Desecraters of tombs, looters plucking at baubles, that’s what we were. Crowbars levered at nails screeched in protest as we tore at the boards erected to bar entrance to this once hallowed ground. I wiped sweat and stared at rust flows etching down cedar planks, outlining the last remaining vestiges of a cross that once hung. White paint crumbled from boards graying under the oppressive heat of the sun’s touch, only to be swept away by the wind’s breath to dim lands of memory’s fading passages. Other haphazardly nailed boards concealed stained-glass windows that once danced with the colors of heaven. None of us knew when this old angel of grace had been closed up. Behind me commuters motored by on another Abbotsford morning oblivious. It seemed to always have been this way.
I paid little attention to a cab waiting in a stall by the church. Did grave robbers feel like this as they broke into the pharaohs’ tombs? Were we all infidels born to be cursed like Howard Carter of King Tut fame? I liked to read history and the puzzle of King Tut always fascinated me. How would I feel, if this were my sacred space and in the end did it really matter? Our job? To open the doors of this relic of a church one final time.
“No, after you,” joked two of my demolition crew, as they opened the inner doors. We stepped inside, disturbing dust that billowed up, sparkling in the brilliant rays of sunlight streaming into the chapel from behind us. The open arms of God beckoned in the echoes of still chants clinging to cobwebs in the rafters.
We stopped. The crowbar fell from Rudy’s hand. Metallic echoes resounded. A slender figure sat in the front pew.
“Jesus,” Manuel uttered, before frantically making the signs of the cross on his body.
Stale air clung to our nostrils as we let our eyes become accustomed to the gloom.
“Is it alive?” someone managed to croak. Then, it moved. Nick’s hammer toppled from his fingers.
“Ai – Madonna,” Manuel whispered, emerging from his catatonia. He was from a devout Catholic family and had more respect for the church and God than I’d ever had but for a second there even I nearly buckled to my knees, an instant convert.
No one dared breathe as the figure rose. A frail old lady’s fingers tracked the same movements over her chest as Manuel’s, only slower, and more concisely. She turned towards us, the holiest of smiles on her thin face, somehow personifying the ancientness of the building. Wordlessly, with a dignity that was as much a natural part of her as the Bible clutched in her hand, she moved down the aisle.
We parted to let her pass, keeping a respectful distance, unsure if she was real or some apparition that would spring on us and rip our throats out from some bloodsucking vampire movie.
“What the …?” I squinted, half expecting her to turn to dust as she walked into the sunlight.
“One last time,” she said as she carefully descended the church steps, grabbing the railing for support. The others looked to me for guidance.
“Look, lady,” I said, hurrying after her now, “we’re here to tear down this place. You shouldn’t be here.” I blustered, trying to come across as the hard-nosed boss in charge.
“Such a pity. She was grand in her day, you know.” The wrinkles in her face smoothed out as she stared back at the musty confines. When her eyes moistened I knew she was seeing this sanctuary as it was before, as it was meant to be, bustling with patrons in prayer and reverence. Dust laden alcoves once protecting statues of Jesus and Mary. Yet framed in the softness of her gaze I spied a haunting presence shadowing her serenity.
“How’d you – ?”
“Get in? I have my ways. Now can you humor an old lady and get her suitcase?”
“Ah, just an old lady,” Rudy, a big youth, half-joked.
Frowning, I headed back inside and picked up the suitcase that stood beside the front pew. My crew merely stood there, blank looks on their faces. The cabdriver got out and held the cab door open for her.
Clutching at the tattered Bible, clearly a well-used friend, she didn’t move.
“Hey lady, it’s your dime. I’ve got all day.” The driver spoke. She sighed, as if resigning herself to the fact that awhile he had all day, she didn’t.
The young cabbie looked at me as I approached with her suitcase. “This is the third place I’ve taken this Crazy old broad today.”
I expected her to react with anger or contempt, but instead she, who had far fewer movements of time’s cruel hands left than either of us, regarded him with sympathy and quietly moved into the back of the cab. I could let her go with this inconsiderate oaf and forget this whole incident as the actions of some crazy old person. Only I knew she wasn’t crazy. She could have been my grandmother. She was more than likely someone’s.
The fleeting hauntedness seen in her eyes earlier stared back at me speaking of the peace born from angel’s graces. Yet hidden in the shadows where dark spirits congregated one angel stalked, Azrael. God’s angel of death, his voice calling, bearing whispers of the finality of things closing.
“How much?” I asked the cabbie.
“Thirty-two fifty, last I looked.”
“Here.” I handed him fifty. “Keep the change.” I wanted to add and get the hell out of my sight, but didn’t out of respect for her.
“I have money,” she said indignantly.
I could see that. Floral dress and long coat with a hat pinned sideways on her head. Everything pressed and perfectly in place. She could have stepped out of a fifties’ fashion magazine, and on her ring finger, a diamond that would make the Queen look twice.
“I know,” I said. “This isn’t about money.” There were things money could never buy. Not for her. “I’ll drive you around today.”
She looked into my eyes and in that stolid, frightened gaze, she knew I’d guessed her reason for being here today. “Thank you.”
