail mail. If you don’t hear from him in 6-12 weeks, you can take that as a no.
RECEPTIONIST: I’m sorry, I’m not real interested in how long it took to create the world. Mr. Hollins’s schedule is 6-12 weeks to review and respond to query letters which interest him. Good day, sir. Do you need your parking validated?

12 weeks later and no response, God begins to query agents who accept e-mail. Rejection emails begin to trickle in within a week. Responses include the following:

– This is way too long. 775,000 words? Don’t be ridiculous. Get it under 100,000 and try us again.
– If you want to include the supernatural, you’ll need to take out the sex and violence and turn it into a YA novel.
– It took you how many years to write this? I see we can’t count on a second project from you anytime soon. We’re more interested in writers who can build a career. The market can’t wait an eternity for a second novel.
– What do you mean, it’s non-fiction? No one can suspend disbelief to this level.
– You self-published before? I’ve never heard of Stone Tablets Publishing. Are they a vanity press? Since you only produced one copy, I assume it was POD. And you say that one was lost? Figures. We’ll have to pass.
– Can you add some elves and a wizard? That’s hot right now.
– Can Jesus lose the beard? Women readers prefer books if there’s a smooth beefcake on the cover.
– Ten commandments? Let’s go with three – beginning, middle and end.
– The opening line “In the beginning…” just didn’t grab me. Readers know it’s the beginning of the book. It’s at the front.
– There was no satisfactory conclusion, no resolution for the reader. Choose your own endings are really lame and out of fashion at the moment.
– Women’s fiction, romance and chick-lit are hot right now. We’d be very interested in your project if you made a few revisions. Jesus needs to be a female lead character, with a name like Hannah or Rachel. She needs a love interest. Perhaps Peter or Simon or Paul. And perhaps instead of a carpenter, she could be a columnist for a fashion magazine. Let’s set it in New York City or London rather than Jerusalem. And she needs a lot more charm, some bubbly personality that hides her inner turmoil over having been jilted by a previous lover, raised by an overbearing mother with an absentee father.
– Too much backstory.
– Readers don’t like to be preached at. The morality tale just isn’t in vogue anymore.
– Recommend you focus the story on the crucifixion as a means of castigating modern Western societies for acceptance of the death penalty as an archaic and barbaric act. Innocent victims will be put to death.
– Perhaps this could be serialized as a sci-fi/fantasy piece. You’ve got angels, demons, and space travel. This could work.
– An intriguing premise and well-written. We are most interested in grooming the careers of the authors we represent. Do you have a second book in the works?
– There’s no market for it.

12 weeks later, God puts his manuscript on Authonomy. Peer review critiques include:

– Beautifully written. On my shelf. Will you read mine too?
– Just didn’t hook me.
– Loved it. Did you have a chance to look at mine yet?
– Characters are well-developed, writing is a tad pretentious, however. You might do better if you labeled this as “literary fiction.” Perhaps you can get on THE LIST.
– This is spellbinding. I stayed up all night reading this on the screen until my eyes bled. I am starting a thread right now to recommend it to others, and with my talent-spotting ranking at #27, that will really help you out. Can I count on you to read mine?
– I noticed your bookshelf is empty. Perhaps you’d be interested in mine.
– I see you write about angels, too. Would love for you to look at mine. I’m still dancing on the editor’s desk, but I know I need your help to stay there until the end of the month.
– I’m sorry you didn’t like Evil. Neither did Carper Hollins. So read Kip. Think of all your children.
– What do you mean you created the kid and the monkey?
– Hey, how did you get your book to #1 so fast? Sock monkeys? The entire heavenly host have separate IP addresses? No fair.
– When did Authonomy add a “report blasphemy” button?
– I tried to read this, but I just don’t think it has a prayer of commercial success.
– Haven’t you heard? There’s no market for sci-fi comedy.
– Has anyone seen Uttuku since this God character joined? Are they the same person?

12 weeks later, a thread posted by God:
– This place is full of cliques, spam, and cheaters. I’m pulling my book off the site to make some revisions. This is unforgivable. You can all go to hell.

12 minutes later, the thread disappeared off the list of 20 most recent.

Shard

She knelt beside the shattered pot, barely noticing the blood trickling down her neck. It was broken—all of it—lying on the scuffed linoleum, right there with her resolve. He’d done it. He’d gone and broken his word. Now there was nothing left to stop her from killing him.

——

Patience thought of her mother. Beautiful. Only word to describe her. Perfect to anyone but her own child. Slap here. Curse there. Anger everywhere. But what a show she put on for the neighbors. Nobody could compete with Mama for acting abilities.Star performer she’d been all her life, even to the man she’d married and later murdered. Oh, she didn’t hold the gun to his head, but she was certainly present in his thoughts as he pulled the trigger. Like mother like daughter.

——

They’d named her Patience because it was the virtue neither possessed but both wanted for the other. So why not burden a child with unrealistic expectations before she even took a breath? They were like that, Mama and Papa. Wanting what they’d never have, what they were never willing to give.

Patience learned early the importance of plotting. A good ploy was never to be outdone. Take time to get it right because there were no second chances with vengeance and punishment. The scar shaped like the old iron on Patience’s thigh was testament enough to that.

