Big World Small Boat

Private Diary of A Priest. OK, so we're not all angels...Everyone needs a place to get things off their chest! And yes, I do talk to God about it all! Even He has a sense of humour! Want proof? Well, he made me, didn't He? Oh, one last thought-If you don't like what I've written, please keep in mind - it's MY diary. Go write your own!

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Location: England, United Kingdom

I've been serving children in crisis for over twenty five years. My goals are not to raise money, but to find organisations and individuals who can help change lives! What may be outdated equipment for you could change the life of a child in Eastern Europe! To learn more please visit our site at: www.ProjectNewLife.org

Monday

My Mea Culpa Gulpa or No Good Deeds Go Unpunished Dilemma

"Guilty."  Had I been presented with the same limited information, I too would have had no other recourse but to find myself guilty. That was the result of my heart-breaking experience with our judicial system, exacerbated by a local employee of the Council who, with great delight and avidity, egged on some of her 'friends' with the local press, to ensure maximum exposure for their cause. 

Did I have displayed on my dashboard the Blue Badge of someone who had recently died? Yes, I did. Was I aware that I had displayed the Blue Badge of the poor soul who passed? Absolutely NOT!

My 'Mea Culpa' is most certainly not an excuse, but I pray it may provide a scintilla of encouragement for anyone who may find themselves in similar circumstances. I'm heartbroken to say that what I believed would be my opportunity to defend myself, providing all of the salient evidence, simply did not occur. And for reasons I still have no answer, I'm grateful that I have support from some governing bodies who are determined to find out why. 

And I'm saddest to say that the very professionals in whom I had placed my unequivocal trust, in my opinion, let me down when I needed them the most. I was embarking upon a process I knew virtually nothing about.  Their failure, I believe, contributed to this heart-breaking debacle.

First, a bit of background. Back in 2015 I had been diagnosed as suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This is certainly not an excuse, but it provides a fragment of light on perhaps where my mind was at the time. I acknowledge that I was distracted and sometimes found it challenging to focus. But I was working diligently to ensure my own personal challenges did not impact those I was serving, be it at their end-of-life journeys, or for my mission in Eastern Europe.

Again, not an excuse; However, to quote the doctor who issued my diagnosis:

"I can confirm that Fr Haymaker suffered from quite severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which was proportionate to the magnitude of the trauma. Indeed, in his circumstances, the trauma was very severe, it was purposeful and premeditated and designed for him to feel responsible for the event. Obviously people with PTSD on average appear more forgetful and absent-minded, upset or depressed..."

This event occurred as a consequence of my work in Eastern Europe with victims of child-trafficking. For nearly three years I had worked diligently to have closed a 'children's brothel' in Transylvania Romania. This particular brothel was the last stop along a well-worn route followed by Russian/Albanian Mafia and other traffickers from the Russian/Ukrainian border through Transnistria, Moldova, over the Carpathian Mountains, in to Western Romania and on to Hungary, where children are routinely bartered and sold to points north, south, and west.

It was thanks to assistance from the Moldovan Prime Minister that I was finally successful in getting the necessary officials to conduct a raid on the brothel, resulting in arrests of numerous local officials. Without help from the highest levels in both Moldova and Romania I suspect the brothel would have continued unfettered. It was a time of jubilation and relief after years of gut-wrenching sadness.

However, it was ten days later that an event occurred outside my home in Moldova that had the most profound impact upon me. And it was this event, that I admit even today,  I still struggle with in pushing back the mental photographs that pop up with alarming regularity.

It had been raining perpetually for several days. As the rain finally subsided, my security staff found there was a large 200 litre oil barrel left outside the gates to my home. My staff thought it would be excellent as a receptacle in which to burn rubbish. They began to roll it into the compound. However, due to the weight they had to tip the barrel over to empty the dark liquid.

It was to their horror that they discovered the body of a child, 10-11 years old. She had been tortured and there was a bullet hole in her head. Tightly twisted around the child's neck was a wire with a plastic packet containing a letter addressed to me. The letter said "Dacă vă întoarceți aici, vom veni în Anglia. Vă vom viola fiica. Atunci ne vom întoarce și ne vom ucide pe toți copiii voștri." (The following is paraphrased in the interest of avoiding the most graphic details):

"If you come back here we will come to your home address in England (which they provided) and we will rape and kill your daughter, (stating her name), and we will then come kill each child in your home here."

Perhaps magnified by the fact I had within the same period been collecting the bodies of dead children from Romanian sewers, as well as the body of a decapitated child, as a consequence of Russian separatist activities in the Ukraine, this final atrocity had such a profound impact upon me I knew there was 'something' that had changed within me. 

I think, in retrospect, I tried relying upon my own devices, as well as my fervent belief in prayer and reflection, including the Sacraments to help re-set my compass to find a modicum of calm. But my close friends tell me they had seen a profound change in me. According to them I had become removed and less interactive with people. And in light of the threats regarding coming to my home, I confess I occasionally experienced moments of palpable fear. My greatest comfort was in the fact I was grateful that my daughter had graduated Uni and was now working abroad. Yet, I found myself still having surges of fear exacerbated often by grotesque nightmares that robbed me of my sleep.

