Lasting Significance

Copyright David Sparrow - 3150 words


When Carl Gilby died for the first time he was totally unprepared. He had turned thirteen just a month ago and had spent almost no time at all planning for the hereafter. Sure, he'd sat thoughtfully in Canon Lupton's confirmation class each Thursday throughout September, but he had treated the lessons as distant warnings to be filed carefully away for use when he got old. He signed up for the classes because at the end of each lecture Reverend Lupton let the boys play indoor soccer in the big hall next to the kitchen. Carl loved indoor soccer. He would do anything to play indoor soccer... even be confirmed.

His father stopped attending church when Carl turned six, after the congregation decided to buy red, velvet seat cushions for the pews instead of purchasing a milking cow for a village in Guatemala. Ever since then, if you mentioned the Anglican Church in the presence of Wayne Gilby, you'd be immediately peppered with near violent insights on principle and hypocrisy. Despite this, Carl's mother dragged her three boys to church every Sunday morning. And "drag" was the appropriate verb. On Sundays, her usually rambunctious boys moved with the speed of blackstrap molasses. They whined and kicked their feet and sat defiantly at the top of the stairs refusing to put their church shoes on. Even promises of an after church visit to Country Style Donuts did little to move them along. So when her eldest son told her he'd asked Reverend Lupton about getting confirmed and that he'd need to be at church early the next few Sundays, she almost fainted.

Except for unexpectedly dying, Carl was to have joined the great Anglican Church of Canada at the 10:00 AM service that coming Sunday. His father had bought Carl a new suit from a real Chinese tailor working out of a room at the Prince Hotel and his mother had planned a reception for relatives from across the province. It was to be a moment of lasting significance in the young man's life, but now, as Carl lay dead, the thought of having no official religious affiliation left him struggling to remember the things the right-reverend had said were important.

It was supposed to be a simple appendectomy. Carl had felt no warning pains, just a sudden, indescribable stabbing above his right hip. He was on the playground deeply involved in a game of Red Rover, Red Rover. He was on his way "over" when he stopped, made a face, grabbed his stomach and doubled over. The other children laughed at his antics and then Carl Gilby threw up and collapsed face down into the dirt. Kevin Keys ran for the yard monitor and soon Carl was in the nurse's office with a cold wash cloth on his forehead. The rest of the day was a blur. Convinced it was food poisoning, his mother took him home where he vomited all afternoon and spiked a fever. The family doctor made a house call just after Andy and Steve got home from school. He probed Carl's abdomen while the younger boys watched silently from the bedroom doorway. Doctor Parks whispered something to Carl's mother and she shooed his brothers outside.

"I must be dying," he thought.

Doctor Parks drove them to the St. Joseph's hospital himself. Carl lay on the back seat of the doctor's old Pontiac with his head cradled in his mother's lap and watched the trees pass by the windows. At the hospital he was put on a gurney with chrome railings and a wobbly wheel. Strangely, he wasn't afraid when his mother finally told him why they were there. Doug Crosby had had his appendix out last spring. He got to miss two weeks of school and had a real keen scar to boot. The last thing Carl remembered was a masked doctor asking him to count backwards from a hundred. "One-hund..."

It was supposed to be a simple appendectomy. No one knew Carl was allergic to the drug succinylcholine, (sucks-in-eel-co-lean), so the anesthetist administered the common muscle relaxant along with the other sedatives. The result was anaphylaxis, tachycardia and malignant hyperthermia. Within minutes Carl's body temperature had climbed to one-hundred and five point eight. His heart stopped a short time later.

Carl did not see a white light. He didn't float above his body watching the medical team scrambling to bring him back. He didn't even run into his grandfather or his great-aunt Ethel. Instead, Carl spent his dead time trying to remember the Apostles' Creed. It was assigned as homework two weeks ago and since there were three weeks until it would be needed on Confirmation Day, he hadn't spent much time on it. Now he was coming to regret his procrastination. "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only son, Who, who, who..." The words got a little jumbley there, so Carl started over. "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his, his, his..." Carl started over like that three hundred and two times before finally deciding to skip ahead to the part he needed. As if skimming down a page, he scanned each line until he found the passage most useful to his present situation. "I believe in the Holy Ghost; The Holy, Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; and THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY!"

Carl woke up!

He woke up feeling a little fuzzy and dim in a room full of beeps and hisses. His stomach hurt; he had tubes in his arms; his chest hurt; his mouth was dry; his head ached; his throat hurt, and he had to pee. He tried to sit up, but he had no strength. A nurse with blonde hair popped her head in above his face.

"So you're finally awake!" She sounded far away like the adults sound in a Charlie Brown cartoon. "I'll get your mother." Carl grabbed her arm. "I have to pee," he croaked.

