GRAVE YARD LOVE
“What a waste of a good-lookin’ guy,” my parents made clear when I entered Saint Augustine Seminary, high in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. They drove me there in the family station wagon, which huffed and puffed up the winding roads. Such views!
“Now Jimmy,” said my mom. “If you change your mind, just give us a call and we’ll pick you right up.”
“The hell we will, Peg,” said my dad. “You made your bed, go ahead and become a goddamn priest.”
Arguing was their passion, just as mine was reading the Bible. Didn’t much care for the Old Testament God. Vengeful, sarcastic, mean as a horse with a nail in his hoof. Once in junior high I had a Jewish girlfriend, Naomi, or was it Ruth, I forget, and her family had a mezuzah tacked up on the door post of every single room in their house. I still remember the girl as she played Chopin sonatas on a black piano in the living room.
Yes, I was ready to give up women.
My parents helped me unload the car when we arrived. Embarrassingly old suitcases. I couldn’t wait until they left. I wanted to look at the view, the vista, from the top of the mountain, so close to God.
I loved the regimentation of the seminary. Breakfast was at 6 a.m. followed by morning prayers, then lectures. We learned the names of the Popes and how they attempted to change the world.
Time went by as slowly as a ticking clock and as fast as skiiers zig-zagging down the mountains.
My work detail had me tending the gardens, which circled around the seminary. Spectacular gardens faced rows of mountain ranges. Such glorious manifestations of the works of God. I took particular pleasure in overseeing a tiny waterfall, gleefully splashing onto goldfish and red-dotted koi, reflecting the sunshine.
By the time my four years were up, I was excited to have my own parish. I would go anywhere for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This may sound funny, but I did fall in love with one of the seminarians, and, yes, love is the right word. There’s all kinds of love, you know. This was not erotic love, it’s what we call agape. The danger, of course, is crossing that thin red line. A dozen of our students did step over that line, but enough said. I do not want to tarnish the throne of Saint Peter.
Was it a coincidence Eric and I were sent to adjoining parishes in South Carolina? As one of three priests at the Church of St. Teresa of Avila, I became a loving father to our five-hundred parishioners. My specialty was counseling husbands and wives. My parents served as reverse role models.
When I’d leave my small room at the rectory and arrive at work, I’d open the glass doors of the church and stand in awe of the beauty of the altar, gold and silver and as orange as the falling leaves in autumn.
“My life is fulfilled,” I said to our head priest, Pat, Father Patrick Meehan.
“You’ve done well, Jimbo. The Holy Spirit has touched your entire being.”
“If I may, I’d like to visit the Palmetto Parish,” I said. “A fellow seminarian is head of a parish there.”
“Of course, anytime you wish.”
Wearing my black priestly attire, I drove a white Toyota Rave4 mini-van over. My heart was fairly jumping out of my chest.
There he was, gardening in the front yard, planting red and purple petunias, and trimming branches off a sugar maple tree
I stood there and gazed upon the man. Where I had a good head of hair at forty-five, silver-gray, he was practically bald. The sun shone on his bald pate. He was bare-handed and filtered the soil with his hands, sniffing it for its rich texture.
Slowly, I took him in, as I circled around to face him.
“My brother,” I said. “Do you remember me?”
He stood up, blinked his eyes in the sun, and held out his arms.
“You’re someone that can’t easily be forgotten.”
We rushed into each other’s arms. Our hugs were as tight as if we’d gotten off the maiden voyage of the Titanic, still alive.
We sat down outside, as a warm breeze caressed us. Sister Hannah brought us each a fruit salad and a coffee pitcher. I remembered he drank his with cream and sugar, while I drank it as black as a starless night.
Duty called and we hugged goodbye. I never saw Erik again.
A year later, in the rectory, I read his obituary in the Spartanburg Herald. He had been fighting cancer for several years, including the time we had met. “Never said a mumbling word,” to quote a gospel song.
I stood up, crossed myself, and wept as I had never done for my mother or my father.
Blindly, I went outside, tears falling, and walked five miles to the cemetery. There was his freshly-carved headstone. I threw myself on the ground and sobbed.
“My love, my love,” I wept. “Whatever shall I do without you?”
The ground seemed to quiver like a mini-earthquake.
A voice spoke. “Our secret is out now, lad.”
I sat up straight. More words followed.
“Carry on, my love, carry on.”
What choice did I have but to carry on?
Like a phantom, I returned to the rectory and stood before the bathroom mirror. So this is how a grief-stricken man looked. Puffy eyes. Red patches on his cheeks. All alone in the world.
“Eric, Eric,” I blubbered into the mirror.
“How, my darling, can you have left me all alone in the world.”
I pulled out my razor.
And carefully shaved the hair off my head. An offering to the one I loved and would love for the rest of my life.
T H E E N D