Two Simple Words

I am a very sentimental person, and my children often tease me good-naturedly about how easily I can be moved to tears. Honestly, it doesn’t take much, which is why I surprised even myself earlier this year when my old high school was torn down. I passed by the scene during various stages of its demolition but remained dry-eyed and unmoved.

My high school years were complicated and difficult ones both at home and at school. Of course, not all of the memories are painful – far from it. I had good friends, and we shared some experiences I still treasure; but, there was also, throughout that awkward stage of life, an undercurrent of loneliness and uncertainty with which I contended in private. I’m guessing that some who read this essay will understand and relate more so than others.

Thinking back, ninth grade was a particularly intimidating experience. For the previous eight years, I had been in school with the same group of students. We’d grown up together; and, though there were certainly cliques in our Catholic school, they weren’t of the ferocious variety. So, an insecure person like me could still feel some sense of belonging, even among the cooler kids. In ninth grade, however, the playing field changed altogether.

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One morning, a few years back, I was praying and asking God for the grace to know God’s presence in my life. Quite unexpectedly, a flood of familiar human faces came to mind, including some I’d not thought about for years. And, I found myself basking in memories of God’s mediated love.

I thought of relatives, friends, teachers, and role models who had made a real difference in my life… people like my little league manager, Mr. Chiulli, who was determined to teach me not to bail out of the batter’s box when a pitch came inside. This good and dignified man actually sprawled face-down in the dirt behind me to hold my ankles in place during batting practice. (His noble plan back-fired, however, when I was hit by a pitch because I couldn’t move my ankles to get out of the way.)

That morning in prayer, I also thought of Domenic Marino…

—–

My former parochial school companions each handled the transition to public high school in his/her own way. In our new social environment, many remained my steady friends while others, perhaps under the weight of peer pressure, strategically distanced themselves. A handful started passing right by me in the halls as if I’d become invisible over the summer. Honestly, that hurt.

One of my old classmates, Domenic, seemed to handle the change with particular grace. Handsome, confident, charismatic, and blessed with great athleticism, he would soon become the quarterback of the high school football team and a leader among his/our peers.

—–

Gym class strikes fear in the hearts of many high school students. Slow to mature physically, I found gym a particular trial. If we were playing softball or whiffle ball, I could hold my own because I was a pretty good hitter. (Thank you, Mr. Chiulli!) Otherwise though, all bets were off.

At the top of the hierarchy of horrors was the dreaded obstacle course. Diabolically conceived, the obstacle course included an array of activities – e.g., climbing a rope to the ceiling of the gym, sinking a basketball shot, and maneuvering through various gymnastics apparatus – designed to showcase athletic ineptitude. That each student was expected to perform this feat alone (in front of everyone) and in a race against the clock only compounded the potential shame.

Just a notch below the obstacle course, for me at least, was any activity related to track and field, especially a long footrace. I was a very fast runner but only for short distances. I have asthma that was rather severe in my younger days; consequently, any race beyond a 50-yard dash would quickly leave me gasping for breath at the back of the pack.

One day, my ninth grade gym teacher announced that class would be held that day on the track around the perimeter of the football field. My heart sank. We’d be racing in small groups, running a complete lap around the track. If memory serves, I believe the distance was 440 yards.

When my name was called, I reluctantly took my place in one of the lanes. One of those running with me – I’ll call him Bill – was among the more popular students in our class. Although a decent athlete, the length of the race would prove a challenge for him as well since he was rather stockily built.

When the gym teacher yelled “Go,” I held my own only for a few seconds. Then, decidedly short of breath, I began to lag behind. Bill did too.

The race seemed interminable. By the halfway point, my lungs were burning and my legs felt like lead. I seriously considered stopping but feared the reaction from the teacher… and my peers. Bill was struggling too; but, we both kept going.

At one point, after the others in the race had completed the course, I began to hear our classmates both laughing and hollering their support for Bill. In retrospect, that was perhaps my most conspicuously lonely experience in high school.

As we lumbered neck-and-neck around the final turn, one lone, loud voice suddenly called out support for me. “You can beat him, Steve! Come on! You can beat him!” I looked up and saw Domenic cheering me on from the sidelines. His encouragement meant more to me than I can express.

No, I didn’t win the race, but I did finish just a few steps ahead of Bill. It was my Rocky moment. Domenic smiled and nodded.

—–

Various labels – geek, nerd, or misfit – might aptly be used to describe my high school persona. One important person, however, used different words – two simple words.

Once, I met Domenic in the hallway between classes. As we walked together, a student I didn’t know, who was going in the opposite direction, asked him in a tone intended to diminish me, “Hey, Domenic, who’s that you’re walking with?” Without hesitation, he decisively replied, “My friend!”

—–

I haven’t seen Domenic in many years. And, he may have no memory of his gestures of kindness and support that meant so much to me at that vulnerable time of life; but, he will always live in my mind and heart as an instrument of God’s love… as one of my heroes… and, as my friend.

—–

We meet so many good people in our day-to-day lives, often never knowing if their lungs are burning, their legs are heavy, and they’re questioning whether or not they’ll finish the race.

What an awesome opportunity it is to be a friend!

On Synods and Samaritans

In the opening chapter of her widely read book, Forming Intentional Disciples, author Sherry Weddell paints a troubling – at least for concerned Catholics – statistical picture of trends in the Church’s membership. Simply put, in the United States and other Western countries, the Catholic Church is bleeding members and has been for quite some time.

The reasons for Catholic defections are as complex as the people involved; still, I believe Weddell is on target when she points to insufficient evangelization and catechesis as key factors. Particularly telling is her anecdotal evidence from active Catholics she encountered during her research. Even among those serving in leadership positions within their parishes, many do not self-identify as disciples of Jesus.

The hard truth is that faith-formation for adult Catholics, at least in the West, is seriously deficient; and, that problem has enormous implications for the Church and her remaining members.

—–

In recent weeks, there has been a media firestorm raging around the Synod on the Family, convened by Pope Francis. One of the more controversial issues addressed by the Synod fathers was a proposal by Cardinal Kasper to make the Eucharist, which Catholics believe to be the “Real Presence” of Jesus, more readily available to divorced Catholics who have remarried (via a civil service) without having their prior marriage officially annulled by the Church.

Some of the Cardinal’s brother bishops were quite outspoken against his proposal, their rationale being that Jesus specifically proclaimed marriage to be indissoluble. While I have great respect for those bishops and their office in the Church, I wonder if their position is pastorally insensitive and, more importantly, inconsistent with the example set by Jesus himself.

—–

When the Nicene Creed is recited during a Catholic Mass, all present are instructed to bow their heads as these words are spoken of Jesus: “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” This gesture of reverence honors one of the most sublime teachings of the Church, the Incarnation – namely, that the second Person of the Holy Trinity actually became human and, in the words of John’s Gospel, “pitched His tent among us” (John 1:14), i.e., became intimately and permanently connected to humankind.

In the person of Jesus, the perfect God, incapable of suffering, as an act of gratuitous love, willingly entered into our dysfunctional, unjust, and often brutal world, embraced our pain and struggles, and drew the broken human experience into the very heart of God.

In his ministry, Jesus loved people, even – or, perhaps, especially – messy and/or misguided and/or hurting people; and, his uncompromising charity inevitably got him into trouble with those preoccupied with legal observance.

In the Gospels, we often find Jesus transgressing established religious and cultural conventions to personally encounter people in need. I am reminded, for example, of the occasion when Jesus healed a man with a withered hand and, in doing so, raised the ire of religious leaders because he had done prohibited work on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). On another occasion, when his hungry disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath, again the religious leaders protested, leading Jesus to say, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). And, then there’s John 4:1-42, where we find the famous encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan “woman at the well.” Much could be said about this story, which has inspired prayerful reflection for centuries; but, I will limit my observations to a few pertinent details.

This woman’s marital status was far from a model of holiness. She’d had five different husbands and, at the time she met Jesus, was living with a man who was not her husband. Yet, Jesus – the original “Real Presence” – went and met her in her chaotic moral circumstances; and, that encounter transformed her life. In fact, as a result, she became an evangelist among her people.

This timeless story is a marvelous example of pastoral need trumping religious conventions. After all, according to accepted practice among Jews of his time, Jesus should never have conversed with the (enemy) Samaritan woman at all. Even his disciples were reportedly shocked that he did so.

I can’t help wondering…

Why did Jesus’ disciples try to keep the little children away from him when Jesus just wanted to love and bless them? (Luke 18:15-17)

Why did people try to silence and exclude the blind Bartimaeus as he cried out for Jesus’ help from the side of the road? (Mark 10:46-52)

Why did John and the other disciples forbid a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he was not a part of their company, while Jesus would have permitted him to do so? (Luke 9:49)

Why are Jesus’ disciples, both then and now, tempted to push back against what is so obviously happening in the Incarnation?

The Gospels reveal a “Real Presence” who delights in reaching out to, and healing, those who are marginalized. Jesus said it best:

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12b-13)

Mercy was at the heart of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal.

—–

As some Synod fathers indicated, Jesus’ own words on the closely related topics of divorce and adultery do seem uncompromising (see Matthew 5:31-32). When reading such strong words, however, we must resist adopting a strictly literalist interpretation. In evidence, I offer the verses immediately preceding, wherein Jesus says:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.** 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

I apologize in advance for being so blunt; but, if a Synod father is struggling with a habit of viewing pornography and/or with masturbation, must he take the Lord’s words literally and maim himself? Of course not.

The words of Jesus must be seen and interpreted within the entirety of His ministry, i.e., in light of just such encounters as He had with the woman at the well.

—–

If, as Sherry Weddell convincingly argues, many adult Catholics are inadequately formed in their faith, several vital questions concerning marriage logically follow. For example: Do the average Catholic bride and groom truly understand the Sacramental character of marriage? Do both parties self-identify as disciples of Jesus? If not, what foundation exists upon which to build a Sacramental marriage? Are both parties active members of a parish? And, if so, does their parish offer ongoing support to enrich and strengthen marriages? Are both parties emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually prepared to enter into a Sacramental marriage? And, was the marriage preparation program in their parish sufficient to meet their needs in these important areas?

Surely it is worth our consideration that a vocation to priesthood or religious life is very carefully discerned over a period of years by both the person seeking the vocation and by those charged with his/her formation. Marriage is also a life-long vocation, yet nothing remotely approaching that level of formation and discernment is offered by the Church for her members. This seems to me a serious injustice.

—–

Recently, Pope Francis, in comments made during an audience with the Schoenstatt Apostolic Movement, anguished over the current state of marriage, opining that the Sacrament has been devalued and “made a social event.”

Assuming the Pope’s assessment is accurate, one just might find a root of marriage’s devaluation in the Baltimore Catechism’s cartoon-based vocational ranking system. Therein, one cartoon depicting a newly married couple is juxtaposed to another depicting someone in religious life. The first image carries the label “This is good” while the second is captioned “This is better.”

I’ve often wondered how deeply ingrained that mentality – and its sister, clericalism – is in the Church that I love.

—–

The Holy Father went on to call for couples to engage in “profound” preparation for Sacramental marriage – a call that would seem to place an onus for formation squarely on the Church’s shoulders.

—–

I favor Cardinal Kasper’s position because I believe it to be just, merciful, and true to the example given us by Jesus. And, I will go a step further.

My hope is that the final product of next year’s Synod will be a document within which the Church publicly repents of her negligence of marriage, opens the doors widely to the faithful scarred by divorce, and details a clear path toward strengthening the Sacramental marriages of her children.

Any Day, at 4:30 a.m.

I’m here, Lord.

My body ached getting out of bed this morning, but I’m here.

Did You ever have body aches? Are they redemptive?

Oh my!

I’m tired, my King. Tired… and old.

So, here we are again.

I ache; but, my deepest ache is for You.

Your silence puzzles me. It always has.

When I say that I ache for you, I speak the truth… and I wait.

Beheadings, war, disease, corruption, politics, countless people living in misery…

I’m tired.

Does prayer help somehow?

And have You noticed the state of Your Church? The divisions?

It feels sometimes like I have no home… unless I take sides.

But, I can’t.

What I long for is Your voice. To walk with You. To rest in Your embrace. To finally understand.

Mother Mary, help me!

I’m tired.

And… I love You, my King.

I always have.

Heeding Jofy’s Ears

Despite good intentions, my life seldom – if ever – directly mirrors my Christian faith. I believe, for example, that God speaks constantly in and through the ordinary circumstances of life. So, in God’s order, every breeze has its purpose. Every sound has its deeper meaning. Every leaf, every barking dog, and every passer-by manifests unique and mysterious theological lessons to comprehend. Genuinely holding that perspective, it is beyond frustrating that I so often find myself wallowing in life’s mundane distractions and deaf to God’s actual voice.

With a little help, though, I can sometimes experience a breakthrough.

—–

One day, when our grandson “Jofy” (i.e., Joseph) was two years old, he wandered into our family room where I was watching a baseball game. Since his parents, our son and daughter-in-law, wisely limit his exposure to television, he was quickly fascinated by the images on the screen. I began to chat casually with my son, Stephen, just as the inning was ending, and neither of us paid much attention to the commercials that immediately followed. Jofy, however, was riveted.

At the time, the Nicholas Cage movie Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was being heavily promoted. An ad for the film came on the television showing a (literally) hellish image of a demonic motorcycle rider shrouded in fire. Jofy immediately began to scream in absolute terror. As quickly as I could, I turned off the television. Then, my son and I tried to console our little guy and to explain the inexplainable. I was furious at the violation of his innocence and felt terrible that it had happened under my watch.

I see a bit of myself in Jofy, now five years old. He is a sensitive child, who – like his Buppa – obviously feels things quite deeply. When someone reads him a story, for example, if he finds any part of the tale troubling, he’ll cover his ears with his hands until the offending portion has passed. I find that trait especially endearing.

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—–

My wife and I are often blessed to be joined at Sunday Mass by Stephen and his family. Such was the case on Palm Sunday this year; and, as usual, Jofy positioned himself between Marianne and me in the pew. (His younger sister, Katerina, typically prefers to remain close to her Momma, Mikayla.)

Like every small child, Jofy has his fidgety moments, including at Mass. He is never a nuisance, but he often engages himself in quiet play while we worship. Honestly, I enjoy watching him exercise his creativity, whether directing an imaginary jet plane with his hand or deftly swinging Paul Bunyan’s double-bladed ax to fell an invisible tree. He can seem detached from the solemn proceedings around him; yet, there is a deeper truth.

Of course, Palm Sunday Mass is busier than the typical Sunday liturgy. There are palm branches, an extra Gospel reading, a procession, and a dramatic (and lengthy) reading of the Lord’s Passion wherein the congregation assumes the generic role of the crowd. “Crucify him,” we are expected to demand loudly, for example, when Pilate asks those assembled what he should do with this troublesome Jesus of Nazareth.

With script in hand and anxious not to miss my cues, I followed the text carefully as the priest and two lectors read their respective parts; but, my focus, I’m sorry to say, was misdirected. Mindful of the performance, I failed to listen attentively to the great story itself. Meanwhile, Jofy played by my side.

The details of Jesus’ betrayal and death are well known; and, maybe familiarity risks dulling their impact, especially after so many retellings. That particular day, though, as we read about our Lord being brutalized and murdered for loving perfectly in an imperfect world, I happened to glance at Jofy, who had ceased playing and was now carefully covering his ears with his hands. The story had become too terrible for our sensitive little guy to hear. His reaction awakened my spirit.

Marianne saw it too. We both smiled, nodded at each other, forgot about the script, and listened anew to the awesome story of our faith.

“Listening” by Steve Dalton

Preface:

Of late, I’ve had precious little time to write, but I have been doing a lot of thinking… often with pain in my heart over the divisions in our broken world.

I’m re-posting this essay (below) for two reasons: 1.) because it’s important to me, and I feel that it speaks to the pain I’ve been experiencing of late; and, 2.) Although more that 260 people subscribe to this blog, only 29 – according to the WordPress stats – have actually read it.

I hope you’ll take the time. And, I hope this blesses you in some small way.

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Like you, I have a lens through which I view and interpret the world. It is a lens forged by the entirety of my life — my religious formation, for sure, but also my upbringing, my relationships, my education, my opportunities, my inclinations, my struggles and losses, and my many mistakes. I make no claim that mine is a perfect lens. In fact, when I go to prayer each morning, I do so with the stark awareness of my need to see more clearly.

My vocation, at least in part, is to consent to the gradual sharpening of my vision by God’s own hand, which will happen as I do a disciple’s work, namely, as I listen with an open heart to the countless words of God spoken – sometimes as a whisper – into my life each day.

On a continuum, be it religious or political, my lens (or worldview) falls somewhere between far left and far right. From my vantage point, when I look in either direction, I see friends whom I love and value, who are themselves words of God infused with profound meaning and deserving of my utmost consideration.

If I speak from my worldview, my place along the continuum, and express a perspective at odds with yours, I hope you will be patient with me. And, I hope you will recognize that I have arrived at my position after careful soul-searching… and often with an anguish born of love.

Most individuals, I believe, follow a similarly thoughtful path of discernment on important issues. In our politically-volatile culture, however, even good, sensitive people seem prone to lose sight of this.

The world may indeed have its share of small-minded people, spouting bigotries and reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the issues of the day. Nonetheless, to presume such a disposition in another, especially on the sole basis of a conflicting worldview, seems a grave offense against that person’s dignity. Further, presuming such a disposition of an entire group or community of people (e.g., “traditionalist” or “progressive” Catholics; or, members of the “Tea Party” or the “Occupy Movement”) represents, in my opinion, a genuine flirtation with evil.

We are quick these days to demonize. It is so much easier, after all, to brand and dismiss someone than it is to listen thoughtfully to the circumstances that have shaped that person’s perspective. Such is the carelessness of our age; and, we collectively suffer as a result. The chasms between us are sometimes shockingly wide and deep. But love and respect are a marvelous bridge and a reason for hope.

I am pro-life. I say that with no intent to confront or accuse, though some may hear it as such. I say it though painfully aware of the exploitative, abusive, and terribly irresponsible behavior so often manifest in those of my gender. I say it with shame for the ways in which such behavior has been manifest in me. I am truly sorry! And, I am pro-life!

Perhaps it will help if I explain that I see all life as proceeding from the mind of a loving God. When I see you, regardless of your worldview, I see one who has been intended for all eternity, who has been “spoken” into existence purposefully, and who has a worth well beyond my comprehension. God does not waste words!

For us, however, language is often a big problem. Civil discourse has all but evaporated because of, what I call, a “contraceptive mentality” (i.e., an automatic tendency to close our minds and dig in our heels the moment certain buzz words or phrases are uttered, such as “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “gay marriage,” “traditional marriage,” etc.). Such barriers – or shields, to borrow an image from Star Trek – prevent the life-generating sharing of our human stories and prohibit discovery of what we hold in common, including our shared beliefs and frailties.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20)

Do we believe this in practice? What if, for example, one of two is a so-called “American Catholic” and the other an unapologetic “Papist?” Before considering the possible tenor of their conversation, perhaps we should wonder if they ever would “gather” in the first place… in the name of the Lord they both profess.

It seems nearly irresistible to mock the “left-wing loon” or the “right-wing bigot,” as though the entirety of that person’s life, the complex circumstances that have forged her/his worldview, has no validity. How can we miss this injustice in ourselves?

It hurts terribly to be branded! And, make no mistake; we are diminished profoundly by branding others!

So, we remain a polarized people, living in fear and anger, suspicious of each other, and yet craving to be understood and accepted.

We are wary of the absolutists, who seem to be all around us (sometimes, I’ve discovered, even hiding in my mirror); still, we thirst for the Absolute!

There is a creed that I profess. In faith, I embrace the elements of that creed as “objectively true” in the fullest sense of that phrase. My understanding of these truths, however, remains a work-in-progress, especially regarding their practical and pastoral application. I am reminded here of the traditional definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” As a person of faith, my life’s work is to strive for a deeper understanding of all of God’s wonderful words — the ones printed on pages in holy books that I treasure… and, the ones who will pass by me, some on my left and some on my right, as I live this day.

The gift that is this day!

Wakes

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I am an associative thinker and tend to rely on analogies to help me interpret my world, particularly its more painful aspects.  And so, as I stood alone in the aft, transfixed by the cruise ship’s turbulent wake, a different wake, my father’s from three months prior, came readily to mind.

Close by the ship’s propeller, the water churned fiercely.  Yet, as the vessel moved on, I was consoled to see order and serenity gradually restored to the sea.  Perhaps the emotional aftermath of my father’s death will follow a similar pattern.  Time is essential, of course.  Time… and very much grace!

I have written elsewhere about my father (most notably in “The Red Sweater” http://wp.me/p3OG1U-3C), testifying to the healing work that God has already accomplished in me.  Tragically though, forgiveness does not always translate to reconciliation.  So, by my father’s choice, which I honored, for the past twenty-three years – his final twenty-three years – we were estranged.

Considering the painful distance between us in life, and now, that ultimate separation in death, I’m amazed by the significant space my father still occupies in my psyche.  Such is a son’s need, I guess, even as the son himself grows old.

—–

A few years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At the courthouse, while waiting to go through security, I struck up a conversation with the man immediately ahead of me in line.  He was an African-American Protestant minister, who explained that his “calling” was to help broken-hearted men, of which there were many in his congregation.  He referenced the story of the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3 and made special note of verse 17, wherein God the Father’s voice is heard saying:

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

“That verse,” the good man observed, “is something every boy – and every man – aches to hear from his father.”

Quite unexpectedly, while inching toward courthouse security, I felt laid bare.  Fighting back tears, I desperately hoped that my vulnerability, my wound, went unnoticed by my new acquaintance… that healer of broken-hearted men.

—–

When a loved one dies, memories sometimes come in a torrent.  In the wake of my father’s death, an all too familiar memory came yet again to me.

When I was a young boy of perhaps eight or nine years, my father made me a special promise.  “This Saturday,” he said, “will be our day. We’ll spend the whole day together, and we’ll do whatever you want to do.”

I was ecstatic!  Time alone with my Dad!?  Even as a child, or perhaps especially then, I had sensed the disconnect between us; but, maybe things could be different.

The days of that week could not pass quickly enough.

When Saturday came, I bolted out of bed and into the kitchen, where I found my mother, with a knowing smile on her face, already making breakfast for my father and me.  As we ate together, my father told me that he had a quick errand to run but thereafter the day would be mine. In fact, I could even accompany him on his errand.  It didn’t matter to me.  We’d be together.

While on the errand, my father ran into a co-worker, who told him that a number of their mutual friends were getting together to play golf that morning.  Then, he asked my father if he’d like to join the group.

Even now, it’s difficult to explain my feelings as I was dropped back at home that morning.  Rejection?  Embarrassment?  Confusion?  Yes to all those things.  But maybe shame comes the closest to telling the story.  Even as my mother tried to console me, I just wanted to disappear.

Through the years, I’ve often wondered if my father enjoyed that round of golf, which was surely the most costly round he ever played.