We were now approaching the Christmas period - two days before Christmas Eve to be exact. My daughter and I were scheduled to spend a week together on the Continent, subsequently ending with my celebrating the Orthodox Christmas with the children in Moldova. I was extremely (and probably unhealthily) anxious about her safety, but tried never to let her know how much it was eating at me. The tangible 'threats' I had received were perpetually invading my ability to sleep and especially to remain focused at times. However, I insisted...at least to myself...that I could handle it and these feelings would eventually pass.

Now, I back up slightly to late October of the same year.  I had the honour of serving a young couple. The couple had been working as expat teachers in the Middle East, when the wife was diagnosed with aggressive cancer.

Heartbreakingly, the prognosis was poor and the couple returned to the UK so she could receive whatever medicines possible to help prolong her life. Again, the prognosis remained grim.  Their sad situation was compounded by the fact that with typical Middle East Expat contracts, the fact they had to come home immediately invalidated their employment contracts, thus robbing them of their salaries and any contractual pay.  In other words, they were about as near to destitute as you can imagine. This is where I offered as much assistance as I could.

I helped them to circumvent the often crippling costs and fees charged by some  Undertakers. The couple didn't qualify for any benefits as they had been residing outside of the UK.  Relying upon friends, I assisted in sorting the funeral for, as I best recall, somewhere around £200, plus the mandatory fees from the council for registrations, doctors certificates, grave, and interment fees.

As the husband and wife had agreed that it would be imperative for him to find a teaching contract in the UK immediately, I asked friends who were educators to assist and I encouraged him to go on any interviews he may require. 

I remained overnight at Hospice for four nights with the dear lady. My poor Jack Russell, who faithfully gave all he could, clearly was becoming worn down and I called a friend to come collect him so he could have his own respite. But it was early the following morning that she passed. I was honoured to be with her and am grateful at how peaceful her passing was. 

The husband, I was happy to learn, had secured a teaching position, which would require him reporting to school in less than ten days time. He had lots to do in clearing the property they had rented for the brief period and preparing himself both professionally and emotionally before he began employment in a new town quite far away from our local area. To help him I agreed to register his wife's death and to sort all the paperwork required for the burial. 

Typically, when you register a death, you bring with you any DWP papers, identification, Bus Passes, Blue Badges, etc., with you and the Registrar's office takes care of this for you.

However, for reasons I never knew at the time, (I think it was because the husband had borrowed several cars over the preceding weeks), he did not have the Blue Badge to present on the day I registered the death.

We arranged for a graveside service with interment on a Thursday. I could not do later days as I was scheduled to fly to Moldova around 6AM on Friday morning. And, because it would have added much more pressure upon the husband, it was practical to celebrate the simple grave-side service immediately, rather than forcing him to immediately take time off from his new position to bury his wife weeks later.

The graveside funeral was a quiet, private, dignified affair. Whilst in the cemetery, following the interment, the husband handed me several items; some kitchen cutlery and an appliance he wished me to take with me to Moldova. He also handed me the Blue Badge to deal with myself. I didn't say anything to suggest he could do it. I simply placed it in my glovebox with a mental note that I'd deal with it once I returned to the UK the following week.

Herein lay my decline - my first 'Mea Culpa.' I simply forgot about it. During the course of any month I have a minimum of three and generally a maximum of seven Blue Badges sitting in my glove box. They're for the people I transport to clinics for their Chemotherapy treatment, or to doctor's appointments, etc.

Move forward six weeks to December 22nd. I'm quick to admit I was already finding it challenging to hold my head above water. On that day I had two people whom I was to transport at different times, to clinics for Chemo, one couple to an afternoon doctor's appointment, and a request from a Funeral Director to do a 'quick' tree blessing, and I had one particularly close friend whose battle with Oesophageal Cancer was drawing to a close. (She was at the time paramount in my heart and mind), And I had a massive list of goods and food items I needed to collect and buy to pack in my baggage to take to Moldova. I was excited about seeing my beloved daughter as well when we would spend Christmas together, but I could feel my anxiety levels increasing each time the threat would resurface in my mind.

Early on December 22nd, I collected my first LOL (Little Old Lady) of the morning, I asked her to place her badge on the dash. She rummaged in the glove box and placed a Badge in the window on the passenger side of the car. I really didn't give it any further thought.  When we arrived there was no parking anywhere due to a number of mini-skips being in front of the surgery. I didn't wish for her to be late and I told her that I'd drop her off, then swing round two streets over and drop off my hearing aids for adjustment, at the local SpecSavers, then come straight back.

There is something exasperatingly frustrating with Blue Badges issued through Macmillan - the Cancer Support Agency. The badges do not contain on the front either the name of the Badge holder, nor a photo, unlike Blue Badges issued through other organisations.  It is virtually impossible to tell which badge belongs to which individual without each time physically ripping the card out of its' holder and turning it around to verify the name, then having to fit it back into the scored sleeve which holds them. Save the expiry dates they all look exactly the same. 

I parked in a bay at the bottom of the road, knowing that at the top of the road all bays were either for loading or disabled. My interaction at SpecSavers was literally handing the hearing aids, contained in a small pouch, to the clerk at reception, then going back out to the car. All-in-all, it was less than 4-5 minutes...at the most. 

