I took my dad to church a few Sundays ago because my mom had to work and there was a big celebration for Father John McGuire’s 60th anniversary as a priest. I say this to you the way my mother said it to me which is in a tone of simultaneous self-importance and annoyance that you don’t immediately 1) know who this Father Someone is and B) know exactly what a huge deal it is and WHY AREN’T YOU UNDERSTANDING? SIXTY! YEARS! GO TO CHURCH. THERE’S A PARTY AFTER.
I didn’t need to be told twice. I hadn’t been to church in awhile and figured it would be good for me and anyway, my dad needed someone to help him get there. He was really looking forward to this party, free food being one of his favorite things in the universe. I thought 60 years of doing anything was pretty impressive and if there was going to be free wine involved then okay sure! Off to church I go. I helped him into the car, collapsed the wheelchair and shoved it in my trunk, drove the familiar back roads to the church, a route I know by heart.
I had gone for a run earlier that morning, weaving in and out of the sleepy Sunday neighborhood streets near my parents’ house. I thought a lot about church as I ran, my body rounding corners at stop signs, arms pumping in time to the music in my ears, sneakers slapping firmly on pavement. Sometimes when a song is overly catchy and I’m almost out of breath, I sing out loud. Just a phrase. Just my favorite part. The sound of my voice ringing out among the quiet, bouncing off mailboxes and up toward the trees.
I sang a bit then. Thinking of church. Smiled a little bit. Wiped my forehead and continued running.
I thought about the fact that every Sunday morning from 3rd grade to 12th grade, my dad dropped me off a half hour before church began so I could put my choir robe on over my clothes, gather my music and line up with the other kids in the chapel. I loved singing in the church choir. Loved. Loved. Loved.
As I child, I loved the long robe hovering over the tops of my shiny shoes. I loved standing in the special choir pews and holding my folder of songs and feeling important and catching my dad’s eye as he walked by in the communion line. He’d make a silly exaggerated face, raise a bushy eyebrow and I would beam and watch him as he stepped forward with my mother, taking the Eucharist with her, side by side.
As I got older, I loved it because it was quality time with my two best friends. We’d zone out during the homily and whisper about boys and high school and drama club until I caught my mother’s death stare and shut up. But even then, I still loved my choir robe. And the special pews. And feeling important and standing with my two best friends on either side of me singing harmony, our voices floating up to the rafters.
As I wheeled my father through the parking lot on Sunday, we passed another man in a wheelchair. This man was missing his right leg, a recent amputation, the result of a complication from diabetes. My dad passed right by him and surprised me by waving.
And then he laughed.
THAT’S ARTIE, he told me.
HE’S IN A WHEELCHAIR, TOO.
I ALWAYS TELL ARTIE THAT ONE DAY WE’RE GONNA RACE.
WE’RE GONNA HAVE A WHEELCHAIR RACE, AREN’T WE ARTIE?
I smiled at this as I wheeled my father into church. But the smile faded when I thought about Artie. And how my dad will soon be out of his wheelchair but Artie won’t. Dad is missing some bones. Artie is missing a leg.
I pushed my dad over to the end of a row of pews and slipped into the bench beside him, smiling and saying hello to a few people I recognized. Because this was a celebratory mass, SIXTY YEARS YOU KNOW, the choir was singing and tears sparked in my eyes almost immediately, watching those tiny nine year olds in robes stand and sing, such sweetness and purity and light. My dad was crying too, throughout the entire mass, as he does now, I suppose, so easily.
I paid attention to the readings as best as I could, alternately hissing to my father “You know, this is the part where we stand” or “The least you can do is kneel” and his eyes would twinkle and a smile would appear since we both knew that my father could not stand or kneel, Catholic rules be darned. I stood for him. And knelt for him. And my eyes kept traveling over to the choir which looked as though I had never left it. Same choir director, gray poofy hair, tight-lipped, rigid but oh I could always make her laugh. Same hymns, same harmonies, same teenagers leaning over each other to gossip. One of the things I hate about the church is that it never changes and that just so happens to also be the reason I love it most of all.
I pushed my father up in the communion line as the choir began to sing one of my very favorite hymns, based on a psalm, Taste and See.
I will bless the Lord at all times.
His praise shall always be on my lips.
My soul shall glory in the Lord.
For He has been so good to me.
My father reached his hands up for the host, tears in his eyes, touched by the music and his awkward condition of having to be wheeled everywhere by someone else. Of not being able to stand. Or kneel. Or anything.
As I pushed him back toward our seats, we ran into a bit of a logistical problem as there was already a man in a wheelchair in the aisle. There wasn’t room for both of us to be there.
“He’ll back up,” his wife said to me. “Just give him a minute.”
Only then did it register who was in front of me, a well-known parishioner suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. At this point, he has lost all function in his arms and his legs and uses his breath to move his wheelchair around. He blew into a mouthpiece and he started rolling backward and out of the way, his chair beeping as he backed up, like a delivery truck, the noise echoing around the church, people turning to stare.
Glorify the Lord with me.
Together let us all praise His name.
I called the Lord and He answered me;
from all my troubles He set me free.
My father and I sat in silence for the rest of the mass.
I thought about Artie who is forever missing a leg.
And Chris who moves his chair with his breath, the only bodily function he has left.
I thought of their wives, the people who wheel them into church and through the grocery store and put them to bed. I thought of their children who cook them dinner and try to make them laugh while crying behind closed doors at the unfairness of it all.
We stayed for the priest’s party.
People surrounded my father, bringing him drinks and food, asking about his operations and his pain level. They joked with him and told him stories and he kept laughing. So much laughter. Our church has always been one of community. And fellowship. And I forget this sometimes. So jaded am I by the Church with a capital C.
I thought about Church and church on my drive back to the city that night. I thought about Artie and Chris and my father. About people who have it so much worse than I do. So much worse than my father does. And how blind I have been for so long to people that are really hurting. People with conditions that are terminal. People who never get better.
As a child, standing there in the choir pews, I surely must have noticed these people. The elderly who needed help walking. The sick who stayed seated and had the Eucharist brought over to them. How many hours of my life did I spend singing, watching people in church? How quickly did I gloss over what that really meant? Because it didn’t apply to me?
I thought of my dad who has been so humbled by his illness and the experience of needing others to care for him. I thought of how he looks at people in church now, pointing out wheelchairs and canes and women who lost their husbands to cancer. He marvels to me, at the kitchen table clutching a mug of coffee, how he never realized that some people deal with things like this for their entire lives. How not everyone is as lucky as he is. I thought about how his world is bigger now and naturally then, how mine is as well.
I don’t think it matters why things happen. Why some people fall down and break hips and contract infections, why some people lose legs or arms or eyesight. Why some people have cancer that is treatable and others have cancer that spreads and spreads until it takes over and they are gone.
I think, ultimately, what matters is how a person meets such a challenge and what those around them learn from it. Does this make me hard and bitter and unforgiving? Or does this open my heart? Does the knowledge of Artie and Chris and people with very Real Illness and Difficulty and Dis-ease make me afraid and uncertain? Or does it break open the blockages I hold onto in my chest so that my love can flow more freely?
I rolled down the windows in my car even though the September night air was brisk and startling. It blew through my hair a little bit, graced my cheek and swirled back outside to the rest of the world. My father was back home in his hospital bed in the living room, hopefully sleeping soundly, most likely tossing and turning a bit, trying to get comfortable, dealing with a bit of pain.
Sense of humor abounding.
Strength and awareness increasing.
And even though the radio was off and there was barely any sound, I opened my mouth.
And I sang.