Vigil

On the passing of my father-in-law, Henry Rael, Sr., April 20, 2015

IMG_6058That first night each of us prayed in our own way. My Henry held his dad’s hand and whispered, almost chanting, “we love you, thank you, it’s okay, you can rest…” His sister held the other hand, smoothed her dad’s hair and prayed the Our Father. I sang Hail Mary, Gentle Woman and Las Mañanitas. Priscilla spoke in tongues.

We thought he would go any minute, grasping our hands, lifting his chest from the bed only to collapse into it again, moving his lips to speak, no sound. The sun rose, and my father-in-law was still with us, the hum of the oxygen machine with its intermittent bursts still a constant backdrop. We drank coffee, ran home to replenish our overnight bag, canceled meetings and travel, made arrangements for our pets. We lit a candle and kept it burning on the bookcase where he kept his Bible and binders of Spanish liturgical music he’d composed over the past 40 years.

We made agreements: when we are here, we will be here. We won’t speak about him. We will speak to him, with him. We will do all we can to make him comfortable.

The next night we took turns. There were long, quiet hours when each of us was alone with him, the light low from his bedside lamp. Loose from its ponytail, my hair cast wild shadows on the wall. I think the shadows spooked him. He was a man who sought light.

And so I changed the angle of the lamp and sat on the floor next to his bedside table.

He stopped eating. Spoonfuls of water to ice chips to a sponge to wet his lips. White spots on the nails. Dark spots on the hands. Cold toes. He didn’t talk or close his eyes for three days and nights.

To his bedside those last 72 hours came the estranged sister, the gay nephew, the niece who’d lost a young daughter a few years prior, the cousin and sister with their rosaries, the priest who got a smile out of him when he said, “I’m here to pray with you.” This is how we should pass. At home, with people we love, no need to talk, just listening to beloved after beloved say, we love you, thank you, you are good, God is with you. And as steady as the oxygen machine, his daughter, his son, his wife of nearly 50 years. That last morning he looked Henry in the eye, took his last breath, and he was gone. I woke to my mother- and sister-in-laws’ weeping. He is gone.

I think of Mary Magdalene weeping at Jesus’s empty tomb. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13)

The day he was buried, rain pounded our procession as we rode from church to cemetery, then again from cemetery to reception. I had run out early that morning to buy umbrellas and waterproof mascara, but we didn’t need the umbrellas because both times we stepped out of the family limo the rain stopped long enough for the pallbearers to rest their boutonnieres on Henry’s casket, for his white-haired cousin to sing an alabado, long enough for my Henry, his brother, his sisters, and his mom to reach across their folding chairs under a blue tent and hold onto one another as the casket was lowered into the ground.

He is gone.

And he is here. In the choir that played his music at the rosary and funeral, in the angels with their crockpots of posole, beans, red chile, green chile stew, their trays of brownies and bowls of macaroni salad, their packets of sugar and powdered creamer, their bottomless cups of coffee. He is in the condolence cards, in these words from a dear friend: “In Navajo Way when a person passes, we talk about how our essence is to be wiped from this world—our breath, fingerprints, footprints, etc. The rain helps to cleanse us from this world to go into the next world. I thought about the rain that has fallen since Friday. Your father left such significant marks upon this land that it took so long, so many days of rain to celebrate his essence.” This is the wettest summer in the children’s lifetime, the first summer that our peach tree—a gift from Henry Sr., started from the stone he planted in a backyard bucket—yielded more than one fruit, a dozen peaches on the northern branches and on the south, about twenty nectarines.

He died during the Easter season, just as he’d wished. “‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’” (Luke 24:5)

He has risen.

And he is here. In the strum of P’s fingers across the strings of the guitar he left for her. In K’s desire to sleep in Nano’s bedroom. “It’s a little creepy, but even if there’s a ghost, it’s a good ghost.” He is here, in Henry’s eulogy, written and spoken with such honesty and love.

