Monday, September 18, 2017

In Father's Eyes by John Mullen

John Mullen's Irish tale steeped in poetry, religion, and the guilt of a son's betrayal.

They needed an extra bearer on each side of Father's coffin to hoist him onto his funereal bier, later to ease him into his Irish soil. The morning sparkled with a gusty wind that sent dry air in great circles, rousing and mingling the smells of laden sheep with the lush grasses blanketing the hillsides. Mum and I stood in front, our backs to the others sitting in rented plastic chairs. Her arm pulled mine tightly against her; I in navy suit with white shirt and gray tie, she in the long-sleeved black dress that had adorned her on occasions of death as far back as I had memory.

I leaned to whisper, "Why did the monk Seamus do the church service? Why not Father Keely?"

She said, "Mary Healy told me he went down to the Garda. They arrested him."

I said, "Arrested?"

Mother whispered, "No one knows why."

But I knew all too well.

Friends from years earlier still rib me that I called my da, Father. But only that seemed to fit. He was wide through the shoulders, with fat hands and a belly that, well into my teens, I could punch until my arms were spent, Father groaning in feigned injury. Still, his heavy bulk could enfold me as gently as a soft wool blanket spun from the shearing of local herds. His love for me was as obvious as it was wordless; a mussing of my red hair, a soft hand on the back. These gestures were the ways of men, so I supposed at least. And they brought with them a balance and quiet that took root in my life.

Father called me 'Son', never 'William', my given name, or by the common endearments of that time, 'Jock', 'Bud' or 'Spike'. I was his son. It was an elemental fact that bore on its shoulders a tangle of primitive duties and expectations. 'Son' was a position in the world, a job of sorts for both of us. Being 'Son' forged for me a tight bond to where I belonged, to home, a center that I would not physically occupy but neither would I relinquish. I was his son, whether listening as he read from Kidnapped or flying on business to Hong Kong. And he was Father.

Father was a trucker, wielding articulated lorries, what Americans, what we, call 'tractor trailers' and what Father called simply 'artics'. His jobs sent him over the ferry routes from Belfast to Holyhead and Liverpool in England and to Cairnryan in Scotland. His goings and comings were arrhythmic, filling my early life with dark absences, always of unknown duration; periods of waiting that slowed the standing clock in the small parlor almost to full stop. But these drab weeks empty of Father would eventually explode into joyous homecomings, celebrations that began with Father barging through the front door, booming.

I am of Ireland,

And the Holy Land of Ireland

Mum would run to him with,

'And time runs on,' cried she.

'Come out of charity

And dance with me in Ireland.'

After I learned my Yeats, I would butt in with full voice as low as I could make it,

One man, one man alone

In that outlandish gear,

One solitary man

Of all that rambled there

Had turned his stately head.

'That is a long way off,

And time runs on,' he said,

'And the night grows rough.'

These were sacred moments. The two of them, as if young lovers still, dancing and laughing, Mum's face shining, Father gleeful, stomping and twirling, and little me trying to hang on. Then Father's voice would boom again, "And dinner, my wondrous woman, is there a dinner in this blessed hoose?" And we would share his homecoming reward of boiled beef, onions, potatoes and carrots, salted to near nauseous consequence. Later, on those nights of Father's return, when they thought me sleeping, I would feel the rhythm of their love in the wide boards beneath my bed.

In time Father judged that I had done well; crossing the Atlantic for Yale College, then a good job and then good money. I presented him with Maureen, my Irish sweetheart whom he loved as much as I, and later with his two grandies, hugged and praised without reservation.

I write of Father because it was he whom I twice betrayed, acts that I now drag through this life, acts that slow and shrivel me. These failures propel me now to this baring, this confession. I offer it despite the certitude that it will achieve nothing. His eyes, so near to his death, eyes that cut through me in searing disappointment, that can now never soften.

But do not take from what I describe that Mum was any less a force. She was a straight-backed woman with smooth skin and bright blue eyes and with a power that was every bit Father's match. I see her now in memory from my bedroom window; I, still groggy with sleep, she, striding punctually to weekday mass. Her image resists fading, the heavy woolen coat, polished black shoes and small round hat that covered little of her wild red hair. Mum's unflinching steps reflected her life, never hesitating before what she judged as right or good.

Prominent among Mum's determinations was to spend her blessed eternity with Father. In this matter there was no compromise, no subtlety, never a hesitation. I recall her asking me, it was shortly after my marriage, "Do you think God will receive him then?"

"Who, Mum?"

"Your father, of course." Mum understood her theology without the clever nuances of the present age; salvation through Church alone, the 'One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church'.

I said, "Shouldn't you ask Father Keely about that?"

