|Apr/May 2005 • Salon|
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
Psalm 130: 1:1-3
And yet here I am. "Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost."
Queens. New York City.
The first wedding I ever did, the bride showed up with a black eye and a story about how she fell down the stairs. I agreed to do the service in the first place because her aunt Luella had a special, and not all together explainable, claim on my conscience.
Luella lived on Main Street in New Hudson, didn't drive in a small town, had loved exactly one man in the nineteen forties, and that man had found another more interesting—("unclaimed jewels" my mother used to call ladies like Luella)—and had many years later, made it her business to send me, her fantasy son/protector/lover/pastor, homemade cookies and microwave popcorn—though she had no income beyond social security—long after I had left the church, tracking me down to Chicago, attending worship once in my new church in the suburbs; and at her death in New Hudson, New York, between Syracuse and Rochester, in the heart of the Finger Lakes, bequeathing to me a pile of photographs of me as a young minister looking earnest, as well as an urgent request to attend her funeral, which came to me in the form of a call from New Hudson's funeral director (who, I was pretty much certain was gay and unhappy about that and who had once tried to talk me into joining the Rotarians with him), here in my last-chance and contemporary home of Queens.
Which I did. First time back in New Hudson since I'd left.
After me in New Hudson had come the minister who'd had an affair with a woman in the church—(Jesus, I knew it was only a matter of time, the lady in question, Shirley, the parishioner, had made it clear to even me that her husband was just no good and that life could be better for her and for me, though she was pretty much old enough, Shirley, the parishioner, to be my mother, and I was twenty five)—and who, after I left, Shirley the parishioner, split the church because the betrayed minister's wife wouldn't leave and was making sure everybody knew her betrayal, and the lady in question, the parishioner, sang in the choir like daring anybody to say something.
And to this day, sometimes Luella appears to me in dreams—or sometimes her ghost just sits next to me only slightly miffed that I won't read her right-wing tracts or give her license to hate. (She wanted so badly to hate.) I can smell her hair. Her Methodist-lady hair, permed and unassertive. For whatever reason I could not deny Luella. And so I did her niece's wedding.
Her niece, Annabel, was a battered woman waiting to happen. And she didn't have to wait for her wedding day. I used to visit Annabel's husband in county lock up in New Hudson. He played cards with his friends, who all had had their drivers licenses revoked—and the guards would bring in six-packs and sit in on a couple of hands. You can smell a lack in a man that makes him need to hit a woman. And you can smell a woman that needs to be hit (God forgive me!). I did the wedding. And have never fully forgiven myself... or better, never forgotten the lesson. Annabel's fall down the stairs on her wedding day.
Jesus, when you were young and I was hungry, it was all so clean.
I met today, almost twenty years later, here in New York City, in the borough of Queens, with Dexter and Clarisse. Not their real names. Clarisse is from St. Thomas and Dexter's people are from St. Kitts, though he grew up in Brooklyn and wears his baseball cap at an angle and is as American as John Dillinger.
Dexter and Clarisse are trying to do the right thing. Clarisse's daughter, from another man, is fifteen and according to the couple, needs a good example set for her. Dexter and Clarisse have been a couple for eight years, the last four of them living together, and his mama just got married and figured maybe that was why Dexter, who is terrified, is finally ready to do the right thing, though this gangsta-boy in a parka was trembling in my presence and wanted to make it clear that he meant no disrespect by wearing the baseball hat in the church office—(as if I were Spencer Tracy in "Boys Town")—it was just that he had had no chance to shave and his hair was a mess and there was an obvious coffee stain on his immaculately white tee shirt.
Dexter is a terrified man. Seems they've been engaged on and off for several years. Him and Clarisse. Kanisha—not her real name—the fifteen year-old daughter, longs for the attention of Dexter. He is troubled by the fact that some of the video games he plays when she is around may not be appropriate for a fifteen year-old girl. And he resents having to feel guilty in her presence. Kanisha, for her part, thinks it's about time that Dexter and Clarisse get married. She wants a daddy like water needs to run downhill. Dexter wants a mama. And I gather Kanisha is pissed.
