Sooner later, mortality catches up with every family. There’s no good way out of this life, but some ways are more difficult than others. The process can be long, and often it’s painful. Sometimes it can even be degrading. Being given the ability to walk down that last road with dignity is a gift beyond value. Thankfully, there are some wonderful people in the world who have made it their life’s work to make that possible.
The hospice movement came on the scene surprisingly recently, but then again, so did the custom of dying in hospitals. To a degree, the hospice concept is simply a return to how people have died since time immemorial – at home, surrounded by loved ones. But with an important difference. Now it’s possible to have kind and knowledgeable people on call to help you and your family spend your final hours together with as much comfort, as little fear, and as few distractions as possible.
The presence and availability of hospice care, and in particular the comfort provided by MacMillan Cancer Support in the U.K., is reason that You’re Not Alone, an Indie Author Anthology came together. The idea to pull together an anthology that could be sold with the profits going to MacMillan came to author Ian Moore almost immediately after the loss to cancer of his mother in law, Pamela Mary Winton early this year. Ian mentioned the idea to the members of a writers’ group I’m part of, and within days 28 authors had each signed on to write and contribute a story to the effort. Some signed on to do much more, combining forces to edit, format and promote the complete 322 book within a few short months.
The theme common to all of the stories is “relationships,” and the common bond is that most, and perhaps all, of the authors had lost family members to cancer as well. As the book’s description notes,
Some [of the stories] are heartfelt, some funny, some poignant, and some are just a little bit scary – much like relationships themselves. All are by authors fired by the shared enthusiasm to give something back in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.
As I write this blog post, we’re in the middle of the summer reading season, when many people take some time off, and often look for a good book to keep them company. If you’d like to do a good deed, why not consider taking You’re Not Alone with you this summer? If you do, you’ll not only help support a fine organization, but you’ll also have the opportunity to get acquainted with the work of 28 talented, imaginative, and compassionate authors.
You can buy You’re Not Alone, an Indie Author Anthology in eBook form for $2.99 (free, if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber), or $9.99 in paperback at Amazon. As a small incentive to do so, you can sample my contribution, for free. It’s called:
Gabriel and the Minister Bird
“Tomorrow the boy goes with me.”
“But Amadu, his school is not over.”
“No matter. It will never matter. Better he leaves now and supports the family.”
“Where I am now! And I would not miss what I no longer have.”
It was the same argument the boy had heard before. But now he heard it more often, and his father was more insistent. Gabriel pulled the blanket over his head, afraid that this time his mother might give in.
“It won’t always be this way – someday the soldiers will leave, and then you will find good work again.”
“When? Tell me that! When is the day they will leave? And when they do, the other soldiers will come back, and so on and so on. For four years it has been like this! It will be that way till I die – till we all die.”
His father must be drinking palm wine again. He always became surly when he did that. But it hardly mattered. His father was always dark now, always tired, always beaten. Gabriel barely remembered the smiling man who used to come home from his work in the offices of the great diamond mine. Gabriel used to greet him by clutching his leg in his arms, the closest he could come to hugging such a tall man. Then his father would whisk him up into the air, hold him high over his head. They both would laugh as they looked into each other’s eyes.
“No! Someday they will all be gone. Then the owners of the mine will return, and the shops will reopen. What if Gabriel does not have an education? With his withered leg, how will he survive then?”
“How are any of us to survive right now? Look – go look in your cupboard! Will we eat even tomorrow? If I do not find a diamond soon, we will starve.”
“But Amadu, he is so small; and his leg – the boy can barely walk. How is he to follow you all the way to the river bed?”
“I will carry him. Or he can go to the big pit. Someone will pay him to sit and sift gravel.”
“They would pay him almost nothing!”
“Almost nothing is more than nothing! And almost nothing will be enough to fill his stomach!”
Gabriel tried to stuff the blanket into his ears to keep their words at bay. At last he fell asleep.
* * *
When he awoke the next morning he was afraid to open his eyes. Would he go to school, or would he be carried off to the dry river bed where his father dug gravel all day, dragging it back to his sieves, if they had not been stolen again. Then, praying for the sun that scorched his back to light a fire in one of the tiny pebbles that fell through the mesh. Sometimes that would not happen for a week or more, and they would go hungry.
But all was quiet. Gabriel peeked out from under his blanket; the sun was up. His father must have left without him. He would be able to go to school today after all.
* * *
When he returned, Gabriel sat under the acacia tree to do his homework. When he was much younger, his father would sit here, too, sharing the cool of the evening after dinner. He would tell Gabriel stories of all kinds, forest legends that sometimes made him afraid, and stories about the strange ways of the white people; they made him laugh. His father also told him about the great world beyond their village, about the endless water that went forever out of view, and about the amazing things he had seen in the big city. Buildings as tall as trees, with rivers of noisy vehicles flowing between.
His father would also hold him in his lap and read to him from books with words and pictures, pointing out the words one at a time and helping him understand the magic of the alphabet until one day Gabriel began to say the words along with him.
All that had changed when the soldiers came. He recalled his confusion as he watched from the forest as their house burned to the ground, and his fear when he learned that many of their neighbors had been carried off or killed. After that, all of the wealthy people in the town where his father worked fled to the big city. Their businesses and stores were ransacked, never to be reopened again, at least for now.
