A Father’s Grief
Later he told someone that when the phone rang he felt a twinge pass through him that made him catch his breath. The odd thing was that he held his hand over the receiver and listened to the rings, counting them, knowing how many he had before the answer machine would take over. Just before the final ring he lifted the receiver to his ear and paused before he spoke the single word, “Yes?” Afterwards he tried to remember how many words it had taken the caller to deliver the news that changed his world. Had time slowed down putting everything into largo so that there were cavernous pauses between each staccato word that allowed him to hear also the beat of his heart and the sound of his swallowing?
He sank into the chair and studied the face of the clock on the living room wall. He wanted to etch the exact moment into his consciousness. The precise date and time seemed important. He felt a rush of gratitude that the date had no other significance. It wasn’t a major holiday. No member of the family had been born on the date. He was sure that no one close to him celebrated a wedding anniversary on the date. Then he wondered if he would live to see the return of the date his eldest son had died alone in a crosswalk, on a dark street, in a town on the other side of the country. What was that the officer had said? Oh, yes. It had been raining. Rain might have contributed to the accident. But so had speed, the voice said. “Your contact information was on a card in his wallet. It’s hard to say what he was doing in that crosswalk at that time of night, alone, in the rain.”
A child is not supposed to die before the parent, he thought, even if he is estranged. How can reconciliation happen then? He looked at his son’s high school graduation picture that hung amid the family memorabilia on the dining room wall. So much promise there, so much hope and confidence in those eyes. What had it come to?
He remembered their last conversation. They sat on a park bench. Children played tag. Sunbathers lolled on blankets. Why had he been so closed-minded about his only son? Even as he said, “I don’t want to hear from you again until you get your life under control and give up this nonsense,” he hadn’t meant it. He had wanted to take back those harsh words. Instead, he had sat and watched as the young man with slumped shoulders shrugged and wandered away, disappearing among the other strollers on the path.
He knew he had to call the others in the family, the boy’s sisters, but he needed time to sit with this before bringing in his other two children. What could they do about it at this time of night? He would wait until morning, he thought. Let them have their rest.
He went to the basement, to the room there that had been his son’s, the room that remained just as it was the last night the young man had slept there. He sat on the edge of the bed and noted how strangely barren the room was. There were no trophies for sports achievements, no awards or accolades in frames, nothing that said anything about the boy. A crucifix lay on the pillow. An icon of the Mother and Child hung on the wall beyond the foot of the bed. Under it was a framed picture of the boy and his late mother, both bearing radiant smiles.
Why hadn’t he been able to understand his son’s fascination with religion? Why had he laughed and dismissed the interest as a passing fancy that would fade with the coming of the next season? He looked at the picture and then at the icon and wondered what it would be like to pray and believe that there was someone who would listen and care.
He picked up the crucifix and weighed it in his hand. How could anyone find consolation is such a grim reminder of humanity’s cruelty? What about this gave comfort? All he could see was defeat in the body that sagged from the crossbeam with the thorn-crowned head slumped to the side. Then he imagined his son’s body on that wet roadway and wondered if with his last breath he had reached out, if he had prayed then and experienced faith’s folly.
He carried the crucifix as he climbed the stairs and padded his way to the sofa where he sat and wondered if there had been a reunion with his mother. Had he seen her opening her arms to him as life left his body. His wife had grieved the estrangement between father and son and had distanced herself from her husband after that encounter in the park. He suspected there were clandestine meetings and phone conversations. He said he didn’t care as long as he didn’t have to hear about them. Why couldn’t she have understood that he could not accept a son who lived like a vagabond, a beggar, content to be a street-person, and for what purpose? He had said he wanted other desperate people to know someone cared. The very idea had embarrassed him. How could his mother have understood what her son was doing with his life? They never discussed it before the mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. He wondered if a broken heart killed her.
His thoughts shifted and he thought of the final reunion of a son and his mother. Did they pity him now? Would they forgive him?
The wall-clock chimed. He was startled to note that it was nearly dawn. He looked out the window to the east and saw the first light. Had he dozed? He thought he must have slept because the night had flown so quickly. He was hungry.
Brown bread broken lay on the plate before him. A mug of last night’s coffee steamed as he stirred in the sugar. He spread a bit of jam on the bread, tasted its sweetness as he chewed and swallowed.
Such simple things give comfort. For a moment he could hear the sounds of laughter and conversations that used to emanate from the kitchen table when his young family sat to meals in those days before his son’s strangeness emerged and the family fractured. He could hear the voices and feel the presence.
Some people say that they think they will know when their last day begins. Exactly what that means no one seems able to say, only that in their waking moment will be a passing thought that they will die before the day does. But that had not been his experience. He didn’t think about dying much. He was too young for that. Death, he thought, was for people of a sufficient age.
How long had he been a beggar? Years, now, it seemed, so long that it was difficult to conjure up those days of warmth and security in his father’s house when he did not have to wonder if there would be the next meal. He thought of the first time he had rummaged through a dumpster and made a meal of discarded restaurant food. He had paused and prayed and given thanks for what he was about to eat. Still in his twenties, he felt older. He started from time to time when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a store window as he passed by. Once he had stopped and taken in his image, studying it full on. His hair was long and stringy as was his beard. His cheeks were hollow and his shoulders stooped. He carried a bedroll and in a backpack his few possessions. People passing by gave him wide berth.
Begging hadn’t come naturally to him. He had been some weeks on the road following the humiliation of the final conversation with his father. His mother had wept and pled with him to stay. He could hear his father laughing still all because of the crucifix his father had seen on his bed. “What’s that about?” he had asked. And when he had tried to explain, his father had laughed. A shrug of the shoulders conveyed his pity and contempt to his wife and daughters. His mother wept but stood her ground. Seeing the tears in her son’s eyes, she pulled him to her in a tender embrace. “Shush,” she whispered. “You’ll have to give us time.”
