It is a day to be reminded of Bob; a day to recount Bob’s final moments in his little cottage in the Ulster countryside; a day to remember that there are people who are meant to speak for Bob, and everyone like him.
The GP had glared at me across the dimly lit room, “I want to make it clear that I am calling an ambulance purely for social reasons and not for clinical ones. He has a chest infection, he does not need a hospital bed”.
I nodded meekly.
Were the conversation to have happened in more recent years, I would have employed some of the vernacular words I have learned, and would have conveyed to the doctor my sentiments that I didn’t really care what he thought; that he was paid by the NHS, that he was standing there as a public servant; and that he might consider what it meant to be a public servant, just occasionally. But I was thirty-two years old, had grown up believing that doctors stood only slightly lower than God, (if not on the same level), and I stood and accepted whatever was said.
Bob lay in bed looking bewildered; his breath came in short, sharp rasps. He was eighty-eight years old, a widower with no family. He lived in a three roomed cottage. The room was so dimly lit because he worried about having enough money to pay the bills; he had a single, bare 15 watt bulb in the socket that hung from an old and frayed black flex.
The paramedics could have taught the GP about bedside manner. They put Bob in a chair and gently carried him to the ambulance outside; Bob’s front door opened directly onto the country road.
Bob died from pneumonia the following afternoon. ‘What did he die from?’ asked a neighbour that evening.
‘Social reasons according to the GP’, I said.
Had we been more assertive at an earlier date; had we demanded that something be done before he had become so weak; he might not have ended his days gasping for breath at home and then frightened in a country hospital. A few weeks previously, the local social services office had reduced his home help hours from three hours to two hours a week: the home help could only come for twenty minutes a day instead of half an hour.
When the statutory agencies have failed, who is there left to speak?
Politicians? Journalists? Community workers? Certainly.
But there’s one group with a mandate for justice and mercy who seem very quiet; one group who could tell stories of those like Bob, again and again and again. One group, certain of jobs and incomes, who might use that very invulnerability as a base to say uncomfortable and disturbing and troublesome things in defence of the vulnerable. If church leaders say nothing, then what is their function? If they will not speak for truth and justice, then which Bible are they reading?
On the day when a good friend has been elected bishop, it is worthwhile remembering that bishops can be more than just pieces that move diagonally.