As I came up to the car there was a man who said he was from parking enforcement, or something like that... I wasn't exactly sure of what he said, but that seemed to be the gist of it. He asked me if I were the Blue Badge holder. I told him I wasn't and explained what I had done. I even invited him to ride with me the two blocks over to confirm that I had dropped my LOL off and was literally swinging back around to collect her. He thanked me, but said it wasn't necessary. 

He went on talking for a bit. But I was surprised when he asked me whether I knew someone he named. I replied that "I certainly did and that she had recently passed away." I recall he asked how I knew this and I explained that I had been with her when she passed. He asked if I had cared for her and I said "yes."

The man told me that the Badge I had displayed actually belonged to the person he named. I told him what had happened and that I'd clearly mixed them up. He behaved as if it were no big deal and that was the end of the matter. He told me that if there were anything he needed to speak with me about it would probably not be until after the New Year and he said I might have to "get my hand slapped," but that would be the end of it. 

I gave it no further thought. That is until March came around and I was shocked to receive a letter from the council saying I had to appear for a 'Caution Advisement.' I didn't give it any further thought, believing this must be the 'hand slapping' to which he had alluded.

It was much to my utter shock when I learnt that I was to be prosecuted for the use of the Badge, despite my explanation and offer to have the individual I was transporting that morning confirm this fact. (Plus the fact it was she who had placed a badge on my dash board). 

I retained legal counsel. A very nice young man who, in fact, easily understood how such a mistake could have been made for he also had his own Blue Badge due to an advanced coronary condition.  The solicitor assured me that what would be my defence is the fact that whilst I may have displayed the badge, I certainly did not do so with the intent of gaining any benefit. Plus, he added that according to the law the crux of the matter was centred around 'intent.' And he felt it would be quite straight forward to show any jury that I certainly had no intent of using the badge for personal gain. 

We discussed whether it was better to leave it to a Magistrate to adjudicate or have a jury - "twelve good men and true." It was decided that it would be best to have the jury hear the case and see my defence evidence, including my witnesses supporting what I was doing on the day, along with my photographic evidence - the photos I had taken of where I was on the day. 

The waiting for a court date was excruciating. It was compounded by the fact I had some medical issues I was dealing with at the time. I was looking forward to presenting my evidence - all of it. 

The day before I phoned my barrister to confirm where and what time I was to appear. However, I was told I needed to wait until after 4PM to get a confirmation of the court I was to attend. It was around 4:30 that I received a call from the law firm's secretary, telling me I had to be in Chichester for 10AM the following day and the barrister I had met with multiple times would be there. 

So wound up was I, especially as I was now having to place further demands on those who so kindly wanted to speak on my behalf, to have to drive to Chichester early the next morning to do so I admit my nerves were frayed beyond words. Thankfully, The Venerable Mr Piddles provides a calming affect and he was working overtime to keep me calm. 

It was about 0950 that we were walking from the car park to the court house when my mobile rang. A lady was asking where I was and why wasn't I there! I told her I'd been instructed to come for 10AM and was doing so and was literally across the street. Apparently, the solicitor's office failed to tell me that we needed to be there much earlier. Had I known I would have been happy to. We'd driven to Chichester the night before, paid for hotel rooms, and were waiting for the time came to go to the court. 

The judge was already put out. (to state it mildly). I had no idea that not only had the judge wanted to start early, she stated on multiple occasions that she only had a limited time to hear the case as she had to be somewhere else and would be leaving the court no later than 1:30pm that afternoon. 

Taking in all of the above it seems of no real consequence I suppose. The kicker, however, was the fact that we discovered to my horror that my Barrister hadn't shown up! Much of what happened after that left me in a bit of a daze as my head was swimming so badly. At the same time I learnt that not only had my Barrister not appeared, he had failed to submit my evidence. And as a final insult, he also had failed to provide a witness list - items that are all required to be done in advance!  

The Prosecutor had conveniently removed the badge ID from its case and photographed the front and back of the actual ID side-by-side, suggesting that you can see both the ID number and the user's name clearly at all times. The defence I had provided included a badge inside a case, just the way anyone would see them, to show that you could not tell which badge belonged to which person.  But the jury never got to see this. That was my evidence; evidence that I was unable to present. 

And as the Prosecutor rapid-fired questions towards me, asking the names of the people I was transporting two years prior I desperately tried to answer him, but clearly tripped over some of the names - such was my state of mind at the time. Again, certainly not an excuse, but being focused while ensconced within  the miasma of PTSD made it evident that I could no more tell you what I had been doing the week prior, much less eighteen months or more earlier!

I say this with a bit of irony; had I been presented with a photo the way the Prosecutor's photo was made, I too would have found myself guilty! This is because I would have no way of realising that in everyday use it's simply impossible to see which badge belongs to which person. 

So here I am. It's over. Tetelestai. However, my tail is not between my legs yet. Thankfully, we have a robust support system through the Law Society who have offered to assist me. They feel there's a number of questions which need to be addressed. And they're providing assistance with the appeal process. 

I think anyone's first inclination after an experience such as this is to curl up in the dark and eat copious quantities of ice cream. I refuse to do so. Not only for myself, but it has become clear to me there are other people who have had similar experiences. 

