Written in 2005 revised in honor of my father on this Father’s Day, as close as I come to a sermon. A bit longer
It is Sunday Morning and I am eleven years old. It is late October and it is misty, but there is still some warmth in the air. It will be Halloween soon and my costume is ready. It is a vampire and very scary or I believe so at least. I look more a drag queen cherub than vampire, but I do not know this at 11. My father is up first as he always is. He often does not sleep; he stays up worrying about money and making things ok for his family as he has for years. He starts awakening us at around 7 a.m. My grandfather is visiting us and is sleeping in a chair by the large window of our small apartment. I am sleeping on the couch as usual. My grandfather looks up slowly his rosary beads still in his hands from saying prayers from the night before. I know that his last prayer was for his Mary who is long gone. It always is. He talks to her at night when he thinks I am asleep and tells her that he loves her and her daughters are all right.
My father is walking around anxiously. I know my father has something planned, but that is always the case he is a man of many of plans. Who knows what this plan will be certainly not me.
“Everyone up and get dressed we are going to get some Egg McMuffin’s, coffee, juice and the Times and go to the park.”
My mother is now standing in the yellow and green wallpapered kitchen and is looking at my father with reluctance, but she nods her head a little and goes into my 16 year old sister’s bedroom to get her ready. My sister is autistic and does not speak and it is hard to get her moving sometimes, but she definitely will find interest in Egg McMuffin’s. She sometimes pretends she does not understand some things because she does not want to, but I know she understands this topic. It takes a little while, but in about a half hour we are ready. My grandfather moves very slow and now that my sister is awake she moves very fast so we have an extreme contrast of paces. My sister can go from morose to manic in 5 seconds flat which sometimes creates much drama, but is never boring. I grab my basketball and put it in the 1973 Orange VW van. My father says, “I am going to go see if Gene wants to go.” Gene is the man who lives in the next apartment over. His wife is not there right now she is off either seeking Jesus at a revival or checking in to the Psych Ward. They actually met and married in the Psych Ward in upstate New York in the 1970’s. My father comes back with Gene in about 5 minutes. His eyes are tired and he is wearing the same clothes as yesterday. He does not smell good. I know he has not slept. Sometimes he is scared to sleep. His medications sometimes help, but there are times his schizophrenia does not relent. I don’t know what it is like, but I know it is bad sometimes. There are nights I hear him scream through the walls of the apartment when it gets to be too much and he doesn’t know what is real.
“Hey everyone, how you doing?” Gene says managing a weak smile.
“Hello Eugene! How is your mother doing?” my grandfather says in his jovial manner kind of like W.C. Fields. My grandfather always wants to know how the ladies are doing. He is 83, but old Willard never gives up his interest in the welfare of the fairer sex.
“She is good Will.”
“Excellent.” My grandfather smiles knowing all is well with Gene’s mother or perhaps for some other purpose, I do not know.
“Everyone in the van,” my father says.
We all get in and start on our way. The trip to the McDonalds is about five miles. Burger King is much closer, but my father does not like their coffee. I like the Egg McMuffin’s anyway. We then stop at the store and get the Times. My father is talking all the way about Mark Twain or Andrew Carnegie. He always talks about Mark Twain, but he must have just read a book on Carnegie and he wants to share the newfound knowledge as quickly as possible.
The park is now about a 4 mile drive. It is a huge park that used to be a small airport. No one is there at all and we drive up to the tables and basketball courts and get out with our coffee, juice, food, and paper. Most birds are gone, but there are some that are still left trying to figure out when to leave. I eat my food and gulp down my juice fast and go to shoot baskets. My grandfather comes over in a little while and starts to shoot baskets with me. He shoots like it is 1940 still, much like the black and white films of the old time basketball stars. My grandfather was a great dancer and a bowler in his time, but never a great basketball player. Baseball was the only real sport when he was young.
Gene is wandering around with his coffee and my sister is wandering around with my mother. It takes me a moment to realize the purpose of the trip and its timing. Gene and Erin my sister cannot come to the park on a normal warm day in summer, spring, or early fall. They cannot come when it is sunny and there are people here it is too much for them. At best the world is overwhelming for them. Amongst friends or those that understand them it is still difficult. When put among those that are unkind or choose not to understand their circumstances the world is hellish. I will not detail the cruelties I have seen. It would serve no real purpose. They exist though. I have witnessed them.
Erin and Eugene are the children of silence and nature. They are the twisted helpless things which are hard to understand and harder to love, yet impossible to surrender to the void. They are those who are both forsaken and touched by God. This early morning in October with the mist and the chill in the air is their time. There is no one here to judge them. Judgment does not always come from a stranger, but sometimes comes down hardest on the damaged in their own comparison to the stranger. You cannot look at someone else without asking “What am I and why have I been forsaken?”
I bounce my basketball and look over at my father. He not a man of many financial means and he has his own demons that haunt him and maybe are relieved somewhat here and now, but he knows when he can give someone something that matters, which in this case is moments as close to peace and normalcy as they can come. He is doing the crossword puzzle at his normal lighting pace. In my many years I have not met many that do it as fast as he once did. Sometime in the future I will look up a word unsure of its meaning trying to fit it into a crossword puzzle myself. I am inept at crosswords, but I enjoy them. The word has a number of different definitions. One is Mercy; clemency. Another is A temporary immunity or exemption; a reprieve. Another is Divine love and protection bestowed freely on people. The word is grace and it brings me back to this moment on that future date. When cancer finally eats the last of my father’s bones years later I have only one wish. The wish is that he finds the peace he tried to grant two lost and damaged people that day and which he did reaching out to other lost souls over the years. I know now looking back on it that as child my father heard the priest read to him and the others in the congregation from Genesis 4:9 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? My father even as child understood the wrongness of Cain’s question even though he was probably hungry at the time due to the poverty in which he lived. He lived his life with the idea he was his brother’s keeper regardless of what the world did to him. My father never took me to church ever, but I realize the he showed me what he believed by actions not words. The true measure of life is that of single moments and Sunday mornings and the infinite grace the heart and mind can derive from them and so that we may gain triumph by carrying those moments and denying them to that which would debase or destroy them. We can ask ourselves ‘What can I do for my fellow man when I have so little for myself?’ This disregards the truth of the matter which is the smallest things can fuel us and sustain us and the kindness of one moment or decency of one act can change the course of entire lives and histories.
Gene McLaughlin 2016