It was all I could do to block out the sound of police radios. I knew there was a squadron of officers camped outside but I had to concentrate on the reason I was brought to this lonely farmhouse. Chester Hartman was holding the black pistol in his right hand and cradling its barrel in his left, as if the weapon were too heavy a burden for one hand to bear.
“Can you put it down for now?” I asked him. “It’ll still be there if you need it.” If he needed it. If he decided it’s time to end his life. My calm about the whole thing surprised me.
“Oh, I need it, Reverend,” he told me, certainty in his voice. “I’m not spending one more day on this earth.”
I willed myself to calm, drawing on decades-old military training from my days as a chaplain at Fort Bragg. “You told the police you wanted to talk to me. Asked for me specifically. There must be some way I can help. Maybe you can tell me what brought you to this point.”
“That’s easy. I’m tormented by what I’ve done. I can’t stand it. That’s got to end.”
Good. He was talking. “What is that?” I asked gently. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to pry information or put off what he intended to do. But I wanted him to know I was interested.
“You wouldn’t understand, Reverend. You really wouldn’t.”
I was trying to look into his face, trying to show the compassion I felt, but my attention was drawn back to his gun. A barely perceptible movement, but it dragged my eye to it. I was nervous. I’ve never spoken to someone this close to suicide. Every word counted, every gesture, every chance to show there’s still something in this life for him. I reviewed what I knew, which wasn’t much. By the time I took over the church from Reverend Cranbrook, Chester had stopped coming regularly. I knew he’d lost his wife to uterine cancer many years ago. I knew he had a son who lived in some city up north. But that was it. It was all I had so I went with it, not realizing what a mistake I was making.
“Would your son want to hear you died this way?”
Chester looked up, an angry sarcasm animating him now. “I don’t know. I’ll ask him when I get to Hell.”
I tried to keep my face calm, to hide my fear that I’d gone down the wrong road to deadly consequences.
“Is your son gone?” I asked, hoping there was empathy in my voice and that the nerves didn’t show.
Chester lowered the gun into his lap. “Murdered. Shot in the street, like a common thug. I’ll meet him in Hell soon enough.”
“Now Chester, you know the ways of the Lord are not clear to us. You just can’t know who is going to Hell and who isn’t. That’s the Provence of the Lord, not for us to speculate on. There is no limit to His mercy.”
“So you think he might be in heaven, huh.” This was not a question. More like a challenge.
“I don’t know. All I know is that the Lord is merciful and loving.”
“Merciful and loving, huh?”
“To my son?”
“Well then let me tell you why I haven’t spoken to my son in almost 15 years. Let me tell you why he’d been dead for more than two weeks before I even knew it.”
He paused, as if he needed my permission to continue.
“Alright, I’ll tell you. It’s because he changed his name to Sarah. It’s because he’s been living as a woman since he left town. Do you still think he’s in heaven?”
Now I understood the source and the depth of his anguish. Chester must have read it in my face, because his grip tightened on his gun. “You do think he’s in Hell, don’t you?”
I reached deep into my heart for words that might ignite this man’s faith before it was too late. “I trust in the wisdom of the Lord and the Power of His Word. I know the Lord is capable of miracles. I know the Lord can make His Word reach the ears and the heart of a dying man so that he repents of his sins and can be welcomed in the Kingdom of Heaven. Do you believe the Lord has that power?”
He considered this for a moment. I saw his face soften momentarily, but then tense again, and he lifted the gun an inch above his lap.
“Tell me, Reverend, let’s suppose he did repent at that last minute of life. Let’s suppose his soul is in heaven. Would it be a male or a female soul?”
“If he repented? It would be male, of course.”
His face collapsed as if the misery in his heart had burst forth and filled his entire body, all the way up to his craggy forehead. I listened intently to his words not imagining why my answer would have upset him so.
“He’d hate that. I knew him. I understood him, probably better than anyone else. He was only happy when he was a woman. It lit him up, like turning on a lamp. Reverend, I knew that. I knew that’s the one thing that made him feel alive. But that’s the one thing I forbade him to do. I threw out his clothes. Yelled at him. Threatened to tell everyone in the town, just to get him to stop. The one thing he wanted, I was too much of a monster to give him. A monster. That’s what I am.” He lifted the gun and placed it under his chin as he finished speaking, so that the tip of its barrel was nestled against his throat, pointing upward. I tried but I couldn’t push my thoughts away from the “Bang!” I was sure was coming next. I’d heard firearms up close, shot them many times myself. But would it make the same sound if it were pressed directly against flesh?
