I know that people often believe that as a man of the cloth, I am supposed to always feel mercy, compassion, and maybe even a sense of connection with my parishioners, but the truth is that I am as human, as flawed, and as imperfect as any other person. It is true, I do have a good relationship with most people I meet, I like them in general and I do often feel these things towards others, and in general, despite knowing my failures, I always believed myself to be a good man and a good priest. Also, people often wonder about my faith, about my relationship with God and the reason why I chose priesthood, instead of getting married, or choosing any other way of life. What I usually tell them, is what I feel; I love God with all my heart and soul, I chose priesthood because I believe with all my being that I was called by Him to this life and I have always wanted to do His bidding. That’s what I always believed and thought about myself. However, I never counted on the challenge that God would set up in my path, and the mirror through which He would make me see myself, my calling, and Him, for the very first time.
December 24th, 2017, St Joseph’s Parish, Chicago, The Rectory.
There is a light tapping against my door and I look up, feeling a bit annoyed at the interruption, as I am most concentrated trying to prepare for my sermon at Mass, later that day.
“Yes?” I ask the person at the other end, trying to control my slightly frayed temper.
“Father Gregor, I am so sorry, but I have Mrs. Summers over at the office and she insists on talking to you right away,” my parish assistant, Sandy, says softly from the small crack on the door through which her head has poked.
I sigh heavily and close my eyes, pinching my nose with my fingers. What did that woman want now? After so many sessions with me, moments that I could have used for much more profitable purposes, and which were lost due to the woman’s constant stubbornness, why did she want to meet again, or talk to me, when she had been clear that she did not see the usefulness at all?
“Sandy, did you tell her that I am a bit busy and that I have a really important Mass to prepare for?” I ask my assistant softly after opening my eyes and looking at her. The woman looks apologetically at me.
“Yes, sir, I did. But she says it’s urgent and it cannot wait,” Sandy replies.
I sigh once again. “All right, let her in, but please, try to help me make it short by reminding her that I have other matters to attend to?”
“I will, Father, thank you,” responds Sandy as she retires and closes the door behind her softly.
A few minutes pass, and suddenly, my door opens to reveal the very woman who has always challenged any good feelings or thoughts that I may have towards people. Her face, as usual, was that of someone who evidently did not want to be here, her posture and demeanor told me that she did not seem very convinced that she had done the right thing by showing at my door and her eyes, which as far as color went were very expressive and spectacularly light blue, had a mixture of emotions going through them that confused me. What was she up to now? I couldn’t help but wonder.
“Emily, good afternoon, to what do I owe this pleasure?” I said to her as I pointed towards a chair before my desk.
Emily looked at me as if she were just figuring that I was truly there, and her eyes hardened immediately, hiding that whirlwind of emotions that I had glimpsed earlier.
“Father Gregor, I am so sorry to interrupt your work. I will not be here very long, I just wanted to ask you something, if I may,” Emily said to me, softly, as if she weren’t sure about what she was about to do.
Once again, I pointed to the chair before my desk and as Emily took a seat, I crossed my fingers and prepared myself for this one; nothing good ever came from Emily’s questions, because it was evident that she did not want the answers that I would give; or believed them for that matter. However, it was my duty to be there for my parishioners, no matter if I liked them or not.
“Go ahead Emily, I am all ears,” I said.
“Father, what makes life worth living it? What is the purpose of life?”
My eyebrows went up in response, but my mind was already screaming against the woman; again? She had asked me this several times before and she had never accepted my answers! So why should I waste my time!
“I have told you this before, and I will give you the answer again, Emily; love, happiness, the good moments with your family, your career and economic success, the love that your family has for you, your friends, the love of God, most especially. These are all reasons that make life worth living. And as to the purpose? We are here to fight our way back to our Lord, and in the process, we help others to reach that same goal.”
“But what if we are all alone in this world, just the result of physical and chemical events, and there is nothing beyond this earth? Then why would life be worth living at all?”
Something about what I saw behind the hard exterior of Emily’s eyes scared me. What was that blackness, that emptiness, that I could perceive?
“What are you getting at, Emily?” I asked her slowly, trying to balance my growing concerns, with my irritation with the woman.