Indeed, it's heartbreaking on so many levels. But I must take the opportunity to extend a written word of gratitude to so many people who have reached out to me, offering support and encouragement. Some emails have been humorous in their support. Others have been succinct, but equally supportive. And the overall message is their awareness that I became an easy target, partially because I was already 'down,' but also because it has always been my nature to take a passive position when it comes to wrongs being committed. 

Thank you - all of you, from the depths of my heart. I lack the vocabulary to tell you how grateful I am for your support, encouragement, and steadfast belief in me. 

I only pray that you never encounter a similar experience in your own life. 

Fr Bill+  





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Wednesday

Words of Comfort For the Dying

What do you say to someone who is dying? What words of comfort for the dying can you offer? And especially, how do we offer prayers for the dying?

A parent of friends of mine is currently in our local hospice. It’s sad to see that his deterioration has come so rapidly and particularly in that he has so clearly been fighting for survival. On Saturday, he was unconscious and it was thought that he would soon pass. But on Sunday morning, he was chatting with his wife and hospice staff. This is not unusual.

It’s a common occurrence to see people in the final hours of their lives, moving between a peaceful calm and an anxious state. There is clearly a struggle in their spirit to live. And it’s a fact that the strength of that spirit is undeniably tied to their struggle to remain on this earthly plain. Even though their physical bodies are failing and damaged beyond our ability to repair, the powerful spirit within that individual – that deep instinct to protect our human shell, fights to accept any kind of quality of life that is offered them.

Death is that moment of passing that comes as the spirit acknowledges that these mortal remains are no longer able to sustain its presence. And it is okay to acknowledge this, to accept it as yet another part of our journey. In fact, this is where the presence of family, friends and carers can often help most, with their words of comfort and prayers. The dying will come to accept the new journey that their spirit needs to take.

If you’re a family member, speak of the happy times you’ve shared together, the celebrations you’ve had, the joys you’ve experienced together and never forget to share how much you love them. Acknowledge that this is just an interval in time and that you will all be together again soon.

If you’ve had a spirited relationship with the person who’s dying, acknowledge that you’ve had your ‘ups and downs,’ but reaffirm the power of that love and ask them to forgive any transgression there may have been. Please, do not use this time to be accusatory or stating what your wishes may have been. This time is long past and by your presence and giving of yourself; you are providing the greatest blessing you could ever imagine – for both of you.

One of the greatest gifts you can provide, whether you’re a family member, friend, or professional carer is the gift of touch. Even when words can no longer be spoken, the gift of touch is a potent form of spiritual communication. I often rub the hands or feet of someone who is in transition. There are times when I stroke their hair. These gentle acts are no different than the loving embrace we receive as we come into this world.

And of course, there’s the power of prayer. Never underestimate the strength of that communication. As you offer your supplications, not only does God hear, but the living spiritual being you’re praying for hears as well. Acknowledging that it’s okay to let go, that there is life beyond is a form of blessing. And indeed, you too will be blessed.


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Heavenly Father
You have given us so much. Thank You for the gift of life, for all the treasures we received, through the wealth of those who’ve loved us and those whom we’ve loved.
This body You have given is frail and damaged. And now we ask You to grant us peace, as we begin our next journey, to a new life, free of pain and suffering. Ease the sorrow of those we leave behind, knowing that we will always live on in their heart.
Take my hand and lead me now, until that time when we shall meet again, on that day where there is no sunset and no dawn. Amen
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Friday

Finding The Right Words of Comfort

What does one say to distraught and grieving parents who have just buried their young child?

. Truthfully there isn’t much we can say that will help. We can express our sorrow and sympathy. We can offer words of care and concern and of course love. We can tell the parents that we shall pray for them. But for most of us the truth is that we don’t know what to say.

I stood a short distance from the family as mourners came to offer their condolences after the burial. And I watched and listened as people so desperately tried to convey their compassion over the tragic loss this young couple have just experienced.

Some fumbled with words then simply broke into tears. Others offered sentiments that some might consider to be inane or even cruel. ‘You’re both young, you’ll have more children,’ one woman offered. The couple were too lost in their grief to even comprehend what the woman had said.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t know what to say that we sometimes say the wrong things. In our distress with another person’s suffering we often feel that we must offer words that will somehow help move the grieving individuals along.

Personally, I feel there is much more of a spiritual connection and sentiment in the power of a silent embrace. No words are necessary to convey sharing the human emotion of pain and sorrow and loss. Especially when we all accept that there are no answers. And so we weep at what has happened. And so too - God weeps with us.

One elderly gentleman suggested that the child’s death was God’s will. I disagree. The God we worship, our God who watches over us, doesn’t will the death of children, or the pain of their parents. Many, many things that happen in this world are not the will of God. That is part of the price of the freedom we have been given by God.

I watched the couple stand in numb silence as an aunt told them that God wanted their son in Heaven with Him. While I am confident God has welcomed him into His kingdom, I am certain God did not want this child to die right now so that He could have him there.

Others continued to offer the same thought; that they were young and they could have more children. This may be true, but other children will never replace this little life. He was his own person. The empty place his death has left in their hearts will never be filled simply because they have another child. Nor should it be. Every child is unique and precious. I realise that people say such things with a desire to comfort the bereaved. They desperately long to find some way to help. May God Bless them for it.

