January 18th, always
In my experience, on January 18th it’s usually raining. Everything is grey and damp and seems eternally so.
This year is an exception. Today we have sun and a few clouds whipping by in the high wind. A large branch came down in the driveway, forcing me to get out of the car and drag it into the woods. I noticed a smallish, dead pine had broken off, but the tree fell vertically coming to rest against the stump.
It was one I had marked to be cut down during the last driveway cleanup, but Herbert said, “Naw, that one ain’t comin’ down any time soon.” So there was the small, momentary triumph of being right…of course three others are similarly marked and they are all quite upright and hanging on so I’ve only gotten one out of four. On the other hand, it’s a long way till we’re past March so my batting average could improve.
January 18th is the anniversary of the first time I experienced death. Yeah, I’d already had many separations from my family, but no one I’d ever known or cared about had up and died on me.
That is, until Father Doyle did. He died of a heart attack in his sleep during the night. The nuns told us that morning at Mass — explaining that the altar was draped in black in his memory. My first reaction was a sense of unreality. My second reaction was to cry. And cry, and cry, and cry. Maybe “incessant wailing” is a closer description. For once, admonishments by the nuns to “behave” or “be quiet” or “settle down” had absolutely no effect. I was past caring what they could do. What was the worst thing that could happen now? Could they forbid any more visits to the rectory with Father Doyle? No more birthday cards? No more waldorf salad in the kitchen of the rectory, sitting with the housekeeper?
I adored Father Doyle. He was tall, balding and bespectacled. Quiet, but with a twinkle in his eye. He used to count my freckles, though never past a hundred. The nuns were not happy he’d singled me out for “attention.” Just another thing to make me think I was special. Of course, they could object about his spoiling me, and did, but in that hierarchy he could ignore their objections with impunity. And did.
It was probably because my mother was from Dublin that Father Doyle singled me out for affection. It wasn’t often, and only when he saw us in the playground that he’d come and spend a few moments just being nice to me. I think it was because I was Irish and he was homesick for Dublin. I was as close as he was ever going to get to home.
Like any kid, I had an intuitive understanding of the politics of the situation. Father Doyle could be nice to me and the nuns couldn’t stop him. Other than that, I didn’t think about it much, except that he made me feel accepted, acceptable. Worthy, even. The other girls didn’t mind — we shared what we got, and Lord knows it wasn’t much. If anyone harbored bad feelings, they never said so. I guarantee you they would have if that had been the case. But kids don’t think like that. Grown-ups do stuff and that’s just how it is.
And, no, this isn’t one of those pedophile stories — no scandal here. Father Doyle was just a lonely middle-aged priest sent to our parish to “dry out” from his alcoholism. Later I learned that he’d succeeded and had he lived would have gone back to running his own parish. But that knowledge came when I was older and gone from St. Mary's. When he was alive, and when I knew him, I was just a little Irish girl who reminded him of home and he was someone who made me feel special. Two lonely souls who happened across one another. See? Sometimes the fates smiled, however briefly.
I can remember the funeral clearly. I remember not wanting to leave the casket. I remember being pulled away. I remember the following days and weeks quite clearly — or as clearly as one can remember a shadow world.
Did I recover? Of course. I’m telling you the story, am I not? Did I forget? Never.
I am here to honor Father Doyle every January 18th. He was forty-seven years old when he left me. Gabriel Marcel says that love means “for me, you shall never die.”
And so it does. Requiescat in pace, dear man. I'm glad I knew you, and even gladder that you knew me.