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

image

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

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.

—–

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!