But know that we are faced with a mystery - the mystery of life, and of death, in which there are no easy answers.

And for the grieving parents who may feel that no one will ever understand their pain?...

God understands. He has a son who died also.

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Thursday

Exercise Your Freedom!


Finally, the day that most of Britain has been both waiting for and dreading-The elections! Our candidate’s voices are wearing thin as they traverse the great span of our country, hoping to engage those who remain undecided and especially to ignite a spark in those who may think their vote will not make a difference. 

This vote is arguably the most important voting event since the World War. And in the face of the grim spectre of terrorism in our country, our citizens are keen to elect leadership that will help to steady the course and work to protect the freedoms countless millions fought for and lost their lives so that we can live our lives in safety.
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Whatever the outcome, it is clear that Britain's are keen to express how our government is being run. Just as with countries throughout the Commonwealth, this process is a core to our celebration of freedom. And whether it’s The United Kingdom, Canada, or Australia, we share in some core truths: 
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We live in countries where priests, caretakers, and Librarians can get up early to open their buildings for use as voting centres. 
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We live in countries where there are warehouses to store ballot boxes from one election to the next because they will be needed so often. 
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We live in countries where local government officials will sit behind desks for long and boring shifts so that people like me can turn up at a time that suits us and cast our votes.
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We live in countries where anyone who wants to is safe to vote without fear of intimidation. We'll be able to trust that our vote counts; that there will be no 'hanging chads' which could possibly make our vote not count. 

We live in countries where lots of essential people will work very late overnight to get the results counted as fast and as accurately as possible. 
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We live in countries where we can be sure the result declared in our constituencies will be completely accurate. 
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We live in countries where broadcasters will put a huge effort in keeping us informed throughout the night and aware of exactly what is happening and what are the implications. 
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We live in countries where most of us will have sympathy for the majority of politicians because they have such an anxious wait until the final result is known early tomorrow.
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We live in countries where none of the possible outcomes will remove our freedom of thought. 
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We live in countries where we can look outward and see the injustice, the absence of freedom, the oppression, and the struggle others are enduring to have what we have. 
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We live in countries where we can gather together and pray to God for those who have less than we have, and discuss our faith, and share our views, and help. 
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Whatever corner of the world you're in, perhaps today is as good as any to give thanks to all who have gone before us to help build these freedoms we have.
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And here at home, today's the day to get off our bums and make our opinion count!

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Friday

The Book In The Attic

You would have thought I had asthma. I nervously inhaled several times and my pulse quickened as my son rummaged through the attic for me. I have good reason to be nervous when he’s up there. Heaven knows I have good reason! Six months ago I created a new access point to the attic when I fell through the ceiling. Believe me, it wasn’t a pretty sight!

I wanted him to find a book for me. Considering our attic, that’s not far from asking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Kudos to Willem though, he deftly moved among the rafters and extracted the exact book I wanted from beneath layers of Christmas ornaments, general khazeray and dust.

For anyone under the age of 16 who may be reading this, a ‘book’ is something that people used during the Neolithic Age for learning, or the conveyance of information.

And it was the book I used for writing to my daughter Mary, when she was first born. I’ve written to both my children all their lives. I still do. Poor souls.

The book contains nothing spectacular; it’s just one of many now. And it contains thoughts that I wanted to save for her, or observations I had during different times of her life. Today is Mary’s birthday and I thought it would be nice to see where my thoughts were on the day she was born.

Although the dust critters have done a rather good job on the cover of her first book, the contents still leap out at me as if they had been freshly written.


This child is not my child
She is God’s gift and God’s charge
I may give her my love and share my experiences
But she will mould her own life
with my guidance

For the moment we rejoice in the birth of our children
God has danced with us and we have all joined hands

I shall celebrate, sing, and nurture your soul
for it is the greatest responsibility of my life

Miss Mary, God has danced with you
Always follow in His footsteps
And you will always hear His music


Happy birthday sweetheart. May you continue to hear His music for the rest of your life!

Love
Daddy+

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Wednesday

The Best Waitress In The World

A Friend and I had tea at one of Eastbourne’s seaside hotels this weekend. We hadn’t seen one another in many months and I had missed seeing her. We had lots to catch up on. Unfortunately, many of the local seafront hostelries are of the ‘Fawlty Towers’ variety. But the one we chose was actually quite nice.

The sea-front room we sat in wasn’t busy. I wouldn’t expect it to be during off-season. There were no more than 14 guests in the entire dining room. In one corner stood what appeared to be the matriarch of service staff. She looked to be in her sixties and the lines on her face certainly had stories to tell – the most revealing one was that she did not want to be there!

I watched her amble up to her customers, shoulders slumped forward, as if in submission to whatever demon it was that haunted her. And with no movement of her elbows, she’d shove a menu card onto the table and walk away. It was an amazing sight.

To our fortune we had the other waitress. She couldn’t have been any older than 17. There was a sparkle of youth in her eyes and she was actually a bit ‘over-chatty.' As she moved back and forth from the diners to her prep table, she’d glance back several times, as if she were repeatedly taking a mental inventory of the number of people at the table.

