OK, first things first.
No pictures for me, I’m afraid. That’s really more her thing than mine. And this is going to stay her blog…it’s just that I felt the need to come in, to tell a story that I hope will say a few things that matter.
I’m “Husband”. I’m known by other names elsewhere, but I do in fact have the distinct honor of being this blog’s hostess’ husband. She’d tell you I brought her into the Church, but she’s wrong. It was God who did that. I was just in the right place, at the right time, with the right question…and I’m pretty sure I can thank the Almighty for at least the latter of that list, too. It’s the one time in my life-to-date that I know for a fact that a prayer I’ve been making since the spring of 2001 has been answered in the affirmative. But hey…I’m getting ahead of myself.
I grew up as a 3rd-generation lapsed Catholic. I was baptized into the Church as an infant, but by the time I was old enough to have any solid memory of things, my parents had separated and were heading for divorce and my mother had stopped going to Mass (just as my grandmother mostly did, after her own first divorce). I couldn’t say for sure if my father ever attended regularly…I barely remember him at all, is the truth.
My mother had some…strange notions. I’m not going to go into obsessive detail, but if you imagine taking the worst stereotypes about Catholics and guilt, removing all references to God, mercy, or the prospect of forgiveness, and mixing in a melange of half-baked notions from pop-psychology, Al-anon, and Phil Donahue, you won’t be too far wrong. I was named for a presumed-saint…not the famous one in the bible with the same name as me, but the kid my mother used to babysit for when she was young. He died when he was nine. And let me tell you, living up to the memory of a dead nine-year-old as viewed through the rose-colored glasses of someone who didn’t have to give birth to him, rarely dealt with him having a temper tantrum, and of course never had to cope with him going through puberty, high school, dating, or growing up…well, it was a standard against which just about anyone who _doesn’t_ die at the age of 9 is going to rapidly start coming up short, and not ever really stop.
But the long and short of it was that, when I was growing up, God seemed pretty much irrelevant to my life. You know…maybe He exists, maybe He doesn’t, but no way to know for sure, and either way nothing to do with me or my problems. The “Father” metaphor kind of had that effect on me. Kind of like God, I had no particular reason to believe my father didn’t exist, but he’d been very successfully removed from my life. And the Church as Mother? No, thank you! To me, “mother” pretty much only resonates with a continuing reinforcement of my own sense of worthlessness. I already had someone in my life setting arbitrary standards for me to fail to live up to, who could then lay on the guilt about how much of a disappointment I was.
This is, of course, a complete and utter misunderstanding about the lived experience of being part of the Church…but nobody in the culture (or, for that matter, in the Church) ever bothered trying to dissuade me from such suspicions when I was young, so that’s pretty much how I saw things.
When I was 15, I met a girl. She, amazingly, was interested in me. And she was prepared to say so, in terms even a self-hating 15 year-old not-quite-Aspie-but-might-as-well-be could understand. We met at a Model UN conference, but she lived two cities away from me, which when you’re 15 years old might as well be on the moon, for all the chances you get to actually spend time with each other, even if she is your “girlfriend”. Essentially our whole relationship was conducted on the telephone. We “broke up” often. And then we’d get back together again. Dozens and dozens of times. For almost 10 years. She was unstable. She was passive-aggressive. She was actually kind of crazy, back in those days. But none of that, of course, was anything new to me. In retrospect, the fact that the physical distance between us tended to scale up every time either of us gained the freedom or purchasing power to make a more normal relationship practical should have been a sign. But what did I know?
Eventually, of course, enough was enough. By 2000, I was 25 years old. She was living in Miami. I was still living in Michigan, where I’d grown up. And for reasons not entirely connected to her, I was thoroughly sick of Michigan, and looking for a way out. So we talked. And talked. And eventually made some arrangements. I got myself a job in Miami. I packed up my stuff. And the day after Christmas, I drove a U-Haul truck with my car towed behind it down to a new apartment I’d never seen, in a city I’d only ever visited once before. But hey…this girl who’s been the center of my emotional life for 10 years is there, and we’ll be together…and I have this nice job with a company that had been a really reliable vendor to my old employer.
Did you ever see the movie “Secret of My Success”? Starred Michael J Fox, back when he didn’t have Parkinson’s disease, and he was still young enough to play a fresh college grad. Who goes to the Big City, shows up at the job that’s supposed to be waiting for him, and is promptly informed that while he was in transit, the company went out of business. Hilarity ensues, and the main plot of the movie unfolds from there.
Well, that was pretty much my story in Miami. Except for the hilarity part. And except for the part where he had an uncle who could get him a job (even if a sucky one) at another company. And I’m pretty sure Michael J Fox’s character didn’t have a long-term long-distance girlfriend who picked the day of his arrival in the same city she lived in to decide she was a lesbian. So I guess it wasn’t that much like me…although the thing where the company you have a job with evaporates while you’re literally on the road to come start working for them did happen pretty much exactly that way.
So yeah. New city. Girlfriend of 10 years dumps me for another woman. No friends in town. Job evaporated. No local professional network to fall back on for leads. Money running dangerously low. Mom back home sees any help offered as “enabling behavior”, so don’t even bother asking. And the depression doesn’t help. (Did I mention I’m prone to depression? No? Well…I am. If you’ve been through it, ’nuff said. If you haven’t, then click the link, because Allie Brosh explains what it’s like in cartoons a lot better than I ever could with just these here words.)
