March 31, 1975
The ringing alarm wakes her with a start. For a few seconds, her brain resists. Why does she have to get up at this hour? Pitch darkness forms an even slate in the window frame. A ceiling fan churns the warm air of early summer. The dim glow of a night light filters through the bedroom curtains. She pulls the sheet over her head. Then she remembers.
Next to her, George snores, oblivious to alarms and other such intrusions. She turns towards him and gives him a shove. “Wake up Georgie! We’ll be late for the Sunrise Service.” She sits up, yawns noisily, and heads towards the nursery. Their toddler needs to be woken too. And dressed. And carried.
Whatever made them think they could do such an early morning? Last Sunday it had seemed very do-able. In the midst of fellow churchgoers all excited about Easter, they nodded their heads to anyone who asked if they were planning on attending the Sunrise Service. They hadn’t gone to this service ever since Roy was born. Before his arrival, for the first three years of married life, they had enjoyed the feeling of excitement as they rose in the very early hours this one day in the year and headed out to join hundreds of others to bring in the sunrise.
Inside the tent of mosquito netting, Roy sleeps unstirring. She parts the light fabric and pauses for a second to admire her son. She lifts him up gently. “Come little one, we’ve got to get going.”
Behind her, she can hear George gargling and splashing. Thank goodness he’s up. She hoists Roy against her shoulder, deadweight in his deep sleep, and goes to the bathroom door. “Shall I put up some coffee?” “Yes please.” She shuffles to the tiny kitchen, fills a saucepan with water from the drum, switches on the gas, all with one hand. George comes in, all dressed up in a safari suit. “I’ll make the coffee; you go get ready.”
The toddler stirs a bit as she lies him down to change his clothes. She had better remember to carry a bottle of milk and some rusks, or they may have to leave halfway through the service.
High up on a hill, a huge neon cross guides them towards the site. By the time they drive in, the parking lot is filling fast. She is thankful for their second-hand Morris Minor that fits snugly into a small space between two large vans. The seating is a bit of a walk away. Their sandals squelch in wet mud, reminding them that this is just a field temporarily turned into an open-air cathedral.
They pause at the edge of a vast bank of unfolded folding chairs. She shields her eyes from the glare of overhead lights and scans the rows of seated bodies. Where are my parents? She soon recognizes her mother attached to a waving arm.
“Excuse me, excuse me.” They sidle their way through a variety of knees and feet, to the other end. Mother picks up her shawl laid across two seats, and they settle down. She hands the sleeping Roy over to his grandma.
A large head blocks her immediate view, but it’s okay, because the stage of action is positioned half-way up the hill. Against the still-dark sky, the altar stage is ablaze from a handful of tube-lights hung haphazardly on poles erected wherever there is a niche between boulders. From where she sits, she looks up at tiny figures as they bustle around the altar, moving tables, arranging chairs for the priests, placing the communion elements on a table. The neon cross towers from the top of the hill.
“Wonder if Anita and Rob are here.” She looks around to spot their friends.
“I saw Rob’s car; they must be here somewhere.” Georgie scans the crowd.
The sound of a church bell crackles through the loudspeakers, interrupting Georgie’s search. The chattering crowd of a thousand-plus morphs into an attentive congregation. All rows are now full. The strains of the organ prelude stream forth, microphones in position. A stir of action at the edge of the altar stage turns all heads left. The cross bearer steps out at the head of the procession. White robes of choir and clergy flow steadily across the stage. She identifies the bishop, red and gold stole conspicuous, a large pectoral cross dangling on his chest. She stifles a giggle as she recalls that the Right Reverend has recently been charged in court for embezzlement. His solemn demeanour belies his reality.
“Let us rise and sing the first hymn on the sheet.” The deep voice booms clearly across the seated mass. Papers rustle and voices swell to join the choir. “Low in the grave He lay …” Not one of her favourites: the music is a bit too slow to start. But it is ironically Easter, and she sings enthusiastically, hardly glancing at the song sheet.
The sky above has lightened a teeny bit, blue vying with grey for centre-space. A sliver of light yellow now rims the hilltop. Fascinated, she almost forgets to sit down when the hymn ends. Two seats away, Roy stirs in his grandma’s arms. “Shush, shush.” Grandma pats the toddler in an unsuccessful attempt to keep him asleep. The child raises his head and whimpers. “You had better take him.” With a loud whisper, grandma passes Roy to his mother.
When she turns to face the altar stage again, a ray of sun hits her eyes. She blinks and squints. Her heart leaps – this is the moment she has come for! The magic of sunrise. The hilltop is edged with a blast of gold, gradually increasing in width, casting a deep shadow that blots out the celebrants going through their paces on the altar. The loudspeakers do their duty in leading the congregation through the sung liturgy.
In a few minutes, light conquers night, and the action is visible once more. Tube-lights continue to blaze, their presence now superfluous. Perhaps they help the bishop read out his sermon, delivered in his predictable repetitious style. She struggles to focus on the speech, her eyes distracted by the growing glow above the hill. Golden yellow and orange spread across the sky, merging into the blue of day. It is morning! Death is conquered! He is risen! Aa-aa-aa-aa-aaa—Alellu-e-ya. The Lord’s table beckons.
A line of people snakes up the hillside, eager to complete the ritual of communion. Today it feels more meaningful than the motley Sunday services attended through the year. Behind her, some folks are not-so-discreetly heading for the exit, perhaps more intent on feeding the body than feeding the soul? Her own stomach sends signals of emptiness, and she looks forward to the special breakfast they will head to at their favourite restaurant.
