A narrow valley, pines, firs, larches and sycamores jostling for space. The path is soft and springy, the bones of a thousand fallen leaves that make you feel connected with the earth. Somewhere above is a rocky outcrop on which slumps an old ruin. The forest is so dense and dark that the little gaps make the flickering cloudy sky shine like a dazzling curtain of white.
The medication for the old man has been changed to a new class of morphine, and the previous evening’s visit saw him fading in and out of lucidity. His eyes were puffy and bruised looking, and he could not rise properly in the bed. Stroking first his hair and then his hand, watching him sleep. Waiting. The nurse comes in and with a gentle touch lets me know it is time to leave. Unable bear the thought of being too far I eat in a little restaurant in the old quarter, schnitzel and potatoes.
Speaking to the hospital in the morning, I am told that he is still very groggy, and they have physical therapy at ten. Maybe come for the afternoon? So I am in the darkened forest where Beethoven once walked for inspiration or maybe solace, walking towards Heligenkreuz and the Cistercian Monastery there, when I find the chapel.
It sits in the midst of the deep woods, its stone walls ornamented with moss and algae. It’s surprisingly large, and the door is inset with stained glass, as delicate as the fronds of grass flowers, patchwork colours of figures above their white faces, expressions twisted into a place between grief and triumph. I push on the door and it swings open and it’s so cold inside, so still that it’s like walking into a cave.
There is no electric light or candles glowing, and I wait in the gloom until I can see the rows of pews, the timber stained dark from many scores of years of use, worn smooth by the touch of the servants of God. The sound of my footsteps echoes and it sounds the way snow does striking a window in the night. I sit at the front and the rustle of my clothes is the only sound.
I wait for the Father.
The stained glass before me shows two figures, Mary in her traditional blue, and a man in crimson standing below the cross. I think it may be John the Baptist. Above them the Son of God is a rictus of spent suffering, the glass shows him deflated and hollow. I sit and watch the light ebb and flow as the sun is concealed then revealed by the dancing clouds. But there is no Father for me here. My thoughts are only with my own father, held somewhere between peace and suffering, fragile as a newborn kitten. I walk to the left and light a votive candle, and place three coins in the box. The hiss of the burning wick seems very loud. Whatever I’ve found here, I brought in myself.
As I turn the sun brightens the church again, and my eyes, dazzled from the tiny orange flame take a moment to adjust, and there on the floor ahead of me I see the robes of Mary and John have smeared at the edges to become a smear of purple on the worn stone. It is the purple of Gentian flowers on the pain meadows, the purple of the tracery of veins on the leaves that I hid beneath by the Green Sea as a boy. I watch a purple pulse of light on the floor, the heartbeat of the sun and sky, until it fades away leaving only its imprint in my mind.
I close the door quietly behind me and walk softly through the forest. When I pass the chapel on the way back I barely notice it. I return to the hospital and sit in the waiting area until afternoon visiting hours.
I wait for my father.