“You know what I’m thinking of, Richard?”
“I must admit that I haven’t the faintest clue, despite your implications that I am a mind reader.”
She ignored his sarcasm and powered forward.
“Of Alford. I was thinking of him. You remember, Henry Alford, that poet you gave me a book by once?”
“Mmm. It’s been a while, but I think I remember. We found him in a hymnal first, right?”
“Yes, you’re right, we did—when we were flipping through the hymnal trying out new songs after evening service one time. Anyway, what was I saying?” She paused, then found her thought again.
“He always had the nicest things to say about hands and life and love. He had an old soul, even from the start, I think. He knew what it was like to grow old with someone you love, to long for a hand to hold.”
“So that’s what you’re really thinking about?” Richard leaned over from his chair by her bedside and placed her nearest hand in his warm, worn palm. The two were similar in age, but one was delicate and the other large and calloused, still strong even now. She had always marveled at the difference in size over the years, holding them palm to palm to show exactly how much his fingers extended beyond her own.
Holding hands brought back so many memories, from the first time they walked hand in hand at school to their wedding day when they joined hands, then clasped again and again over the years that followed. That first time was just the beginning, starting them on the path that had led them to now.
“That’s better, yes.” She interrupted Richard’s thoughts, her one-track mind not detoured like his. “But I was actually thinking about the poetry too. One of my favorite poems had lines that went something like, ‘My hand is lonely for your clasping, dear…I want your strength to help, your laugh to cheer.’ I always thought that was perfect. It was all about ‘you and I’ and belonging together, like any good love poem, but the lonely hand and the cheering laugh—I liked that part especially.”
“Hmm. I like that one too, but the hymn is the one I thought of first. It has glimmers of Tennyson or Keates, which I can’t say happens often in hymns—they’re usually too down-to-earth, although not literally, of course.”
“How does it go—?” He paused, contemplating.
She began humming softly.
Gradually, they gathered the tune together and then strung it with the words—one picking up what the other forgot.
“I know not if or dark—”
“Shall be my lot. If that wherein my hopes delight be best or not. It may be mine to drag for years toil’s heavy chain—”
She smiled as they sang this line, lifting her unoccupied hand as if fighting the weight of the IV that dangled from it.
“Or day and night my something, something bed of pain. Dear faces may surround my health with smiles and glee, or I may dwell alone, and something, something, something.” They both laughed as they blanked on the words at the same spots.
“My bark is wafted to the strand by breath divine, and on its helm there rests a hand other than mine.”
Richard squeezed her hand gently, “A better hand than this.”
“—One who was known in storms to sail I have on board; above the roaring of the gale I hear my Lord. Safe to the land! safe to the land! The end is this—”
“And then with Him go hand in hand, far into bliss.”
The song quavered to an end, and they both laughed a little self-consciously.
“Imagine if this place were bold enough to advertise ‘bliss begins here’ on the sign!” she laughed.
“That would be quite remarkable,” Richard agreed with a chuckle.
A knock sounded on the door, and they both glanced at the clock across the room.
“Looks like it’s time for drugs and supper for you, dear.”
The nurse backed into the room a moment later, pulling her cart.
“Indeed. Or as Alford would say, ‘Life is so short, so fast the lone hours fly.”
“I take offense at that. Lone hours, indeed!”
“I believe in staying true to the quote.”
“Well, I don’t, and ‘I’m glad we are together, you and I,’” Richard finished, “So, there.”
“That’s not how it goes, silly.”
“Adaptation is the truest form of flattery,” Richard parried.
“That’s not how that goes either,” she shot back, swatting at his hand as he withdrew out of reach with a chuckle.
…And with that, dear reader, we have reached the beginning.
No, I am not going to conclude with everything coming full circle, even though there is a sense in which that happens in every life where old age meets infancy and holds its hand, then supports and catches and comforts and guides and bids goodbye as infancy grows into childhood, youth, adulthood, and then a new old age.
Nor am I going to end with tears and a grave, although that is a part of this journey.
No, this is a better beginning than that. This is the poignant beginning with which so many of the best stories end, the end that is but a turning page, not a closing cover. For hidden behind every living-happily-ever-after-to-the-end-of-their-days is a new story, the story of growing old and then of what comes next. The beginning that follows the end of what came before.
A veil that we cannot lift until we reach it. A glass that is dark until its time. The beyond the shores of what we have known. A river, an ocean, a door, a climb, a boat ride, a veil, a mirror. The great divide that we cannot describe or measure, but which we contemplate and envision and try to explain or grasp in so many forms.
All roads lead here, to the answer to the mystery upon which we muse. For some it is a place of darkness and fear, and rightly so. But for us, let it be a place of light and joy, let the day of its discovery be the greatest of our lives, for that is how it should be, as strange as that may sound and seem.
Fear not. Sting not. Sorrow not. For the victory is His and through Him yours. Reach out boldly, for the Kingdom is at hand.
Let us begin the real adventure. You have taken my hand on this journey till now, but I can only lead you to the door, the shore, the clouded mirror. I can take you no further till I go myself. But look, here is what the threshold says:
Not, happily ever after or to the end of their days, but one day after a lifetime, in a Kingdom far away…
And so the real adventure is at hand at last.