The sun is already hot. Tomorrow is April; summer is here. She dabs at the sweat beads on her forehead and shifts Roy onto her hip. The boy is wide awake, a mix of wonder and puzzlement in his expression at the unfamiliar surroundings. He sees his dad right behind him and stretches out his arms.
“Shall I take him?” What an unnecessary question. She hands over their son and adjusts her sari back into place. They are halfway up the hill, almost at the altar. Out of habit, she covers her head with her sari pallav and readies to kneel. Six or seven persons still ahead of her. They are alongside the choir. She glances at the frocked bodies, homogenously unrecognizable. A woman’s eyes wink at her. Anita! That’s where her friend is. She smiles back. Happy Easter!
April 20, 2003
Port Moody, Canada
Music from the phone alarm floats into her semi-consciousness. She opens one sleepy eye, momentarily disoriented between interrupted dream and reality, and looks out the window. Dawn is struggling weakly through the grey wash of rain. Why does she need to wake up this early? Then she remembers. It is Easter Sunday.
George is already in the kitchen. “It’s a miserable morning. Are you sure you want to go to this outdoor service?”
“Yes, of course I do. What’s a little rain?”
Easter is not Easter without a sunrise service. They have been in Canada for twelve years now, but every Easter she still wishes nostalgically for the early morning joy of resurrection. The Lord had risen early in the morning, and it would feel so good to rise with Him on this special day. This year, she scans the community newspaper diligently for any church willing to wake up and rejoice. Her heart literally leaps with joy when she finds it. “St. John’s Anglican Church will conduct a Sunrise Service at 6 am on Easter Sunday April 20 at the Rocky Point pier. All welcome.”
She thinks back to Easter in the home country. Were they still conducting open air Easter sunrise services? Mid-April will probably be really hot. She checks the weather for Hyderabad on her smartphone. It is thirty-eight degrees Celsius there, at six-fifteen in the evening. She is glad she is here in B.C. If only they could see an actual sunrise over the mountains.
On the way to the washroom, she pauses at the guest room door. Empty darkness lurks inside. Once upon a time, her son lived there. Roy is now far away in Toronto, an independent young adult working at his first job. Should she call to wish him a happy Easter? Three hours ahead is eight forty-five a.m. It would be so nice to hear his voice. No, he will probably be sleeping in, it was the long weekend.
“Are you ready to go? If you’re serious about attending this service, we should leave in the next five minutes.” George’s voice reminds her of today’s mission. “I’ll be there in three,” she calls out as she pulls a cardigan over her head and searches for a warm scarf.
They drive the short distance through stark empty streets. The rain has eased a bit, but the gray palette persists above and across the water. A slight breeze adds a touch of chill. They park the car in an almost empty lot – at least that’s one plus of coming to Rocky Point Park this early.
A fine drizzle coats their heads, but they ignore it. At the end of the pier, a handful of people stand around, some clutching bibles, others with unopened umbrellas.
A clerical collar peeps from under a down jacket – that’s how she identifies the pastor and master of ceremonies for this event. His beaming smile barely disguises the surprise in his eyes that says, who are these strangers braving the cold? But his tone is friendly and warm.
George goes up to the pastor in response. “Hi! We’re here for the Easter service.”
“So glad you came! We’ll begin in a few minutes.”
A woman steps forward. “Here’s the bulletin. I’m the sexton. And also the vicar’s wife.” The sexton smiles and continues her explanation. “We’re a small congregation.”
You can say that again, she thinks, counting everyone present on the fingers of one hand. Up above, the grey in the sky intensifies, obliterating any chances of experiencing a sunrise today.
The pastor clears his throat. He positions himself in the middle of the small gathering. “Welcome to our Easter morning service. The Lord is risen.” He looks up expectantly. The gathering responds enthusiastically: “He is risen indeed!”
An Easter hymn is announced. A gray-haired man steps forward with a guitar and strums the opening bars. Bulletin sheets rustle to the page. George sings lustily, his voice rising above the others. The outdoor air mutes the intensity of the music.
A grating sound interrupts the pastor in prayer. Down one side of the pier, early sailors are backing their van down the ramp with their boat, preparing to launch into the water. In the silence, their conversation wafts up as muffled noise. The pastor raises his voice a notch and continues. Another hymn, and then the sermon.
The drizzle suddenly turns into steady rain. Umbrellas unfurl. The small group huddles closer, as if to form a snug tent of rain jackets. She adjusts the hood of her winter coat over her already wet toque. Umbrellas aren’t her thing; they occupy a whole hand for minimal coverage. George stands stoically as rain trickles down his neck, his cap hardly protecting his head. She looks at him meaningfully – see, a hooded jacket is not unfashionable, when you’re in pouring rain.
Under hoods and umbrellas, heads bow and eyes close. The closing prayer is followed by the last hymn. “The Lord is risen. Go in peace.” Smiling faces turn to each other, handshakes are shared. “Have a good one.”
It is still raining. A dark gray cloud stubbornly stays its ground overhead. They head back to the car.
“Shall we go to IHop for breakfast?” She voices the rumbles in her stomach.
“Sure, if you like.”
Yes, she would like. Visions of sizzling sausages, hearty omelets, and steaming hot coffee dance in her head. All this rain is making her hungry. And cold. Happy Easter anyway.
Nargis Abraham has done a variety of writing, including journalistic pieces, and turned to creative writing after retirement. She taught Communication at BCIT in Burnaby, Canada, and Journalism at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. Nargis lives in Coquitlam, Canada.