Where We Do Not Wish to Go

 On an ordinary Sunday, I sit in the plain narrow pew. It is scarred from decades of use. The eighth Station of the Cross is signed Jesus console les filles d’Israel. The brick church itself was built in the 1870s by immigrants from Quebec. Our elderly pastor, whose ancestors’ patois colors his English, reads from the Gospel of John. Jesus tells Peter: “When you are old...another will gird you and carry you to where you do not wish to go.”

Did those nineteenth-century Quebec farmers wish to come to this new country, to go to where—outside their family—their mother tongue was heard only in church? Most were young. It is easier to go where you do not wish to go when you are young. I chuckle. I am entering my late seventies. I can’t think about emigrating anywhere. I worry: Will I become so “girded” with loss of health and memory that I will be carried off to that far country where I am a stranger to myself and others?

Shortly after the Mass, a call comes that brings my musings home. “Is this the Judith O’Brien who wrote an article in Commonweal on the communion of saints?” He so much liked the article. He introduces himself: Father R, a seventy-five-year-old retired priest who lives in a lake house on the Canadian border. Would my husband and I please come visit him? It sounds pleasant enough; after all, one enjoys visiting those who share interests and who applaud one’s work. But there is something he has to tell me first. “I am taking care of my parents. Dad is ninety-eight and has senile dementia; Mom is younger but with Alzheimer’s. I care for them here, in my home. I don’t have many visitors. Won’t you come?” Now I am not so sure I wish to go. Meeting a fan is one thing, but his parents? Will I come as a stranger and remain a stranger to them?

My husband and I talk it over and know we must go. We drive into Father R’s driveway on a steamy July day. Greeted by swarming mosquitoes, I rush to the back door where our host, in a white oxford shirt and blue trousers, frames the space. Our new friend is slight of build with the curve of fatigue in his shoulders. “Hello! Welcome! Come meet Mom and Dad.” In the back light off the lake I can barely see them sitting beside a table. “Hello,” I say. Dad stands up. Mom leans toward me, “Who are you?” I explain that I am a new friend. That won’t do. She asks again, “Who are you?” and will ask it over and over during our stay. I wonder: Does she know anyone? Yes. Whenever Father R is out of sight, she cries, “Where’s my son?”

Father R makes us a lunch of toasted cheese sandwiches and sliced summer tomatoes. My husband and I are offered red wine. When I lift my glass to Mom, the gesture brings a weary, “Who are you?” After the meal, the home-health-care giver joins us and takes the parents under her wing. Father R asks us to sit with him in the garden. He tells us about himself: diocesan priest and liturgist, one-time professor of ethics, and author of a book that is at a standstill. I listen to the murmur of the lake, a familiar sound that I learned as a child when I walked the beaches near my home on the edge of Monterey Bay, a continent away.

Precisely at 3 p.m., we gather in the living room. It is overflowing with family memorabilia, holy pictures, a collection of Italian crèches, books, and journals. Father R tells us that he offers Mass for his parents every day. Before we begin, he holds their hands and says, “Be quiet now; the music will comfort you. At the consecration Jesus will come to you.” We pray and sing, joining the priest’s clear voice. Mom is not quiet. Her cries resume. “O, Jesus come! Jesus come, help Momma!” They are like a primal liturgical chant. At Eucharist, Father kneels before her. “This is Jesus, Momma. You know who Jesus is, Momma. He is coming to you, Momma.” She knows. She takes the remembered bread.

For the little group around Father R’s makeshift altar, the Mass’s language is our mother tongue. Through the suffering of Jesus—“where we do not wish to go”—we have come to the place where we are understood and can never be strangers to one another. I had written about the communion of saints. In this moment of the Eucharist, I live the communion of saints.

Published in the 2006-05-05 issue: 

Judith Johnson O’Brien is past chair of Catholic Family Center in Rochester, New York. She currently lives in Vermont.

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