CHAPTER 18 -- HOME NOT-SO SWEET HOME
Holding his breath a little Joseph took one step forward and pushed the door to his father’s room slightly ajar by its silver handle.
The only sounds he could hear come from the room were the blips and bleeps of complex-looking monitors and the distinct pressurized rise and fall of a ventilator.
Joseph pushed the door open further, sticking his head inside.
From what he could see it was a private room. There was only one bed surrounded by lots of sophisticated medical equipment. Like cobwebs white and gray wires criss-crossed each other in a fine network from one medical device to another.
Resting in that hospital bed inside the room, a man whose identity was concealed behind a tangle of cables.
“Oh my! Is that him?” He gasped, leaning closer.
Something at the foot of the bed caught Joseph’s eye. There a pair of old, pale, skeletal feet poked out from beneath a cheap hospital blanket. They didn’t look familiar.
Joseph courageously walked into the room allowing the door to swing shut behind him.
Now inside he could get a look at the patient up-close.
Joseph tensely walked up to the bed and then went numb.
“Oh dear.” He said, shocked. “You’re…”
Appearing to pathetically weigh only about a hundred pounds, it was a much older, much grayer, much weaker and much more vulnerable man than he remembered.
“It is you. But you’re so old now.” Joseph said in disbelief, standing there like he was looking at a ghost. “A frail, sickly, worn out you, but it’s you nonetheless.”
Father Joseph never intended to deliberately lay eyes on this man ever again, yet here he was. It was surreal.
A flexible plastic tube had been inserted into his father’s trachea providing mechanical ventilation. “Wow. You can’t even breath on your own.” A ventilator now moved breathable air into and out of Joseph’s father’s lungs for him.
His father’s bony framework was covered up to his neck with a thin, light powder-blue blanket trimmed at the top and bottom with shiny satin in a darker shade of blue. His beard had a few weeks worth of growth; and his severely wrinkled complexion was white and pasty and pitted, an indication of just how much he abused himself by drinking and smoking his entire life.
“I swear I can still smell Kool menthol cigarettes and Scotch when I look at you.” The sight of his father brought Joseph right back to the unpleasant sights, sounds and smells of when he was a kid.
By the looks of things his father appeared to be holding on to life by a thread, if that.
Gathering up the strength to try to respectfully address a dying man he admittedly loathed, Joseph gave it his best.
“Are you awake?” He asked softly.
His father’s eyes remained closed. He did not or could not answer.
“He’s in a coma.” A quick-speaking, overworked nurse said, dashing around the priest to get to her patient. Joseph was so distracted seeing his father in this condition he never heard her come into the room.
Jumpy, Father Joseph hopped in place. “Oh! You scared me!” Embarrassed, he snickered nervously. “I didn’t see you there. Hello.”
Then his brain finally caught up with what she said. “A coma?” He repeated.
“Yes, doctors have expected him to pass for a while. But now…” The caretaker pointed to the orange tabby cat lounging by his father’s side on the bed. “…The end seems very near.”
Joseph hadn’t even noticed the cat there.
“Oh my goodness… she was there the whole time?” Joseph knew he had sensory overload if he never heard her come into the room or saw the cat sitting right there atop the bed alongside his ailing father.
The nurse hurriedly exchanged one intravenous drip bag for another and took vitals from her patient as she informed Joseph of his father’s condition.
“That’s Tiamat.” She pointed to the cat again.
Tiamat swiveled her head toward the nurse when she heard her name.
“We don’t exactly know how but Tiamat seems to know when a patient is at the very end stages.”
“How’s that?” Joseph asked, doubting the reliability of a domesticated pet to predict such things.
The cat began to purr loudly, rolling onto her back as the attendant explained.
“She lives here. And she usually stays with us at the nurses’ station all day long. We have a spot for her behind the desk. But once in a while, for no apparent reason, she gets up and walks to a patient’s room. She’ll jump up onto their bed and stay with them, sometimes for days, until the moment they die. Then she jumps down, leaves their room and comes back to her own bed at the nurse’s station.”
