“To a Friend Who Does Not Believe in God” by José A. Alcántara

José A. Alcántara


Neither do I, but yesterday, in the hospital,
for two hours, I held the hand of a dying woman—
my friend’s grandmother, 94, barely intelligible,
and in unrelenting pain. Every few seconds,
she slurred what could only be, Help me.
Help me. Help me. Over and over. Nothing
we did worked: not water, not raising or lowering
the bed, not massage, nothing but canned pineapple,
the little piece we would place in her mouth,
the chewing, something she could do; the juice,
a blessing on her dry tongue. But all too soon
the pain bit back down—the moaning, the grimace,
the Help me. The human remembering the animal.
Suffering and more suffering. Until my friend
placed her phone next to her grandmother’s ear
and played Alan Jackson singing “What a Friend
We Have in Jesus,” when, from the first chord
on the guitar, her body stilled, her face went slack.
For two minutes, she went somewhere else,
somewhere quiet, beautiful, free of pain.
We played it again. And again. And when
she fell asleep, when her breathing deepened,
her mouth and eyes still open; when the Furies
stopped their gorging, we were so grateful,
not to God, but to her faith, to her belief in something
better, something kinder, and with fewer teeth.

from Rattle #81, Fall 2023


José A. Alcántara: “It’s quite a gift to be there for someone when they are pushed beyond what they can bear. My sister did that for me once in a hospital in Costa Rica. This was my turn to be there for this lady whom I had met just two weeks before. On that earlier day, she kept saying what a wonderful driver I was. Who knew where it was that I would soon be taking her?” (web)

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