And indeed she would. I first heard of Gerald Keely the year before I left for the States. In the parlor on a rainy night, the coals red hot in the stove, the room reassuringly stuffy.

Mum said to Father, "Henry, there's a new priest at St. Bridget's."

"That's nice, Dear."

His look flickered briefly above the newsprint, calculating her purpose.

"You'd like him, I think," she said. "He loves poetry."

"Uh huh."

Mum said, "Wouldn't it be a nice thing to have him to dinner?"

"If you like, Dear," adding after a pause, "But he should feel no obligation to bring along his Gerard Hopkins."

"You'll be nice, Henry, or the Lord Himself will see to it."

To her delight, Father and the Reverend Gerald Keely fell easily into a devoted friendship. Keely was dark-haired and freckled, small, with round wiry spectacles and a voice that bellowed its deep tones throughout his oversized church. He had that way of the older village priests; tough, pub drinking guys, striding confidently through village streets, black cassock flowing behind and a handsome black biretta on their head. He and Farther did argue poetry, Larkin rather than Hopkins, and chased trout in the streams on the edge of town. They enjoyed and valued each other's company in the way outwardly dissimilar people so often do; the differences providing an enjoyable tension, a small sting of risk.

Gerry, as Father called him, avoided the thicket of theology, having heard second hand some of Father's religious opinions. In fact, Father had little interest in religious speculations or dogma. It was the Church of Rome he despised, all the way from the Pope's "Fookin garish dresses" to our former pastor's furtive drunkenness.

"A nest of bloody vipers like none ever seen in human history," he pronounced. "Where's the good Saint Patrick now that we really need him? Those bloody snakes."

Father read his church history as a rising procession of hypocrisy and scandal that preyed upon the poor and less educated - but fooled others as well.

"Even the great Chesterton fell victim." A fact he found incredulous.

He knew little doctrine, nothing of the Council of Nicaea, of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Heavenly Father. But ask him of the sins of Pope Benedict the Ninth and he could settle in for an evening before the coal fire, exposing in lavish prose the man's rapes, adulteries, and orgies, all culminating in his selling of the 'Chair of Saint Peter' to the highest bidder. Father was as good a storyteller teller as any Irishman, commanding an immense, though narrowly focused, repertoire. Of course, Father silenced his tongue on these topics during the long Sunday meals and the subsequent cribbage games that Father Keely so often enjoyed with us.

Over the years Gerald Keely dodged with graceful tact Mum's growing persistence in the matter of Father's soul, including her visions of his everlasting misery and her loneliness in an assured eternity. "Can a man be saved just by being good, Father?" "Is the Eucharist required for salvation, Father?" After two or three of these queries, Father would exclaim:

"For the sake of sweet Heaven, dear woman, would you give the man a rest? He's off duty, he is."

Father retired to his disability allowance at age sixty-three, and his decline was rapid after that. Two years later the call came from Gerald Keely that Father's brain was leaking blood and a stroke had followed. Keely met my plane and got right to the point as we left the airport.

"I'm worried about your mother, William.

"Mum? It's Father who's ill. How is he?"

"I don't think he'll make it back," he said. "And he'd likely regret it if he did."

"That bad?"

"He's proud man, William. Some Catholics would say excessively so, though I wouldn't... ah... count myself among them."

The priest was struggling with tears. Then he broke, "I don't know how I can stay... I mean..."

But he clamped down hard on himself and stopped. He blew his nose on a soaked handkerchief and drove on, his jaw tight as a vice. As we entered the hospital parking lot, he stopped but left the engine running,

"I won't go in. Not this time. But I should tell you, William, your mother is making a novena, and -"

There was a knocking on the car's side window next to my ear. It was Mother.

"William. Oh, William."

I looked at the priest, "Gotta go, Gerry. We'll talk soon?"

Mother showed me to a waiting room.

I said, "Where's Father? Is he still alive?"

"He is. But I need to talk to you about something."

"Can't it -"

"No, William. He's dying. Now listen. I've been making my Pentecost Novena."

"What? What's that got -"

Mother said, "Just listen." It was a tone I'd never heard.

"Okay, the novena. Remind me again what -"

"We pray with a special preacher each day -"

"A special preacher? Not Father Keely?"

"Not Father Keely. A trained preacher. Father Seamus. He's Franciscan."

"Fire and brimstone, is it then?"

"Don't be smart, William. It's not the time."

"Okay. Explain it to me."

"We pray for nine days and the preacher's homilies -"

"Homilies?" I said.

"Sermons, William. They explain to us what the prayers mean and help us make them, well, part of our lives. And do you know what the first prayer is, the first prayer of the Novena to the Holy Spirit?"

"Tell me, Mother."

