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This story appears in the charming Dutch book, Peper en Zout (“Pepper and Salt”, under the pseudonym, Ds. M. E. Voila (French for “so there”). It is a series of anecdotes taken from the experience of a pastor in the Netherlands, most of them humorous, all of them very pointed. The translation is by Rev. John H. Piersma, then pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa.

            A shrill, merciless telephone woke me during the night which bridges Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Drunk with sleep I staggered to the desk in my study, picked up the phone and muttered an indifferent greeting. A woman’s voice responded.

“Am I speaking with the pastor?” “Yes, yes, and you…?” “This is the home of Mr. Karmon. I’m his private nurse. Would it be possible for you to come right over? Mr. Karmon has made special request for you. I know that it is a very inconvenient time, but I’m to ask you anyway.” My thinking became clearer. Karmon, of course, since he was very ill. Earlier in the week I had called on him. “Certainly, nurse, I’ll come immediately.”

While dressing, my thoughts were occupied with Mr. Karmon. He was an unusual person. He had been a widower for many years. An elderly, gray-haired housekeeper took care of him and his home. Karmon was very shy and reserved. Earlier in life he had been a successful manufacturer, but just prior to the War he had turned that business over to younger men. The larger part of his house had by order of the government housing authority been surrendered for use by others, but he had built a private entrance to the remainder in which he had now lived for several years almost like a hermit. During the last while he had shown increasing signs of failing health.

A lonesome life, and I now surmised that it would be a lonesome death as well.

Strange, but I knew so little about him. How long had he been a widower? Now that I was thinking about it, I realized that I had never heard anyone speak of his wife, and apparently there had been no children.

I knew that he was a man of sound judgment and that he possessed abilities which would entitle him to a place of prominence in life, perhaps also in the life of the church. But there were objections; he never partook of Holy Communion. During the annual home visitation the elders would discuss this with him, but in vain. A particular reason was never volunteered, and although he accepted the admonition with his customary courtesy, his refusal was firm. After a while it was no longer discussed and his name was seldom mentioned.

He and I had also discussed this matter privately, but with the same result. For that matter, whenever conversation turned in the direction of his personal, inner life he would come out with great difficulty, and he would stare vacantly out of the window at things far removed from his room.

For the rest Karmon was an exemplary person, a faithful churchgoer, honest and generous. During the last weeks I had visited him occasionally, but they weren’t easy visits. His quiet, almost secretive manner was more pronounced than usual.

It was a few degrees below freezing and the tires of my bicycle crunched softly on the asphalt pavement of the canal-lined street as I rode through the silent star-lit night, passing house after house with windows staring from corpse-like eyes over the water. With a strange weird effect, the bells of the clock in the carillon of the old tower suddenly exploded downward, their peals ricocheting recklessly against gable and tree. I counted the number: the night was almost past, the night of Christmas. In a few hours I would be standing in my pulpit and the congregation would be singing with joy because of the birth of the Christ-child. But in the house to which I was going there was another gathering – the gathering of the shadows of death.

My thoughts returned to Karmon and in my memory arose the case of the orphanage. We needed money and I visited Karmon to solicit a donation from him. He would have to have some time to think it over, he said, but the very next day he called to say that he would pledge a gift of a thousand guilders. There was one stipulation, however, and that was that his name should not be mentioned. The money had been a real lifesaver for the orphanage. And no one but myself had ever so much as guessed the identity of the donor.

Everything about him was, no, mysterious was not the right word, but nevertheless very unusual: his behavior, his seclusion, his church life. And even his outward appearance, which was marked by heavy black eyebrows and a head of thick gray hair.

And now he had to die. It amazed me that he had asked for me. Was he afraid of death? I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t easily believe that. Karmon looked to me like one cut out of a different wood, although…but shortly I would know.

There stood the silhouette of his house. A weak beam of light shone between the curtains of an upper window. As softly as possible I rang the doorbell. I heard the muffled creaking of footsteps on the staircase. The nurse opened the door very quietly.

“How is he?” I asked. “Quite well for the moment. The doctor says that he could linger for several days, but that it might also be all over within a few hours. You know, of course, that he is suffering from a terminal malignancy?”

I nodded as we climbed the staircase. In front of the door leading to the sickroom stood a Mrs. De Laat, Mr. Karmon’s sister-in-law and from conversation with her I understood that she had already been staying in the Karmon home for a few days in order to assist with the housekeeping and the nursing.