There they were, the yin and yang of wait staff. And the scene was not unlike many we witness in Britain’s service industry. Bearing in mind that in Britain salaries for wait staff are deplorable; customers don’t generally tip, and we don’t tend to rate very high on motivating staff. This symbol of age diversity appeared to have just been left to it - to get on with what they were hired to do: distribute teas and cakes and collect the money.

Our waitress’ name was Fiona. I only know this because I asked. She had no nametag. But I always prefer to address staff by a name rather than the anonymous ‘Oh miss!’ You would have thought Fiona was from America. It was less than five minutes before we had a complete dossier on her life, right down to the number of days she had been ‘going with’ her new boyfriend, Bryon. (14 days).

What I found unique was in how Fiona would methodically work through her tasks. When we ordered, she’d repeat it, not write it down. And you could see her point her eyes upwardly, as if she were gazing into her forehead, to ensure that her brain was connected and paying attention. And after she brought our simple order of tea and scones, she quietly but audibly called out the items that were on the table. ‘Spoons, cups, tea, clotted cream, jam, extra hot water.’ ‘No, there wasn’t any extra hot water.’ Fiona said this, not me. And off she went to fetch more water for the teapot.

When Fiona returned with the water I asked her if I could ask her a question. ‘Sure,’ she replied. I told her that I didn’t recall seeing anyone go through such strides before to make sure everything was in place.

Fiona half sighed and half smiled. ‘That’s my Nan over there,’ she said, as she pointed her thumb backwards over her shoulder towards the other waitress, whom I had now bestowed with the name ‘Gloom monster.’ ‘She raised me up on account of my mum couldn’t cope with me. My Nan says I’ll grow up to be nothing, just like me mum. She’s in Brockhill (a women’s prison in the Midlands). But I never see her.'

Fiona went on: ‘I don’t want to be a failure; I want to make something of myself. I like this job and I want to work in one of the fancy hotels in London, but they say you got to have good training.’

I told her I was impressed. I asked if she had received training that taught her to name out the items on the table. ‘No,’ said Fiona, ‘I just hear people complain all the time about my Nan because she never brings them things, so I decided that I would make a list for myself to go through.’ And at that point she pulled out of her apron a crinkled folded sheet of paper and put it in front of me. ‘See,’ she said proudly, ‘this is my list of things I make for myself and I put it on my work station when I start work so I can go over it. Do you think this is the right thing to do?’

The list consisted of roughly written, and badly misspelled words; but the point was clear: Smile, say Hi, ask if they like it, get the order right, ask if you can bring more things. There were other words on the list, but I couldn’t quite make them out.

Her eyes were wide as if she desperately needed someone to validate her creativity. ‘Well done!’ I told her. ‘Who taught you to do this?’ I asked. ‘Nobody, I just want to make sure I do things right,’ she said confidently.

I told her I thought she was doing a lovely job and she should be proud of how hard she was working. Fiona left the table smiling.

She came around twice and asked if there were anything else we would like. Rather than focusing on our originally intended chit-chat, my friend and I continued to watch her. She had regimented herself in the way she served her guests. And my friend noted that it was almost as if Fiona intentionally distanced herself, as far as possible, away from her grandmother.

We didn’t need to ask for the bill. Fiona watched to see when we had finished. She came up and asked if there were anything else she could bring us. And when I said ‘no, thank you,’ Fiona asked if she could leave the bill on our table and she would come collect it whenever it was convenient for us.

I smiled at her. Her demeanour was lovely and I have no doubt, with the determination she showed us, she will rise above the obviously difficult life she has already endured.

But I had a surprise to come. Fiona looked at us and asked, ‘do you mind if I ask you two something?’ I said ‘sure,’ not knowing exactly what was coming. ‘ It’s kind of personal,’ she added.

In that instant I had a sudden surge of adrenaline, as I was preparing myself to be asked if we could either adopt her, or fund some home-study course on hotel management. Shame on me.

‘How long do you think it will take me?’ My friend and I looked at each other. My friend asked, ‘how long will what take?’ Fiona looked at us both. I’m sure she was looking at my friend a bit longer than she looked at me; perhaps she was sizing her up as potential mother, or older sister material. ‘How long will it take me to learn to be the best waitress ever?’

We all encounter moments in our lives that we instinctively know we will never forget for as long as we live. I had to stand up. I smiled at Fiona as I rose from my chair and I placed my hand on her arm and looked intently into her eyes.

‘Fiona,’ I said, ‘You already are the best waitress in the world. Your commitment starts now, this very second. It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes. Mistakes are opportunities for learning and doing better. But as long as you are determined to be the best, you will remain the best, forever.’

I think she wanted to hug me. It was quite cute watching her body language as she smiled at me, then looked at my friend, then back at me. She didn’t, but I know she clearly understood what I had shared with her.

There are lots of Fiona’s in this world. And there’s an equal number of Gloom Monsters about as well. But it’s the Fiona’s who will prevail.

So, whatever it is you are striving for; be it a medical degree, a relationship, or the field of hospitality, it is today that you are the best.
Now, leave everyone behind in a trail of smoke!
May God bless you Fiona, wherever life takes you.
.