She rummaged in her pocket book and came out with a small book, deeply worn, with a red leather binding. She put on her reading glasses.

"It begins like this. Only one thing is important - eternal salvation. Only one thing, therefore, is to be feared - sin. That's what it says, William. Only one thing is important."

I said, "I'm not sure... what the point -"

Mother said, "We read that passage at the Novena and two hours later your Father was stricken down, stricken, like Saint Paul."

"On the Damascus Road," I said

She ignored that and said, "But he lives still. Don't you see?"

"Mother, I -"

"I know what God wants, William. God wants him. God demands that your father give up, finally, end this defiance, this pride, pride that he can live as he likes."

"Well, Mother, don't you think that if God wants that, God will get it? I mean -"

"No."

I said, "No?"

"God wants it from you father. He wants him to give up, to throw off his pride, and give himself up."

"What do you want from me, Mother?"

"Do you know what a preacher's job is, William?"

"Just tell me, Mother. Tell me what you want from me."

"I want you to get your father to speak with Father Seamus."

"What? Well why don't you ask him? I mean -"

"I did. He's willing to come to the hospital and -"

"I meant, Father. Did you ask Father?"

"He won't have it."

"Well, that's it then,"

"That's not it, William, not the end of it at all."

I said, "I'm going to see Father. We'll talk about this later."

Father's eyes lit when I entered the room. He looked frail despite his bulk, a precarious mound atop the mattress. His sheets were in a tangle but I could see his left hand in a sling and safety-pinned to his pajama top. I saw too, the terrible droop in the side of his mouth.

"I'm so sorry this happened, Father."

His lips moved and I put my ear to his mouth but could find no words in what he struggled with.

I leaned into his ear, "I don't make out what you're saying, but I want to say, I love you, Da."

His hand squeezed. We were quiet for a long time. Then I leaned over the bed to look at him.

"Anything I can do for you? Anything... we can get it done. Just let me know. Okay?"

I've thought many times about why I said that, said it so insistently. What was I asking? Was I hoping maybe, that he might ask for Father Seamus? He looked back at me, his eyes hard, as if searching me for something. Of course, he knew that Mother would have talked to me, pushed me. He knew she'd use every angle she could muster. Father would know that. He was waiting. We were quiet for a long time. He dozed. I watched him, feeling him beside me. Then I left for home.

My pre-image of Father Seamus was inspired by the rotund Friar Tuck of Robin Hood fame, red-faced, pot-bellied and jolly. The real Seamus was a serious man, young, short, with the fat-free body of a vegan. His eyes were narrowed, his nose thin and his face rutted by early acne. Flashes of a miniature Doberman bothered my concentration. The priest was dressed in black trousers and a white tee-shirt tucked into his flat waist. He fingered a wooden cross dangling from a leather strand around his neck.

"I've met your Mother, William. She's a woman of strong faith."

"You've impressed her, Father."

He said, "What's this about then?"

Somewhere in his voice was a stance, ready for battle. Perhaps he'd already sensed the same in me.

"There's something you can do for our family. It's very important."

"What would that be?" he said.

"It would be to advise my mother to leave my Da to his own faith."

The priest looked at me for a long while. "His own faith, is it? And his soul? What would you have me do about that?"

"His soul's fine as it is, Father. He's taken good care of it on his own."

"I see." He stared, and then said, "Did it all by himself, did he?"

I heard in this, in his voice, and saw in the slightest lift of the corners of his mouth, a mocking amusement, the cock-sureness of a true believer who'd stumbled upon a child way out of his depth. I felt a rising fury that needed squelching.

"He's a good man," I said. "Lived a good life, honest to a fault and faithful. If that's not enough for your God then Father won't be missing out on much."

He said, "You may be willing to take that chance, William, but your Mother is not. What will her final years be like if Henry's pride leads him to refuse the Church's preparation?"

I thought, "Pride, there's that word again, and 'Henry'?" It struck me hard that there was nothing casual about the conferencing of my mother and this monk over Father's soul. And there was nothing superficial about the invasion of Father's privacy and the condescension directed at his manner of living. I imagined low whispering in a darkened church, "How can I reach him, Father." "If only you could counsel him Father." "He is a good man, well, otherwise." It had all the feel of a sexual betrayal, but somehow worse even than that.

I said, "Whether my mother's life after Father's passing is peaceful or agonizing rests upon you, Father Seamus. Any of her fears about Father's soul were gifted to her by the people you work for."

I forced myself to hold to those small eyes of his and said, "I'm asking you to do your pastoral duty. Prepare my mother for her husband's death."

"And if I don't believe it?"

"Then whose pride is the obstacle here?"

I noticed my voice straining and forced it back.

"Are you so certain of your enlightened rightness that you'd condemn an old woman to anguish in her final years?"

