“…now there is
No woman living whose life holds such bitterness.
I saw my husband Hector killed by Achilles’ sword;
And on the day the Greeks took Troy I saw my son
Astyanax thrown to death from the high battlements.”
No one celebrated my birth.
In the thirty-third week, my mother decided she didn’t want a child after all. I’d been an accident in the first place and, in her mind, she’d been coerced by her church and family into having me. And so, in her thirty-third week, without consulting her coercive family, she went to the doctor who would end up “delivering” me.
Because he could get rid of me.
So, she’d gotten rid of me. She’d heard my caterwauling at my birth, and I suppose it’s still haunting her. I’ll never know, but it’s a comfort to me that some part of me will be with her always, even if it’s a nightmare branded into her conscience. She paid the doctor the $500 and left. She told her family that she’d gone into labor and the baby had been stillborn. Her family fell for it, and they don’t even have dreams to remember me by. With the passing of the money between hands, my biological mother left my life.
The doctor told the nurse to do something with me, “For Christ’s sake.” He didn’t know what and neither did she. They hadn’t made the plans. I’d been early and all they’d had time for was to take the money. The nurse did the only thing she could think of after two days. She passed a church every day on her way to work, and in a flash of brilliance, brought me there.
She knocked on the rectory door, as she’d seen in all movies where a child was to be abandoned to the mercies of the Church, and waited. A young priest answered, listened to her story, took me, thanked her, dismissed her, and went inside to tell the senior priest.
At first no one knew what to do with me. Apparently whenever the infant me was around, everyone lost their mental capacities to think. The two priests, junior and senior, and the church secretary, puzzled over it in the secretary’s office, with me perched in a baby seat placed on the secretary’s desk calendar.
“Father Brendan,” the secretary said.
“What?” Both the senior and junior priests asked.
“Father Brendan,” she repeated.
The senior priest nodded and the junior priest asked, “Why him?”
“He’s married and his wife just found out that she can’t have children.”
The junior priest blinked and the secretary proceeded to explain the curious situation of the man who would eventually become my father, a man who also happened to be a Catholic “Father.”
Originally, my dad had been a Father Brendan of the Anglican extract. His wife, Elizabeth, was an Irish Catholic, and both of them wanted to immigrate to America after their wedding. Somewhere between London and Boston, Elizabeth converted my father from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Once they landed, my dad did some hard praying, double checking his conversion. Once the fog of doubt had cleared, my father went about the steps to change from an Anglican priest to a Catholic priest. No small matter. Despite the striking similarities between the two Christian sects, there are some slight differences that can cause trouble in a priest’s conversion. Namely, the issue of marriage within the priesthood. Dad loved Elizabeth, who would become my mother, and under no circumstances would annul their marriage. Once speaking with his bishop about his decision, he consulted a Catholic bishop on the marriage issue. Thankfully, a solution came about: a papal dispensation. There was a precedent, and Dad called New Windsor, New York to speak with him and find out how to go about the conversion.
It would’ve been easier for my father to stay Anglican, but that’s the notion of religious conversion, isn’t it? So dad pressed on and within six months had himself a papal dispensation and was on his way to a seminary to learn the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between his old and new religions.
The senior priest brought me to Father Brendan and his barren wife, Elizabeth, and I became their son.
Eventually, when I was ten, my dad was sent to his own parish, a parish in the infamous Bible Belt. In this community, Dad became a leader. Paragon, they said. A paragon of the community. To me, it sounded like some kind of geometric figure. To him, it must sound like one too, since I‚Äö√Ñ√¥d told him so many times.
“Luke,” Dad said. Oh, that’s another thing. The nurse brought me to St. Luke’s Catholic Church and that became my name. Luke, not Catholic Church or saint. The other names would be pushing it a bit.
“Luke.” Apparently the paragon needed me. I went to the living room where my dad stood in front of mom’s giant mirror hanging on the wall. I hated that mirror. All mirrors, actually. Even the notion of a reflected world bothered me, even though I knew–mostly–that this was the real world.