Sensing a friend, perhaps needing one more than her proud lips could ask, she exited the cab.
“Wait here, can you? I have to talk to my crew.” I turned to Manuel, whose “Manuel. You’re in charge. Just check out what has to be moved and get everything ready for demo tomorrow.” His Mexican complexion still looking ashen from meeting his imagined Blessed Virgin Mary.
“Tomorrow? She was supposed to come down today.”
“I said tomorrow. Get everything ready and call it quits. I’ll pay you guys for the rest of the day.”
“Yes, boss,” he replied.
Big Rudy nudged his shorter friend. “Hey, let’s hurry and we’ll have time for a couple of wobbly pops at the peeler bar.” The reverence of youth, was I much better at their age?
“I don’t understand, boss.” Manuel scratched his head.
“Neither do I. Call it giving two graceful old ladies another day. If something urgent comes up call me on the cell.” I opened the door to my pickup, wishing it wasn’t full of signs reading Aggressive Demolition. Hastily I cleaned papers, old lunch bags and paper coffee cups off the seat.
She climbed in as regally as a movie star entering a limousine. “I really appreciate this.”
“I know. You’re welcome.”
We drove around much of the older section of town, she asked to stop here and there, sometimes staring at empty lots with buildings that no longer existed. Sigh’s occasionally escaped her lips and she’d talk softly of memories. Often she’d merely get out and walk to the front of some house or store and stand there, remembrances of earlier days uttered in the silence of the minds eye’s photos. I didn’t ask questions, this was her moment. If she chose to, we’d talk more later.
“Mill lake please.”
Minutes later we pulled into the parking lot. An earthy smell, so foreign compared to the construction smells I was more used to, greeted us. “Help me, please. This will be hard on these old feet.”
Arm in arm we walked around the kilometer long trail surrounding the lake in the heart of Abbotsford. Few people were around, only nature’s smells and sounds intruded the silence. Now and then I’d have to hold her up, as if my strength and the tattered Bible she clutched so fervently to her chest were all that were keeping her going. Under her clothes I knew she was paper thin.
Eventually we sat down on a bench. Hints of cedar hung in the moist air. The day was warm, though, for November. Waters of the lake shone like glass and Canada geese honked occasionally, while ducks squawked like they were sharing a bawdy joke amongst themselves.
“There used to be a mill where that playground sits now. That’s where the logs in the water come from. I met my husband when he was working at that mill.”
“How long you been here?”
She chuckled; a surprisingly rich voice from earlier years. “The majority of my life. When I first came here I could count the number of buildings in town on my fingers. I used to walk around this lake with my husband John nearly every night and feed the ducks that stayed for the winter. Back then it was just a muddy path, not paved like now. Oh, by the way, my name is Agnes McCurty.”
I couldn’t help smiling at the signs that stated it was now illegal to feed the birds. “Dale Green. My folks moved here from Ontario about fifteen years ago.”
“You’ll have seen some changes here too, then.” She let out a sigh. “After that old church closed in seventy-nine, I used to sneak back in every so often and just sit and pray. I was one of the ladies who helped out at the church, arranging flowers, the Sunday school, the bake sales, what have you. I guess I kind of forgot to give my keys back after the doors were closed.
A few years later my husband died and my three kids moved out east. Oh, they phone from time to time and my eldest begs me to move away. Claiming they could keep more of an eye on me, but without my home, what good is that?”
I grinned. I knew her name well, surprised the frail woman sitting beside me was the same Agnes McCurty whose voice had been one of the loudest raised in protest against the Adams Block reconstruction project.
Agnes shivered. The birch and poplar trees were bare, waiting for spring to trigger life, that seemed so far away right now.
“Take me home, please. 1173 Essendene.”
I knew the address. It was only half a block from the church and was slated to come down next week. A shopping mall. Revitalization, businessmen called it. As we entered her pre-war house, I saw all her furniture covered with dust-sheets, boxes stacked carefully everywhere, many marked Goodwill. Yellowed squares on the walls where pictures once hung. Another suitcase sat by the door.
“Will you take that for me?”
I did, and as I walked back out towards the truck the front door creaked. “Goodbye.” She uttered, her hand shaking as she struggled with the key in the lock. Tears, she didn’t want me to see dripped from her proud eyes. “Give me a moment.” Agnes wiped at her eyes.
I remembered her earlier words.
I drove her to one last address. As we pulled up in front of St. Andrew’s Hospice two attendants in white came to greet us, a wheelchair ready.
“So tired, I knew this wouldn’t be easy today.” She said as I unpacked her bags from my truck and helped her into the wheelchair. She slumped into it, making me glad I’d not dismissed her as some kind of nut and let her crawl into the cab, alone. “Thank you, again.”
“My pleasure, Agnes.” I gave her hand a gentle pat. If I one day found myself in her situation, would doubt I’d display the same braveness, and muster half her charm?
The attendants wheeled her away. I knew that these days hospices were much more than places where old folks went to die, but as the door shut behind Agnes, I realized it was the first time I’d ever heard that sound.
The closing of a life.