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Saturday

Fast Tracks To Hell

I stood with the nurse looking at the body of this young girl. Still attached were the NG tube and the somewhat unusually placed intravenous line. The emergency team had to use a point in her neck, as they were unable to find a vein that hadn’t been abused or collapsed from her injecting drugs elsewhere.

They’d worked on her for almost forty-five minutes, attempting to resuscitate her heart. But her body was too far beyond being able to help itself any more.

The girl had either overdosed on heroin or the concoction she bought had been mixed with something even more lethal. This would be for the coroner to determine.

It was a tragic sight, and one that is all too common these days. At nineteen years old, this child had only experienced sadness and misery throughout her life. According to her long medical history she had been in and out of hospital most of her life; the earliest notations reflecting that she had been a victim of child abuse ten years earlier. The nurse, Rachel, pointed out that her medical history indicated there was no emergency contact, along with a note that her mother had died the previous year from a drug overdose. Her body had already remained there for a couple of hours as the nursing and orderly staff were quite busy.

Every month there’s a small trickle of young people who try to escape their lives by heading south to the English coast. Sadly, the problems they are running from most often become compounded when they discover that their real crisis comes from within.

This wasn’t one of the hospitals where I generally serve. I had come to visit with the nurse to discuss arranging an interment service for her mother’s cremains. Rachel’s shift was at night and it was easier for both of us, for me to come visit her during her break, and then I could visit a family who lived nearby. But I knew that any emergency would take priority over her break schedule.

I asked Rachel for a favour. I wanted to bring someone to see this girl’s body. I was quickly thinking of an idea that I hoped might bring some light from this darkness.

She didn’t mind, but said I would have to do it immediately, otherwise, the porter would take the girl’s body to the morgue and she would no longer have authority to let me see her. I promised her I’d try to be back within the hour. It was a long drive to where I intended to go and I wasn’t entirely certain I’d find the girl I wanted to see.

I met Laura last October in a supermarket. She was trying to pay for her groceries but was so high she couldn’t sort the coins in her purse. In addition to the strong stench of alcohol, Laura had the drawn skeletal features of a drug addict.

Over a period of months I came to learn about her life. I didn’t see her regularly. On many occasions she’d send me text messages, asking me to come see her, but when I’d get there she was either not there, or had chosen not to respond to my knocking. This went on for almost four months. Over time, however, I began to piece together bits of information about Laura. Even in the hot summer sun, she always had her arms and legs completely covered.

One day as I sat with her in a park I noticed her ankles. They had horrific welts on the back, slightly above the heel. Although she had continually insisted that her problem was with alcohol, my suspicions were confirmed and I encouraged her to be truthful with me. She had been injecting heroin with her husband for the past two years.

But over the past couple of weeks there had been some dramatic changes taking place - some positive, and some frightening. Laura now has a place to live on her own. And she’s free of her drug addict husband. I physically carried him and his meagre belongings to the train station and purchased a one-way ticket to the town where his mother lived. And I prepared an application for a court order, on Laura’s behalf, to prevent him from coming near her.

A constable friend of mine helped by explaining to Laura’s husband, in the most graphic terms, what would happen to him should he come anywhere near her new home. Honestly, I think the only thing that really frightened him was the constable’s ‘aide memoire’ that he’d be unable to have access to any drugs at all.

It was with a mix of relief and caution that I was even able to get him on the train. I don’t think I would have been successful without him being high on whatever it was he was taking. I know he had been injecting himself with a mixture of heroin and amphetamines, so his behaviour was, at best, unpredictable.

I eventually found the small bedsit Laura had been given by the local council. There was a single bed, a miniature fridge that couldn’t hold much more than a pint of milk and some cheese, a chair, and an extremely old radio.

When Laura opened the door she was happy to see me. She put her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek. I actually shuddered as I felt the icy kiss of near death from her lips on my face. Her eyes had shrunk deep into their sockets, and as I put my hand on her arms to slightly guide her towards her chair, all I could feel were her bones, enveloped with loose tissue. It was truly as close as I could imagine to dealing with a deceased body several days old. And I noticed that she now looked quite jaundiced; suggesting possible hepatitis and liver disease, or worse.

I told Laura I wanted to take her somewhere with me this very moment and she’d have to leave now. She asked me where I was taking her. I told her it was a surprise. She didn’t argue. In fact, she was high from something. I noticed beneath the small fridge, several squares of aluminium foil, which is often a sign that someone had been burning heroin.

As we headed west towards the hospital, Laura told me how pleased she was that she now had a chance for a new life. During the drive she shared many stories about her husband and his addiction. But each time I asked her about her own addictions and her own participation in using heroin she tried to obfuscate the truth.
Laura constantly fiddled with her hands, picking at the stubs of her fingernails. I noticed that the right sleeve of her shirt had pulled up to her elbow, revealing her forearm. It looked as if acid had been poured on her arm and even in the dark of the car, each time the car passed under a street lamp I could see the necrosis that had begun to engulf her arm, as a result of the injected heroin burning her capillaries.

As I pulled up to the hospital's A&E entrance, Laura momentarily panicked. I quickly calmed her, explaining that I wasn’t kidnapping her and wasn’t going to try to admit her. I told her I just wanted her to meet a ‘friend.’ She asked me if it was someone I ‘visited,’ which I took to mean in the context of the way I visit her. I responded truthfully, no.