He was 93 years old. He was a good man. No weeping and gnashing of teeth for this one. I picture Jesus and Saint Peter welcoming him, “Well done, good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of [the] Lord.” (Matthew 25:21)

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Published in: on August 18, 2015 at 7:00 am  Comments (5)  
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The Savior, Part 5b: (Gotta Have) Faith

Continued from July 2 post: The Savior, Part 5a: (Gotta Have) Faith

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Twice in my life I have returned home from two-year stays in other countries. Neither time was fun or easy. After Belize, the priest at my home parish opened his Father’s Day homily with an observation that all movies featuring single fathers are comedies. I thought he’d go on to say that fathers were important, that Hollywood did them wrong, that men needed support in their roles as fathers. Instead he launched into a diatribe against “the radical feminist movement of the 1970s,” excoriating the bad women who had children out of wedlock and kept babies from their fathers, the awful women who pursued careers and forced children into daycare. He stayed with the image of father as helpless buffoon. This from a man who had never parented, a priest in a community with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

He was one priest in one parish, but I thought of all the people listening to him that day. My high school classmates who’d earned diplomas after giving birth. The boy being raised by a single dad because his mother died. The fathers. My mom who worked her ass off to become a teacher, whose salary kept us afloat when my dad’s job hit a slump and dropped everyone’s hours. The friend who left the mother of his child right after high school. The childless woman. Me. Do I matter to this priest? This church? Do I matter at least as much as the child I might someday bear? And if I never bear children, do I matter at all?

IMG_5930I didn’t lose my faith. It changed. This was when I turned to La Virgen de Guadalupe, weeping before the tilma at her Basilica in Mexico City. This was when I started hiking, when I began shaping journal reflections into poems, when I jogged North Valley ditches with my roommate and her yellow lab, when I found a good therapist. This was when I had an egg rubbed over me by a traditional Mexican healer. I buried the egg and the rosemary she’d swept over me; I felt rooted and ready to fly at the same time and knew I had found a kind of home.

I would never leave the Catholic Church for another. I would miss the ritual, the songs, the liturgical calendar, communion, the sacraments. I would miss the bloody saints, the reverence, the solemnity of Christ’s suffering, a suffering we share in the breaking of bread, and I would miss the joy that follows that suffering because, like the denouement of a good novel, it is earned.

The Catholicism I grew up with and deepened at Harvard was of the Americas, tied to ancient tradition and new, post Vatican II, folk songs in Spanish, children sitting around the altar. Nuns never rapped me on the knuckles with rulers. (Though I, along with all of the other children who crowded into Father Stanley Hall for weekly catechism, was justifiably terrified of Sister Rosalie.) I was part of the mass, a lector, playing my trumpet, serving communion, holding the holy book above my head in procession with the priest.

IMG_5926I still feel at home dipping my fingers in a holy water font, still feel drawn to ritual and sacrament, to Good Friday mass, leaving the church in silence as the white cloth is gathered from the altar and folded. I am learning the newer mass parts (though “consubstantial” will never sound right to me). Pope Francis gives me hope. (Favorite quote so far: “Who am I to judge?”)

As with the fire, building my faith was never about trying to recreate my old life, but about creating and recreating with what remains: the ancient, the acequia, el mestizaje, the word.

Published in: on July 31, 2015 at 7:55 am  Comments (4)  
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The Savior 4: Three Chords

Continued from March 10 post, The Savior, Part 3: La Culpa

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My second year as a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) in Belize the church was my job. An American priest who’d spent most of his time in country on the grounds of a private school became the pastor at St. Martin de Porres (nicknamed St. Martin de Poors) Church, across the street from our JV house. I’d worked myself out of a job with the Lay Ministers Program. The wonder-JV a year ahead of me who played guitar, ran the children’s choir, coached the soccer and track teams at the adjoining school, and had attracted legions of grade school admirers who affectionately ran after his bicycle as he rode onto the church/school grounds calling, “Mistah Phil, Mistah Phil!” had completed his service and returned to the U.S. I became the Pastoral Assistant.

I’ve written about this before, trying to lead the children’s choir with my three chords on the guitar Mr. Phil left behind, the genios Father would throw me from the altar when I got it wrong. Teaching religion to the kids in Standard 3 because their regular classroom teacher was Jehovah’s Witness. Setting up the school counseling program with another JV, though I had majored in History and my only training was a three-day course put on by an all-white team from the U.S. whose orientation to Belize was a coffee meeting with a former Embassy worker.

I naively (it goes without saying) believed the kids at St. Martin’s would trust me, that all they needed was a good person to listen to them, and that together we’d develop the skills they’d need to navigate poverty, violence, absent parents (many of whom were trying to establish a foothold in the U.S.).