Her eyes darted back and forth between the cat and Joseph as she explained the feline’s significance in the room.
Joseph noticed the nurse spoke with her hands, leading him to believe she might be of Italian descent and a local. After all, Rhode Island did have a large Italian-American community, especially where he grew up.
“Usually, when a patient gets a visit from Tiamat, we know they have approximately forty-eight hours to live. Unofficially it gives us the chance to notify family so they can make the proper final arrangements.” She said.
Joseph was creeped out. “Ah hah.”
The nurse carried on. “Somehow, some of the doctors around here believe, she can predict death. Hypothetically they think dying patients may emit a gas we can’t detect, but that she can smell. If that’s the case they feel she is either attracted to the smell for some reason or knows it means the person is dying and needs companionship.”
Joseph couldn’t believe what he was hearing but gave her the benefit of the doubt. “OK.”
“The nurses feel it’s definitely the latter. All of us around here think she’s comforting patients before they meet death.” The nurse’s voice cracked as she spoke. She reached over, rubbing Tiamat’s furry belly.
“You’re a good girl, hah?”
Tiamat purred with contentment, but stayed right by Joseph’s father’s side.
“Are you here to administer last rights?” She asked Joseph.
“No.” He replied, doleful.
Curious, the nurse pressed further. “Did a friend ask you to come to pray over him?”
Joseph didn’t answer right away.
“I’m his son.”
“Oh!” She said, ashamed she didn’t consider that. “I’m so sorry. How ignorant of me. I didn’t realize. It’s just… we didn’t think he had any living relatives. No one’s been here to see him since he arrived and that’s been quite a while. So we just thought…” She searched for ways to correct her blunder, but then decided it best to just quit while she was ahead and shut her mouth until she was spoken to. “I’m so sorry.”
“Not to worry. Not to worry. It’s understandable.” Joseph graciously pardoned the misidentification. He was more interested in learning about his father’s condition. “Exactly how long has he been in a coma?”
“Uh, let’s see…” She counted on her fingers, trying to put a number to the weeks he’d been here. She added carefully before speaking again.
“Oh, one, two… about three months or so.”
Joseph looked at his father comatose in the hospital bed.
“The doctors believed he was going to pass away months ago, but he’s still here. Now they think he’s hanging on for some reason, maybe waiting for someone special to come and say good-bye.” The nurse looked at Joseph like he might be the one.
“That happens more often than you’d think.” She shared, turning her attention to a medical chart chained to the foot of the bed.
“What do you mean?” Joseph asked, unclear.
The nurse was happy to clarify as she scribbled numbers, measurements and information onto his father’s chart.
“In some cases…” She emphasized. “… patients who are so close to death linger beyond what is scientifically explainable.”
She and Joseph both glanced at his dad as she expounded.
“And it just seems, more often than not, they linger because they’re waiting for someone in particular to show up.”
“You have my attention.” Joseph encouraged her to elaborate.
“I just get the feeling that maybe they’re waiting for someone they need to make peace with before they allow themselves to go. That there’s some sort of unfinished business they need to take care of before they leave this world. I’m convinced of it.” The nurse was very sure about her thoughts on this.
“Again, I don’t have a medically sound explanation for saying this, but all I can tell you is I’ve seen this before and so have my co-workers on this floor. It is rare. But it happens.”
Joseph listened respectfully to her personal experience with this unexplainable phenomenon.
“So many times after that special individual shows up and makes peace with the patient… they are able to finally let go.” The nurse smiled compassionately.
“It’s really a beautiful thing.”
All this was new to Joseph. “Really?”
“Really.” She said convinced, placing the completed medical chart back where it belonged.
“I’ll leave you two alone now.” The nurse excused herself.
CHAPTER 25 -- A MARKED WOMAN
Completely naked and dripping wet head to toe, Falene stood there with her back to Joseph. Her hair was still twisted up in a bun with one rebellious lock dangling down. Her well-toned, shimmery backside was fully exposed. Joseph watched as long streaks of water raced down her back, pass over her firm, well-rounded rear end and stream down her body all the way to her feet.