A few times in those last weeks as he lay on his back in the night, tears flowed from his eyes and ran onto his pillow. Even now he remembered how his throat constricted and how he had wanted to cry out for understanding. But how could anyone have understood what he did not understand himself? It had all happened so fast, in an instant that transformed him and altered the familiar reality that surrounded him. Now as he tried to stir up that moment it was like embers that have lain too long untended and refuse to blaze again. He couldn’t point to a blinding flash on a Damascus Road. No voice had sounded or called his name. He hadn’t been blinded or struck from a horse. He had just wandered in one Sunday with a friend who had to go to mass. That’s what his friend had said. Had to. He had accompanied his friend because he had been dared. He had sat on the hard pew and watched his friend close his eyes and pray. And he had looked up and seen the tortured figure on the crossed beams. Was that it? Was that the experience that changed him? Or was it later when he asked his friend if this could be for him, too. His friend had laughed at first, but when he did not receive laughter in return, he said, “I suppose. Yes. Sure. If you want it.”
The first time he sat by the store entrance with his hat in his hand he fancied the sound of his father’s deriding laughter again. A mother gave her son a few coins and told the lad to give them to the poor man. When he said, “God bless you for your kindness. Jesus loves you, too,” the little boy had smiled before the mother pulled him on their way. She was giving some instruction as they went and the youngster kept snatching glances back. He had waved as they disappeared around the corner.
There hadn’t been an argument. No ultimatum had been given. His father simply had said, “It won’t work. You wait and see. It won’t work.” And, “Stop being a dreamer. It’s fine if you want to go to church and pray, but don’t think that’s going to get you through life and make a success of you. Heaven can wait.”
Sometimes he felt lonely. In the night he wondered what it would be like to feel another’s arms around him and to know an embrace. He found his way into soup kitchens and sat at table with others like himself who had nothing. Community lasted as long as the stew and bread and cup of coffee. People didn’t often reveal secrets or tell the story of how they came to be in poverty. Rambling words revealed mental confusion. He did not feel threatened by madness even when a person near him carried on with someone he couldn’t see. Her eyes darted about and she would purse her lips as she listened to voices he could not hear. She laughed. She nodded. She surprised him when she reached out and patted his hand and told him it was going to be all right.
They left the soup kitchen and traveled together for a time. As days ended they shared whatever shelter they could find. She had more possessions than he and pushed them along in a rickety grocery cart. Some nights she would anchor a tarp and pull it out from the cart to provide a makeshift tent for them. He asked about a scar on the side of her face. She said a bad man had done that to her. No details. A bad man had done that to her. Their chats were brief and fleeting. Without warning she would suddenly turn her attention to the unseen one and he would feel isolated. But then before he sank into despair she would turn back to him and smile and their life together would go on.
People got used to seeing them together. At shelter meals more than once they were asked if they were married. He shrugged. She laughed. Neither answered as they reached for bread or poured more coffee. He said that Jesus was their companion. They were on the way with him.
He phoned his father’s house once to let it be known that he was well. And his father asked him if he was satisfied and told him that his mother had died grieving for him. He wept as he hung up the phone and told his friend that he was an orphan now.
Each night as they slept he fingered the little crucifix on the chain he wore around his neck and whispered to Jesus. She mumbled in her sleep. He prayed that the emptiness he felt would someday be filled and he would find what he was looking for.
Then one day she left him while he had gone looking for a place to bathe. He searched for her for several days and went back to places they had shared. He never saw her again.
Long days. Lonely nights. Occasionally someone gave him work to earn a few dollars. Usually the work amounted to mopping floors and carrying out garbage. A few times people paid him for mowing their lawns or washing their cars. Nothing lasted. He thought about going back to his father and reuniting with his sisters. He wondered what it would be like to visit his mother’s grave. When he thought of her it was as the Mother in the icon on the wall in his basement bedroom. And once again he was the child in her arms.
One night, thugs pounced on him and beat him. They broke his nose and cracked his ribs and he thought he was going to die. He didn’t. As they retreated, he lay in the mud and spat out blood, gasping for breath and wondered why? He thanked them and blessed them, unknown assailants that they were.
No one came to his aid. No one noticed. In the morning he made his way to a mission shelter and begged for a bed. When the attendants saw his plight they gave him a place and let him sleep. Three days he lay in the shelter bed. Someone brought him food and another dressed his wounds. On the fourth day he left the shelter and continued on his way.
It was normal now to be alone and to experience silence. People looked different to him. He noticed their angst and felt their sorrow. He saw the frantic look in their eyes and wished he could talk to them and tell them they were loved. Then someone stopped and stared at him as he sat on a park bench and watched pigeons feed. There were awkward moments as eyes met eyes. The other shrugged and took a few steps away then stopped and returned, sitting on the bench with him. “It’s your smile,” the other said. “Why did you smile at me?”
“You remind me of a brother I never had but always wanted. And I felt your pain.”
“How do you know about my pain?”
“I think it is similar to my own.”
They sat and talked as long-time friends until the sun set and the wind turned bitter. The first flakes of snow fell as the friend rose and told him he would never forget what they had shared. “I hope we meet again someday. If we do, I think we will be able to carry on from where we left off today as if our conversation had never been interrupted.”
He started to cross the street when he paused and looked back to try to catch a final glimpse of his newfound friend. That was a graced moment, he thought, and he said a prayer of thanks as he continued his crossing. He didn’t hear the car speeding toward him, only the sound of the horn. He turned and looked into the headlights in that long moment before the car slammed into him and his quest was over.