During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world were discussing whether any one belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. In his forthright manner Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”–From Christianity Today
This post isn’t a theological disquisition on grace, and whether it is solely dispositive of, or required for, one’s excellent and non-horribly-thermal, prospects in the afterlife. Or about whether or not “works” count even more than faith or grace, or if they count as much, or if they count not at all. I have neither the scholarly chops, nor the temerity to expound on those subjects, beyond a rather insistent gut hunch that, in accepting Christ as my savior, I’m bound to give His precepts on how to live a Christian life at least a pretty good college try, and that many of those precepts involve living a certain way, and doing certain things (and not doing certain other things). He may not be all about the old quid pro quo, but I guess I am, somewhat anyway, and I do my very imperfect best from day-to-day to try to hold up my end of the deal. He may have infinite patience, but I have deeply-ingrained ideas about things like fairness, and I just don’t think it’s right or proper to try His patience too far.
This post is about a time in my life when, I believe, I saw God’s grace in action. It’s a story whose roots go back almost forty years:
No one would have predicted, in July of 1981 when Mr. Right and I got married, that Monica and I would become allies, let alone friends. After all, she was the “ex.” And I was the “next.”
And, at first, things were extraordinarily difficult. I won’t go into much detail here, because it doesn’t matter anymore. It probably never did. Suffice it to say that people were not at their best with each other, that there were those on all sides of the family who acted horribly, people who stirred the pot, people who couldn’t let go of the past, and people who acted in deliberately, maliciously, and publicly, hurtful and shaming ways towards others. Mr. Right’s father (a “devout alcoholic” to use Mr. Right’s description of his Dad) was particularly unhelpful, given to phoning up both Monica and me in the dead of night and threatening to burn our respective houses down; and then phoning only a few minutes later to tell us that he had (nonexistent) bags full of money which he was going to drop off for us at various Pittsburgh landmarks. At least he was even-handed in his inconsistency, so there’s that.
Through it all, Monica and I tried to find our way, tried to suppress our mutual suspicion and mistrust, and tried to do what was right for the children. I have plenty of things in my life I’ve done that were quite stupid, and many that I regret: the way I treated Monica and her children has never been one of them. And I know, on Monica’s part, that everything she did was done for the benefit of the kids, too. And, on that basis, we began to forge a path forward, not quite together, but at least going in the same direction, and with a view to serving the same purpose.
Six months after I married, Michael (14 years old at the time) was horribly injured in an accident. He was on a bicycle, was hit by a car, and was not expected to survive. That catastrophic, near-tragic, event helped our family “blend,” as we became dependent on each other over the subsequent months and years of Michael’s hospitalization and rehabilitation. The petty bickering, meanness, and one-upmanship began to recede, and a life of cooperation and friendliness began to take its place. Communication between the two families improved, and we worked together on Michael’s recovery, and in trying to help each other with his older brother (Sam’s) serious mental illness. In 1984, in an extraordinarily generous move, Monica allowed Jenny, then 14 years old herself, to travel to England with my mother-in-law and me for a vacation and to meet my family. It became a benchmark of cooperation for us, and a wonderful memory for decades to follow.
Monica was a gifted teacher of small children, and she taught at a Catholic elementary school not far from where she and the children lived. The parish, and the children, loved her. But in the early 1980s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her health began to decline. A small lady, she was never physically robust. Her strength came from her faith. And it was strong. And unwavering. And so was she.
But as her cancer progressed, she became more and more frail, and more and more tiny, until I used to worry that she’d blow away or simply vanish in a puff of smoke. In all respects but the physical, she was fierce–a force to be reckoned with when it came to loving her family, especially her children, and in loving and doing good works for her Church. One of the proudest days of her life coalesced those loves at Jenny’s wedding in October of 1999 (the fact that the ceremony took place on Halloween may have had an effect on subsequent events in that marriage, but that’s an entirely different story . . . ). I’ve never been prouder than I was when Jenny asked me to re-do the back of her wedding dress and put covered buttons and loops on as the fasteners (quite a project). And I’ve never been so humbled as I was when Monica asked me to take in, and re-hem, her dress for the day so that it would better fit her increasingly slight and frail frame.