"No, dear. You have a catheter," she answered. Then seeing the look of confusion on the young boy's face, she told him, "It's okay sweetheart, you go ahead and pee."

Soon Carl's mother and father were at his bedside. His mother was smiling, but her face was wet with tears. His father kissed him so many times on the forehead that Carl knew something terrible must be happening.

"I must be dying," he thought.

It took them a while to explain what he'd been through and just how close he'd come to passing over. Carl was fascinated by the details. Over the next two days in the intensive care unit he had the doctor explain them to him twice, the nurse six times and the maintenance man who came to fix the bed-rail, once.

Carl had been "dead" for exactly one minute and forty-eight seconds. He'd been unconscious for sixty-seven hours. He'd been in a real coma! He'd heard a story once about a man who'd awakened from a coma after seven long years. Three days wasn't seven years, but Carl was sure that it was longer than any kid in the 1st Etobicoke Scout troop had ever been asleep. He'd have bragging rights forever. On top of that, he'd been officially dead and lived to talk about it! Who could top that?! The adventure of it all filled his heart with pride and satisfaction.

But, in the quiet moments between the blinks and beeps and the rustle of sheets, his near death experience was straining to have a deeper impact. Lying there in the hospital bed cautiously cataloguing the events of the last few days, he organized his lost hours into a cohesive and significant moment in his life: He had been rescued from death by The Apostles' Creed. Surely, it was a sign from on high.

On Sunday morning, while the other kids in his confirmation class were joining the church and experiencing the laying on of hands by the Archbishop of Toronto, Carl was moved out of the ICU to the pediatric ward. He was starting to feel like his old self and at lunch they took the IV out of his arm and served him his first semi-solid meal in six days - lemon Jello and chocolate pudding. It was the best lunch Carl could remember and he ate with a gusto rarely witnessed among the sick. He even asked for seconds. When his mother came by that afternoon, he explained to her how he'd used the Apostles' Creed to wake himself from his sleepy grave. She patted his head and asked him to be less dramatic. Then he told her he'd come to a decision.

"I'm going to be a minister!"

Carl was released from the hospital two days later, one full week after his incident on the playground. The doctors said he'd have to rest at home for at least ten days and Carl spent that time "practicing" for his ministerial vocation. Mary Gilby figured it was a phase her son was going through, one step in his healing process, so she tried to be supportive.

She smiled through clenched teeth when he showed up in the kitchen wearing a vestment he'd cut from one of her new purple sheets. She listened attentively as he worked out a sermon he was writing denouncing those who had trespassed into the shoebox under his bed and messed up his rock collection. And on Thursday, when he decided to baptize the dog, Mary suggested he use soap and scrub hard to get at the stubborn sins that are often missed in a dog. When she left to do the grocery shopping that afternoon, she assumed her son would hold the ceremony in the backyard using the big galvanized tub by the side of the garage - the tub they always used for washing the dog. But, this was a sacred religious passage, a promise between Carl and God to raise the Golden Lab in the tenets of Christ's church, so candles were needed, and the family bathtub was the only vessel they had that was just the right shade of pristine white. Shasta put up quite a fight, but in the end he went under, and the Lord's new servant won out.

When Mary got home, her first indication that something was wrong was the small puddle on the dining room floor. Unfortunately it was mirrored by a dark patch on the ceiling, now just over four feet in diameter. When she got to the bathroom, grocery bags still clutched in her arms, she was greeted by every towel the family owned piled in a sodden heap. So, on Friday, when Carl suggested they form a family choir and sing at this Sunday's service, Mary pointed out that even God had taken a day of rest and that Friday would be hers. Carl talked to God a lot that afternoon and decided that, if he wanted to have a real impact on his family, his first order of business should be to win his father back to the Anglican church.

The next morning, Saturday morning, on his day of rest, Wayne Gilby awoke to the sound of a soft whisper. The alarm clock on the bedside table read 5:07. Wayne squinted his eyes into the early morning darkness trying to listen harder. Maybe the mumbling was coming from inside his own head. Maybe he was still asleep. As he cast his gaze out along the edge of the bed, he met with a shadowy purple presence seeming to float just off the floor and swinging a soap-on-a-rope back and forth while murmuring what could only be interpreted as some attempt at Latin. It was Latin.

It was pig-Latin!

"Ohay Ordlay, easeplay ingbray adday ackbay ootay urchchay."

"Ohay Ordlay, easeplay ingbray adday ackbay ootay urchchay."

