Two old friends share some final moments together
“He’s my pride and joy, Mary,” said Kate Neat. “I love him dearly, and I’m sorry that the time I have left for him is so short.”
Mary Wairing nodded sympathetically.
“I’m also sorry that I’ve so little to leave him,” continued Kate regretfully. “Just some small savings in the bank and a few personal items.”
“Nay, don’t fret, Kate!” exclaimed Mary in her warm Yorkshire brogue. “You’ve already given him the most important gift in t’world – a mother’s love! He’s had that in plenty all these years. And you’ve taught him to be kind, compassionate and faithful just the way you are.”
A brief smile of pleasure illuminated Kate’s drawn and weary face.
“That’s right kind of you to say, Mary,” she said, “and I know you’re right. He’s grown up to be a good Christian man.”
She reflected for a moment.
“He were always kind even as a boy,” she continued. “When we used to go down to the south coast for summer holidays, he was always so considerate. He’d be forever asking me: ‘Are you comfortable in that deck-chair, mum?’ or ‘Can I fetch you a cup of tea, mum?’ and I’d say to him: ‘Go on, Harry! I’m champion! You go take a walk down the sands or take a ride on the donkeys.’ But he’d stay by me all the time. He was always so kind to me. Such a well-behaved lad! Never any trouble!”
“Well, Kate, you set him the example,” insisted Mary. “He’s that way because he saw you always so friendly to the folks in the church, asking after their families and showing an interest in everyone and how they were feeling. He learned how to be kind from you. You showed him how to be a real Christian not just wi’ words but wi’ actions.”
“I were right proud when he decided to become a priest,” said Kate. “I was so happy that he’d decided to devote his life to God. It’s what I’d always hoped for though I never pressed him. He decided all by himself after that mission came to our church.”
“I seem to recall that Lewis wasn’t quite so pleased!” remarked Mary.
“No,” agreed Kate. “He wanted Harry to follow him into the business, but he wasn’t cut out to be a carpenter. That wasn’t for my Harry! He was called to serve the Church. That was his calling, and I’m glad that I’ve lived long enough to see him ordained as a priest.”
With a grimace of pain she shifted her position in the hospital bed.
“I just wish he’d got married,” she said, sighing wistfully. “How I’d have loved grandchildren!”
“Why he’s only just twenty-eight, Kate,” said Mary. “There’s time yet. He’s just looking for the right lass! He’s a cautious lad, is Harry! When he finds her, he’ll know! So don’t you fret! There’ll be more young ‘Neats’ even if you’re not to see them. But tell me, lass, what were the name o’ that terrible spot in Sunderland where they sent Harry for his first parish?”
“Oh, you mean St. Stephens, Ayres Quay, down by the docks,” answered Kate with a wry smile. “That was a rough baptism for young Harry. It’s a mighty tough area. Lots of sinners to be saved down there! But he liked it, visiting the people and listening to their problems. That’s what he’s good at. He knows the comforting words to say to troubled folks. Aye, but now they’ve sent him to a nicer spot at Framwellgate Moor just outside Durham City. Happen he’ll run into some nice young lass in the congregation there!”
“Happen he will!” agreed Mary. “How are you feeling today, Kate, dear? I’ve been meaning to ask.”
“Well, I’m not in too much pain,” replied Kate. “The Good Lord’s spared me that, but I don’t have much strength. I feel weak and tired out most of the time. The doctor told me that leukemia does that to a body. I can’t keep much food down, but I still enjoy a good cup of tea, which reminds me the nurse should be round in a minute or two with one! Stay for a cup, Mary, please.”
“Of course I will, dear,” said Mary affectionately. “Has Lewis been in to see you?”
A shadow passed over Kate’s pale face as she pondered the question.
“It’s hard for him, Mary,” she finally answered. “He loves me so much that he can’t bear to see me wasting away like this. He comes for a while, but then he rushes off to bury himself in his work. All that hammering and sawing takes his mind off it. I think he’s worried about how it’ll be when…”
Her voice faltered as her head sank back against the pillow.
“Now don’t go talking that way, lass,” said Mary firmly, laying her hand on Kate’s arm. She realized with a shock how thin and frail her sister-in-law had become.
“I’ll be sure to take care of Lewis when the time comes,” she continued. “You’ve not to concern yourself! I’ll watch out for him, and Harry too!”
“You’re a good woman, Mary, and my most faithful friend,” said Kate, smiling weakly. “I don’t know what I’d do without your strength and love.”
“You’re family, lass,” said Mary. “I’m married to your brother for goodness sake!”
“How is Tom?” asked Kate. “He’s hardly seen you these last few weeks!”
“Tom’s alright,” replied Mary reassuringly. “He’s missing my cooking, but he knows you need me, and he doesn’t mind that I’m here.”
Kate shifted her position with painful slowness, and Mary leaned over to help her into an upright position. A wave of dizziness swept over Kate, but she shook her head to clear it, and after a moment she said:
“Mary, open that little cupboard by the side of my bed, and hand me what’s inside, please.”
Mary leaned over, opened the cupboard door, and drew out a leather case. It was a little worn, but showed signs of having been recently shined and polished. She placed it in Kate’s hands. With some effort her sister-in-law unzipped the case, and opened it to reveal an elegant set of tortoiseshell combs and brushes.
“I want you to have this when I’m gone, Mary,” Kate said earnestly. “I know it’s not much, but you’ve been so good to me in my time of need I feel that I must give you something to show my gratitude.”
Mary felt a tear forming in the corner of her eye. She blinked it back, and said with a catch in her voice:
“Why, it’s lovely, Kate, and I’ll cherish it always!”
An expression of pleasure passed briefly across her sister-in-law’s drawn features as she leaned back on her pillow.
“Suddenly I feel just a little bit weary, Mary, dear,” she said. “I think I’ll just take a little nap. Wake me up if that nurse comes by with a cup…”
Her voice trailed off as, eyes closed, she drifted off to sleep. Mary leaned over and softly brushed a stray lock of hair that had fallen across Kate’s pale forehead.
Then she sat back patiently in her chair, and resumed her vigil at the bedside of her dying sister-in-law.
My paternal grandmother, Kate Neat, died on May 15, 1938, aged only 61, after she had contracted leukemia. My great-aunt, Mary Wairing Senior, Kate’s sister-in-law, spent considerable time with her in the hospital. Kate gave her the comb and brush set in gratitude for her loving devotion. Sadly my grandmother passed away before my father got married and so never had the chance to know her three grandchildren. I have read about Kate and what a good, kind woman she was, and I will always regret not knowing her. I did, however, know my great-aunt quite well as she lived well into her eighties, so that was some consolation.
The dialogue in my story is, of course, entirely imaginary, but I believe from my knowledge of the two women, entirely plausible.
c. C.M. Neat, September 13, 2017.