Strength to go on
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
He cuts across as a figure of authority and compassion. A man on whom the care of church members rests, someone who has stood at this pulpit for sixteen long years, ministering to souls.
“Let us pray.” His voice is a rich baritone, crisp and pleasant to the ears. It gives no indication that he spent the last night crying, holding his wife, asking why, and doubting God’s grace.
The congregation rises, bow their heads, and wait for him. Pastor Timothy’s eyes flit from face to face, from the ushers to the deacons, and finally to the choir box, where she stands, a regal figure of poise.
He’d been forty years old when he met her, a minister for five years, a widower for two. She was thirty, never married, a new believer, but with such fire, such passion for the Lord. Over a cup of coffee, then several more in the next couple of months, they’d gotten to know each other. Sweet shy Timothy, and bright-eyed Lara. Twelve months later they were married, he in an old suit, she in a new virgin-white wedding dress.
She was the ideal pastor’s wife, always dispensing cheer, the perfect hostess for out-of-town visitors. She was Tim’s best dream come true.
Four years down the marriage, after several attempts at conceiving, the doctors shattered her heart. A stomach infection she’d had as a child had scarred her womb beyond belief. There would be no babies, no dark-eyed boys, no raven-haired girls. Nothing but an empty house, and useless hope.
After six more years, the hope had all but died, the nursery things given out to church members. Then one morning, she couldn’t get out of bed, her body alternating between fever and chills. Then the next morning, and the next, and the next, until a panicked Tim had to drive her to the doctor’s.
She was seven weeks pregnant.
She literarily blossomed, a mother-to-be at forty-one. Hope surged in anew, and the nursery became a nursery again. At fifty-one, long overdue, Tim started considering what it would mean to be a father. He smiled more often, spoilt his wife silly, and began to work on a cradle. He wanted the baby to sleep in a cradle made by his father, no matter how crude.
Joy was a living thing in their home, and with bated breaths, they waited. Waited for the day their baby would be born. A long-loved, long-awaited miracle.
He was born, eight weeks too early, and the minute he took his first breath was the same he took his last. They brought his dead body to them afterwards, swathed in a blue flannel wrapper. There were explanations; medical jargons of how he had asphyxiated because the placenta had detached idiopathically.
Lara came home feeling like a new mother, her breasts sporadically leaking milk, her thighs still aching from the four-hour labor. Only that there was no baby.
Three weeks later, she’s back in the choir box. Tim’s heart squeezes as he looks at her. So beautiful, so sad. Last night, they’d gone through the nursery for the second time in six years, packing baby things up, crying together, wondering why.
“Let’s pray.” Tim says again. Apart from those, no other words would go past his throat. He stands there, ten years worth of memory washing over him, his eyes streaming with tears he can no longer control.
From the front row, Deacon James sees the tears and his heart turns to a ball of fire inside of him, searing and hurting. Pastor Tim had called for him at the hospital, minutes after their son died. Entering the hospital room, he’d seen the naked look of loss in his pastor’s eyes. Lara’s eyes were blank, as if she’d yet to understand the enormity of what hit them.
Now, James stands decisively. He knows what must be done. When he reaches Tim’s side, he bear-hugs him, then takes the microphone from him.
“We all know what’s been happening to Pastor Tim and Sister Lara,” he begins and sees several heads nodding sadly. “I know we’ve been praying for them privately, but we need to do pray for them right here, right now. Sister Lara, please come.”
Moving as if in a trance, the pastor and his wife kneel at the pulpit, the heartfelt prayers of the congregation swirling around them, reaching into the deepest crevices of their hearts. At the pulpit, they find strength to go on.