Dexter is 28 years old. Clarisse is 32.
Dexter looked to me—in his gangsta get up—his rude boy set up—like a man without a costume. The plea in his eye was not only for acceptance—because I am a clergyman and his people are Baptist—but a Hail Mary demand for a new posture. Which I can't give him. He will have to find it in himself.
I'm not gifted with clairvoyance, but it don't take much to see that Dexter is going to need a lot of prayers. I don't think he will hit Clarisse. I expect if backed in a corner he would find a way to destroy himself first, and sadly, and inevitably, her.... But I saw that look in his eye. This was a young man looking for a reprieve.
Clarisse is blind to it. He holds a job. Barely. But he's hers. I agreed to do the wedding. But Dexter... I mean. He's trying to do the right thing. And I don't think he's even remotely equipped. Clarisse will make a beautiful bride.
Lord, protect my child.
I've been thinking about stages of life.
I'm watching the patterns of my fifteen year-old stepson and noticing that at fifteen there is a clear sense of coalescence. He's becoming somebody—which, of course, requires the jettisoning of possibilities—also-rans of the psyche. With a nearly superhuman avarice he orbits certain issues and gravities. He comes back again and again from his efforts, exhausted and without resolution. He hardens in response and habit.
You can watch it happen: his stock of possibility is reduced in the exact proportion to which he becomes actual. And in observation, like some dream in which you cannot move, he excludes on the way up what he will encounter on the way down. (Lord have mercy.)
I'm in awe sometimes. You can watch a man be born and a child become problematized. You can watch the birth of ghosts.
And there just ain't nothing you can do about it.
Parenthood (Jesus Christ!): the urge to stop time at all costs is nearly hardwired. What an amazing gift, to be able to pass on the knack of becoming. Yeah. And this too: what a nightmare to know the house is burning and that you will never be able to get him out in time.
I've also been thinking about ghosts.
The week before last during the sermon here, in Queens, I looked up, and there sitting in the wrong pew was Gracie Moyer, who passed away this summer while I was on vacation. I had done her husband's funeral right before we left. She had terminal cancer and was clearly just hanging on until her husband passed. She was afraid to leave him alone.
For his own part, when Gracie was diagnosed as terminal, Dennis, her husband, just gave up and died. He just stopped living. He became listless, refused to eat, wouldn't look at anyone (when I visited him in the hospital, he turned his face to the wall—the nurses assured me that he did that to everyone)—and he just died. The doctors never determined medically what was the matter with him.
In any case, the week before last I looked up and Gracie was sitting there in church in a place she never sat in life. Her hair was all disheveled like she'd just gotten out of bed, and she seemed very disoriented. It startled me. Lost my place in the sermon. Stumbled over words. She seemed so disoriented.
The next day I got news that Bessie McAninch passed away. I'd never met her but was relatively close with her son, who has recently moved to New Jersey and found another church. He called and asked me to do the service. She was in her early nineties and had just had a stroke, although up until that time she had been in very good health. She was a pious woman, and after the stroke she wondered to her son what she had done to make God angry with her. She came from old Scots stock. I went out to Westchester and did a graveside service—just immediate family.
While in the cemetery, I looked up and there was Gracie again with her bed-head, still looking disoriented. She was wandering around the tombstones in a hospital smock about thirty feet from Bessie's open grave. She seemed so lost.
The next week I got a call that Mabel Masterson passed. I did her funeral last Friday. She was 93, would have been 94 in a week. Mabel had been in good health until about a year ago when she had a stroke and went blind. At the service her neighbor, who took care of her as if she were her own mother, wept and said, "Now she can see!" Again, Gracie was there in the funeral home, same hair, same confusion.
The last time I saw Gracie alive, it was clear between us that it was the last. The next day I was going on vacation for about a month. I gave her home communion and food from our garden. She told me that she was at peace with her passing. Told me that I should just go on to Michigan because I had a family and they needed me more than she did.
She held on until two days before we were supposed to be back. And then died. I got the call somewhere on the road between Chicago and New York.
