The emotion could no longer be held back. Rory pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, blew his nose and wiped his eyes, gulping as he fought for control.
“Rory, it’s okay. We understand,” said Jim, reaching out to touch his friend’s arm.” We are all with you in this.”
Dean looked around the room, confused. Two of the girls were also struggling with tears. He could see the emotion working on a few of the men’s faces too. He looked back at Rory, who seemed to be calming. Once again, he wondered what had happened, and was aware of a protective feeling towards his ex-pupil. It was not a time to smile, but he was amused, in spite of the obvious sadness of the moment, that his old teacher-pupil relationship had kicked in. He’d thought he would never feel this way again, and, in a bizarre way, he enjoyed the moment.
Rory took a deep breath and began to speak.
“It was strange but, at the time, that story did not mean a great deal to me. I enjoyed it. I could relate to it. There’s nothing more exciting than being able to whistle for the first time when you are a young boy.” He paused again and brushed away a tear.
“In spite of that, I never forgot that particular story, out of all the ones we heard that term. In fact, I visited the Red Sea and dived there with some friends when I was at university because it meant so much to me.
We, the Class of 1990, have kept in touch since that year and, one by one, I watched my classmates turn to God. They kept encouraging me, but I had other things on my mind, until one summer, Mike and Simon invited me to go to a church camp with them for the weekend. I had no other arrangements so, because I enjoyed their company, I went along. It was there, under the stars, sitting around a camp fire, I met Jesus.”
There were nods and smiles. People were relieved to have moved on from the strong emotions of earlier.
“I’m so grateful it happened. I don’t think I could have gone through life without it.
“Some of you know Gina, my wife, and have met my family.” Turning to Dean he said, “We are both teachers at the same school.”
Dean nodded his understanding and Rory continued.
“We were ecstatic when Molly was born. We took her everywhere with us. Then Jeremy arrived and our family was complete. We were happy. A son and a daughter were an answer to our prayers. We looked forward to adventures together as a family. But it was evident, as Jeremy grew, that something was not right. He did not respond to us. He didn’t smile or seem to notice the world around him. When he was two, he was diagnosed with autism.
“It rocked our world. Here was our beautiful son, part of our family, but in a world of his own. It was then we were grateful we had time to spend with him. Every holiday would be dedicated to Jeremy and his development. Of course, we worked with him during the term too, but the holidays were extra special. I loved the time I could spend with him on my own.
“Eight years ago, we decided to take the children away for a week to the beach. Molly enjoyed beach holidays, but her life experiences had been curtailed by Jeremy’s needs. She said she was fine with it, but we felt we would like to try a new experience for them both.
“We were sitting on the sand, having a picnic. Gina, Molly and I were chatting and laughing at the antics of a seagull with a crust of bread it had found on the beach. Jeremy was in his chair and Gina was feeding him pieces of sandwich. I smiled up at him from where I was sitting on the sand. He was trying to say something to me in his own way. I couldn’t quite make it out. He blew out a puff of breath and covered us with breadcrumbs. He did it again. This time there was a small trill of sound. He laughed in delight.”
Rory stopped again to blow his nose. Mary walked over to him and crouched in front of him.
“It’s okay, Rory, you don’t have to carry on.”
“I do, Mary. I need to tell my story. I have to face what happened. I haven’t spoken about it to anyone, and it’s time.”
Mary nodded and settled herself on the floor close to him.
“As Jeremy was laughing, a crumb went down the wrong way and he began to choke. I leapt to my feet and banged him on the back. He never liked that, thinking I was cross with him, so I did it gently at first. But the crumb didn’t shift and his distress became more evident. I grabbed him from behind and tried the Heimlich manoeuvre but he began to wrestle me. Gina screamed at me that he was turning blue and she grabbed her phone to dial 999. Jeremy went limp in my arms. I moved him to lie on the sand as quickly as I could. He was not breathing at all so I checked for the obstruction. I could find nothing. I started CPR. I had never been so desperate. It was only when the paramedic took my shoulders and turned me away that I looked up again. I kicked out at him to let me go so I could carry on working.
“‘Let me take over, sir,’ he said. I was reluctant to move aside but Gina screamed at me to get out of the way. The paramedic knelt on the sand and took over. He worked on Jeremy for what seemed to be hours, but was, so I’m told, only a few minutes. Then he checked Jeremy’s vital signs and straightened up.
“‘I’m sorry, sir. There’s nothing more we can do.’
“The next few weeks were a blur. The autopsy, the funeral, and later the inquest. One nightmare after another. I was so angry. Angry with myself, with Gina for feeding Jeremy sandwiches, with the paramedics, with God. My anger began to control me. Until one day, when I was sitting in my chair in the TV room, brooding, nursing my emotions, Molly came to me.