“They won’t go too deep,” Father said. “They just need a little encouragement.”

Sometimes we drew pictures. Sometimes we did homework. Sometimes we sat in silence. I thought instinct would guide me. I was afraid to ask for help. And the one time I did, reaching out to a family violence prevention organization, I got called into the principal’s office to face the mother whose son told me she beat him. “He’s a naughty boy,” she said. I walked straight from her office to an empty classroom and wept loud and messy for the shame of f#@*ing up, for the certainty that I’d failed him. He didn’t come to me anymore. Even now, I don’t know what else I could have done.

To Be Continued

Published in: on June 18, 2015 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Savior, Part 2: The Dream

continued from January 28 blog post, The Savior, Part 1: Breaking

Jesuit Volunteer (JV) program, Belize City, Belize, September 1994

Sister Eileen is my boss, the founder and director of the Lay Minsters Program for the Catholic Diocese of Belize. We don’t know each other well. I can count on two hands the number of weeks we have worked together, on one hand the number of parishes we have visited. To me, most of the fifty or so lay ministers around the country are names in a ledger. Some are photographs from Sister Eileen’s albums of the group’s annual retreats. To me–less than two months in the country–only a handful are real human beings who have invited us into their homes, attended one our trainings, or popped into the office at the back of a dark parish hall to check out the new space or say hello and offer their support to the American volunteer. While the other JVs teach high school and junior college classes and develop friendships with colleagues, I spend my days alone, reading the lay ministry curriculum, studying photographs of people I hope will one day be my community, organizing the office, and waiting for Sister Eileen to return from the States where she has gone to unravel the mystery of debilitating back pain that set in over the summer and has only gotten worse.

This isn’t what I envisioned. I miss my friends, my U-mates (so named because our dorm rooms sat along a u-shaped hall, two doubles, three singles, one bathroom at each tip of the hall, and somehow Dawn and I had one bathroom to ourselves while the five boys shared the other). I miss my Catholic Student Association amigas, Sunday evening student mass in the basement of Saint Paul’s Church, spaghetti dinners, making brownies in the student center kitchen, praying through final exams in the chapel. I miss my family, our goofy sense of humor, my nephews who ask me to draw smiley faces on their big toes, my Grandma China’s close hugs, my mom and dad. I don’t know how to be here yet.

*

In the dream a note written on blue paper greets me as I walk in the door of the Jesuit Volunteer house—my house for the next two years—in Belize City. Your mom called. You need to go home right away. The next moment I am walking off the plane into my mom’s arms at the El Paso airport. I expect her sit me down and tell me that one of my grandparents or siblings is gravely ill. But there is no announcement, no let’s talk before we drive home. Instead she asks if I’m hungry. We drive back to Deming, nearly two hours (the speed limit is still 55, even in my dream) of small talk about her classroom, painting the house, the new priest and how my grandma still doesn’t like him because he only ever talks to her about me and that’s because I went to Harvard. Finally, as we pass the newly expanded golf course with its thirsty grass and turn into our neighborhood, I ask, “Mom, what happened?”

“What do you mean, mi’ja?”

“Why am I here? Is there an emergency or something?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. You just sounded so sad when we talked to you, I thought you should come home.”

I tell her that I need to go back to Belize. I’m not finished. I haven’t done what I was supposed to do.

*

I wake to the same shapes, sounds, and colors I’ve grown used to in Belize: pre-dawn light on the wood walls of my bedroom, hammock hanging still from a hook in the corner, clock reading 5-something, journal from my night table, to my hand, to my lap where I write the dream and maybe something new for me in Belize. I don’t know what I am supposed to do here, but I know this is where I belong.

I don’t remember the rest of that day, only the phone call that night from Sister Eileen’s roommate. Sister Eileen’s back pain is Multiple Myeloma. I know without being told that it’s advanced, that Sister Eileen won’t be back, that the cancer will kill her and quickly, but not quickly enough to spare her pain. I know that in an instant I have gone from Assistant to Director of a program I know little about in a country that is not mine. And though I want to run, I stay because I know, at least for now, this is where I belong.

Published in: on February 3, 2015 at 2:09 pm  Comments (4)  
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