I search job boards. I cold-call recruiters and HR departments. I send out more resumes than I can count. Nobody’s interested. The recession that most folks blame on 9/11 was, in actuality, already a problem by the beginning of 2001, and the market was glutted with people like me looking for work…most of whom _weren’t_ trying to do it in cities where they didn’t know anybody.
Jobs? Ha! Interviews? Ha! Hilarious! Tell me another one.
I went three straight months without anyone looking me in the eye. I seldom heard a human voice except on television or some company’s voicemail system. I was as completely disconnected from the human race as it’s possible to get, while continuing to draw breath and metabolize food within the territorial boundaries of a large American city. I was depressed as hell. I hated myself. It seemed like my mother might have been turning out to be right…that I really was as much of a pointless disappointment as she thought. Surely that other guy with my name, if he hadn’t died when he was 9, would be more of a success as an adult than I was or ever would be.
So I figured…well, might as well save everyone the trouble, and end it all. I’ll just drive my car into the ocean and drown. No muss, no fuss, and a life that’s been an unendurable burden to everyone around it will be finally at an end. It was clear to me that there was nothing left to my life of any genuine value, and indeed never really had been. At least, not since I was 9-ish.
It was a warm, sunny Sunday in April. And there was a traffic jam. A big one. Bigger, frankly, than I’d ever encountered in that neighborhood before. And as time went on, I started…well…feeling nature’s call. I needed a bathroom pretty badly, in fact. But the neighborhood was mostly residential, and most of the businesses were either closed, or didn’t have bathrooms open to the public. What to do?
Oh. There’s a Catholic Church. With the doors open. Lots of folks going in. Must be about time for Mass to start. They’ve probably got a bathroom I can use, and then I can be on my way.
When I got out of my car and headed for the doors, a man walked up and shook my hand. “Welcome”, he said, “to St. Patrick’s. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. Are you new?”
He looked me in the eyes. First person to do that in months. I was stunned. Stunned so hard I forgot about the bathroom. I mumbled something…I don’t remember what. He led me to a pew with some open seats. And I sat down.
Any of you who’ve been to a Catholic Mass know the drill…pomp and circumstance, smells and bells. Nice show, OK music, some readings from the Bible. And then the priest makes a little speech. So what does this one feel like talking about, that day?
I was utterly gobsmacked. “Forgiveness? From GOD?? You mean these Catholics I’ve technically been one of since I was a few days old but don’t really know anything about, actually believe in THAT???!!! And all you have to do is ASK???????!!!!!!”
I ruminate on this for a while. But things are about to get weirder. I hear the priest say “the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven”. Oh my God! Does he mean…is he actually saying…this whole “forgiveness” thing isn’t just the priest talking, but Jesus at the Last Supper? Sacrificing for everyone? Even me?
I’m still trying to digest that thought, when the Sign of Peace comes around, and the gentleman in the pew next to me reaches over and shakes my hand. So does the whole family seated behind me. They don’t know me. I’m a total stranger there. I could be an axe murderer. I’m certainly a 25-year old guy who’s been a profound disappointment to just about every human he’s ever known. But somehow, I’m welcome.
And then, of course, the piece de resistance: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”.
Wow. All this isn’t just for the Good People. There aren’t any Good People. Just sinners. Like me. God knows everything we’ve ever done wrong. But, unlike my mother, and certainly far unlike the notion of the Church that’s been planted in my head by our culture, He loves us anyway.
I actually had a sort of “vision” at that point. Did you see “Dogma”? Remember Ben Affleck’s rant, as Bartleby the fallen angel, about God’s inexplicable patience with an ungrateful humanity? Yeah, it was kind of like that. Eden? We screwed it up. Abraham’s covenant? Yeah, no…didn’t work. Rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt? Thanks, but they’d rather worship a golden calf. God sends His Son down here in the flesh, and we torture him to death. Nowadays most of us figure He’s just a figment of some old dead guys’ imaginations. And yet, no matter how many abominations humanity piles on, He keeps on forgiving us.
I don’t think there are words, for the degree of shock I was in, at that point.
If someone else were writing this story, he’d go on from here with something like “and from that moment on, I’ve been a faithful Catholic…plus I reconciled with my mother, looked up my father and built a happy relationship with him, my girlfriend decided she wasn’t homosexual after all, and we got married and had a bunch of kids and now we’re fixtures at the Extraordinary Form Mass at 6am every Sunday and noon every weekday too, and they all lived happily ever after”.
Yeah, not so much.
I still couldn’t find a job in Miami. I ran out of money a few weeks later, and had to move into what turned out to be an even worse living situation. That girlfriend and I never did get back together (although she did eventually marry another guy, and they have two kids now). My wife — then just a friend (and a neo-pagan one at that) — also converted, and she’s a way better Catholic than I’ve ever been. My father died in 2004, and we’d never gotten back in touch. My relationship with my mother is still strained. The woman who’d eventually marry me (and go on to host this blog) was dating another guy, and it took until 2005 for me to discover that I had a chance with her.
I’m still very much a sinner, in desperate need of forgiveness.
But every Sunday at Mass, I offer two extra prayers. One, for that usher back at St. Patrick’s in Miami Beach, whose name I never knew and who never knew mine…if there’s been a single human being since Mary who deserves Heaven, it’s him. And the other, that I might someday, somehow, in some way, be as effective a reflection of God’s Love in this world for someone else, as he was that day for me.
I doubt he knows that he had such an effect. I don’t need to know it either, if and when I manage it. But I feel like I owe it, to God and to the people around me, to do whatever I can, in that regard.