Posted by: Peadar Ban | March 10, 2011

It’s A Long Way Home

It was April 20, 1980 and I was starting my first day on a new job.  On the steps of City Hall plaza in Boston I met Larry.  We shook hands and walked into the very ugly Federal building which replaced a score or so of old brownstones going back to the 19th Century, victims of “progress”.  A few hours later we walked over to our new office, a couple of rooms on the second floor of the Federal Courthouse and Post Office at One Post Office Square.  Both of us were now members of the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General and part of a small group of special agents within that office whose brief was to investigate and bring to justice corrupt labor union and management officials and those who made a living from them.

As the weeks stretched into months we found that we had an awful lot in common except for one thing.  “After they dropped Latin,” Larry, the former altar boy who had served Mass for Bishop Fulton Sheen, said one day, “I just stopped going to Mass.”  It was a jaw dropping revelation at the time since it had come right out of the blue.  I said nothing for a few minutes, choosing to concentrate on the traffic and keeping an eye on the guy in front of me, some thug from Southie going to meet the president of a local union.  We did what we had to do and, finished with the job, drove back to the office.  On the way I simply said, “How come?”  Larry, who had gone to Catholic schools through his second year in college answered just as simply, “It wasn’t the same.”  There I let the matter drop thinking about the thousands of others like him who said they had walked away from it all for the same reason.

We worked side by side for the better part of twenty years, day in and day out.  We had a lot of fun together, two guys the same age from New York City; strangers in the strange land of Boston and New England.  He was an ex-Detective Sergeant from the NYPD, and I was an ex-agent from the DEA.  We found out we knew the same guys, had worked on the same crooks and had hung out in the same watering holes own in The City.
His wife, Pauline, a lovely New Yorker from Queens, a nurse, the mother of his three daughters, died at the very young age of 44 from brain cancer.  I went to her funeral in New York City.  The church was filled with guys like Larry, cops and ex-cops, and quite a few ex-altar boys.  There were so many fallen away Catholics there, coming home for an hour or two to say goodbye to Larry’s wife and throw an arm around his shoulder, that the church was bursting.  I sat in the back, one of the few people in the congregation who knew when to sit and when to stand, who had any idea what was coming next.

It was, oh, about ten years later, and we found ourselves someplace, somewhere, at a week long conference.  One evening after supper and a few cocktails downstairs with everyone else, Larry and I went back to my room.  Over a bottle of good whiskey, “gargle” as they call it where our ancestors both came from, we sat and whiled away the time.  My first wife, Sheila, may she rest in peace, was back home fighting her battle with cancer, so we had that in common along with everything else.  As it often does during a session like this, our conversation turned to the “Four Last Things”: Life, Death, Heaven, Hell.

As we spoke about our beliefs and our problems with them, I began to see he was a lonely guy, really; a guy who was trying to fill up what was empty with things and “stuff”, but at some level was too smart to believe all of that meant anything at all in the end.  He had no roots.  I told him so.  I more or less told him he’d pulled himself up and out of the hole where he had been planted.  he listened, and didn’t disagree with me.  He just listened.

After a little pause he repeated his old reason about leaving the church because they did away with Latin during the Mass.  But, he went on.  He said, “I’ve never committed adultery.”  I looked at him blankly, trying to figure out what he was getting at.  Did he mean he was still faithful to the faith in which he was baptized?  “Great,” I said.  “But they did,” he answered, “and they keep on doing it.”

I figured I couldn’t argue the point.  I had to agree.  “Jesus hasn’t,” I answered, looking at the clock in the room. Night was turning into day.  “He’s still the same.  Why not come to Mass with me this morning.”  Well, that killed the “evening”.  I had put it on him to make a decision.  He did.  He drained his glass and put it down, stood up and said, “Not tonight, Gracie.”  With a smile he said he was going to catch a few winks, and asked me to go to Mass for both of us.  Then he left.

I did, too an hour or so later.  And, I went to Mass for both of us..

I made one or two efforts after that; had some short conversations about the faith with him.  I thought he might be thinking of his own mortality.  Nothing changed.  A few years later, Larry got cancer himself.  Then he married, disastrously.  After I retired we saw each other once or twice.  He had the look of a suffering man.  I toyed with the idea of asking him to come to Mass again some day.  Before I could screw up my courage he died.  I called his daughter to tell her how sorry I was and asked if he had had the last rites before he died.  “I think so,” she said.

Now I think that way back when I was asking myself, “What can I do?” I should have made an effort to find out.  It was a life and death matter.

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