FEEL THE SILENCE

John Thomas Tuft
5 min readDec 27, 2023

FEEL THE SILENCE

By John Thomas Tuft

Sixteen-year-old Jodie stood beside the hospital bed, dazed, and confused. Frightened by what was unfolding before her eyes. Her father, in his late 50s, lay in the bed, dying. A few weeks earlier I had been in their home. I learned early on in life that if a pastor only paid attention to those perishables who showed up Sunday mornings, more than half the flock would go unattended. When I first arrived in this particular church, I set out to visit the homes of everyone on the rolls. Why should they put any stock in my leadership if they had no idea who I was, and they knew that I’d never set foot in their homes? I’d met this family about a month earlier, sitting in their living room, Dad with his oxygen tubing that stretched throughout the small house. They survived on his disability payments from the mill as emphysema slowly robbed him of the ability to breathe. Jodie is their miracle, a late baby who filled their lives. Jodie got home from school late in the afternoon, said a perfunctory hello, and retired to her room. A silence settled over us. A silence of dread. Unholy dread. No electronic screens to distract. Fading afternoon light over the West Virginia hills. Lengthening shadows. Feel the silence.

Now in this hospital room, that dread filled the air. I had gotten the phone call. The end was near. Could I come? I arrived at Sacred Heart Hospital late that afternoon. I stopped just inside the doorway, taking in the tableau that greeted me. Dad lay in the bed, eyes closed, struggling to breathe in a pattern of rapid gasping. Sweat dotted his brow and his cheeks were hollowed out. Mom was on one side of the bed dabbing at the sweat, shaking her head occasionally as she muttered, “Those damn cigarettes. I begged and begged…” Her voice trailed off into silence. On the other side of the bed, Jodie tried to take in what was happening, but not comprehending. Beside her, an older woman in the habit of a nun, had one arm on Jodie’s shoulder. From the nun came an incessant stream of words, said softly, that amounted to what I can only refer to as Jesus patter. I waited patiently, respectfully, in silence. But it soon became clear to me that something was happening, something that needed urgent attention. Before it was too late.

“Sister,” I said. “Sister, he’s waiting.” The nun ignored me and kept up her patter. “Jodie,” I tried again. “Jodie, he’s waiting.” Jesus is holy, Jesus is waiting for him, Jesus is love, Jesus is almighty, Jesus is good, Jesus to the left of us, Jesus to the right. Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight. I took a step closer. “Sister, excuse me.” No reaction from her. Jesus is holy, Jesus is right here, Jesus waits for him next to the Father, Jesus suffers for us, Jesus died for us, Jesus is eternal life, Jesus to the left, Jesus to the right… “Sister, he’s in terrible suffering,” I said, coming closer yet. Dad groaned and a nurse entered and administered more morphine. A true blessing for someone dying in the agony of emphysema and the panic of not being able to breathe. I looked at the nurse as she passed. She only shrugged. I sighed. Who tells a nun to shut up, she’s missing the point? Even as the morphine took hold, Dad groaned again. He was fighting it. He was losing but he was fighting the inevitable of what was happening to him. His anguish was visceral, evident to anyone paying attention.

I stepped closer and put my hands on the shoulders of the nun. “Sister, I’m here now.” I gently turned her toward the door. “Thank you for being here. I’ll stay with the family.” She resisted but I got her to the door and closed it behind her. I went back to Jodie’s side. “Honey, he’s waiting for you,” I said as kindly as I could. “What?” She looked bewildered, frightened. I looked to Mom, then back to Jodie. “He’s waiting for you to tell him it’s okay. He wants to go but he needs you to tell him it’s okay for him to leave you.” Her eyes were wide. She’s 16 and having to say goodbye. To her father. Now. Today. No choice in the matter. “Jodie,” I tried to be as clear as possible. “He’s suffering. Very badly. But he knows you are here. He doesn’t want to leave you.” I stopped. I’m barely 30 at the time, myself. My parents are alive, fine and well and coming to visit soon. I sigh into the silence. “Honey, he’s in pain. He needs you to tell him it’s okay to go.” And I wonder why it feels like my heart is breaking in this moment.

She stares into my eyes for a long minute. Then nods. I stand beside her as she leans over, close to her father’s face. “Daddy. Daddy, it’s me. I love you. It’s okay to go.” She kisses his forehead as he moans. “Goodbye, Daddy.” And he breathes his last. The silence is deafening. It stretches on. Finally broken by a muffled sob from Mom. Jodie looks confused, dazed. “What happened?” Mom whispers, “He’s gone. He died.” Jodie is alarmed. “What? What do you mean? He’s not coming back?” Mom sadly shakes her head. Jodie throws herself across his body, screaming as she pounds on his chest. “Daddy, Daddy, wake up! Don’t go. Wake up! Please.” And our hearts break. For him. For Jodie. For ourselves.

His funeral is New Year’s Day. Jodie has an unwelcome companion in her young life as she watches the body of her father being lowered into the earth. Grief. The felt silence of grief. And all the mercies of that same grief. To be lived through and into. Even in silence there is mercy…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.

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John Thomas Tuft

John is a novelist, retired mental health counselor and minister and sheep farmer, who now lives in Roanoke, VA.