I asked at reception for Rachel. It was just a few short minutes before she came out. Rachel hugged me, which was nice because I noticed that Laura seemed to calm somewhat by seeing this gesture. I introduced Laura to Rachel as my friend. Rachel asked if we wanted to go in now. I said, ‘yes, please.’

Laura asked where we were going. I only said again that I wanted her to meet someone. Before Laura could respond we were standing directly outside the curtains surrounding the dead girl’s bed. I parted the curtains and gestured for Laura to step in.

I had thought about this moment as I drove to get Laura and I asked myself whether I was doing the right thing. I tried to imagine how much further the process of rigor mortis would have progressed over the hour I had been away. It was sufficient.

The girl’s mouth had expanded wide open, as if she were gagging. Her left eye was open and her right eye slightly so. Her body had ever so slightly begun to arch. Her head was turned in such a way as if she were looking directly at Laura as she stepped inside the curtained area.

I watched Laura’s face intently. At first I could she was trying to comprehend what she was seeing in the darkened area and her mouth opened to form the words to say ‘hello.’ But before she could utter a sound, the realisation overwhelmed her. She recoiled in fright. I stood directly beside Laura with my left arm behind her so she couldn’t back away from the bedside.

I introduced Laura to ‘Tina.’ I explained that Tina was a heroin addict ‘just like her.’ And tonight she died from taking heroin. I lifted the side of the bed sheet to reveal the girl’s arms. ‘You see, Laura,’ as I pointed to the girl’s arm, ‘she has track marks, collapsed veins, and rotting flesh just like yours.’ I left her arm uncovered and then pulled hard at the bottom of the sheet to reveal the girl’s ankles. ‘And you see, Laura, she has the same track marks that you have on your ankles and arms.’

Laura was trembling and her mouth was locked open, almost as if she were cruelly mocking the dead girl. But it was more of a silent scream. I told Laura to sit down in the chair beside the girl. She did as I told her, but then instantly jumped up when she realised that the girl’s head was tilted in her direction, as if death were staring directly at her.

I told Laura that I was going to step out for a moment to see the nurse and I’d be right back. Again Laura jumped up. She didn’t want me to leave her there. But I spoke to her forcefully and told her to ‘stay seated until I return.’

Rachel had been standing at the nursing station. I don’t think she had been able to hear what transpired. But I went out to thank her. I asked if I could come back later this week to arrange her mum’s memorial. She agreed that it had been too hectic a night and she wasn’t in the mindset to do it now.

I went back to Laura. Before I moved the curtain back, I heard Laura sobbing. As I opened the curtain Laura turned from looking at the girl to me. She asked me why her mouth and eyes were open. I explained that this was often a natural process of death. She asked if ‘Tina’ could see her. I told her not in the way she imagined, but yes. And I added that she could hear her as well if she would care to say anything to her.

Laura started crying again. She repeatedly spoke to the girl saying how sorry she was. I asked her if she would like to say a prayer for ‘Tina.’ Laura said she didn’t know how and she had never read ‘any book’ about saying prayers. I told her God never uses books anyway – He’d much prefer her to say what she felt. I asked Laura if she would like me to step out. She said ‘please.’

It wasn’t intentional, but I did hear what Laura said. Her tear-choked voice carried through the empty darkened resuscitation suite.

As I drove her back to her room, Laura asked me what would now happen to ‘Tina.’ I explained that ‘Tina’s’ mother was dead and as best I understood, the hospital had no one further to contact regarding her death. She pressed me to tell her what would become of Tina.

I asked Laura why she wanted to know. She said she was afraid that ‘Tina’ would be forgotten about. I asked her if she thought she’d forget ‘Tina.’ Laura looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and anger. She blurted out ‘I know why you brought me here tonight.’ I asked her ‘why did I then, Laura?’

She began crying harder than she had at hospital. I pulled over and stopped the car. I quietly asked Laura if this was how she saw her life ending. She wept uncontrollably. She said she was frightened. – and that ‘what I made her see was the worst thing she had ever seen in her life.’ I told her that all I had done this evening was to hold up a mirror for her.

She wept bitterly and between her sobs she kept repeating that she didn’t want to die like this. I asked her what would ‘we’ need to do to make certain this didn’t happen. Laura said she needed to ‘see someone.’ I asked her if I could take her to a drug addiction centre the following morning. She said ‘please.’

It was close to 2am when I dropped Laura off. I told her I’d come for her at 9. I sent her a text message at 0830 this morning, reminding her that I was coming to collect her. When I arrived she was standing outside waiting for me.

As we made the long drive to the drug crisis centre, Laura asked me if I would sit with her when she first spoke with someone. I promised her that I would.

I should imagine when someone is trying to save a sinking ship, they’re not going to bicker about how the ship is saved, as long as it remains above water. I’m not necessarily at odds with myself over the methodology I’ve used in this instance, especially as I believe, without reserve, that Laura’s life is in precarious balance. Only time will tell how far into the abyss she has fallen.

And now, I can find hope believing that ‘Tina’s’ life has left a powerful memory for good, rather than sorrow.



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