THE MAN was broad across the chest and shoulders. He wore an ironed plaid shirt and his hair was trimmed neatly — salt and pepper grey. His expensive eyeglasses suggested he had exercised some preference — no $20 Safeway cheaters for him.
He sat in the school library on a metal folding chair. His seat was one of a dozen or so arranged in a circle. Other men, his age and older, sat with their heads down and eyes closed. Most held bibles, resting on blue jean laps in their large hands — the hands of older men. All of them were Caucasian, save one Asian, most had grey hair and all wore expensive running shoes. A row of ball caps and lightweight jackets hung on hooks near the door.
“Amen,” a grey-bearded man said, drawing his feet under him and taking a breath to speak. “Welcome here. I am Dick Penner. Today, we are honoured to have two new members. Art and Dietrich. Guys, please stand up and tell us just a bit about who you are and what brings you here,” he said to the group, nodding to a tall man wearing a new golf shirt.
“I am Art Von Ast. I am from Bethel Christ Mennonite and my wife Mary and I are retired. I have throat cancer.” He sat down and crossed his arms across his chest.
Dietrich stood and took off the expensive glasses, self-consciously. “I’m Dietrich Rempel. Call me Diet.” He pronounced it “Deet.”
“Why are you here, Diet?” the leader asked, just as Dietrich began to sit and was putting his glasses back on. He stood again, abruptly, dropping his glasses.
“Cancer. Just cancer,” he stammered, then retrieved his glasses, inspecting them carefully before he sat. He was not yet comfortable describing the specific type of cancer — his personal variety. Would he ever become as glib and off-handed as these men? he wondered to himself.
They took turns going around the circle, sharing. When it was Diet’s turn, he politely deferred, suggesting he would prefer to listen because it was his first time. He blushed as he spoke these few words, his fingers clasping and releasing nervously.
After coffee and Saskatoon plauts (flat pastry), Dick Penner rose and read a bible verse. He held the bible confidently in one hand in front of him, the soft-from-use cover flopping open like a rabbit pelt in his hand.
When he finished reading the verse, Penner unfolded a photocopied sheet of paper and read the story of a cancer patient. The article described how a man — a retirement-age Canadian named Jake — with stage IV cancer had, with the support of his church and a massive online call for prayer, defeated the disease. This anonymous Jake went into a completely unexpected remission and had been cancer-free for two years. Benefiting from a strict diet and exercise routine and the unflagging underpinning of his family and church, he had met his third cancer objective. The third of four for Jake — the last being to stay cancer-free.
The group was then led, following an outline emailed to them earlier in the day, in a collaborative encounter session. It was difficult and frightening — as if they needed to be reminded how serious their conditions were.
After 20 minutes or so of the group session, Diet was exhausted and felt ready to unravel. He texted his daughter, “Call me now!” She did and he used the phone call as an excuse to beg off. Leaving the meeting, he retrieved his jacket from the Shaker-neat row on the wall. He pushed open the glass door and skipped down the concrete steps, shortcutting across the lawn to his minty 1968 Chevy C/10.
He loved that old truck. Diet had it just the way he wanted it. His one prideful excess — Lord knows he could afford it — was the retro Cragar chrome mags. There were two other customizations: he had one handle from a favourite pair of ski poles as the knob on the stick shift lever. Also, the kids had given him a Reggie Jackson autographed number 44 Louisville Slugger bat. He had mounted a gun rack in the rear window for the lovely wood bat to reside, riding shotgun with him on the still streets of Hartplatz.
Diet stood looking over the old pick-up as a light rain fell on him and the truck. “God causes the rain to fall on Chevs and Fords alike,” he said quietly, walking to the front of the truck and wondering how he could mount some fog lights without changing the look of the grill. He shook his head, getting into the waiting truck, thinking, if it ain’t broke . . .
Dietrich Rempel sat slumped in the truck listening to the sound of the idle as the engine warmed. How could they say that Jake — the Jake in the story — had received a blessing? Why this anonymous Jasch and not any of them, the fellows in this group? Why not Art — scared shitless but not showing it — with bloody throat cancer? How come he didn’t make the cut?
He rolled the window down; a few revolutions on the crank handle.
The fellows in that little group were surely no less devout; no less confident in their individual walks with Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour. And, BTW, seeing as He was in the Saviour business, how about it? How about me? I could use a little saving right about now, he thought. Why does Jake the Snake get a tütje (a goodie bag) and I don’t?
Do I not deserve a blessing? Or am I being punished?
He inhaled, then blew the air out slowly, thinking some more: Or is it that I have already had too many blessings — used up my quota? Is there an accounting system or is it random selection? Is there a lottery here too? If so, I hope Tricky Dick Nixon is not running this one, he thought, remembering the oft-retold story he had heard from his friend Matt — the last time just a few nights ago at their grandkids’ T-ball game — about that long-ago American guy from the beer garden at one of those Vita ball tournaments. The Vietnam draftee. Wonder if he made it? Diet thought. Martin Luther, we called him, joking that he played for the “Reformists” and that they nailed their lineup card to the dugout door.
“Bible school humour,” Diet said aloud, touching the bat behind his head, remembering those wonderful days; that bunch of guys. He thought of the smell of his ball glove — sweat and sun-baked leather — and his heart lifted and ached; both. Oh, to go back there, to play again — hang out with the boys, spitting seeds, drinking beer, talking about girls and cars and jobs.
“In hockey, Fred Shero said you should arrive at the net with the puck and in ill humour,” he said to the Reggie Jackson autograph. “Me? I have arrived at the cancer ward with no luck, but plenty of ill humour.”
Diet sat in the truck, quietly waiting for the heat gauge to tick past the red-shaded low end of the range. He thought dark thoughts, struggling to hide them from God.
“Thank God for all I missed / ‘Cause it led me here to this,” Diet sang along softly to the radio. He thought of all he had been led to; the prosperity and his peaceful, fulfilling life. Or, had he just stumbled ass-backwards into it all? Like Jake in the cancer remission story, or — less fortunately — the squashed bugs he had just wiped off the headlights? Now, when he needed his faith most, he was not sure. He felt, in spite of his best intentions, abandoned and alone.
“Did he make it, Lord? That shortstop?” he prayed aloud, entreating.
I guess maybe I’ll find out, he thought as pushed down on the stiff clutch pedal and checked the mirror before heading for home.