I dragged my mind back to the present. I had only a second or two to save this man’s life and his soul. If I didn’t act fast, this would be his last moment on earth. I said the first thing that came to my mind.
“I’m sure you were doing what you thought best at the time.”
He lowered the gun slightly and I saw a hint of a more relaxed expression in his face.
“That’s just it, Reverend. I didn’t. I’m not dumb. I KNEW I was being cruel. I knew I was doing harm to him, my own and only son. But Reverend Cranbrook gave him this lecture about how he was dishonoring his mother’s memory. After that, I felt like I couldn’t just let him do the thing with the skirts and the dresses and the stockings. It’s like I was following a script, even though I knew it was all wrong.
“Can you imagine how miserable that was for him? First his mother dies. Then his father won’t accept him. I suppose I thought that he’d realize how wrong it all was, but even that I knew in my heart wasn’t true. He was my son. I knew how he was. There was no way he’d be happy any other way.
“And now it’s too late.”
I needed to comfort this man, and comfort him fast. But what could I tell him? His son was going against God’s Law. I couldn’t condone that, couldn’t say that it was okay. He was being eaten away by regret, though what else could he have done? A man can’t allow the devil to dwell under his own roof. He had to cast evil from his gates, but how could I get him to see that?
The silence was my enemy. At any moment, he could pull the trigger and it all would be in vain. A police radio crackled nearby, as if to remind me of the urgency.
“Let’s suppose,” I said, trying to engage him, best I could, “that you decide to live just a bit longer. Are there ways you can make the extra time mean something? Are there ways you can make the world a better place in the time you have left?”
I saw him make a move to shake his head, but I wasn’t going to allow this. “Don’t answer right away. Think about it. No hurry. Just think about ways you can make your time here helpful. Take your time.”
Seconds ticked as we sat in silence. I looked for any sign I could see that he was thinking about my question and not working himself up to shoot. I blocked out the sounds of the officers speaking quietly, their voices heard dimly through the door of the farmhouse. No doubt they were assessing the likelihood Chester would live to see the sunset. Finally, he spoke, lowering the gun so that it was no longer pointing directly up into his head.
“I don’t want anyone making the same mistake I did.”
I nodded, encouragingly.
“Because it was a mistake.”
I nodded again, but it must have appeared half hearted.
“You don’t think it was a mistake?” he challenged.
I opened my mouth to answer but the words wouldn’t come. No, it wasn’t a mistake to take on evil. But I dared not contradict him.
“Reverend, can I ask you a question?”
“My son. There was only one thing that made him happy, only one thing that made his time on earth joyful. I could have given it to him. It wouldn’t have hurt anyone else. But I didn’t. Do you think that was cruel?”
“You were saving his soul.”
“Maybe. That’s not what I asked. When you deny someone the only thing that will make them happy? When you doom them to a life without the one thing they care about? Do you think that’s cruel?”
“Sometimes you need to do things that don’t make everyone happy.”
“No, it’s not something you need to do. You can leave them alone. You can let them be happy. But you don’t. Is that cruelty?”
“Your son’s soul…”
He cut me off. “Forget his soul. His soul is his business. Answer the question. Yes or no. If there is only one thing that makes someone happy. One thing. And you deny it to them. Imagine what that would feel like. One thing makes your life worthwhile and no one lets you do it. Makes you face an entire lifetime of not having that. Is that cruel? I thought about your question, Reverend. Now you think about mine.”
So I did. I thought about it. I tried to imagine what it would be like to need something so intensely that I couldn’t be happy without it. It was hard. “I don’t know,” I said finally.
“Fair enough. Is there something you love doing more than anything else? Something where your life would be miserably empty without it?”
I didn’t need to think about that answer. “Preaching. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t preach.”
“And let’s say I told you that you couldn’t preach anymore, ever again. Would that be cruel?”
“I suppose it would.”
“Yes it would, wouldn’t it.
“Can you see the cruelty in what I did to my son? Imagine you were him. Imagine that’s the only thing that makes him happy, the only thing that ever has. He’s not hurting anyone but himself. But you tell him he can’t do it. Wouldn’t that be cruel?”
“Thinking of it that way, yes it would.”
He was silent for a few moments, deep in thought. “What made you change your mind?”
I thought about it. “You asked some questions I’d never considered before.”
After sitting silently for another moment or two, he wordlessly handed me the gun, handle first.