Wayne froze, straining to discern from amid his sleepy fog, what was real and what was not. Then, just when he was sure he was dreaming, the creature spit at him. It wasn't really spit. It was actually Old Spice cologne that Carl was using as holy water to shock his father back to God. But before Wayne could identify the fragrant expectorant, the creature spit at him again, hitting him full in the left eye this time. That's when the adrenalin kicked in, and screaming, Wayne sat bolt upright spilling the tray, containing the juice glass full of red wine and the plate of saltine crackers, that Carl had balanced delicately across his father's shins. Mary was awake now too, and seeing what by all appearances was blood pouring from her husband's lower limbs on to their fresh, white duvet and having her nostrils filled with the smell of men coming home from the sea, she fainted. It was at that moment that the purple presence, deciding his work here was done, backed himself out through the doorway and disappeared downstairs to sleep in the rec-room.

It took Mary a while to talk her husband out of killing her son, but she was finally able to calm him down. Getting the last of the Old Spice out of his eye helped. They had to remember how happy they were that Carl had survived his brush with death. How happy they were that he was once again a mostly-normal child. And Mary assured Wayne, as she had assured herself, that this was only a phase Carl was going through, although she was growing less sure of that with each passing day.

Reverend Carl decided to take things a little more slowly after that. He gave his dad a wide berth for the rest of the day, and didn't mention church or God or repentance at all. He had decided it would be best to change his father through prayer and fasting. He started after lunch.

That evening he bribed his brothers into attending a candlelight prayer service he was holding in the garage. He had to give Andrew a dollar, but Steven was easily enticed with the four Oreo cookies Carl didn't eat at dinner. The garage was too small for the family's AMC Matador, so there was plenty of room for Carl and his brothers to form a small circle around the candles Carl had brought from the house. Andy found a box of Eddy Lights on the shelf by the window, but lighting them proved difficult and he and Carl went through about twenty matches before they got one to stay lit long enough to light a candle. The rest of the candles lit easily enough off the first, and Carl started his inculcations to the Lord. After about five minutes Steven decided that four Oreos wasn't worth it, he was going inside. Andrew would have joined him except that Carl had made him promise to stay for a whole half-hour or give back the dollar.

When Steven entered the house, his mother sent him right upstairs to take a bath. He asked if it could be a shower bath. She said that was fine as long as the water stayed in the tub. It took Steven fifteen minutes to get from the kitchen to the bathroom. He stopped to clip some clothes-pins on the dog, redid the foldy part at the back of the Mad Magazine and sent his slinky flip-flopping down the stairs three times. When he finally got to the second floor, he pulled his shirt off over his head and, as he did, he happened to glance out the window. This is how he became the HERO who first saw the smoke and flames spiraling off the roof of the garage and sounded the alarm.

"FIRE!!" he yelled. "FIRE!! FIRE!! FIRE!!"

Wayne Gilby was on the couch in a t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts, half sleeping, half watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom when the shrill announcement descended the stairs. FIRE! He leapt to his feet and ran for the second floor stepping on a couple of sharp pieces of Lego as he did. Cursing, he took the stairs three at a time, surprised he couldn't see flames or smell smoke. He burst into the bathroom and found his youngest son safe, still yelling "FIRE" and staring out the window. Following the boy's gaze, he saw immediately the inferno in his backyard. It was puzzling... his garage was on fire. Then he heard Mary.

"WAYNE! THE GARAGE!! THE BOYS!!!"

Back down the stairs, across the same pieces of Lego, past his frantic wife, out into the yard, and into the conflagration at the end of his driveway ran Wayne. He threw open the doors and rushed barefoot into the smoke. There on the concrete he found his two frightened sons huddled together. He grabbed them up and dragged them to safety just as the fire department arrived.

It took about eleven seconds for the firefighters to extinguish the blaze with their inch-and-a-half lines. The garage and its contents were a complete write-off. It had been the spent matches that ignited the rubbish and rags under Wayne's work bench. The boys hadn't noticed the smoke over the smell of their candles until it was too dark for them to find their way out. Mrs. Carmichael from next door brewed up some coffee and served it to men from Station 36 while a group of concerned neighbors gathered on the sidewalk out front. Wayne, still in his boxers, ran them through the events of the last half-hour, embellishing the story with each telling. Mary was still weeping and hugging her sons when the fire truck finally pulled away and the neighbors dispersed.

After the boys were cleaned up and their smoky clothes popped into the washer, the family met in the kitchen for some milk and cookies. Wayne would save his lectures for later. He had come close to losing one child twice in two weeks and another one once. He was overwhelmed that he'd been lucky enough to get a second and a third chance. Mary kept rubbing their heads and couldn't give them enough kisses. She felt somehow unworthy of the gift of three sons despite the challenges they presented.

The next morning, Sunday morning, at church, the whole family shared a pew right up near the front, even Wayne. He removed the red velvet seat cushion before he sat down, but he sang and prayed with a thankfulness in his heart that he hadn't felt for sometime. All was now as it should be, thought Carl, and it wasn't even his doing. God had worked everything out in his own way. About half way through Reverend Lupton's sermon he leaned over and whispered in his mother's ear.

"I've changed my mind... I'm going to be a fireman!"



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