“Yes dad?” I said. He fussed with his collar, the Roman one. “I didn’t know you and mom were going out.”
He continued messing with his collar. I don’t think he’s even been able to get it straight without help. “We’re going to a banquet at St. Catherine’s.” St. Catherine’s was the parish elementary school. My mom taught there.
“Oh. Where’s mom?”
“Meeting her there.” He glared at his reflection and crooked collar. My dad and I look nothing alike, which is okay, considering my biological parentage. He had near black hair and bright blue eyes and pale skin. His hair’s starting to gray at the temples. Mom says it looks good on him. Really good. She’s biased of course, but I guess dad isn’t a bad-looking man. I’ll leave that up to mom. Mom has rusty-colored hair and green eyes. Folks get confused trying to figure out which parent I look like: dad’s eyes, a mix of both parents’ hair, resulting in a chestnut brown, dad’s height. Eventually they gave up.
I watched as my reflection reached up and scratched his head as I did mine. Dad continued to glare. Mom’s job was usually to sigh and straighten Dad’s collar for him. Then she’d step back and look at her handiwork and declare, “You look wonderful.”
Then Dad would blush slightly and nod in the same humble manner and they’d go off to wherever they were going, whether it be church or school.
I glared at my reflection, grumbled, and fixed his collar.
“I’m not saying you look wonderful, Dad,” I said, “But you do look rather dapper.” He wore his wool suit instead of his polyester one; even in the South winters are frigid. Temperatures are relative, as most things are.
He raised his eyebrow at my choice of words.
I shrugged. “Vocabulary. Thought I’d use it.”
He looked in the mirror once more and brushed off some imaginary lint. “Final inspection,” he said.
“Go meet mom.”
He nodded and did so.
Even before dad reached his “paragon” status, he’d always met with the other church leaders of the community, particularly Pastor Tom of the Lakeside Baptist Church, since the two churches, Lakeside and St. Matthew’s, were two blocks apart. The Reverend Thomas Sykes had been trying to convert my dad to the Southern Baptist faith for as long as dad had been a member of the community. Tom insisted that Dad was going to Hell, but he was awful nice about it. The same went for his lectures about music, the “sinnernet,” and abortion. He even told dad that he wasn’t saved. Dad had a good chuckle at that one. Through all Tom’s sweet-laced proselytism, Dad just nodded and smiled, aptly changing the subject when given the chance. He’d once been converted, but his faith in his current religion was strong enough to withstand all new attempts at conversion, so he thought. Besides that, he had my mom to keep him firmly rooted in his Catholicism, as if the Lord himself wasn’t enough. I’m pretty sure Mom could fill in any hypothetical gaps. She’s a strong woman, Elizabeth. Only if she were gone could Tom breach that convert’s faith that Dad had.
Tom had been at our house yesterday. Mom had invited him to dinner. Mom and Tom were the ones that got into theological debates. Tom went after my mom’s eternal soul and Mom just went after Tom’s jugular. Dad just sat back with a pleased little grin on his face while I played Picasso with the leftover food on my plate. Cuisinart is a thrill at no matter what age. I assiduously ignored smiling Tom, charming Mom, and ever-quiet Dad. He looked almost smug with that grin. I stopped moving my fork as Dad deftly changed the subject.
“Have you noticed that house over near the school?”
There were quite a few houses over near the school. Even for Dad that was vague. “Which house?” I asked.
“Trailer, I mean. The one you pass on the left just before you get to Thomas Road.”
“The one just before the stop sign?” As Dad and I went about our conversation, Mom and Tom’s animated one lessened.
Dad nodded. “Yes, the one nearly on the corner.”
“Yeah. I pass it every morning. They even have an outhouse that they use.” I still couldn’t believe that. The house was like something out of a third world country with a bare, red clay yard with strewn junk. The house was only a dilapidated trailer, complete with an in-use outhouse.
“Notice anything different?” he asked. By now, Mom and the reverend were listening to Dad.