She was strong.
A few months after Jenny’s wedding, Sam cycled into a very troubled schizophrenic break, and moved back in with his mother. Monica and I talked often about his condition, and about how hard it was to help him, and I told her that I’d do my best for Sam. And Michael. And Jenny. And when Sam, who’d really gone off the deep end in March of 2000, took to calling us up in the dead of night and insisting on a “family conference” to discuss our problems, Monica called and said, “let’s set this up and see if we can get him past this stage.” I agreed.
So in an attempt to move that along, twenty-one years ago, in March of 2000, Mr. Right and I presented ourselves at Monica’s house. It was the house which Mr. Right and Monica had shared, and in which the kids had grown up. Michael was there. Jenny was there. Sam was there but didn’t attend, preferring to stay in the living room, apart. Monica had made some plates of snacks, and the rest of us, sans Sam, sat around the kitchen table, and had a lovely chat, mostly focusing on funny stories, like the time Michael convinced Jenny to fill the Christmas tree holder with creme-de-menthe, which he said would make the tree smell nice, and make it green, or the time Michael (who was a bit of a hellion) bit the teacher, or the time Mr. Right (in an excess of helpfulness) declared that he was going to take over filling the dishwasher and doing the dishes. That was the time, after a week or so of sticky dishes, I did some investigation and found that he was washing the dishes in “Country Time” lemonade mix. (“Well!” he insisted. “You said the powder was in a cylindrical cardboard tub in the kitchen . . . . “)
During this lovely meeting, which would have been enough in itself, we talked about favorite restaurants, and Monica said, “you know, I’ve never eaten at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and I’ve always wanted to.”
Jenny and I looked at each other. We have a super-secret, double-spy look we’ve developed over the decades. It says “We can make this happen!” So we did.
And on March 18, 2000, the entire family met at the recently-opened Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Pittsburgh, and we had one of the nicest, loveliest, most memorable, dinners I’ve ever had in my life. I’ll always remember every moment of it. It was sweet. It was salvific. It was grace.
One thing I did not know at the time, was that the day before, St. Patrick’s Day, Jenny had been to see her mother, and in a vignette she recounts in a searing and moving memoir of the time:
She and I watch The Quiet Man, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. I see her still dreaming of a man who would love her like John Wayne does Maureen O’Hara. In a possessive, open-to-the- whole-town, way. In a rough around the edges but solid, accountable, steady, whole-heart, permanence.
She refers, in her way, to scripture. “He pursues her like a jealous husband.”
“So he does, Mom. I wish it had been the same for you.”
“I don’t know that anyone really loves anyone that way,” she says, “it’s why we have Christ… and the movies.”
She was strong.
Three days after our wonderful dinner at Ruth’s Chris, Mr. Right and I received a “thank you” note from Monica. A treasure.
The next morning, Jenny called to say that her mother had fallen down the stairs the previous night, that she had hit her head on the corner of a marble-topped shelf, and then on the floor, and that she was in the Mercy Hospital ICU.
She had a fractured skull and a broken collarbone. We visited, and in a private moment between them, Mr. Right and Monica somehow made everything right between them. (Did I mention, she was strong?) I had a conversation with her too.
And on the 25th of March 2000, just one short week after our dinner, Monica died.
In that memoir that I mentioned above, Jenny wrote:
“. . . in nothing less than a surprise cinematic finish, she fell down those same stairs. Hit her head, hard, on the wood floor below, and died. Her death certificate reads blunt trauma to the head. She’d have been proud that it didn’t say cancer.”
Oh, it was cinematic, alright. But also, I’ll never believe it was anything other than God’s grace. Showered upon all of us. Monica’s work on this earth was done. And she went home. And I have no doubt that when she arrived at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter started out with Matthew 25:23, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and perhaps, in a lighter moment progressed to the Irish Blessing she loved so much:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
I wish that for all those I’ve ever loved.
PS: The image at the top of this post is St. Monica of Hippo. Mother of St. Augustine. A mother. Monica would have liked that, I think.