But she released a sigh, collected her handbag, which had been placed on her lap and stood from her seat. Right before leaving she turned to me and said: “Please pay no heed to me Father, I am just being silly. You know me. After all, we are all alone and this is all we have.” After that, she walked out and closed the door.
After December 24th, 2017.
For many days I have wondered and wondered about the last words uttered by my parishioner. At first, I was concerned, and I even felt the need to call her back and dig deeper. But something came over me after some consideration and I remembered that Emily had made those remarks over and over again in the past. So why get worried over nothing? The woman was just plain selfish, egocentric and discontent with her life, despite all she had received. And so, I just put all of it in the back of my mind and continued with my usual work.
January 6th, 2018, St. Joseph’s Parish, Chicago, Parish House.
Thank goodness that the festivities are all over and I can take some time for myself and the New Year retreat was a total success. I am now at home, enjoying my time, which comes only because most of my parishioners are on vacation. But this will only last till tomorrow, since on Sunday there will be Mass and today’s evening Mass will be celebrated by another priest who agreed to help me. So, I was lazily reclining in front of a nice, warm fire, enjoying a cup of coffee, when suddenly, my phone began to ring. I look at the offending machine and think about not answering it, but in the end, I do it because my sense of duty is too high. I wish I hadn’t though.
“Hello? Father Gregor speaking.”
I hear harsh breathing on the other end, sniffling, and suddenly, the whimpering coming from a crying man. For some reason, I am able to guess immediately who that voice belongs to and my insides freeze.
“Jamie? Is that you, my friend?” I ask hesitantly.
The man releases a sob as he answers. “Father Gregor, please, please, please, could you come to St. Jude’s Hospital? My wife... Emily.... she is in critical condition Father, and the doctors think she might not make it through the night. My children, Sam and Brian are here with me and we really could use your company?” the man could not stop crying. I felt as if someone had punched a hole through my gut, and that one conversation with Emily came rushing back to me in a gigantic wave.
“What happened, Jamie?” I cannot help but ask as I rush to grab a coat, take my car keys and rush into the frozen pathway that leads to the street where my car is parked.
“She jumped from a cliff, Father. We were on vacation at Starved Rock State Park and it is really a miracle that they found her. She just told me she was going for a walk, but as time passed and night came, I became concerned and started searching. When I couldn’t find her, I called the police and they began the search. They just found her at the bottom of these falls, against the rocks, barely alive, body half-submerged in the frozen waters and they rushed her to the hospital. Please, Father, I need your help!” Jamie said as he released another sharp sob.
“I’ll be right over, Jamie,” I said as I started the car. I ended the call and began my mad dash towards St. Jude’s. As I drove, I couldn’t help it. I felt a terrible anger rising against Emily. What the heck was wrong with that woman? How could she have done something like this? Did she have no compassion, no care, no love, or any consideration for anyone but herself?
January 6th, 2018, St. Jude’s Hospital, Chicago
When I reached the hospital, and as I went through the doors, there were many emotions, and ideas going through my head, and in none of them was even a peak of the word: compassion. Yes, I was a man of the cloth, called by Christ to love and serve and give, and all that, but this? This went against everything. What Emily had done, was to turn her back on everything and everyone, including God Himself, and she did not deserve to be understood or be pitied. It was a simple matter for me. I took several deep breaths because I knew that I would have to help Jamie and his children to face this hardship. But as far as Emily went, I felt not an inch of sympathy. To me, she had done something that was unforgivable and incomprehensible.
The sight that met me when I was finally received by the Summer family in the waiting room beside the entrance to the ICU ward, was, to say the least, devastating. The children, Samantha, 17, and Brian, 8, were listlessly staring at the wall in front of them, their faces awash in tears and their eyes looking as if they had lost sight of the world itself. If I had to describe it? I would say their expressions looked, lost. My disgust towards Emily only grew. And then, I saw Jamie, sitting right beside his son and the sight of him made me feel as if someone had punched me in the chest. What words could I have used to describe the pain, the regret, the remorse, the utter desperation, and even the anger, that was coursing through that man’s entire being? He was sitting, it’s true, but he was almost bent double over himself, his arms rested against his legs, and it seemed to me that this man was carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Making as little noise as possible, feeling as if I had just walked through a curtain of sadness, I sat beside Jamie and placed my hand on his cold, fisted ones.