I am well aware when I see her that she is not really there... but then again, I am seeing her plain as day. I'm also aware that there is probably some guilt in the fact that I wasn't here to do her funeral. If we had driven all night, we could have made it.
Beyond that, I am struck by her appearance. She seems to be in such distress. For a while I tried to tell myself that she just wants to be with the people she loves—the people in her church. But the truth of the matter is the apparition I see is plainly lost. Maybe she is a manifestation of my own grief. There have been too many funerals in the last year or so. The old folks are dying off.
But this isn't the first time that I've seen apparitions. They usually come at some moment of decision in my life. When I was trying to make up my mind to go to seminary, I saw Krishna and he winked at me. There were also a series of very melodramatic dreams in which the blood dripping from the hands of Francis of Assisi would threaten to drown me, until one night he took my hands in his and held them until I started to bleed. The blood no longer wanted to kill me and the little Poverello never came to me in my dreams again. I applied to seminary.
On my honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, while my wife slept, I saw a Spanish Dona in, what I seemed to understand to be, seventeenth-century garb. She had come to Hispaniola as the wife of a merchant involved in the slave trade. She said "Abierto!" and scared the hell out of me. She sat on the balcony in the corner. I couldn't move for entire seconds. Long seconds. "Abierto!" she cried. When we left there was a statue of the local brown virgin in the airport. She was dressed in a peasant dress, but all I could see was the finery of my Spanish Lady.
It would seem that I'm at some moment of great change or decision. I'm irritable and quick tempered. I've started reading Dickens novels to calm myself. I circle and circle like my dog, but just never get settled. Gracie looks so disoriented.
New York City. Outer Boroughs. Queens.
Julio—not his real name—came to see me yesterday, and the cat got out, and we chased him around while he told me that this time it looked pretty bad. His lawyer wouldn't work with him anymore because he hasn't been paid in a year, and because Julio hasn't worked in a year. Lawyer says maybe he can find someone to appeal. Lawyer says he's got sixty days. Lawyer says he doesn't see much point in it. Sooner or later they're going to deport him. We couldn't get the cat, so we let him stay out in the cold.
Whenever Julio comes to visit, he starts the conversation before I fully register who it is at my door at dinner time, (when sometimes I just don't answer the door, and sometimes I do, because Jesus is always knocking and you got to open the door sometimes). He always tells me when I answer the door, never waiting for a greeting, that all you really need to do is be patient because the Lord will take care of you and people just don't understand that because they just want everything on their own time and don't seem to realize that their very need to control everything is exactly the problem because God will only help those who completely surrender to his will and you know, he reads his Bible everyday—(and here he always shows me his highlighted Bible in a fine leather case and looks at me expectantly.)
And, I don't think it's just my imagination that every time Julio comes to visit me, the cat gets out. The look in Julio's eyes is like sparks to gasoline. He is a trapped man.
Julio has been fighting for custody of his daughter, since long before the liver trouble that kept him from working for six months, and since long before the smoke finally cleared from lower manhattan, revealing the home truth of no jobs and hard times in the city for the salt of the earth and for all the families of the fallen heroes, like the four firemen in our local firehouse who didn't come home on 9/12. In fact, ever since she's been born, and I think she's four or five by now. On the strength of a court-ordered visitation schedule, he brings her to church every Sunday in a tiny leather jacket, and she looks like a cross between Marlon Brando and Shirley Temple.
Julio's babygirl draws on the prayer cards while her Dad, who has been recently elected a Deacon, hands out bulletins and takes the freshly laundered linens from the plates teaming with cubes of wonder bread and grace on Communion Sundays; and Julio's babygirl dances on the maroon velvet pew covers when we sing "All Creatures of Our God and King," to the inexhaustible disapproval of the meticulously head-dressed lady whose father was a starched-collar-minister in Nigeria. Julio's babygirl makes me smile and Julio proud.