Whisperingly she told me that it had taken some doing to get Karmon to approve of her taking her little daughter with her, even though she could not get away from home without her. She shrugged her shoulders and I couldn’t resist the impression that she bore little affection for her sick relative to whose side she had come solely out of a sense of duty. “He has always had a dislike of children, you know,” she offered.

I thought for a moment about the orphanage, but I simply nodded and followed the nurse into the large room, where, back of a screen, stood a bed. It was immediately noticeable that Karmon had failed rapidly, even in the few days since I had last visited him. In the soft light of the lamp above his bed it looked as if the lines in his face had been carved with a knife and when he had turned his head upon the pillow his eyes made the slow rotating movement which one sees oftener in those who no longer have a will to resist death’s encroachment. His arms lay straight and motionless upon the sheets, the hands powerless. Nevertheless he was an impressive figure, and again I was struck with the contrast between the thickly-planted gray hair and the black eyebrows.

With a weak but audible voice he asked his nurse to excuse us since he wished to speak with me alone. After the door closed with a soft sigh behind her he waited for a few seconds. Then he raised his eyes and looked at me as one who had reached a very hard decision. I began the conversation:

“You asked if I would come; can I help you?” With the same rather thin but yet plain voice he answered, “Yes, and it is indeed very difficult for you, so late at night, and with such a very busy day tomorrow.” I assured him that this was unimportant now that I knew that it was his desire to see me.

“I would not have called for you,” he continued, “if I did not have to reckon with the possibility that it might soon be too late. I will not make it much longer, dominie, and before that moment I want to tell you something. First of all, about the orphanage: I have specified a certain amount in my will, but you know, upon the condition that there is as little publicity as possible.”

I tried to thank him, but it is very difficult under such circumstances to find the right word. It’s just as if one is personally signing the death-sentence of the dying. But with a slight movement of his hands he checked further talk on my part and said:

“There is something else. You have not known me fully well, not on the inside. I know that you were dissatisfied with me: the Lord’s Supper and perhaps other things, and I am appreciative of the fact that you did not harshly condemn me. Because there was a reason…” He paused, during which I gave him no encouragement to continue, something which he apparently did not expect either.

And then he told me his story. There was not much rising or falling in his voice and yet the telling of his story from the very beginning brought with it so much tension that I could not help but listen very intently, strangely fascinated.

“I am,” he began, “I am now sixty-three years old, actually still young for dying, and yet it is already so long ago. I was married and my wife passed away when our little girl was three years of age, dominie.” He looked at me. “You are married and no doubt you love your wife very much. I did, too, and when she died and they carried her away to be buried it was as if they buried my own heart. I was shattered and numb. I lived in emptiness and it was cold, day after day it was cold. Now you must know this too: in my younger days I was very ill-tempered. I was completely careless; when I was about eighteen years old I no longer went to church. My father was already dead and my mother could not control me. I went to the university for a year, but let’s forget about that. I was hot-headed and rude and sometimes dangerous. Until I met my wife…”

He stopped speaking. So involved was I in his story that I knew exactly where his thoughts were. An expression moved across his face which made him look much younger.

He went on: “It is even now a mystery to me that she could possibly get to love me, but she did, and she made of me a different – I don’t dare to say a better – but I do say a different man. She was of a gentle character and completely trusting. She trusted me too. She taught me to go back to the church and to believe in the Gospel that I had wanted to forget. I prayed and I gave thanks to God and still do it, even though it is…but that comes later.”

It was a heavy silence in that spacious sickroom…as if the shadows behind had joined to listen to the telling of these things out of the dark past. I asked if he would like something to drink. He nodded and when I put a glass of fruit juice to his lips he very carefully swallowed a mouthful and licked his lips – it was evident that all this was costing him a great deal of effort.

His voice was somewhat hoarse after drinking, but he went on:

“We had a child, a daughter. Her name was Marijke after my wife, and she resembled her a great deal. I have already told you that my wife died when Marijke was three. I was inconsolably desperate for she was the only one that I ever really loved, and love, dominie, is a fearful thing. My old nature came back to the surface. I stood in my room all by myself and cursed God out loud, calling him a brute and a murderer. And then that other thing happened…”

Again he waited. I could sense that this man was battling furiously with himself in order to get across the threshold of silence, that he might reveal the secret that he had so anxiously guarded…and hated. He swallowed a few times and stared straight ahead into the darkness.

