He read the way I’d heard him read aloud from the Letters of Paul, books of the Old Testament. He’d been a lector at church for years; had also spoken in courtrooms, before judges and opposing council, on behalf of clients (I was one, once upon a time); over the public address at Ryan Field, Wapakoneta’s high school soccer complex; and to boys and girls gathered on sidelines or in dugouts at basketball and baseball games.
He read with gravitas. I don’t how else, or how better to say it. He read with the force and clarity earned from years of honing his public-speaking expertise. He wasn’t naturally outgoing; but he could hold a room, and he held this room and all its occupants — my mother, myself, my sisters and their husbands, and my wife — enthralled. He breathed into the words I’d written and rewritten a hundred times a life I hadn’t known was there. Christmas music — Michael Buble, I believe — drifting just under his voice. His was a measured telling, full-throated, robust. I felt spotlighted on an empty stage, as had been one of my most frequent nightmares while teenaged, introverted — I felt choked up and moved, but also exposed.
I wish I had taken notes, so as to have marked the places my phrasings tripped him up as he read. There weren’t many. Remember: my father’d honed his skills reading aloud from Scripture and quoting legalese; both discourses were notorious for archaic phrasings and rhetorical high-handedness.
It wasn’t so much to mark my prose’s syntactic weaknesses that I wished I had been note-taking; had I been paying better attention, I might’ve captured the way I felt when he finished reading.
As soon as he’d uttered the last word, my mother wondered aloud, “What question?
Let me tell you: the story my father read is told by a young man looking back on the night his father was buried. His brother drives him out to the site of the accident, tells him what happened, then grows frustrated, both at his inability to make his younger brother feel the weight of what’s happened and at his younger brother’s failing to grasp what it means that their father was killed in a freak accident.
Where the narrator’s brother sees randomness, the narrator feels something akin to mystery. He has spent considerable time dreaming up the details, trying to get a bead on the feelings surging through him. His mother’s grief remains foreign to him; he sees her sleeping days away and can’t figure the cause of her exhaustion; her depression makes little sense to him; her grief — all grief, and grieving — makes little sense to him.
Moreover, he can’t recall his father’s facial features. His desire to know the nature of what exactly happened to him during the accident is at once so strong and so curiously hemmed away by fear he has lain awake nights contemplating his brother’s nightmares.
He does not ask; he wonders. He supposes. Maybe a little, he hopes.
When his brother, Barry, admits to empathizing with his father’s distractedness (“He wondered aloud whether Dad had been answering a phone call, or daydreaming,” the narrator recalls. “Barry admitted to daydreaming himself. He would get to humming a tune, or thinking, and lose track of whole miles.”), the narrator can’t follow his brother’s thinking; his younger self had been unable to reconcile Barry’s connection to his father’s possible daydreaming behind the wheel to their mother’s depressive exhaustion, or to his own inability to remember his father’s face.
The question my mother wondered about after my father had finished reading the story was Barry’s question to the narrator.
As he pulls the truck around and heads for home, Barry asserts that the randomness wasn’t confined to their father’s accident. It could happen that they get into an accident on their way home. Such violence — random, final — could happen to anyone, he tells the narrator, at any time.
“Doesn’t it make any difference to you?” he asks.
The narrator’s younger self can’t find words; Barry’s questions lingers unanswered.
It was, for me — the writer, and the son seeking approval (I’ll admit to playing the latter role strongly that night) — extremely gratifying to listen to my mother and father talk toward the interpretation of events I’d had when I carved the short story out of a much lengthier piece. I didn’t have to explain that the story tried to position faith in line with mystery.
One thing my mother said to me, during the discussion she and my father carried out more or less on their own, had to do with how surprised she’d been to read the story’s title, “Faith.”
I’d grown up more or less at odds with my parents’ religious faith. I hated going to church, and though it wasn’t until college when I openly began sitting out Communion, I made it no secret that I had trouble reconciling the Catholic mysteries with my own views of what was real and rational, and also with what to me defined one’s moral obligations to self and others.
Though I have taken strides toward rediscovering faith, it shocked me to learn that, whereas I though I’d made such strides openly, my mother still believed I was as at-odds with faith and its mysteries as I had been when I’d smoked, and when forms of rebellion such as smoking, or refusing to sing during Mass or leaning back against the pew after I’d taken communion, felt like shifts toward an independent, rebellious existence; and when I still had a bed and a room in my parents’ house; and when the smell of smoke in my clothes and hair drove my mother to share with me the worst memories of growing up with two parents who’d smoked.
The lessons I might draw from the experience of recalling all of this while listening to my parents discuss what I’d written are numerous:
- My mother’s faith that I would quit smoking (I did, eventually; I’ve been quit now going on fifteen years) might model for me and others what faith can accomplish.
- Though my mother and I fought over my rebellious choices (we clashed especially hard over the F I earned for piss-poor attitude in my eighth-grade Health class), such fights hadn’t doomed us to forever being unable to discuss with each other matters of faith and attitude, poor choices and reconciliation…
- In fact (to piggyback off the last point), such crises of faith and the knowledge I’d gained from shifting back against poor choices I’d made could be seen as the sparks that would eventually lead me to teach.
Mostly, I came to understand that I hadn’t ever really lacked faith per se. I simply hadn’t understood the roots of my faith, its nature, its causes, its aims.
I also came to see that faith for me has strong ties to my mother’s faith — in me, in her life with my father, her family, her health, her quiet ability to put things in order, her quiet strength.
