When my father put on his collar and his well-shined shoes but it wasn’t a Sunday, we knew he had meetings to attend or visits to parishioners to make and that sometimes, on coming home, he might seem quiet, which was unusual and meant he was turning things over in his mind. I try imagining him as he must have been then, younger than my son is now, counseling people through their griefs and doubts, encouraging the ill, attempting to comfort, confronting so much inequity and pain. What did he know?
Trouble came. His father died young. My little sister was stricken with pneumonia, gasping, feverish, hospitalized. My pregnant mother in such pain she could not climb the stairs to tuck us in at night. And so, with no one near to take me for the day, I was his visitation sidekick, dressed as though for church, carrying paper and pencil and a book I couldn’t yet read. People welcomed us into their homes in formal rooms sun never seemed to reach, seated us on sofas with doilies on the armrests or crocheted throws along the backs, or sometimes in carved wooden armchairs with lion-paw feet. There were often candies in a glass dish on a side table. The women gave my dad coffee and sometimes I got a glass of milk. Once, I had tea in a translucent cup decorated with pastel-colored flowers, and I took two sugar cubes and stirred carefully so as not to spill or make any noise.
Sometimes the parishioner offered me the run of a playroom or nursery–those children now grown, maybe as old as my father–and I rummaged through the old toys and imagined my own stories. It was important to make as little sound as possible, to be a presence invisible to grownups while my father took someone’s hands in his, prayed beside them, or listened to quiet sobbing. Indirectly, I was learning that adults cry, too, and that they were not always invincible, or even in charge.
It seemed a privilege to be with him being with people when they most needed something, Maybe not something he could give or grant them, true. He started to realize that very early in his ministry.
In early childhood, once I abandoned the idea of growing up to be a princess, I liked the idea of being an artist or a scientist when I got to be an adult. That hasn’t quite worked out the way I guess I expected, but my ambitions (if that’s what they were) indicate that I had begun the lifelong process of wanting to understand–well, everything, almost! I found the following passage in Rebecca Elson’s book A Responsibility to Awe, and I feel as she does, though in her case she’s talking about observing and studying the Large Magellanic Cloud and its star structures:
There are times when the enterprise seems mechanical, when the constraint to pursue the truth seems to suffocate the imagination, and the mysteries of the Universe seem irrelevant to the lives we humans lead down here. But on the whole, understanding the Universe seems a fundamental step in understanding our origins, and in establishing a perspective with respect to space and time that I find comforting.Rebecca Elson, “From Stones to Stars”
It took my father quite some time to find a perspective on life, faith, and human behavior that comforted him. I do not possess the same perspective, but I believe he would be okay with that.