Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kathryn's Fountain - Prologue

Kathryn's Fountain

Cladach Publishing (November 8, 2008)

DO YOU BELIEVE in miracles?”

Kathryn’s intense blue eyes were locked on mine. Without taking her gaze from me, she reached for the handkerchief that was always stashed beside her in the wheelchair and wiped her wet, arthritic hands. She replaced the handkerchief and waited for my reply.

When I had arrived moments earlier for one of my regular visits to Victorian Manor, I’d found her as usual in the garden by the fountain. She had just returned the day before from an extended hospitalization; she’d been treated for pneumonia and other pulmonary complications. It didn’t surprise me that she looked weak and frail as she leaned over the side of the fountain, a little lady almost lost in her large wheelchair. Her white hair seemed to glow; her face, etched with wrinkles, was lightly dusted with makeup.

I paused to consider. She wasn’t looking for a theological answer. She had been building up the courage to ask the question; I’d seen that as she swished her hand around and around in the fountain. Her question wasn’t really a question. She was probing, getting a sense of whether it was safe to say what she wanted to say. Could she trust me?

I leaned forward in the wrought iron chair, put my elbows on my knees, and folded my hands. “Yes, I believe in miracles.”

She shook her head. “Not just the miracles of the Bible; I know a preacher should believe in those. I mean . . .” She paused, nervously stuffing the handkerchief more deeply into the space between her hip and the chair. “Do you believe that miracles happen today?”

“Yes,” I said.

She gripped both armrests and leaned forward; her blue eyes sparkled with intensity. In a voice not much louder than a whisper, she said, “Then I have a story to tell you.”

And so began the unfolding of a tale that took several visits to be told. It is one of the most amazing accounts I have ever heard, in years of ministry, before or since.

At that time, I was new at the church, and was eager to extend pastoral care to anyone who needed it. I had been told about Kathryn Williams by various members of the congregation in the first weeks after my arrival. She had been at the church “forever,” as one parishioner had put it. No one could remember when she hadn’t been there, and no one could think of a position in the church she hadn’t held. If Protestants had saints, Kathryn would have been on the fast track to sainthood.

The church was the only family Kathryn had. Her husband had been killed in a car accident twenty-four years earlier, and they had no children. Now she was in her eighties and unable to live on her own.

Victorian Manor was a pleasant enough place, with ivy climbing on the brickwork, tall windows, and a slate roof edged with ornate white trim. Originally the stately home of a wealthy financier, it had been refashioned by its current owners into a cozy, assisted-living facility. The husband, Jake, from what I could observe, bought into his wife Ruth’s dream of having such a home for the elderly and filled the role of slightly reluctant custodian.

Each of the ten residents had a private room. An elevator, added tastefully to the exterior of the building, made the three-story home handicapped-accessible. Those residents who were able shared meals around a large table set with fresh linens, delicate china, and real silverware from Ruth’s grandmother. African violets brightened the dining room windowsills. Antiques, many brought in by the residents as childhood memorabilia, occupied walls, shelves, and corners.

My favorite spot, though, was the small garden. Ivy covered most of the wrought iron fence that enclosed it, muting the city noises and obscuring the view of the sidewalk and street. The ivy was kept trimmed back at the gate to allow a glimpse of people and cars racing by, in sharp contrast to the unhurried calm that pervaded the garden. A maple tree dominated the garden, large with sprawling branches and probably as old as Victorian Manor itself. Tucked around its trunk and spreading out two or three feet like a Christmas tree skirt were red and white impatiens. An equally large oak tree near the fence lended half its branches to providing shade to the passersby on the sidewalk outside the garden. A crimson Japanese maple no more than four feet high gave a splash of color to the far back corner of the garden. A rhododendron, with its dried remnants of spring’s blossoms, occupied the other back corner. Lily of the valley lined the fence opposite the gate while hostas of various sizes, some with variegated leaves, lined the back fence. Red bricks formed a small patio tucked up against the house. A brick path meandered through the garden. The plants and bricks left little room for grass.

A large, three-tiered fountain near the gate was the centerpiece of the miniature paradise. Next to the fountain stood a small wrought-iron, round table with four matching chairs, all painted white. Here Kathryn and I had our conversations during that unusually hot, muggy summer when I assured her that I believed in miracles.

As I listened to Kathryn’s story, a hummingbird flitted about a feeder filled with sugar water, then moved in for a drink, ignoring the little perch, apparently preferring to stay airborne as it sipped. The coo of a mourning dove wafted through the garden. A cricket sang from somewhere near the base of the fountain, likely hiding in a dark crack between bricks in the patio. A robin sang from a branch in the maple tree.

Kathryn’s story tested my faith. During subsequent visits beside the fountain I had opportunities to ask questions. She filled in details and fleshed out portions of the story that didn’t come to her at the first telling.

I’ll share Kathryn’s story with you now, as best I can. My hope is that it will have a lasting impact on your life, as it has had on mine.

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