He didn't flinch, "The Church is right on this, William, and yes I would so condemn, as you wrongly put it. The greatest of all commandments, William, is to love God above all else, even above thy neighbor."

"That's not the commandment at issue here, Seamus," I said. "The principle you are so tightly glued to is a far lesser one, a commandment of politics not of the sacred. It is, Believe above all else that it is only the Church of Rome who understands the mind of God."

"I can't help you here, William. You'd do best to listen to your mother."

Father's color was warmer when I saw him the next afternoon, the side of his mouth a bit less fallen, or so it seemed. I took his hand.

"How do you feel, Father?"

He looked at me. I could see he was serious about something. I stalled for time and said, "Can I get you anything?"

He began to speak and I leaned in to hear. Words escaped his throat in elongated shapes. The simplest syllable was uninflected and painfully drawn out but clear enough. "Pills... desk drawer... envelope... key... shed."

Father kept a mahogany schoolmaster's desk in the parlor for his accounts. It was exactly a meter high, which allowed him to stand while working. For years he had done just that on the morning following each of his jobs, jotting numbers, compiling receipts and sipping tea. As a child, I would riffle through it in search of a pencil or to use his stapler. There was a small locked drawer inside that I never saw opened. I formed his words into a sentence, a question.

"There are some pills in the locked drawer in your desk?"

His nod was barely perceptible.

"What pills? They have all the pills you need right here."

No words, just a cloudless, deliberate stare.

"You want me to bring these pills here?"

Another nod.

"But what are they? Wait... oh no... You put some pills aside for..."

His look hardened.

"You're in hospital. You're better today. Mother would never... No, I can't. I won't. I'm sorry, Father, I won't."

He seemed to deflate before me, his face falling. Perhaps it was this sudden weakness, the draining of his power, that gave me the instant of courage it took me to rush through what came next.

I said, "There's something else. Mother thought... I mean... I've brought someone to see you. I'll get him. I'll wait outside."

I sat outside the door on a plastic chair, waiting. My face was hot and my hands shaking. I wanted to vomit. It's not that I thought I would vomit, I wanted to.

"Hello William, is your mother inside?"

It was Gerald Keely.

I said, "No, Father."

"Who then?"

"Father Seamus."

He looked as if I'd slapped him, then.

"What! You let... That man's in there?"

Keely rushed the door and barged through. I heard, "What are you..." and the door slammed.

I could hear only muffled voices until a distinct, "Get out of here."

Seamus came out, red-faced, followed in minutes by a grim Keely. Each crossed in front of me without a word.

I waited for what seemed a long time and then quietly slipped back into father's room. Father was still sitting in the raised bed. His face was hard and colorless, his eyes staring before him at nothing. I stood for a while looking at him, then sat next to the bed.

"Are you alright?"

He made no move.

"I'm sorry, Father."

He waved me down to his lips and in a slow graveled whisper, "Tell your mother I thanked you." I sat with him for a while in silence. And he was silent as well. As I was leaving I turned to Father from under the doorframe. I would not see him alive again. I knew this as did he. We each looked. There was nothing to say.

Father improved during the almost two weeks after I returned to the States. Mother reported him roaming the floor with a walker, sitting for long periods in his hospital room with Father Keely. It was a shock, then, when his heart stopped suddenly as he slept, alone in the morning darkness.

Back in Ireland the night before the funeral I recited the lie that Father had asked of me. Mum was suspicious but forced herself to be pleased. And of course, I opened the locked drawer in Father's desk, though I needn't have bothered. I was already certain, as certain as I was that I had twice betrayed Father, that the pills would not be there. Months later I would return again to be with Gerald Keely, the man whose crime was mine to commit, on the day of his sentencing.

6 comments:

  1. A powerful, moving story - very well told. Thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. As Ceinwen said, powerful and moving. Brilliantly drawn characters engaged in an eternal unsolvable conflict.
    Excellent piece of work
    Mike McC

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  3. Thank you both for reading it.

    John

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  4. Poignant. Profound. Life goes by and we use the mundane to distract us from what really matters-- but not your characters. Your story exposes universal fears and hopes. Love the voice of your narrator.

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  5. A skillful account of a grim dilemma. I particularly like the construction of this piece; intense description followed by bursts of quickfire dialogue, followed by more description interspersed with more relaxed dialogue. Memorable phrases are; 'his goings and comings were arrhythmic...salted to near nauseous consequence...reassuringly stuffy...a small sting of risk...a thicket of theology.' What would I have done?
    B r o o k e

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  6. A tribute to the strength of the human spirit, despite the badgering of religious institutions. You effectively portrayed the conflict. Enjoyed reading it.

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