I shook my head.
He gave me a hint. “The fence.”
The morning’s picture of abject poverty flashed through my head and I studied it, looking closely at the fence. I realized that this morning I hadn’t been able to see the hardscrabble ground because of the black strips of tar paper that had been woven through the holes of the chainlink fence. I named the difference.
He nodded at my correct answer. “They’ve hidden themselves, Luke. Hidden their poverty because of their shame. They’ve built a wall just like everyone else.”
A bit of wisdom from Father. Each of us grimaced and Mom motioned Dad to continue. Dad did so. He always enjoyed this expounding of his vast knowledge of sage things.
“That wall,” he said, “Is the physical form of the walls everyone has.”
I rolled my eyes, as did Mom, while Tom scoffed and pushed his chair back. “How much have you had to drink?” Mom asked.
Dad frowned. Aside from Communion, he didn’t drink. He wasn’t militant about not drinking, he just didn’t particularly care for alcohol, much the same way I didn’t care for onions, liver, or asparagus. “Very funny. I’m not done. Let me explain this theory of mine.”
“Oh, a theory. Well, by all means continue,” Mom said.
Tom brought his chair in closer as Dad continued. Mom and I hadn’t moved. “Walls are a part of everyone’s life. They’re a kind of buffer against outside influences.” He cast a significant look at my mother, then Tom. “On them stand your beliefs and morals and behind them is your soul. For everyone, there’s a keystone of sorts to that wall, and as long as that remains intact, the person will remain intact. Once that keystone goes, that wall will crumble, and whatever was on it will fall, and whatever was protected by it will be sacked by the outside influences.”
We wordlessly stared at him for a few seconds. My dad the conversation killer. Finally he smiled slightly and shrugged. “Or not.”
I had laughed hesitantly and Mom and Tom joined in. Last night was normal for any night that Rev. Thomas Sykes came over for dinner. Him and Mom arguing, and Dad spouting off profound thoughts that no one understood. Dad never lost a fight, but if I had ever taken the time to think about it, I’d realize that Dad had never fought in the first place. He only changed the subject, as if he knew that he couldn’t bear to hear words that could sway him, if spoken.
That was the last night, and dad had yet to succumb to any of Tom’s Southern Baptist preaching. Mom made sure of it. She’d have no part of a Catholic priest converting to Southern Baptism. I agreed with her. Dad chose to call when I got myself dinner. He had impeccable timing.
“Hello?” I said.
“Luke,” was all he said. All he could say. The hand holding my plate began to tremble.
“On the way to dinner, your mom was in an accident. They brought her to the hospital.” I heard him let out a long breath, a breath that was as shaky as my trembling hand. “They just had me give her last rites.”
The plate dropped onto the floor, the shattered bits scattering across the white and blue linoleum.
“Luke?” he said. “You there?”
“Someone’s going to pick you up and bring you here.”
I hung up without any more conversation. At times there really isn’t anything to say. The doctor had my father give his own wife her last rites. Extreme Unction. Meaning they thought she was going to die soon, very soon. And Dad had to guide Mom to her corporeal end, into her eternal life. How hard was that for him?
By the time the cop brought me over to the hospital, Mom had given into her injuries and died quietly. I found my father in the chapel, staring at the empty altar, just as he had stared at the empty bed.
He was dressed as he’d been when he left the house, the dashing parish priest, the Father What-a-Waste, as my female friends had informed me. His collar wasn’t even crooked. Intent on his prayer, or what I assumed to be prayer, he didn’t notice my entrance. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I left. His wisdom would find him and me in good time. I had my own grieving to do, my own prayers to make. Elizabeth had been my mother in every sense of the word. From her I learned, and she’d been taken away from me. I wondered if she got to scream at the untimeliness and indignity of her death, being swiped from existence by an errant dump truck. A dump truck, of all things. No martyrdom, no valiant cause to die for. Just a load of trash.
