His entire body ached as he stood erect among his brethren. The cold morning air was a refreshing sensation on his face and for the first time in nine weeks he was clean, dry and relatively warm. He’d had the opportunity at a decent night’s rest, a hot meal and a long shower. Ordinary men would have wilted at the challenge that he faced down and overcame but Nathaniel Howard wasn’t an ordinary man. He’d volunteered to try out for the elite of his profession and he’d succeeded. He now stood at attention among the others who’d also achieved the coveted designation of U.S. Army Ranger. Not all had made it though, only a handful of those who’d started in the course nine weeks ago were standing with him now. But that was the point wasn’t it, to find the best, those who would lead the way.
Though he felt extreme pride at his achievement, he also felt sadness at the fact that he was the only one not to have family greet him at the finish line. It couldn’t be helped, they had died when he was young, which was mainly why he’d joined the Army in the first place. His parents were missionaries to a remote village on the African subcontinent. There had been a rebellion—which was about as common as the changing of the seasons—and though rebellions were supposed to be against the ruling class, they often degenerated into a free-for-all where the powerful rebels committed all manner of crimes against the people whom they supposedly represented. Suffice it to say that when the rebels had come through the village where his parents were ministering, they began harassing the villagers. When his parents stood up to the rebels, they were made an example of—well slaughtered actually. He still felt rage and deep sorrow at the thought of losing his parents at the hands of murderers. After he’d sufficiently grieved for their loss, he’d made the decision to do his absolute best to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves, and joined the army. His drive for excellence was fuelled by the memory of his parents selfless death while defending a village that the world had all but forgotten.
It was his turn. His commanding officer saluted him—which he crisply returned—and handed him the coveted U.S. Rangers tab. He knew that his parents would be proud of their only son. He knew it because they had lived their lives for others, and with his latest accomplishment, he’d again confirmed to himself and his country that he’d dedicated his life to doing the same.
Hannigan hadn’t darkened the doorstep of a Church in over five years. But before taking the new job that Mac had offered him, he decided that he’d first have to take his advice about moving on—or at least he’d try to, and that’s why he was standing here now. He knew that he’d have to make changes and set things straight before he could move on, though he didn’t believe his drinking was a problem—he didn’t consider himself an alcoholic because his drinking was a way for him to deal with a particular tragedy in his life. It helped him forget. There were however other things to deal with. For example, he needed to properly grieve before he could let go. He’d also spent the last five years blaming God for his loss, which for him, was a problem since he’d had a strong faith in Him a little over five years ago. So here he was, he felt a little like the prodigal son coming home after what seemed like an eternity. He didn’t even know if the Church was open on weekdays. He tried the door and it opened. Well, now he didn’t have an excuse to walk away, so he opened it and walked inside. It was quiet. He didn’t really know what to do next. He hadn’t thought this far ahead when he’d decided to come. Somehow he’d figured that the doors would be closed and he’d just walk away saying to himself: “hey, I tried.” But the doors weren’t locked, and now he was inside with not a clue what to do next.
“Mark?” the man said from down the hall. Hannigan’s eyes hadn’t gotten used to the lower light conditions so he was having a hard time making out who the person at the end of the hall was. “Mark Hannigan, it’s me, Pastor Aldham.”
“Oh hi Pastor, how are you?” Mark said, not knowing what else to say to the Pastor who was walking toward him. He hadn’t seen him since the funeral five years ago.
“I’m just fine. How are you doing?” Pastor Aldham asked with genuine concern in his voice. “Why don’t we go sit in my office for a bit?” And he started walking away without even waiting to see if Mark wanted to go.
Hannigan simply followed, not knowing quite what to do or say. In a way he was glad that the Pastor had decided for him. It didn’t take long and they were in the Pastor’s modest sized office. It had enough room for a desk, a couple of chairs and a rather large overflowing bookshelf that covered an entire wall. The Pastor motioned for Hannigan to take a seat and they both sat down.
“It’s good to see you Mark. It’s been what, five years now. How have you been?” He asked again with genuine concern on his voice.
Did he really care or was it his job to sound like he did? With Mark’s background as a CIA case officer, it was hard to not suspect people’s motives. He decided that Pastor Aldham was probably one of the most sincere and honest people he knew. Especially when the majority of the people he knew worked in a profession where hiding ones true intentions was as vital as breathing. He wanted to answer honestly, he wanted to pour his heart out and tell him so much about the pain he’d suffered for the past five years. But the words just wouldn’t come. He sat there staring at the carpet, and the longer he remained silent, the more awkward he felt. He looked up and saw one of the most caring expressions on the man’s face and couldn’t understand how someone could genuinely care so much for others. Finally he managed a few words. “Not good Pastor, it hasn’t been easy…” He choked up and it came as a surprise.