So Patience would wait and plan.

——

All was clean when he returned next morning. Who knew what hovel he’d slept in and whom with. Didn’t matter.

Skin was puffy around the X he’d carved in Patience’s left temple. Clay shards didn’t cut neat, neither. Not deep enough to kill, certainly, but enough to brand her for life. His. His mark. Like them old cowboys used to sign, he’d said. X for a name. X for land. X for property. Patience was property, and she wasn’t to forget it.

Breakfast was cold by the time he’d washed up. It was summarily thrown to the dog and another demanded. Of course Patience complied, because she was the epitome of her name. That’s why wanted her, after all. Patient, submissive. Perfect woman.

He never would realize how perfect she was for him.

To be continued . . .

Reverse Nativity

I am not a Christian. I’ve stood on the edge of that deep gully but I’m unable to make that leap of faith across it. Sometimes I wish I could, but after many years of reading and thinking, I can’t do it. But that doesn’t mean I will let my Christmas descend into empty retail fests and drooping Santa hats. I have to find meaning in it. Not ‘peace and goodwill to all,’ because that will never happen, but a personal meaning that links, somehow, with the family nature the festival.

When my children were little I looked to the nativity story to help them understand this was more than presents and Father Christmas. I made a small Nativity with plastic zoo animals and three Batman action figures as the wise men. We turned the lights off and lit a couple of candles – nothing like a naked flame to get a child’s attention  – and talked about babies and love

Now they are older the issues are knottier. How to engage a teenage boy in finding meaning in an ancient celebration in danger of being swamped by commercial forces? This is a boy who has asked for a copy of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins for Christmas, a boy who is at an age where the world is black and white. And a girl who is too preoccupied with her social life to really care that much.

When I look at the nativity and some of my favourite paintings of the Virgin and Child, I remember the English sculptor Henry Moore declared the love between mother and child to be the only enduring form of human love. But where are the great artworks celebrating the final years of life? Celebrating the spirit of love and endurance. Old age isn’t sexy, it’s hard to market, there is no fun to be had, and we only get there if we are lucky.

A few years ago when the last Pope, John Paul II was in the final months of his life, ill with Parkinson’s disease, I remember commentators calling for him to stand aside for a new, younger pope. But he refused to as old age, sickness and suffering were an inextricable part of human suffering and that in his pain he stood with all those who also were old and ill. I remember being very impressed with this at the time. Impressed with his determination to be a symbol for the forgotten aged in the world, and to include this very human experience in the foreground.

I pondered these ideas as I flew home from visiting my aging parents recently. If anything has defined my family life over the last few years it has been my mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and my fathers’ role as her carer. And I have to disagree with Henry Moore. Fifty-four years of marriage is enduring.

Diagnosed four years ago, she’s going down and quickly. It hasn’t helped that she had a hip replacement that failed four times, requiring another four GA’s as well as a bout with breast cancer – all the while her dementia advancing. Dementia positively leaps forward with every assault on the brain, and a general anesthetic is up there with a KO to the brain.

 Now, nearly eighty, she is completely incontinent, can barely swallow and is quite, quite demented. She knows my sister, our father, and me but that’s all. She frets if Dad leaves the room for a moment, she gets up at four am and wanders, and she cries and imagines all sorts of horrors. She barely tolerates other people in the house, such as our husbands, our children or us. My father will not put her in a nursing home. He doesn’t complain and does not ask for help. He is determined to nurse her to the end and he considers it his duty, as well as an act of love.

 My sister works full time and I live in a different city, but we talk constantly about what to ‘do’. What ‘action’ can we take to lighten Dad’s load. We talk about the man’s martyrdom complex, his pride, his inability to delegate and his stubborn independence. On and on, around in circles. But we dare not impose our solutions on him. Sound of mind and body – it is his choice. A final act of devotion? An expiation of guilt? (We’ll never know) A simple uncomplicated act of duty and love? .  Whatever and wherever it comes from, the man’s devotion and stoicism would have sat well in ancient Rome, and he did always fancy himself in a toga orating to a rapt group of senators.

We’ve given up with the problem solving. My sister and I will be there when the crisis comes. In the meantime we help him with his three solaces – books, music and whiskey. I scour the planet to find the books on the lists he gives me, my sister sources the music and buys the whiskey. He rarely leaves the house and has no visitors and no Internet. So we give as much support as we can, as much as a fiercely independent man will allow.

But this Christmas I see this family predicament, this reverse nativity, as a gift to us and to his grandchildren.  His three grandsons, one in commerce, one about to follow his footsteps into law and the other a jazz drummer, all look up to him. His two granddaughters, still at school and concerned with their social lives as much as anything, also love their grandfather. But it’s the boys who examine their grandfather’s books, raid his music collection and ask him for advice.

On Christmas Day these boys, even my dogmatic little atheist, will walk right past my nativity setting, my Madonna’s, my candles and music, and look to the gift their grandfather gives them. The gift he gives in his suffering, his love and his endurance. It’s a gift that cannot be purchased anywhere for any amount.