That’s the question I did not ask when Father _____ left our house. On to his next appointment; all in a day’s work.
Extreme unction: the old-fashioned term for that quaint custom. It serves its purpose even now, I suppose, but I could not help thinking on this particular occasion it is more often a ritual designed for everyone except the person lying on their death bed.
Speaking only for my mother, she was too busy dying to want, much less appreciate, the solemn incantations and grim officiating on offer. It did not help matters that our local church’s current pastor had a personality that made even the implacable surgeons we dealt with seem ebullient. It wasn’t his fault; he was an older man from an older school: the 21st Century did not suit him, just like it would not suit over-the-hill academics and the stratified folks still clinging to every ism they could get their claws on –even or especially the ones they could not afford. The world keeps spinning and younger, more insolent models keep popping up to replace you. Some learn how to take this in stride, others resist and end up like insects flying against traffic. And some just disengage and surf that sluggish wave onto the safe haven of senility. Father _____ was of the latter ilk; it was not that he was going through the motions so much as the motions were going through him.
And who could place blame at the exhausted feet of a man ten years past retirement age? Not I. Can you imagine earning your living re-reading the same book (no matter how much you enjoyed it the first thousand times; even if you believed that as soon as the words left your humble lips they ascended straight to God’s impossible ears) and knowing, every day, how this particular story ended? Worse, telling a tale with a conclusion that already occurred, since everything we do –if you follow this narrative– has already been plotted out in that great workshop in the sky. And all this role required was that you promise to anyone willing to listen the same salvation you could never be sure of, no matter how certain you were, no matter how achingly every aspect of your existence relied on this Deus ex machina.
Father _____ had quite apparently made peace with his place in the world (or worse, resigned himself to it) long enough ago that by now every rote gesture was divorced from anything approximating passion. But was passion, in his case, even a prerequisite? He was, at this point, incapable of being surprised by anything: in certain vocations this might signify the highest possible level of proficiency.
In any event, I could not know –and did not particularly care– if his visit was doing anything for him (that was between him and the surprise ending awaiting him once he got a taste of his own unction). I knew it was doing something for my old man, so I contented myself with the diminishing returns of dubious blessings. Pops was receiving the same dispensation he attained at each Sunday service: a box checked off, a chore completed, an obligation fulfilled. It was, at best, a somber sort of solace, but I certainly wished, for his sake, it was bestowing some measure of spiritual respite.
“Does she want to receive communion,” the holy man said, more a statement than a question as he reached for his stash, a to-go Eucharist in what looked like a Tupperware container. At that moment he more than a little resembled a parent ready to placate an unruly child with a treat, and I realized (reflecting on this later) that my observation signaled the tipping point of an extended but ultimately unsatisfactory experiment with the Catholic faith. The priest’s indifference (even worse than the indignation he may have managed in his younger years) when my father broke the news that his wife was not able (none of us could say she was not willing but we all had our opinions) to partake did not rankle me as it might have in my younger years. If this had gone down a decade earlier I would not have yet seen enough of the world –and the ways it wears on all of us– to appreciate how even the most noble occupations are, at the end of the day, a way to put bread on the table. Or coins in the collection basket, if you will.
It was not anger I felt, just relief that when finally confronted by the thing I feared most in the world, I was neither willing nor able to clutch at the redemption he stuck back in his coat pocket. I could not feel disappointed and I dared not feel pity; what, after all, did I know about all he’d seen and the things he felt? I hoped then, and hope even harder now –though I’m not quite willing or able to pray– that he was still alive somewhere inside, or had been at one point. And even now, although his extremities were growing cold, an ember of faith and hope blazed warmly somewhere inside the recesses of his worn-out heart.
*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone