The Tale of the Foul-Mouthed Boy

”For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Thomas Merton)

I see him at the vigil Mass every Saturday evening. He sits in a pew toward the back of the church. So, by the time he reaches the front of the Communion line, I’m already back in my place – praying, watching, remembering.

Though we both live in the same small town, where secrets are not easily kept, I’ve never known his first name. To me, he’ll always be the “unwitting catechist,” and I’m content with that.

He resembles his late father; and, it was he, rather than the son, who once wagged an accusing finger in my face, thus teaching me something truly important about integrity and authenticity at a tender age.

My first childhood home had a fateful encounter with a demolition crew many years ago. No doubt the house was already well beyond its prime by the time the Daltons took residence there in the 1950s, but I have no recollection of its warts. Instead, I remember it as a magical place, and I suspect I always will.

A formidable maple – “my tree,” also gone now – served as sentry at the front edge of the property. Countless times I traversed the deep grooves of its bark with my small fingers and scaled its rung-like branches as far as I dared. On one side of the trunk, the tree’s sinewy roots poked up through the ground like a child’s bench, a perfect perch on which to savor a Popsicle, swap stories, or simply relish the pure freedom of a young child’s summer day.

The large backyard was a wonderland, overgrown in places, lending a true sense of mystery to the space. It served as a de facto neighborhood playground, and many adventures were concocted and acted out there under its seemingly inexhaustible inspiration.

For the first eight years of my life, that house and its immediate environs were virtually my world; and, it was a charming place indeed. Of course, being a small boy, it never mattered to me that my family and I lived in a rented apartment. It mattered to my parents though, especially my mother, who had long dreamed of owning her own home.

The move comprised no more than half a mile, but distance is an unreliable measure of change.

Yes, the new house was “ours,” but there was no maple tree, no intriguing backyard to attract playmates. In fact, there was really no yard at all, only a narrow driveway and a boring one-car garage.

My initial response to the move was grief.

“There seem to be quite a few children in this neighborhood, Stephen,” my mother observed one day from across the room. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends here.”

Embarrassed at having been noticed, I let the curtain slip from my fingers and turned my attention away from the window and the children playing outside.

“Maybe,” I replied in a near-whisper. Shyness can make social transitions so very difficult.

Thankfully, over time, my mother’s words proved prescient. I did make good friends and forged life-long memories in the new neighborhood. In fact, if my first eight years are characterized by memories of things and places, the next few years are filled with names (Paul, Phil, Evans, Justin, Jackie, Jimmy…) and endearing faces. Those were, in fact, the happiest days of my childhood.

My friends and I typically matched our activities to the season. In summer, we seemed to play baseball morning, afternoon, and night. In the fall, our street became a touch-football field with telephone poles marking the end zones. And, in winter, we played street hockey both after school and on weekends, as long as daylight accommodated.

Often, boys from nearby neighborhoods would join us for our games. That made our play more realistic as we’d have more positions covered on the field; however, it also changed the group dynamic a bit and eventually presented me with an early moral dilemma.

I wonder if there’s anything – temporally speaking, of course – that the human heart desires more than fitting in, i.e., being accepted by one’s peers.

I’m not a fan of foul language. Even as a child, I was very careful with my words, never wanting to offend God or others. While my closest friends always respected who I was and how I tried to conduct myself, kids from other neighborhoods were not always so understanding. They would occasionally tease me about my “holiness.” And, though most of their jibes were not mean-spirited, being a sensitive child, I tended to take their words to heart.

I don’t recall how the idea first came to me, but the more I worked it over in my mind the more sense it seemed to make. Convincing myself, however, was only half the battle. When I summoned the courage to raise the issue with her, my mother looked less than pleased.

“Why would you want to do that, Stephen?” she asked.

“The other kids say swears, Ma.”

She carefully studied my face. “You know it’s not right to use bad language.”

“I know. But, if you give me permission, that would make it okay, right?”

She remained silent for some time, and I could feel my face flush under her persistent gaze. When she finally answered, she did so with obvious hesitation. “I don’t like this, Stephen.” She shook her head slightly as she spoke. “But… I do understand.” After another pause, she continued, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you choose one word to say. But, that’s all. Does that sound fair?”

“Thank you, Ma!” I said gratefully, feeling a weight had been lifted from my small shoulders.

We then rather delicately discussed my possible choices – an interesting exercise between a mother and her young son. While I don’t clearly recall our rationale, we ultimately agreed upon the word “sh#t.”

Soon thereafter, my friends and I gathered to play touch football. It was a beautiful fall day and, though we didn’t notice it at the time, one of the local residents was sitting on his enclosed front porch observing our play.

As the game progressed, so did our use of salty language. Feeling a newfound freedom and connection with my peers, I made liberal and creative use of my new vocabulary word.

“That was a sh#&&y pass!”

“You really looked like sh#t on that play!”

“This ball is as dirty as sh#t!”

I was playing my role to the hilt until a porch door suddenly swung open, and a large, angry man stepped out.

“Hey!” he bellowed. The game abruptly halted and all of us players gave him our full attention.

“I’ve been listening to you guys and your filthy mouths for half an hour now, and I am sick to death of it!”

He came down from his steps to confront us at closer range. My heart was racing but my feet were anchored in place.

Pointing a thick finger at one of the boys, he screamed, “I’m sick of listening to you!” Then, he pivoted, aimed his finger at another, and yelled, “And you!” He quickly turned again, “And you!” Finally, as I knew in my heart he must, he turned his rage my way. He glared at me and thrust his finger forward once for each pronounced word of my sentence. “And! Especially! You!”

Especially?! Me?!

My first instinct, though I didn’t act upon it, was self-defense. “You don’t understand,” I thought to myself, “I had permission.” Within a split second, however, defensiveness yielded to shame for my actions. I had indeed been responsible for the verbal assault this man experienced, and any protestation, even one pointing to a mother’s consent, would have been an empty excuse. My eyes dropped from the outraged man’s face to my own feet. I felt crushed.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” I said, still not looking up.

“I don’t want to hear any more of it!” he proclaimed loudly to all of us. “Do you understand?”

I and several others answered, “Yes, sir.” Then, our game broke up and the dispirited players scattered.

As I was walking home, the scene played over and over again in my mind. I knew the man was justified in the action that he took, and I felt true contrition for my offense; still, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of injustice. He had singled me out as the worst offender without really knowing me.

The realization, when it came, was sudden yet gentle, like a soft voice in the soul. Even being a child, I could understand. Indeed, the angry man didn’t know the real me because I hadn’t shown him the real me. Instead, I’d pretended to be someone else in order to feel more like a part of the group.

Sh#t happens! My real sin was falsity and compromise. And, the angry man was my wake-up call – a true friend.

I’ve come to trust that the soft voice in my soul was/is my conscience, helping me interpret my world and inviting me to live more authentically (i.e., closer to God’s plan for my life). I wish I could say that I’ve always been true to that calling. Alas, I’ve needed many wake-up calls.

So, I will be at the vigil Mass again next Saturday evening. When my “unwitting catechist” passes by, I will see again the face of his father. I will remember. And, I will lift up a prayer of thanks.

Where Bombs Come From

Today, one of my Facebook friends posted a short video that has been widely circulated. A portion of the heartrending recording shows two young Syrian boys grieving the loss of their brother, who was killed by a barrel bomb during an airstrike in Aleppo.

How can we do such horrific things?

Walking is one of my preferred forms of exercise. On a recent walk, I recognized the face of someone approaching from the opposite direction. He was not a friend. In fact, I knew only his face and not his name; but, it was a beautiful day, one that naturally lent itself to cordiality. So, as we drew near to one another, I nodded and offered a greeting. He returned my greeting, and we stopped to exchange pleasantries.

During our conversation, we discovered that we had a mutual acquaintance – a person who, in my experience, has always shown himself to be consistently thoughtful and kind. I mentioned that this mutual acquaintance was a really wonderful man. At that, my conversation partner paused briefly and then said: “Of course, not everyone would agree with you.”

When he uttered these words, I felt my heart drop in my chest. I asked no follow-up questions and quickly changed the subject. Our conversation soon ended, and we parted company.

The New Testament Letter of James offers a stern warning about the power of the tongue. In a passage that always makes me squirm, James writes:

“Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:5b-8)

When I saw the video earlier today, I almost immediately recalled my recent encounter while walking.

I intend no disparagement. In fact, if I indict anyone, I indict only myself. How often have I casually uttered unkind words? How often have I sewn corrupted seeds by malicious use of my tongue? How often have I surreptitiously attacked my neighbor while failing to recognize my own violence?

Weapons come in many shapes and sizes. Some cause instantaneous destruction and pain while others simmer and slowly corrupt from within.

I wonder…

Might bombs be the ultimate product of our untamed tongues?

Bonding with a Beloved (Dead) Stranger

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The memory is vague, almost dream-like. My paternal grandfather, who died in 1960 when I was still a toddler, is atop a fight of stairs in the family home and speaking with my father, who is with me at the bottom of the stairs. I can’t describe my Grandpa’s features except to say that he was an old man, nor can I recall anything distinctive about his voice or manner. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I can trust my recollection at all. I know, it’s not much to go on; but, somehow, it’s proven to be enough. That one obscure memory has always served as my relational touchstone with my father’s father, a foundation upon which to build.

For most of my life, I had no such connection with my maternal grandfather.

During the opening credits of Rocky Balboa, the 2006 entry in the “Rocky” film series, there is a touching scene wherein the aging title character visits the gravesite of his beloved wife, Adrian. While brother-in-law Pauly awkwardly watches and waits, Rocky sits on a folding chair in quiet communion with his departed bride.

When he’s ready to leave, Rocky tenderly kisses the top of the headstone as if it were Adrian’s soft, blushing cheek. Then, he collapses his chair and returns it to its storage place in the sturdy branches of a nearby tree. The message is clear. Rocky visits often; and, the audience feels the good man’s pain.

Intentionally or not, this scene models behavior that contemporary grief counselors might describe as an “enduring bond,” i.e., a psychological and/or spiritual relationship that continues even beyond death.

While love is typically the defining characteristic of such bonds, other sentiments can certainly be involved as well. It is not unusual, for example, for someone to come to a gravesite bearing unresolved anger, regrets, a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, or countless other all-too-human emotions.

Indeed, graves can be complicated places.

Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why I seldom visit graves, even of people I’ve dearly loved. Knowledge that the bodily remains (the “earthen vessel”) of a loved one lie beneath my feet affords me neither inspiration nor consolation. By faith, I believe the person I cared for is no longer there. Rather, she/he is now in the hands of a loving God. That considered, I’m far more likely to work on my “enduring bonds” behind closed doors during prayer. It is there, rather than in the cemetery, where I’ve had some of my most satisfying “conversations” with departed relatives.

There is, however, one grave that tugs at my heart like no other.

John J. Christopher, my mother’s “Papa,” died when he was my age, 58, in 1944, a terrible year for the family. I’ve shared previously about how little I know of my grandfather’s life and death. In fact, as I write these words, it occurs to me that I can’t ever recall even seeing his photograph. Whenever I’d question my Mom about my grandfather, she’d always seem hesitant to speak. Was it grief or something else that knotted her tongue? Judging by the sensitive tone her voice assumed whenever she did speak of him, it was clear that her Papa held a special – albeit, a hidden – place in her heart.

Over the years, I’ve found myself a number of times pondering unanswered questions in front of my grandfather’s grave, a resting place he shares with his oldest child, Mary, my aunt, who pre-deceased him in 1944.

So, who was this man? What were his treasures? Did he believe in God? Did he make friends easily? What made him smile, laugh, cry? Did he have a hobby? What burdens did he carry? What were his gifts? His regrets? His foibles? Did he pray? Was he a dreamer? What were his politics? Was he satisfied with his life? Was my grandmother his first love? Did he love her to the end? Was he always faithful? What thoughts filled his mind in quiet moments… and, in his final moments? What were his fears? His temptations? Who were his heroes? How did he die? And, more importantly, what guided how he lived?

My Mom was the last surviving member of her first family. When she passed in March of last year, it meant that all those who had been closest to my grandfather were now gone. So too, I imagined, was any hope I had of finding answers to my myriad questions concerning this stranger whose blood I share.

While going through my Mom’s things shortly after her death, my wife Marianne and I came upon a diary my Mom had kept in 1940 when she was 13 years old. I’d never known of the diary’s existence and couldn’t resist immediately exploring it’s pages, which were a genuine revelation to me. Marianne, ever-gracious (and knowing me only too well), gave me a pass on further sorting that day.

Just holding the book stirred my emotions. Seventy-five years earlier, my Mom recorded the highlights of her adolescent life in its pages, beginning each entry with “Dear Diary” and concluding with “Love Eleanor.”

The textured cover of the book bore the words National Surety Corporation 1940, and the title page read National Surety Diary 1940. A handwritten note on that title page explained that the diary had been: “Given to me from Johnny as a Christmas present.” Johnny was my Mom’s older (and only) brother. Just a few years later, in 1944, he would be horribly wounded by a German soldier during ground fighting in Sicily. He’d be in recovery for a long time, but he’d live and eventually return home.

My Mom wrote faithfully in her diary through May 27th of 1940. Then, for whatever reason, her daily entries abruptly ceased. Mostly blank pages followed; however, there were a handful of later entries, including a few dating from 1949 and 1951.

There were many gems to discover in the diary’s pages, including my Mom’s first (recorded) encounter with my father on Thursday, May 2nd. That entry reads as follows: “Then Robert Dalton called me by my first name and then hit me over the head with a magazine. It seemed so nice.” Knowing the pain that awaited them later in life made this sweet passage particularly poignant for me.

I won’t delve into the specifics of my Mom’s early adolescence beyond these few observations. At age 13, she was a bit boy-crazy and seems to have prompted innocent flirtations (e.g., the magazine on the head, above) from more that a few young suitors. She struggled in a couple of her subjects at school, was somewhat fashion-conscious, and was prone to being “kicked out” of the public library. She and her older sister, Edna, were inseparable, but they also had strong arguments, a characteristic they would carry into old age. My Mom’s allowance at the time was $0.30/week, and she often used the money to go to the movies with her friends. She felt things deeply. In short, she was a typical teenage girl of her time.

As these previously unexplored aspects of my mother’s life unfolded with the turning of each cherished page, I was too taken with her story to anticipate what was coming; but, my Mom was about to introduce me to my grandfather.

Mystery sometimes begets romanticized notions; but, any idealized images I’d subconsciously formed about my grandfather were quickly humanized by my mother’s pen. In all, there were twelve entries in the diary that mentioned my grandfather. Some were just brief references, but a precious few were more revealing.

Rather than recount all of the details, I will instead summarize the still thin portrait of my grandfather that emerged for me from the diary. Some general aspects of his life, e.g., that he once worked for a railroad and that there was some tension between him and my grandmother, were not a total surprise. The insights I gleaned about his temperament and character, however, were altogether new and satisfying. I was also surprised and saddened by the intensity of the rift between my grandparents.

John J. Christopher was an emotional man whose identity was closely tied to his work. For twenty-five years, he was employed by the narrow gauge railroad that operated in his community. After experiencing a serious drop in ridership, the railroad shut down on January 27, 1940. My Mom’s diary entries on that fateful day and the next both speak of her Papa’s constant tears at the loss of his job. “He cried into five hankies. Ah diary, it was so sad.” At one point, she also recounts him calling out hysterically: “It’s gone!” His children gathered around to console him in his grief. That was very heartening to read.

My grandfather seems to have had a strong sense of responsibility regarding his family. As much as the job loss devastated him, he was quick to search out employment and apparently found a new position in less than two months. My mother mentions both a new job and the start date, but she provides no further details about either the employer or her father’s adjustment to his new work.

As mentioned, the relationship between my grandparents was strained, perhaps torturously so. Six of the twelve diary entries that mention my grandfather reference either their fights or their complete lack of communication. No motive for their discord is ever mentioned, but the impact upon my Mom and her siblings appears to have been quite severe. At one point, my Mom reports that her oldest sisters, Mary and Barbara, had devised a plan to save their money and move out of the house with all three of their younger siblings (Johnny, Edna, and my mother) due to the fighting. That plan, at least during the period covered by the diary, was never carried out.

Alcohol is mentioned in passing once, but the reference, as I see it, is open to interpretation. Exactly one week after the traumatic loss of his railroad job, my Mom wrote: “Papa is very good lately. Hasn’t drank any liquor. He used to all the time.” Can her last sentence be taken literally, or did she mean “all the time…” since losing his job? I will likely never know.

Finally, despite the stress in his marriage and his devastating work situation, my grandfather appears to have had a strong relationship with his children. As noted, they gathered around to console him after his job loss. Also, when my Mom was laid up for two weeks with a terrible sore throat, she wrote of how kind he was to her during the illness. And, he apparently tried to involve his children in activities around their home. My Mom reports affectionately, for example, about spending a Saturday morning painting woodwork with her Papa.

This last point evokes a beautiful picture in my mind, a picture that, like the image of my paternal grandfather atop the stairs, can serve as a foundation for an “enduring bond.”

My Mom’s diary doesn’t come close to answering all of my questions about my grandfather. Still, it provides marvelous insights I’d never had before about both him and my mother herself. I consider it one final, loving gift passed from mother to son.

I only wish she’d written much more.

P.S. Writing is difficult. One reason I take up the pen (or, the keyboard) is to provide future generations in my family with an understanding of who I was and what I valued. Perhaps it won’t matter to anyone. Then again, if one of my grandparents or great-grandparents had shared something of her/his heart in writing, I would treasure it beyond measure. By the way, I also hope that my experiences might strike a familiar chord within you and somehow prove to be a blessing in your life. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my reflections.

Believing in Santa

Did you ever have a “God moment?” Even if you’re not a believer, have you ever experienced a surprising insight, a sudden drawing back of the veil, that caused you to stop whatever you were doing simply to ponder what you’d just seen, heard, or felt in your heart? I’ve had many.

Once, for example, I had traveled to the Boston Public Library for a meeting. Since I’d arrived a bit early, I spent a few minutes people-watching in the lobby. An assortment of interesting characters passed by, but my attention was especially drawn to a class of middle-schoolers, who had come for a library tour.

The social dynamic among the students was eerily familiar. Some were the cool kids, comfortable being the center of attention, which they commanded by their antics. Others, the clear majority, seemed indifferent to their surroundings. They conversed in small clusters while waiting for the tour to begin. (This was before the age of the ubiquitous cell phone.) Finally, there were those bringing up the rear. I’ll affectionately call them the misfits. They generally appeared ill-at-ease and eager just to get beyond this ordeal. I understood.

As I watched, I felt compassion for this latter group, whose members quite likely endured taunts and trials for being perceived as different or for failing to measure up to some unjust standard. Then, however, I noticed something important. Yes, the misfits were segregated somewhat from the larger group, perhaps by choice; however, amongst themselves, they genuinely cared for each other. Maybe they weren’t as audacious as their more confident peers, but they talked, goofed around, and laughed together. They shared a bond, a communion of souls. It’s difficult to explain, but that awareness was startlingly joyful for me. In that unexpected moment of clarity – a “God moment” – I appreciated anew the wonderful blessing of comradery.

On another occasion, my wife Marianne and I were in our stateroom awaiting the launch of a Caribbean cruise. Shortly before the scheduled departure, the ship’s captain made an announcement that we’d be leaving late due to a mechanical problem. Since our balcony overlooked the pier, we were able to witness some of the feverish activity below as cruise line personnel scrambled to resolve the unnamed issue. It looked like exhausting work.

We finally set sail about three hours late, and I watched the departure from our balcony. As we exited the ship’s berth and crept toward the open ocean, I saw three workmen gathered at the far end of the pier. Most likely, they’d been forced to work overtime and were quite tired. Still, they lingered, enjoying each other’s company. The last sound I heard from those men was a hearty, shared laugh. It seemed to speak directly to my soul about the healing power of friendship.

Right there, I lifted up a prayer of thanksgiving… under the stars, on the Dolphin Deck.

—–

I’ve noticed that, on social media sites, some atheists mockingly equate belief in God with belief in Santa Claus. That always makes me smile.

I learned the truth about Santa on Christmas Eve when I was only five years old; and, for a few hours, it felt as if all the magic had drained from my world. Then, I had a “God moment” – perhaps my first (though I doubt that) – and learned what C.S. Lewis might have called a deeper magic.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I offer this wee bit of context.

Exactly one year earlier, when I was four, I had a Santa Claus nightlight. It plugged into the outlet, just below pillow level, behind the headboard of my first big-boy bed. And, if I were frightened during the night, one quick look at Santa’s backlit visage, with rosy cheeks and kind, smiling eyes, was all I needed.

“He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”

How thoroughly wonderful that, with all of the many children in the world, Santa cared so much for me. My devotion was real, and it reached its peak on that long-ago Christmas Eve.

Alongside the foot of my bed, there was a drafty old window, which routinely frosted over during the winter months. By late December, the frost was already thick enough to obscure the night sky.

I was restless and far too excited to sleep; but, it was the promise of presence rather than presents that denied me slumber. Santa Claus would soon be near; and, thinking back, it felt as though hope itself, rather than blood, was coursing through my veins. Eventually, after many adoring glances at my nightlight failed to satisfy, I pulled off my covers and made for the window.

I haven’t many crystal clear memories from early childhood, but that night is an exception. My big sister, Christine, who shared the room with me, asked what I was doing. “Watching for Santa,” I replied matter-of-factly, while scratching out an icy peephole with my thumbnail.

Through that tiny portal, I expectantly searched the dark sky for a sign. Every twinkle, every shadow passing in front of the moon, quickened my pulse. I couldn’t have identified it at the time, but this was, I’m now convinced, an early experience of desire for the Transcendent.

—–

That moment apparently left a profound impression. Even today, when I go to my prayer room hoping to encounter the un-seeable One, I can almost feel a ribbon of frost melting beneath my thumbnail.

—–

Despite a valiant effort, my four-year old self never did see Santa that night. I ultimately returned to bed and fell asleep. While I’m sure it was wonderful, I have no memory of Christmas morning that year or of the presents under the tree. The next year, however, would be quite different.

—–

Months passed, and Christmas Eve arrived again.

Just before bedtime, Christine, who would turn ten the next morning, pulled me aside and said that she and my Mom “had something important to tell me.” She had a strange, sad expression on her face, and I sensed something was wrong.

They both knew of my sensitivity, and it must have been quite difficult for them to bear such crushing news. I don’t remember the precise words they used, but I do recall their reason for telling me on that particular night. Though I hadn’t known about it, our family had been struggling financially. Consequently, Christmas was going to be lean that year – just two gifts per child.

My Mom had decided it would be better to tell me the truth the night before than to have me wake up the next morning thinking I’d somehow disappointed Santa during the previous year. Today, I marvel at her concern. That night, however, I was too brokenhearted to think.

I cried… and, so did my Mom.

Grieving is hard work for a little boy, especially on Christmas Eve. I still had my Santa Claus nightlight, but looking at it only magnified my sadness.

That night, the frost on my window remained undisturbed.

—–

On Christmas morning, I lingered awake in bed. The birthday girl, my very closest friend, came over to encourage me.

“Come on. Let’s go see.”

“Okay,” I replied, but I was still slow to move.

“You know,” she said, “it’s not that Santa isn’t real. He’s just not who you thought he was.“

—–

Two gifts awaited me under (and beside) the tree. And, honestly, of all the presents on all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, they are the only two I can still recall. One was a paint-by-numbers kit with a special kind of glittery paint. The other took my breath away. It was my first and only childhood bicycle, a 24-inch Columbia that I cherished immediately. Was it my imagination, or did it really glow?

No other conclusion was possible. I must have been a very good boy that year!

I looked across the room at Santa’s now smiling face.

She knows when you are sleeping. She knows when you’re awake.”

“God moments!”

—–

Philosophical proofs of God’s existence make my head spin. Try as I might, I just can’t follow the arguments; and, I’m honestly not edified by them. I don’t say this to disparage intellectuals, whom I greatly admire. It’s just that, if the world is comprised of thinking people and feeling people, I’m a card-carrying member of the latter group. In Myers-Briggs typology, I’m classified as an INFJ, which is a fancy way of saying that I lead with my heart.

My “proof” of God isn’t found in logic, reason, or even the theology I so dearly love. Rather, it’s found in the comradery of misfits, in laughter at the end of the pier, in frosty peepholes, and in Santa’s smiles and tender tears.

Yes, I still believe!

My Mother’s Hands

Eleanor #1

The nurse timidly entered the room for he could see that we were praying.

“I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but you really should remove her ring.”

Disoriented by grief and fatigue, I glanced down at my mother’s left hand, cradled in mine, and saw the ring. I instinctively twisted it ever so gently to test the tightness of the fit and asked if removing it was absolutely necessary.

“It will need to be taken off,” the kind man said, “and I think it would be best for you to do so.”

“Do you need it for some reason?” I asked, still befuddled.

“Oh no,” he replied. “You should take it with you, so it doesn’t get lost.”

After I promised to attend to the ring, the nurse said, “Then I’ll leave you alone. Please take all the time you need.”

All the time we need? I’m afraid that wasn’t possible.

—–

It’s strange, but my earliest memories of my mother are mostly set during the night. Due to asthma compounded by allergies, from toddlerhood through grade school, I often woke up struggling to breathe; and, night after exhausting night, my Mom would lovingly answer my cries.

Only many years later, when I’d lose sleep tending to my own sick children on a random night here and there, could I even begin to understand the depth of her selflessness and sacrifice.

I remember the wooden rocking chair where we spent so many hours – me, struggling to breathe, and she, stroking my hair, singing softly, and patiently waiting for the medicine to take full effect.

Though rescue inhalers were available by the late ’50s and early ’60s, I never remember having one. Instead, my Mom always relied upon a traditional OTC treatment called Asthmador, a powder that she’d spoon onto a saucer or small plate and ignite with a match. Soon, I was breathing in the healing smoke rising from the burning powder. It sounds absurd and even dangerous today, but somehow it worked. And, once my breathing regulated, my Mom tucked me back into bed, no doubt desperately hoping I’d remain asleep throughout the remainder of the night.

In retrospect, I don’t know where she got her strength. Then again, maybe I do.

—–

The youngest of five children born to John and Catherine Christopher, my Mom was well acquainted with loss from an early age. She was only three when Black Tuesday (October 24, 1929) ushered in the great depression; twelve when the deadly hurricane of 1938 struck New England; and, fifteen on December 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy.”

In the fateful year of 1944, my Mom and her family endured a series of unimaginable traumas. First, her only brother, Johnny, was critically wounded on a battlefield in Sicily. A German soldier, who had somehow managed to circle around behind him during ground fighting, shot him five times at point blank range and left him there to die. Miraculously, he didn’t; but, it would be months before he was strong enough to leave his hospital bed in northern Africa to return home. All the while, my Mom and her family anxiously waited and prayed.

While Johnny slowly recuperated, Mary, my Mom’s oldest sister, whom she idolized, became seriously ill and died still months shy of her thirtieth birthday. That tragic event left a deep impression on my Mom. Even late in her life, well into her battle with dementia, she would occasionally grow quiet and speak softly and reflectively of “my beautiful sister, Mary.”

Still in 1944, with his cherished oldest daughter already gone and his only son battling for his life on a distant continent, my maternal grandfather likewise became ill and died. My Mom never provided us with many details about his dying, or his life for that matter. I think it was too painful for her to do so. What she did share, however, was her conviction that her beloved father had died of a broken heart.

—–

As the old saying goes: “The same sun that melts wax hardens clay.”

The events of her youth could have embittered my Mom. Instead, by God’s grace, they tenderized her heart and made her especially receptive to God and God’s people in a truly beautiful way.

My Mom believed, always. And, it was precisely her persevering Catholic faith that guided her through many more of life’s awful storms, including the sudden death of her oldest child (my sister, Christine).

Yes, my Mom knew loss; but, it never defeated her.

Further, no matter the difficulties she faced in her own life, she always managed to share her faith, hope, and love with those in her path.

“Your mother is a saint!” was a refrain I heard countless times and from scores of people through the years. It was a running testimony to the number of lives she had touched with her kindness.

“You may be right,” I’d always respond, smiling. “You may be right.”

—–

My Mom died peacefully in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, March 14th.

The previous Monday, when I stopped at the nursing home on my way home from work, I sensed immediately that something was wrong. I’d taken the stairs to the third floor, the dementia unit, which had been my Mom’s residence for roughly two and one-half years. The coded security door at the top of the stairs is equipped with a small window, and I looked through it before pressing the button to unlock the door. My Mom, as it happened, was seated directly across the hall from the window. She was slouched forward in her chair, bent at the waist, and repeatedly blessing herself.

Although my Mom had lost a great deal to dementia by the end of her life, by God’s grace she always knew me and would unfailingly greet me by name and with a radiant smile. That evening, however, was different. When I came through the door, she looked at me through glassy eyes and gasped, “Oh, thank God!” I sat with her and immediately took hold of her hand. It was warm, as it had always been.

—–

A mother’s hands are special. Many years before, hers had bathed me, changed my diapers, prepared my meals, washed my clothes, tied my shoes, buttoned my shirts, combed my hair, brushed my teeth, tended to my cuts and bruises, dried my tears, guided me through crowded places, scooped me from my crib or bed when I struggled to breathe, administered needed medicines.

Yes, it was a long time ago. But I remember.

—–

I spoke with the nurse on duty, who confirmed that my Mom had not been herself that day. She said the nurse practitioner had ordered tests and that results should be available the next day. In the meantime, she promised that my Mom would be carefully attended through the night.

Tuesday, I got news that pneumonia had been detected in one of my mother’s lungs. She had already been prescribed an antibiotic in case the pneumonia was bacterial, and she was being watched closely. That night, my wife Marianne and I both went to visit her. She was nervous and struggling to get comfortable. We stayed with her until she was changed and in bed for the night. It was difficult to leave.

The next day she rallied a bit, but the uptick was temporary. On Thursday, I received news that my Mom’s liver function was not within the normal range. I asked if she should be sent to the hospital, but the nursing home staff thought that was unnecessary. We visited again that evening. Our concern was mounting.

On Friday, my Mom’s newest blood work revealed a dramatic drop in liver function. She was sent to the Emergency Room at a nearby hospital, and we met her there in the late afternoon. The doctors and nurses in the ER were kind and attentive, but they were also careful not to offer false hope. Tests were ordered to see if the cause of the liver failure could be determined and, hopefully, treated. And, as soon as a bed became available, my Mom was to be admitted.

In the midst of this activity, my Mom actually seemed more at peace and more like herself than at any other point that week. She was calm, chatted amicably with us, and even joked with the doctors and nurses that were in and out of her room. We stayed with her in the ER until about 10:45 p.m., at which point she was ready to fall asleep. The nurses promised to contact us if anything changed and suggested that we go home to get some rest. Before leaving, we said good night to my Mom and promised to see her in the morning. As Marianne and I left, she said, “Good night, guys. I love you both so much.” Those were the last words I’d ever hear her speak.

We slumped inside our bed at about 11:30 p.m. and, exhausted, fell quickly to sleep. Shortly after midnight, my phone rang. It was a doctor I’d not spoken to before. She quickly assured me that my Mom was still with us. Then, she explained that my Mom had been moved to her floor and that she was now her attending physician. As such, she needed to ask me some questions that the ER doctors could not answer. We spoke for about twenty minutes. Then, I tried to go back to sleep.

A little after 3:30 a.m., the phone rang again. A different doctor explained that my Mom’s vital signs were dropping and that it was time to come back to the hospital. My wife and I dressed and scrambled to get out the door.

The hospital has a parking garage directly across the street. We pulled in, parked the car, and were just steps from the hospital door when my phone rang again. It was the doctor I’d spoken with just after midnight.

“Mr. Dalton,” she said.

I quickly interrupted her. “Please doctor, don’t tell me she’s gone. We’re right outside.”

“I’m very sorry.” And, she paused.

My mind was racing. “Was she alone?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she replied. “She died just moments ago. I was with her. We were holding hands and talking. She closed her eyes, and she was gone. It was very peaceful.”

After a respectful silence, the doctor promised to meet us at the entrance to the ER. I ended the call and Marianne hugged me tightly. Moments later, we were standing outside my mother’s room.

“Please, go in to be with her,” the good doctor said.

—–

We walked toward the bed tentatively. My Mom’s eyes were closed and her mouth was slightly open. She appeared to be asleep, but there was no breath.

Emotionally wrung out, my first thought was to pray. Marianne and I each pulled a chair to our respective sides of the bed and took hold of one of my mother’s hands. I held her left hand, on which she wore her ring.

My Mom had a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary. For many years, she prayed the Rosary with a group of friends after daily morning Mass, often leading the prayer. So, Marianne and I began our prayer with a decade of the Rosary. We were perhaps half-way through when a male nurse tapped quietly on the door and entered the room. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but you really should remove her ring.”

After the “Glory Be,” we sat in sacred silence, and I lost track of time. I held my mother’s hand as I’d done so often before. Then, I remembered the ring. I gently twisted it again and tried to pull it off, but the fit was snug. I tugged harder and anxiously glanced at my Mom’s face to make sure I wasn’t hurting her. There was no change in her expression. In that brief instant, the reality of her passing fully dawned. With sadness, I pulled the ring from her finger, dropped it in my pocket, and took hold of her hand again. This time, I squeezed a bit tighter.

More time passed. Memories. Then, Marianne and I both noticed the change. The warmth was leaving. After exactly eighty-eight years and nine months, my mother’s healing, loving hands were growing cold.

“Time to go,” I said. And, Marianne nodded.

I kissed my mother’s forehead and whispered, “Thank you, Mom. I love you.”

Before sunrise, the very next morning, our seventh grandchild, Leo, was born. New life!

His tiny hands were warm.

Why I Remain Catholic

In response to an invitation from The Anchoress, Elizabeth Scalia, on patheos.com, a large number of Catholic bloggers are weighing in right now in response to the question: “Why remain Catholic even when it is a struggle?” In this short essay, I’d like to add my perspective to this most interesting discussion.

While I intend to play by the rules and cite some of my reasons for staying in the fold, I’ll also spend just a bit of time on the second part of Elizabeth’s suggested topic, namely: “even when it is a struggle.” Call it therapy, but I feel the need to (charitably) vent.

What Binds Me:

I remain an active member of the Catholic Church because being Catholic is an integral part of who I am. I love, anguish, breathe, laugh, cry, think, work, play, reason, and act as a Catholic man. While I suppose living outside of that framework is a theoretical possibility for me, I honestly cannot conceive of such a circumstance in my life. In fact, were I to stop believing in God entirely, I suspect I’d be a very Catholic atheist.

Early on, my Catholic faith was formed – for better or worse – by the catechesis I received in parochial school, but it was born through living witnesses, the first of whom was my own heroic mother, Eleanor. Even from childhood, my Mom was intimately acquainted with loss and suffering. She lived through the depression and multiple wars; survived a dysfunctional first family; endured abandonment by, and divorce from, my father; and, suffered perhaps the most grievous wound possible, the sudden death of her beloved oldest child and only daughter, Christine. Throughout, she remained not only a person of unyielding (Catholic) faith but also an instrument of hope and love. In her last years, when dementia had robbed her of much of the interior narrative of her life, she continued to be a light to her world. Whenever we visited her in the nursing home, where she spent her final two and one-half years, we’d inevitably hear stories of her kindness toward the other residents from staff members and even residents’ family members. A daily communicant, rosary leader, and Eucharistic minister for many years, my Mom lived her Catholicism to the end; and, she continues to inspire me to do the same. I can only pray that I will live it so fully and so well.

Particular saints are another reason I stay in the Church. Therese of Lisieux, for example, is one of my personal heroes. This remarkable young woman, raised within a torturously legalistic form of Catholicism, nonetheless came to understand God as tender-hearted and merciful. What a gift to the Church! I also draw great inspiration from saints like Maximilian Kolbe, whose sacrificial death in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz was a beautiful model of Christian charity. Indeed, we Catholics stand on the shoulders of giants.

As one who finds fundamentalism, including Catholic fundamentalism, frustrating and, at times, even dangerous, I cherish the work of Catholic theologians and Biblical scholars, who seek unflinchingly to engage life’s deepest questions with courage, openness, faith, and with appropriate hermeneutical tools, including insights gleaned from the social sciences. May God bless their holy work!

Finally, as others have thoughtfully expressed, the Eucharist positively anchors me to the Church. I believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament; and, as long as that belief burns in my heart, I could never imagine myself abandoning Catholicism.

Why I Struggle:

Frankly, divisions in the Church overwhelm me. In late October of last year, for example, Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic, famously wondered aloud in the pages of the New York Times if Pope Francis might be pushing the Catholic Church toward schism. After all, he reminded his readers, there are two living – and, the implication being, competing – Popes. While I don’t believe schism, as in a choice between following Benedict XVI or Francis, is a serious risk, polarization is painfully real; and, I’ve no doubt that the rhetoric accompanying the upcoming Synod in October will reveal the depth and breadth of our theological differences.

Over the years, several of my devout Catholic friends have joked with me that the phrase “parish life” is an oxymoron. I intend here no blanket indictment of Catholic parishes, and I recognize that “parish life” may mean different things to different people; still, in my own experience of yearning for something more in the parishes to which I have belonged, I have often wondered if the Church takes lay spirituality seriously enough. As a case in point, in her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, author Sherry A. Weddell explains that many lay Catholics, even those engaged in leadership roles within their parishes, do not self-identify as disciples of Jesus. In heaven’s name, why not? Can there be any doubt that the Church needs to do a better job of adult faith formation, i.e., of passing on to her members a practical way, compatible with the many complications inherent to the lay state, to grow in relationship to Jesus? Far too often, maintaining the status quo in a parish seems to be considered enough. It isn’t!

Some years ago, I had a troubling conversation with a conservative and admirably devout young man. He spoke of the terrible ubiquity of mortal sin in the world and made it clear that priests, with their faculties to forgive sins, are like a small army of saviors (my words not his, but I believe they accurately convey his point of view). Now, I believe firmly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, some of my most moving experiences of God have happened in the context of receiving that beautiful Sacrament. But, wow! Are countless numbers of baptized Catholics really walking around in a state of total alienation from God? The Church lists three criteria that must be present for a sin to be mortal: 1.) grave matter; 2.) sufficient formation of conscience to understand the serious nature of the sin, along with sufficient reflection; and, 3.) complete consent of the will to act on the sinful impulse. Considering the aforementioned lack of adult faith formation, is it really possible for these three criteria to be fully met on such a large scale? The ubiquity of sin is undeniable; but, I can’t help recalling the words of Jesus as he was being crucified, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The other thing about that conversation that alarms me is this young man’s exalted view of priesthood. Is this aggrandized perspective on the clergy nurtured by the kind of clericalism Pope Francis abhors? While I believe in the ontological change brought about by Holy Orders, I also can’t help remembering Peter’s words to Cornelius in Acts 10:25-26, where we read:

“When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man.'”

A stark reminder of the humanity of Catholic priests has been manifest in the sexual abuse crisis that (shockingly) continues to make headlines. Living in the Boston area, I was at ground zero when the avalanche of news stories broke in 2002. Like so many others, I was stunned both by the violators themselves and by their – in my estimation, criminally negligent – superiors. On a personal note, I’m not sure I have ever fully grappled interiorly with the implications of this massive betrayal of trust. I was acquainted with eight of the accused priests, two of whom had already passed away when the allegations against them surfaced. Of the remaining six, none have returned to active ministry, and at least two have been laicized. One of the offenders had actually been in our apartment when our two oldest children were toddlers. Thankfully, he was never alone with either of them. God have mercy!

I could go on.

Love makes one vulnerable. I love the Church. And, the Church has broken my heart.

So, will I see you at Mass on Sunday?

Faith

there is another Way
neither rejection nor grand delusion
a third path
holy, often silent… sometimes torturously so

questions are permitted
even doubts

stridency, militancy… born of fear
these are the enemies
of that third and quiet Way
of immersion

pilot lights still burn
though softly

urgent moments screech
then settle into recesses of memory and history
mine… and others’
swallowed by that blessed stillness…

of the moment
that teaches everything
but for just that moment
then beckons, darkly, onward

“this little light of mine”
step by step
pages of the deeper story
relaxed and unfolded by human tears

yours… and mine