His father built them a new house with his own hands. But it was not much more than a shelter from the sun and rain, constructed mostly of tin roofing salvaged from the ruins of their village. Once, the soldiers came back and destroyed that as well, and when they did, his father’s spirit seemed to die. He could see no future to plan for now, just more devastation and danger. All he could do was dig in the dirt so his family could survive, searching for the diamonds that once had raised a town from the forest.
The soldiers still allowed the diamond buyers to visit the village. The buyers paid only a pittance for the rough stones his father was able to sift from the gravel he dug by hand, but after all, the soldiers took most of what they bought. At least the soldiers realized that if they took all the men, there would be no diamonds for guns and ammunition. But no longer did Gabriel’s father sit with him in the clearing in the cool of the evening.
Today as always a gourd container sat by Gabriel’s side, filled with the seed pods he had gathered as he hobbled his way home on crutches from the one room school. At thirteen, he was the oldest boy in the school now. All the others – the ones that could walk as well as carry a gun – had been taken by the soldiers a year ago. Where they were now, no one knew.
The small birds on the limbs of the acacia tree over his head were becoming noisier, and at last he set his slate and chalk aside. Immediately, a bird dove down to the ground to stare at him. “Patience!” he said, laughing, “You will have them soon!”
He took a seed pod from the gourd, cracked it between his fingers and felt the seeds cascade back into the gourd. When the birds heard that sound, they descended like rain from the tree to form a feathered puddle before him, hopping and twisting their heads from side to side. He continued to crack the pods one by one, tossing the broken husks to his side. Occasionally he took a few seeds from the gourd and cast them across the dusty ground like dice to reward the birds for their patience. Then they went wild, dashing after the skipping seeds, desperate to seize one first.
When at last the pods were empty, he took a seed and placed it in the palm of his hand. The birds became suddenly silent and still, except for a few that could not help themselves. At last he pointed at one of them, and it flew to his open hand to accept its prize. He repeated the daily ritual until each bird had received its gift, and then he began again. If a bird flew to him without being summoned, he closed his hand and held it behind his back until the bird returned to the ground. If all would be fed, all must take their turn.
The birds and he had spent many, many afternoons together over the years. Ever since he was a toddler, his withered leg had kept him from playing with the other children of the village. They progressed from halting steps to running, while he was forced to remain near home, baking inside under the tin roof, or sitting in the shade outside. That was how he became friends with the birds, and they with him. But he only fed the little birds, the ones that otherwise must scatter and flee when the big birds noticed that they had discovered food.
Today, though, a large bird dropped from the sky and perched on a stone a few feet away. The book at school called it a pied crow, but everyone knew that it was really a minister bird; the fancy markings around its neck made that clear. It had come to visit before, but he had not fed it. And yet it made him feel guilty. Why should he feed one bird and not another? Despite its considerable size, perhaps the minister bird might be hungry as well? And what must it think of him – feeding one type of bird but not another?
For the first time, the large bird dropped from its customary perch, and hopped towards him, slowly but purposefully. The smaller birds divided like the sea in the bible to let it pass. When it was only a foot away, it dropped an object to the ground that it had been carrying in its beak. Then it hopped back a little way and raised its head, cocking it to one side to look up at him. Gabriel saw that it had brought him a small, shiny nail.
Delighted, he picked it up and laid three seeds in its place. The minister bird gobbled them into its craw, and flew away.
* * *
The next day Gabriel was visited by three minister birds, and the next day after that by seven. Each brought a gift to exchange, and he found that they were very quick to learn. If a bird gave him something he valued more, he would give it six seeds instead of three. Soon the other birds would notice, and they would look for the same type of object. A coin, perhaps. Gabriel’s slow walk home from school became slower still, as he searched for more rewards, and better ones. Large grubs from the leaf litter became a great favorite of his new friends.
One day, a Minister bird brought him a shiny pebble.
* * *
Gabriel heard voices in the distance approaching his house. He struggled to his feet and hobbled on his crutches towards home from his seat under the acacia tree. Two men were carrying someone between them. It was his father.
They laid him down in the house, and one went to summon the old woman who once had worked as a nurse at the diamond mine. She pushed the ends of the broken bones back beneath the skin of his father’s leg and did her best to reset them where they should be. Then she bound the wound and tied his leg to a splint made out of a branch. After she left, his father said nothing, a hollow look of pain and desperation in his eyes.
Gabriel could see that his mother was very worried. How long would it be before his father could work again? How would they survive until then? What would they do if he could not work at all? Neither of his parents spoke as his she sat beside his father, her hand on his shoulder.
Gabriel could feel their eyes upon him, almost hear their thoughts. He rose to go outside, and made his way back to the acacia tree. There, he tilted back the rock the first minister bird had perched upon and removed the small cloth bag beneath it. He had hoped that it would be a little more full before he gave it to his parents, but better some than none at all. He made his slow way back to the house.
When he returned to their house, Gabriel took his mother’s hand and poured five small, glinting pebbles into it from the bag.
* * *
Many minister birds visit the acacia tree every evening now. A flock swoops in to roost, and then drop one at a time, the birds drop to the ground to trade their gifts for fat, white grubs. When one flock flies off, another takes its place until it becomes almost too dark to see.
Below the tree, Gabriel reaps the harvest of the minister birds’ sharp eyes. And once again, his father reads to him and tells him stories, as they take their ease in the still, cool air of the evening.
Andrew Updegrove, the author of two novels, lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He dedicates this story to the memory of his father, mother and sister, all of whom died of cancer.