“I don’t know what happened Father. What is it that I did so wrong? Where did I miss the signs? How could this have happened? I thought she was happy, so, where did I miss the turn?” Jamie asked me without looking up at me, tears dripping from his already puffy eyes.
I took a deep breath and tried to push back my anger and judgmental words to let the man of the cloth come forth and speak for me; because at that moment, I had never felt more like the flawed human being that I was.
“This is not your fault Jamie, or your children’s fault. Sometimes people do crazy things pushed by inner demons and feelings that others never know about. There are those who are really good at hiding their true emotions and showing the world only what they think the world wants to see. How could you have known? How could anyone, for that matter, have known?”
Jamie looked at me, and once again, I felt like I had been punched.
“I need to get her back Father, I cannot lose her. Please, you must beg God to forgive her and give her back to me. I just... I just need a chance to understand and make things right. There must have been something that I missed, something that I can fix so that she wants to stay with me. I love her so much and I just... I can’t think of a life without her.”
“Take me to her, my child. Let’s perform Last Rites on her and ask God for His forgiveness and help, okay? That’s the best we can do for now,” I said, though deep down the last thing I wanted was to help the woman who had selfishly caused so much damage to her loved ones.
Jamie nodded his head and immediately went to talk to the ICU manager while I went to my car to retrieve the elements I had prepared just in case.
As I walked into the ICU cubicle, all dressed in blue garments and with my priestly clothing underneath, as I looked down on the woman who was almost unrecognizable, covered all over with tubes, monitors, feeding and breathing machines, gauze, tape, and other such things, I couldn’t help but feel a part of me, my very human side, screaming that I should stop, that people like her did not deserve my help; that they did not deserve pity, mercy and much less God’s forgiveness and help. However, as the other three people: Jamie and his kids, filed after me and made a circle around the bed, I remembered that I still had a mission to fulfill and that Emily, as a parishioner, must be attended to, even if only for the sake of her family. So, with my heart tainted with these mixed feelings, I performed the ceremony of Last Rites. Once we were finished a doctor came in and checked on the patient. Jamie looked at him with a glimmer of hope, but the doctor simply shook his head and reiterated what had been said before: Emily was in very critical condition and it was literally up to a miracle now for her to make it through the night.
Jamie, Samantha, and Brian began to walk out of the room again, their hopes once more dashed. As they walked, each one gave Emily’s limp forehead a small kiss, shed some tears that fell on her skin and then moved out of the room. After having asked permission from Jamie, I remained and approached the hospital bed.
Looking at the woman I had spent so many hours with in useless sessions at my office, with my heart filled with not very priestly, or Christian emotions, I just said what my soul had been burning to say: “Why? How could you?”
But of course, there was no response. After taking a deep sigh, and not wishing to stay near this woman any longer, I began to turn away when a really small shuffling sound caught my attention. I turned around with my heart beating hard within me; what had that been? But the sound did not come again. Instead, through the corner of my left eye, I caught movement and I turned; but when I looked at the place, and then at the woman in the bed, I realized that I must have imagined the whole thing.
But then my moving foot stepped onto something, and when I looked down I found myself staring at a small stack of papers, engraved with the hospital’s logo, laying on the floor. I wondered for a moment about the issue, but then figured that in the rush that always took place in here, someone must have dropped them and forgotten them, so I just picked them up and rifled quickly through them. As my eyes settled on the first page, I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The paper was indeed from the hospital, but it did not contain anything except two words inscribed in what I knew to be Emily’s handwriting: “I’m sorry”.
My heart slid down to my stomach and my hands froze, as my mind grappled and was unable to make sense of what my eyes were seeing in front of me. What in the world?
Without any conscious thought, almost working on autopilot because I was in a daze, feeling as if someone were leading my body and my actions, I know that I placed the papers inside my garments, I walked out of the ward, apologized to Jamie and told him that I would be checking on him constantly and left immediately towards my small rectory.
As soon as I sat at my desk, I took out the sheets of paper and still felt unable to wrap my head around any of this. “God”, I asked, “what do you want from me?”
Again, I felt compelled to look down and I turned the page with the words “I’m sorry” on them and realized that all of the sheets were covered front and back with Emily’s handwritten words. I began to read.