“‘Daddy?’ Her gentle voice broke through my thoughts.
“‘Daddy, on the beach that day.’ She didn’t have to say which day. I knew what she meant. I nodded my head, dreading what was coming.
“‘Daddy, Jeremy said something to us. Do you remember?’
“‘But sweetheart, Jeremy couldn’t speak.’
“‘I know, Daddy. But he did on that day. He said, ‘I can whistle.’ Do you remember?’
“I looked at her, blinded by my tears. Had she recognized some words I hadn’t? I had to strain to hear what she said next.
‘Daddy, I wanted to do something to remember Jeremy. To say thank you to him for being my little brother. So I have been practising and practising. Daddy, I can whistle. That’s what he told us, Daddy, and now I can whistle too.’
“And she did. Clear, beautiful notes in memory of her brother. I clutched her to me and we cried together. But these tears were different, for, in their falling, there was healing. Anger dissolved. I had had a son who was a joy to us. I have a daughter who is loving, kind and all we could wish for. And I had precious memories of a child trying to please us by showing us he could whistle.”
People were blowing their noses and Mary was openly crying. Rory put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her, just as she had tried to do for him earlier.
“We grieve for Jeremy every day. I understand now why the story resonated with me, even if it took years to do so. Those three words are so precious to me. They are some of the most beautiful words in the English language, and they have been said to me by both my children. They are a gift to me from a loving God.
“I don’t understand why Jeremy had to go. But since then, as a family, we have become involved helping with summer camps for special needs children. It was hard at first, but the joy those camps bring to the children and their families is such a blessing to us. We do it in memory of Jeremy, but it has united us as a family.
“After all these years, Gina is expecting again. Another little girl. A miracle child. We are really excited about welcoming her into our family in January.”
“That’s fantastic news, Rory,” Mike said, delighted. “Thank you for sharing your story with us. It was a brave thing to do.”
“I felt it was time. Some of you didn’t know what had happened but having spoken about it, I feel as if a burden has been lifted. Thanks for your understanding and kindness.” He smiled. “Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready for some lunch.”
“Yes, lunch will be ready by now. People, we thought we’d call a halt now, and have time to ourselves this afternoon for a couple of hours. Some of you will want to explore the gardens, whilst others may like a nap. How does it sound if we meet here again at five for an hour or so before supper? Tea will be served in the dining room from four. It’s just help-yourself, so go there if you want something.”
There were choruses of approval and people chatted together as they left the lounge, heading for the lunch which had been prepared for them.
Dean grasped his stick to get up to find Rory standing at his side, ready to help.
“Thank you, Dean, for telling us your story. Somehow, although it took years for me to realise, it grounded me in my faith. If God could part a sea for a little boy who could whistle, he can do great things for us too. Jeremy was a miracle child in our lives. A blessing for a short while. And in his memory, many children have been touched. I didn’t share it with everyone, but the camps we started are beginning to spread across the country, so Jeremy’s life is helping lots of other children with special needs. It’s almost as if God is using him to spread his love to others who may not come across it in any other way.”
“You’re amazing, Rory, to feel like that. So many people would be bitter about what happened.” Dean paused, aware of the bitterness which had coloured his own life.
“I was for a while. But I have a wife and daughter who need me to love them. And there are so many others out there who also need to be loved. I was wasting my life by being bitter. Molly helped me to see that, even if she wasn’t aware of it. I was made for more than bitterness, and if I can love others and give people the experience of a week away in the summer then that’s the least I can do. Jeremy opened doors for us. But if I had not heard that story, I may never have realised the importance of the only three words he ever spoke to us. God used Perez’ story to wake up my soul and I will always be grateful to him and to you for that.”
“Do you really believe that?” Dean looked up at the sincere man who towered above him.
“Oh yes, I do. God uses all sorts of ways to call us to him. For me, it was three little words. What about you?”
Dean shrugged his shoulders but smiled as if to soften his response.
“I have never heard God call me.”
He began to walk towards the dining room, but he was amazed at the strong surge of restlessness which swept through him.
Rory walked beside him.
“I believe God is calling you, Dean. God has used you powerfully to touch our lives. He is not going to leave you out in the cold.”
“Maybe, but he’s going to have to shout a lot louder for me to hear him.” Dean could not believe God could be calling him and shrugged off the disquiet.
“My word, this is a spread! I don’t think I’ll need to eat for a week when we leave here on Sunday afternoon!”
The two men laughed as they made their way slowly along the buffet table looking at the options for lunch. In spite of his laughter, Rory felt a pang of sadness that the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with Dean about God had passed him by. He prayed silently there would be another chance.