“Oh my….” Joseph lost his breath a little.
From the base of her neck all the way down to the backs of her ankles Falene’s entire backside was covered in dark squiggly lines which formed horizontal rows down the entire length of her body. He wasn’t sure if they were designs, symbols or what.
“What the…” The expression on Joseph’s face revealed his incomprehension at what he was looking at.
To him, they looked like burn marks which didn’t make any sense at all.
“Can’t be… They must be… Tattoos.” He said quietly to himself.
At least he thought they were.
Leaving the safety of the threshold Father Joseph took a step closer, hoping to better see.
It was more decipherable from here. “Oh gosh…” The harder he studied it the more squeamish he became.
“Why?” He asked himself. “Why have that?”
Everything about Falene was so eccentric, unconventional, peculiar and downright scary.
A chill ran up Joseph’s spine as he squinted to make out exactly what was all over her back. “It says something. It’s words.” He could make that much out.
Falene, pretending not to know he was there, was still standing stark naked in the window, not caring if anyone saw and in no rush to sheathe herself.
Father Joseph so far could confirm that it was dark writing, which covered every inch of Falene’s backside. Flesh barely visible between letters and words.
In tiny handwriting in what looked like black ink, one sentence followed the other in an endless trail but it wasn’t written in English or Italian.
“What language is… this?” His eyes turned to slits.
Joseph bravely took another single step forward; almost forgetting Falene could turn around at any moment and catch him.
The closer Joseph got he could see what he was looking at wasn’t black ink at all, but what appeared to be blackened-over burns. Those burns forming words, which appeared to be branded into Falene’s soft tissue. The edges of each word had swollen raised borders as if a searing hot iron had been pushed into her skin to scar those words into her body permanently.
“Labeled in some way with an identifiable mark.” Joseph conjectured. “Perhaps a punishment?”
From where he stood he leaned in. The handwriting was so small it was almost impossible to read but he had to try. He focused his aging eyes as best as he could.
“Latin.” He verified. “It’s in Latin.”
Father Joseph was so terrified his innards began to quiver.
Before he gave himself permission to read what was on the back of this wily Beast before him, Father Joseph blessed himself and traced the shape of the cross over his body with his right hand for protection.
Joseph’s eyes then scanned line after line, beginning at Falene’s mid-back. Once he realized what it said, his eyes opened wide with intense internal alarm.
“Oh…..” He gasped, taking a step backward away from Falene, a judicious decision.
“Oh my… Oh my… the versio vulgata.”
Father Joseph recognized it immediately.
He took two more steps backward to distance himself.
“Why is that there?” For the first time in a long time Father Joseph felt truly susceptible to harm.
“Versio Vulgata.” He repeated, disbelieving his own eyes. “The Vulgate Bible.”
Joseph asked himself. “Why does she, who vows to destroy the creation of the Devil’s former master, bear the sacred writings of the holy book upon her back?” It made no sense to him.
Joseph began to feel his throat close from the overwhelming anxiety he felt. He stroked the length of his neck to calm his nerves.
The Vulgate Bible was an early 5th Century common translation of the Bible in Latin. In 383 A.D. Pope Damascus I. commissioned Jerome to make a revision of the Old Latin translations. Jerome did as requested and his work became the definitive and officially promulgated Latin version of the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.
Joseph once had the rare opportunity to read an original printing of the Clementine Vulgate from 1592 shortly after joining the seminary to become a priest. He remembered the great honor it was.
Her back still to Joseph, Falene turned her head to the side, holding him in her peripheral vision and smiled devilishly. Joseph could see her face only from her left profile and now knew she knew he was there the whole time.
Even though she remained shamelessly bare Joseph was compelled to speak to her.
There was no way to ease into the subject, so he just went for it.
“Why is the… the… The Bible… The Vulgate Bible, word for word, etched into your backside?” He asked her, deafened by the sound of his own beating heart thundering in his ears.
“He speaks.” She said softly.