The Healer's Heart
Jedus…say, “Come folla me!” Bot de man ansa um
say, “Sah, fus leh me go an bury me papa.”
–LUKE 9:59, De Good Nyews Bout Jedus
Christ Wa Luke Write
It would be easier to bury my father,
he thought, if he had already died
Dr. Luke Tayspill hesitated at the door of his father’s study. The
simple act of returning home had reduced a confident doctor to a hesitant
child. He reached for Theo’s hand–an automatic gesture–but
came up with air. That motion, intended as a spousal embrace, ended in
a clenched fist. Inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale…
breaths failed to banish the thousand and one thou-shalt-nots that fixed
him in place. He remained frozen on the threshold.
He had come to the room to find a dying man’s living will. As far as
Luke knew, his father had never signed such a document, but now, to
withhold life support, the hospital wanted a clear indication of Martin
Tayspill’s wishes. Under most circumstances Luke would have considered
such a request to be quite reasonable. When his own patients were dying,
he wanted clarity in such matters. However, standing at the door to his
father’s study, the head of Yale’s AIDS Care Program wasn’t operating
within the realm of reason. When he entered Martin Tayspill’s house,
Luke abdicated the role of eminent scientist and reassumed the posture
In a hallway looking glass, he caught a glimpse of himself framed by
late Victorian oak. He frowned at the younger specter of his father he saw
reflected back. A few years earlier, when his facial hair began to show
specks of silver, Luke had shaved off his mustache. He was thirty-four at
the time, too young (in his opinion) to be sporting gray. Just that morning
at the nursing home, he had noticed the milky arcs that dulled his
father’s eyes. Luke hated the betrayal of age that allowed others to prejudge a man. How soon would medical students call him “the old man” behind his back? Most of his patients died too young, but standing in
front of the mirror, Luke could think of nothing good to say about growing old.
Framed by a pair of diamond-paned windows, the desk that drew him
to his father’s study loomed tall against the southeastern wall. Now as in
his childhood, Luke felt as welcome in this room as the late-morning sun
now flooding in through Belgian-lace curtains. Closing his eyes, he
willed himself back to his fifth year of life, when the room and the Queen
Anne secretary desk with a thousand secrets had belonged to his grandfather. So had the sunshine.
Inside the room to the left of the door, a longcase clock struck eleven
in Whittington chimes. The clock was the last piece of furniture
Grandpa Giles had crafted before his death. An easel with half-used tubes
of paint stood in the far-right corner of the room, just as it had when
Luke was a little boy. Giles’s self-portrait, muttonchops camouflaging
jowls, remained propped up on the easel, unfinished. These days,
thought, Grandpa only comes to me in my dreams.
Finally Luke found the courage to step into the room. Drawing close
enough to the desk to caress its slanted lid, he allowed his fingers to trace
the wounds in the wood that had banished him from this room more
than thirty years before.
Three years after Giles’s death, Luke had yearned for the comfort of his
grandfather’s lap. The boy came into the room and sat down on the
Chippendale chair. He studied the old familiar desk. Until Grandpa took
sick, the two of them would come to the study together after breakfast.
Luke’s task had been to guess which cubbyhole hid that day’s special
treat. The desk was rich with concealments, including drawers that only
Giles–its designer–could have located. Luke wondered if, before he
died, his grandfather had hidden one last treasure for him to find.
He pulled down the desk lid and found a picture card secreted in a
niche. Was it Grandpa’s final surprise? On one side he saw printed words.
On the reverse side a robed man knelt in a painted garden, his face looking
as sorrowful as Luke felt that morning. The boy–who had never
been in a church–could not explain why that religious picture appealed
to him. Nor could he explain why he took a letter opener from a drawer
and gouged three words into the folding top of the desk: Where are you
Martin Tayspill’s eyes blazed the day he found the defacement. After
Giles’s death, the study and the desk had become his property. Luke’s
father sanded and stained the desk surface but ignored the child’s lament
carved in the wood. Martin banished the culprit from the room, but
scars remained on the barrier that locked the picture in. Grandpa Giles
was gone, shut away with Jesus so many years ago.
In vain Luke searched for his father’s living will. Then he yanked on a fixture on the bottom drawer. It resisted entry. He frowned, unable to remember his father or grandfather ever opening that drawer. The brass
pull, he assumed, accented a false facade. Dropping to his knees, Luke
ran his fingers around the rim and slipped a credit card between the
drawer and the frame. He found an unexpected gap and continued to
explore beneath the desk. A block of wood moved at his touch. As he
rotated the knob, a lock gave way. “Sly one, Grandpa,” he whispered.
Nothing in the drawer belonged to Martin Tayspill–or to the present.
Luke found his grandfather’s Marine Corps commission and
honorable discharge from the end of World War I. Some mice had left
their calling cards on letters from Grandma Kate, addressed to Grandpa
Giles at Parris Island.
Luke had completed his search, but a mystery lingered. The drawer
containing the mementos was not as deep as the one above it. Pulling it
out as far as he could, he stretched his hand to reach the back of the
drawer. As if released from a secret it longed to reveal, a panel folded forward, disclosing a second compartment.
The hiding place surrendered a faded packet the mice hadn’t reached.
Untying the butcher’s string that bound it, Luke slipped out a thick
black-and-white composition book filled with his grandfather’s handwriting.
On the cover, in a more calligraphic style, Giles had written a
title: The Deaths of Lucas Tayspill
Not death, but deaths