Aldham didn’t say a thing. He knew that the man sitting in front of him was in emotional turmoil and knew that in times like these, it was better to listen than to speak. Too many people thought that advice was what needed to be given, when really all a person in Mark Hannigan’s situation needed was to know that someone cared enough to listen.
It didn’t come easy but he knew that this was the time and the place to exorcise the grief of the last five years. “We had separated,” he began. “My job required us to move and sh… she said she couldn’t…. Our son…,” he tried to hold it back but the emotion was just too much and he finally broke down. Pastor Aldham was as compassionate as anyone could have been, not really saying anything but his body language speaking volumes about how much he cared. A good two minutes went by until Mark was able to compose himself. He then just sat there for another minute or so in the manner of a person trying to sort things out in their head. “We fought about it. I wanted her to come with me, she didn’t. Finally she said she would go to New York to be with her parents. I was angry at her and didn’t try to compromise. I just thought that she was being unreasonable so I let her go. A few days later I moved to Cairo.” He wondered if he should have said that, then figured that if he couldn’t trust his Pastor, who could he trust? Besides, this was more important to him right now than keeping State secrets. “I never saw them again.” He stared blankly a the wall and after a short pause, broke down again as the flood of memories engulfed him. He sat there sobbing for a minute or two—no one was looking at the time. “She was working at the north tower of the World Trade Center and our son was at daycare in the building. We think that on the day of the attacks, she picked him up for lunch and took him to the ‘Windows on the World’ restaurant at the top of the north tower. When the first plane hit, th— they were trapped—” The emotion was too much for him and nearly lost it again. He bit his lip and just stared at the carpet.
Aldham knew what was bothering the man, It wasn’t just the loss of his wife and son, however deeply scarred he was from that. No, there was something else, an added layer of pain. It was guilt. “You blame yourself for their deaths,” he said in a voice that conveyed understanding.
It was the first time someone had vocalized what he’d secretly thought for five years. “If I hadn’t had to move to Cairo, she wouldn’t have left, she wouldn’t have been working there that day and they’d still be alive!” It was clear to see on his face what a burden of guilt he carried.
“Mark, it’s not your fault,” Aldham said in an gentle yet authoritative voice.
“I drove her away. My stupid career was so important that I couldn’t find a compromise. Instead I just let her leave and the last words we spoke were in anger! Now she’s gone and I can never tell her how sorry I am. And our son—” He began sobbing silently.
“Mark, listen to me. What happened to your wife and son not your fault. You had no way of knowing that those attacks were going to happen,” which was ironic Mark thought since he was CIA and so he should have known. Strange the things that went through people’s heads at the oddest moments. “Those terrorists were out to kill as many innocent people as they could. It was their doing, their fault, not yours. You just had a fight with your wife. That happens all the time. People separate all the time. It happens. But those planes that hit those towers, they were being flown by people who were out to take lives. They’re the ones to blame Mark, they’re the evil ones who took your wife and son from you. You had nothing to do with their deaths.”
“But I drove them away. The things I said to her before she left, I—”
It was clear that he was overwhelmed with grief and guilt. He blamed himself for the outcome, even though it was clearly out of his hands. “Mark, you know that God forgives you, don’t you? I mean you’ve asked for forgiveness right?”
“A million times!” Mark nearly blurted out.
“Well, He forgave you the first time, and every other time you asked for it. He’s not holding what you said over your head, and he certainly isn’t blaming you for the tragedy that befell your family. He grieves with you, and loves you more than you can know.” the Pastor said laying his hand gently on Mark’s shoulder for emphasis.
It was then that Mark lost it. All those years of sorrow and grief just poured out of him in uncontrollable sobs. The thought that he’d been forgiven was almost too much for him to handle, yet the realisation even now brought him peace. It was as if each tear was slowly sapping his body of the poisonous guilt and shame that had welled up inside of him all these years. Finally, when he could physically cry no more, he looked up and truly felt different. He still missed his wife and son, and wished that they were still with him. But the forgiveness he’d accepted had somehow allowed that wound to begin healing. He just sat there and stared into space. Exhausted and relieved, for the first time in years he was able to smile.
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