“Our child was dear and happy, always happy, and it was just that which I could no longer endure. That was a sickness, but it was also an evil. I can hardly believe it now, and yet I” – his voice dropped to a whisper – “and yet I struck her just because she laughed.” Brokenly he continued: “I struck her with the back on my hand flush in her face. I was wearing a ring with a small diamond mounting and her cheek bled. I saw that, but I did not take her into my arms and I did not kiss her and I did not say that I was sorry. I simply walked away. She developed blood poisoning and was dead after two days. No one ever suspected it, you are the first one that I have told. I stood at her bedside and she smiled at me once more.” – His voice broke and died away; I saw his lips moving soundlessly:

“Marijke, Marijke…”

We were both silent. It was all before me: that little girl with her quick smile and happy eyes and that huge masculine hand which had struck so ruthlessly. Oh, yes, it was an awful thing to do; and yet, it was not done intentionally and could one continue to lay this to the account of a man who had mourned so bitterly because of the death of his beloved wife? I wanted to say this to him but I couldn’t. What good would it do if I would present the arguments which he himself knew so well? He was not asking for a lawyer; he had long ago pronounced himself guilty. I looked down upon him as he lay there, his eyes closed and deeply sunken under a pale forehead. The tension of the silence became unbearable. Something had to be said.

“Karmon,” – neither could I speak with full voice – “Karmon, you have surely prayed to God for forgiveness?”

There was no answer. He lay very quiet and with a sudden shock the thought rose within me that he might have already died, until I saw the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his breathing. More urgently I repeated my question: “Karmon, Karmon…”

It was then that he opened his eyes, eyes so full of terror that to look at them was more than shocking. It was as if I were looking with his eyes through two windows into a desolation so deep that no comfort could possibly find place. I couldn’t think of anything to say but,

“You know, of course, that there is grace with God? Even the” – I stumbled over that hard word – “even the murderer with Jesus at the Cross received forgiveness.”

Fixedly he kept his eyes on me.

“Yes,” he murmured, “murderer, that is the right word. But did this murderer of Golgotha murder his own child? A dear innocent child?” It seemed as if he wanted to torture himself with these last words, and he repeated them, “an innocent child? The murderer, dominie, he was saved, but not Herod who killed the children of Bethlehem.”

Relentlessly he kept his gaze fixed upon me. A strange pressure paralyzed my tongue.

“You think that I am afraid of death?” His mouth twisted as if in sharp pain and his words sounded rough. “Dominie, I don’t dare to meet my wife and child up there!”

It seemed as if everything stiffened all about us. Now I understood. Now I understood the despair of this man and also that behind this despair lay the eager longing of a human heart for final peace.

I stood up and walked to the window and pushing the curtain aside I saw in the earliest gray light of the morning how the naked arms of the trees were lifted imploringly towards heaven and in my imagination I heard the whispering of the dying man: “Marijke, Marijke…”

I turned myself about, returned to the bed, back to the beseeching eyes which though voiceless pressed me for an answer. Then I told him of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Who came to seek and to save that which was lost. He knew that, of course, for he heard and read it many, many times. And yet I had no other message for him than the simple Gospel.

I spoke of a love of God which is so great that it made a light to rise in Christ which drives away all shadows of guilt and remorse, yes, which drives away even the shadows which doubt the reality of His endless mercy.

What else could I say to him? To him who lies broken on the battlefield and burning with thirst one gives a sip of pure water and nothing more.

Then I prayed with him, and when I had finished he looked up at me. It was as if an angel had touched his eyes and cleaned them of all anxiety, of all fear.

“The curtains,” he whispered.

I pushed them aside. Morning light stood before the windows. Karmon looked at the dawn and drank of the rising sun.

Then a clatter could be heard somewhere in the house and the sound of the opening of a door. A clear young voice cried in the hall: “Is it Christmas now, Mother?”

A woman’s voice answered with something which I could not understand. The child, however, was not to be denied.

“Yes, Mother, but even if Uncle can’t get better, it is still Christmas, isn’t it?”

I softly left the sickroom, returned home, and then went on to church to bring the glad tidings of Him Who had made it possible for one to find Christmas even near and on the deathbed.

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