I may say more about such matters later; for now, I have in mind a scene from Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac. In the scene, the narrator, son of a complex, complicated father and forbearing mother, confesses to his counselor at a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation clinic his fears that his father’s crowning achievement — a mathematical proof — may soon be revealed to be flawed, imperfect. His father’s entire reputation would be called into question, as would much of the man’s own self-confidence and self-worth and his legacy to the field of mathematics and to his children, who suffered much over the years while enduring the man’s gradual self-destruction.
The experience of listening to my father read my story, and the subsequent thoughts I had about the nature of my own and my mother’s understanding of faith, implies nowhere near the level of desperation as does Canin’s narrator’s realization that his father might be a failure.
Still, the experience of sharing my story with my parents, listening to my father’s dramatic reading of the piece, and then sitting by while and my mother discussed the meaning which might be found in the story’s final line, feels an awful lot in retrospect like a kind of confession: the Catholic kind, the one-on-one sit-down with a priest or deacon kind, in which one reveals and owns one’s sins in order to be absolved of guilt.
I don’t know what would have been my sin in this particular instance. Writing around a very real and personal instance in my own spiritual life? Fabricating a situation to get at a personal truth? Or maybe my keeping my gradual rediscovery of faith secret from my mother?
Maybe this: we had just that afternoon been to visit my grandmother in her nursing home. She was, and is, suffering from the effects of dementia. Most of her sense of who she is, and who we are, has faded, and she relies now on memories of her past to negotiate the world around her. This meant she only vaguely recognized my siblings and me, and my father, too, for whom her awareness remains strong but is nonetheless clouded by doubt.
While we were there, we took her for a walk down the hallway to the common room and had a conversation with a wheelchair-bound gentleman who claimed to have helped my grandmother acclimate when she’d first arrived. He seemed somehow like he was attempting to be precisely that: a gentleman. He complimented my grandmother on her looks and my father on his children. My father didn’t trust him. He didn’t trust anyone there; most of my grandmother dishware had gone missing. He was convinced her slip-on shoes had, too, until we’d found them on the floor of her closet.
Our cousins had left a Minnie Mouse coloring pad on the window sill, and in an attempt to connect with my grandmother I brought out the pad and helped her color a page. As I watched my grandmother drag the pale tip of the marker over the pink lined Daisy Duck she’d revealed on the page, I remember feeling like I’d done something to diminish my grandmother even more than she’d already been diminishing by the disease clouding her head. My father stood behind her chair and watched her working and said nothing. When it was time for all of us to leave, he crouched before her chair and looked into her face a long time, telling her we had to go and answering her assertions that she wanted to go home by telling her she was home. At some point he’d looked over at me and said a few words I can’t recall, at which point my siblings and I all left her room and waited for my father in the lobby.
Given that the story my father’d read was about the ways sons grieve (or fail to grieve) after losing a parent, perhaps I felt a certain guilt for having… I don’t know if “colonized” is the appropriate term, but I certainly felt a bit shaky sharing a story I’d written out of my best attempts to empathize with what my father was being gouged by right then; I was sure my mother’d experienced a similar complex of emotions after losing her father a few years ago. I don’t think I fully realized this dimension of the piece until my father’d finished reading it. What did I know but what I’d gleaned from watching them grieve? Would they recognize this and take offense at what I’d done, putting what was so close to their own hearts down in writing?
This maybe gets most directly at the source of my guilt: I felt I was an imposter, that I had no business batting around ideas like these in any form, let alone through the machinations of a fictional plot and the exposed thoughts and feelings of fictional characters.
The priests to whom I’d confessed when younger usually ended confession by assigning penance, which I as the penitent accepted as the price for having my transgressions absolved — the relief of being unburdened of my guilt.
Ten Hail Marys. Ten Our Fathers. Ten Glory Bes.
Pray deeply. Contemplate God’s grace. Appreciate the power of forgiveness.
I don’t know whether I fully accept that there’s some cosmic value ascribed to one’s guilt. I do know, though, the effects guilt can have on a person. I’ve experienced such relief when getting things off my chest that I’ve come to value greatly the simple act of sharing what I’ve held close, guilt-ridden or otherwise.
You might think it becomes easier to share when one feels this way. In fact, I’ve always found sharing difficult. Maybe I’ve come to expect so much from the act of sharing that I’ve turned the act into something well above the usual everyday exchanges people have. Maybe, too, since I’ve connected sharing with guilt, I feel wrongly that I’m always coming to another a sinner seeking absolution.
Whenever I got into trouble as a boy, I always told my mother I’d never do the thing I was being punished for again. I often took a similar approach when doing penance. I would promise silently as I prayed that I’d never be mean to a sibling or disrespect one of my parents again.
This resolve lasted only a short while. I would offend again, usually in just the same way I had offended before.
And so I confessed again.
It got to the point I started worrying the priest would think my requests for forgiveness were insincere.
My writing may have contained a multitude of sins, within its language, its conception, and quite possibly too in what it revealed of who I was and wanted to be.
But really, what happened was, sins or no, by writing that piece and sharing it with my parents I opened up to the people I cared about. The work, for all the risks I’d taken writing it, was the product of my best attempts to empathize with those whose troubles and feelings mattered to me.
Did my parents see that?
“Faith’s about believing when you’ve got no proof,” my mother said.
“The mystery of faith,” I said.
In that, we agreed.
Image credit: Josh Applegate via Unsplash