Julio's baby's mom lives in the Bronx and smokes crack and hates Julio more than she loves her daughter, and has never quite forgiven him for coming out of prison a different man who was newly cautious and serious and a little touched by the lunatic light of Jesus Christ, his personal Lord and Savior in whom God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
His baby's mom got him in trouble in the first place when she was giving him the business and he said to hell with it and started partying with some bad men. Colombians from the neighborhood. Compadres from the barrio. Men who took no shit from their women. Tough guys who let him share a beer and a snort. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute and served five years of a seven-year sentence.
According to Julio he just happened to be with these men when they got busted. And he had a beeper, which was evidence that he was a dealer. Could have got off if he'd cooperated. But these are Colombians. They don't just kill you, they kill your mother and your sister. Could have pled guilty. But he didn't do anything. Wrong place at the wrong time. Five years.
Would have been out sooner, but he got into a little trouble with a Muslim. Extended his stay for thirty days. Thirty days which somehow, as I understand it, threw him over the line into a newly minted law that said all convicted alien felons, who have served five years or more, have to be deported, even if they left their country when they were kids and had no family back there to go to, no marketable skills other than the ones that got them in this situation in the first place, turning places like Jamaica, for instance, into nightmarish gang-worlds beyond the Euro-American theme park resorts.
He's been out on bail since '96 or '97. Diligently trying to stay. Frantically, panickedly. Trying to stay. In the only place he's ever had any roots, if you can call them that, in this, the city which never remembers, in the land that always forgets. (They are talking about closing down the Plaza!)
Jesus has been good to Julio, kept him on the straight and narrow, kept him from doing what he wanted to do so badly when the union rep told him one too many times that maybe there would be something next week, little bit of work, next week; I mean, something really bad, because someone really ought to pay and a man can only take so much and can't make it on his own, but needs the Word, the Holy Scripture, because we walk by faith and not by sight and Jesus has been good to him, and he always insists on that, Jesus has been good to him, whenever he comes to meet me during dinner time in Queens and the cat gets out because Julio is a trapped man and his eyes are like sparks to gasoline.
I made my calls to the politicians. And I made my calls to the immigration hotlines. And I made my prayers. But you know what? They are going to deport Julio. They just are. And his baby's mom is going to refuse to let Julio's mom see the baby, no matter how many times I call her. And because it was drugs, they just ain't ever going to let him back in this country. And Julio will be just gone. Just gone.
People get disappeared in this city. Damn cat always sneaking out the door when you're not looking. And all those eyes. All those expectant eyes. Jesus eyes. Like sparks to gasoline. Jesus eyes. Like every cheek turned. Jesus eyes. Like there ain't no end to it, just endless turning. Like Julio looking at me—me, who really does have a very cozy home and life with the missus and the boy—and saying, "Don't be sad Pastor, God is good."
Been mad at the damn cat all day—and all out of sorts. I want to smash things. I want to bite the hand that feeds me. I want to rest in my Father's arms, looking up with Jesus eyes.
Last Sunday, for the first time, after nearly seventeen years of doing this, I got distracted by my own sermon. It was as if I were listening to it at the same time that I was delivering it. It was as if I were still listening to it after I was done with delivering it. It was a Communion Sunday.
It's Lent and the Old Testament Lesson was about Sin. God calls his people out. He calls the hills and mountains to bear witness. He has a controversy. Why are you treating me like a redheaded stepchild, God wants to know. Why have you forgotten the miracles I have wrought? And the people have no response.
There is a great deal of trust involved in this—and the lack of trust is the problem to begin with—but it's there, the lack of trust, like the need to keep one foot outside the covers on cold winter bed-nights, to remember where you came from before comfort was an option.
It struck stroke strike me—and not in such a way, this time, that I saw myself in the pulpit alone in the sunlight coming from the stained glass windows, pierced and possessed by the light. It struck stroke strike me until I was really and truly confused. Groggy. At a loss. Like an old man who has expended everything he has to get up, and then can't remember what it was that was so important that he had to get up for in the first place, but there he is standing.
I could not remember how to do Communion. After nearly seventeen years, I couldn't remember. I reached, and the moment wasn't there.
I blushed. And served Communion anyway. With Grace.
Lord, protect my child.