—–

“The Red Sweater,” was a story I’d told a number of times, but I’d never felt free to write it down.  It always seemed like something that should wait until my father’s passing.  Then, in late September of last year, I unmistakably sensed that the time had come.  The writing proved cathartic as I relived that blessed experience.

My work was completed on October 6th.  I then sat staring at the “Publish Post” button on my blog site.  “Should this wait?” I briefly anguished again.  Then, feeling a surprising sense of peace, I really knew the time had arrived.  I clicked the button without regret.

The next day, I received a characteristically kind phone call from my dear, life-long friend, Paul.  “Steve, I’m so sorry about your father’s passing…” he began, but I quickly lost track of his words.  You see, no one close to my father had informed me of his death. Paul had unknowingly broken the news.  He had died the previous morning… just a few short hours before I posted “The Red Sweater.”

All things considered, I am truly grateful to have learned the news the way I did, from a loving friend.  God is good!

—–

I didn’t attend the formal wake or funeral.  After all, his second family had shared his life far more closely and deserved their private time of grief.  Instead, my wife, our children, and I went to pay our respects the night before, alone.

My father was eighty-eight years old when he passed.  In death, his body looked so small and frail… so unthreatening.

In the funeral parlor, my family gave me some private time.  Time alone for just me and my Dad.

I knelt, prayed, and said “good-bye.”  The next day, after the graveside service had concluded and everyone from his second family had gone home, I paid my final respects just before the cemetery workers filled in his grave.

May God rest his soul!

And, at a time known to God alone, may we finally have that special day together… father and son… on a day that will never end.

In the meantime… healing, as the waters gradually settle.

Forever in My Heart

When I was a little boy, I forced myself to stay awake one night after being convinced by my big sister that a spaceship would soon be coming to pick me up. Apparently, a monumental intergalactic war was taking place, and my help was desperately needed if the good guys were to prevail. In the morning, Christine had quite a chuckle.

And then, there was the “May Procession” incident.

In the 1960s, our (Catholic) parish held an event every May honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was always band music, a parade through the nearby streets of the town, and a crowning of Mary’s statue with a wreath of flowers.

“O Mary, we crown Thee with blossoms today, Queen of the angels, Queen of the May…”

I remember it well.

Now, I look back on those events with great fondness and admiration; however, on one unusually hot “May Procession” day, this diminutive (yet stubborn) parochial school student didn’t want to march. My mother’s pleas fell on deaf ears; so, her secret weapon – Christine – was deployed.

My big sister took me aside, saying that she had something really special to show me. In the palm of her hand, she displayed two thick, but otherwise ordinary, rubber bands.

“Do you know what these are, Stephen?” she asked, before answering her own question. “These are very special rubber bands, the kind that baseball players like Mickey Mantle use to hold up their socks. I’ll give them to you if you march in the procession.”

Resistance was futile. Of course, I marched. Christine could always convince me.

When I was seven, my parents purchased our first dog, a smart, frisky miniature poodle. One morning, the front door was accidentally left ajar and our new puppy ran outside. Christine, still in her pajamas, bolted out the door to catch her. I watched out the window as passers-by laughed at the sight. I teased her about that for years… and, I wish I could tease her still.

In prayer this morning, I suddenly became aware that I’ve now lived longer without my big sister than with her. With that realization came tears, surprisingly ferocious tears, like those I cried on January 27th, 1985.

I’m not sure why the particular memories mentioned above came to mind today, but I treasure them all.

Christine was beautiful in every sense of the word. Phony space adventures aside, I’ve never known a kinder, more thoughtful, more faithful human being in all my years, and I’ve known a great many wonderful people.

I loved her so. And, you would have too. Everyone did.

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P.S. I’ve written previously about my sister in the essay Hearts and Treasures. If you’ve never done so, you might check out this entry: http://musingsamidthethorns.com/2013/08/21/hearts-and-treasures/. It speaks to the depth of her character.