Dad’s wisdom never came back. Another death chalked up for the load of trash. Or should I say, load of crap. I hate this new life, the emptiness of the house from Mom’s absence, and the emptiness of Dad’s soul from the same cause. For some reason, our Catholic God wasn’t enough to fill this emptiness. Other Catholic priests dealt without wives, leaving themselves to be fulfilled by God alone, but Dad couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
Tom rushed to fill the gaps. The morning that Dad converted, I passed by the house…trailer…whatever you want to call it. Some of the tar paper had weathered, frayed, and fallen. One of the occupants of that trailer was out there repairing the damage, patching up the wall to keep the onlookers out: the gawkers who were lured in, fascinated by the working outhouse. This outhouse, though, served a purpose. It flushed out all the trash, all the crap that seeped through the cracks of the wall. If the wall fell apart, the outhouse was there. The onlookers gawked, as I did, because outhouses had fallen into disuse. Instead, refuse was allowed into the house, then flushed out. The outhouse had moved in, like a Trojan horse.
Dad hadn’t even wanted to give Mom a Catholic burial. It was me who convinced him that Mom would want one, even if Dad thought his Catholic God had abandoned him. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that the Baptist God was the same as the Catholic God. He should know that anyway. They were two different sects of the same religion: Christianity. He was blind.
I refused to go to Tom’s church, where Dad removed all the trappings of his Catholicism and I became the son of a preacher instead of a priest. He hadn’t left his congregation at St. Matt’s in a lurch, he’d made sure another priest could take over his duties. Then Dad resigned, or whatever priest did to get out of the priesthood. All his priestly garb he put into a trunk with Mom’s clothes, tossed in a few mothballs and dragged into the basement. When he returned with Tom, both smiling and happy, I couldn’t look at them. How could I tell Dad what I felt? Appalled, disgusted, scared, sad, angry…everything. I was a roiling pool of emotions. He’s betrayed Mom and her memory, he’s betrayed my history. It wasn’t my mother he’d betrayed so much as me. The Catholic Church brought him me. If he abandoned the Church, he abandoned me. Me. Suddenly I wasn’t good enough for him, my beliefs, all he had taught me, was worthless. He had known my worthiness, and now he left me, unlike my first mother, who had never known me at all. Somehow, I knew that was worse, and felt the outrage grow. I shouted my anger to him and he came to me. Tom respectfully stayed in the kitchen, humming hymns from the service.
I’d forgotten how tall he was. He stood in the doorway, in a suit now. All he’d wear from now on would be suits. Preacher clothing. My father was a preacher.
“What?” he said. His voice hadn’t changed. Other than his appearance and the disappearance of his wisdom, he was no different. He soothing timbre carried the concern he felt at the distress of his son. Me.
I stood too, my fists at my side, clenched and trembling. Everything I had sorted out flew through my head, dancing on its own carousel, offering itself to be said. I felt my lower lip tremble. Dad saw and his eyes grew more panicked. I could see his unspoken question: what had he done to bring his son near tears? What I wanted to say couldn’t be said to him. We had different beliefs and they stood between us now, each with our own walls. I’d been on the wall he’d had before, the one in which Mom had been an integral part. Now we had separate walls and I had no Trojan horse to help him understand what I knew. When Mom died his wall fell apart and Tom’s beliefs had jumped like a pack of rabid dogs, tearing his soul apart and building their own shelter, leaving me on the outside. Making him abandon his son. Dad could never see now. My trembling grew more fierce as I stared at his eyes and willed myself not to cry.
He broke eye contact first, lowering his to the floor and saying, “When you can talk, come and get me. We’ve got guests from my church coming over and I have to get ready.” He left without a parting glance and I felt like letting out a cry of anguish. His church, not the church of his wife and son. Tom had killed us and only Mom had escaped the same death by entering the eternal life, instead bearing witness to our separate deaths.
In the basement, in the open trunk, I found his vestments. I buried my head in them and cried. Enveloped by the sharp smell of sacraments and mothballs, I knew how Astyanax felt when he fell from the walls of Troy.