DENYING ME SUPPER

Growing up in the sixties as a Roman Catholic was no easy feat, despite my father leading the way.  I attended Mass every Sunday at St. Gabriel’s in Brooklyn.  I fell to my knees on cue to the nuns’ clickers and ate broiled flounder on Fridays. I went to religious instruction classes on Wednesdays while all my Jewish classmates stared in envy as I left school early.  On Saturdays I went into that scary, dark booth to confess my sins and say penance (though this always was unsettling to me).  I even went on retreats regularly, becoming quite friendly with the nuns and priests.  And, I became president of the Catholic Youth Organization. The sixties was a time of great unrest in the Catholic Church with many clergy members throwing in the constraints of celibacy and marrying or having healthy yet forbidden relationships. We won’t discuss the dark places that some went to, because that is not what this is about.
I cannot say that I loved the church or its doctrine.  I cannot even say that it brought me great sustenance or comfort.  The message was mostly punitive; where if you did this or that, punishment awaited you.  It was always hard for me sitting through Mass though because my mother, a raving Atheist, gagged in disgust, whenever she came to church (why did she come?). My father was excommunicated because he had divorced his first wife who cheated on him.  I suffered interminably seeing him unable to receive communion when my sister and I, along with our friends, did receive the blessed bread of Christ.  I hated that and I visited many priests begging them to find a way to forgive this honest, giving, and somewhat depressed (being married to my mother!) man.  I never made any headway with that plea, and he continued attending church but not receiving sacraments, much to my chagrin.  I suspect that he died believing he would be punished in eternity forever.
For me, receiving communion was always the highlight of the service and I imagine that is the case for most folks who attend church.  It was solemn and soulful and when I returned to my pew, I got to close my eyes and pray fervently for God’s good graces to be bestowed upon me, and those I loved.  I was always struck by the beauty of repeating all the elements of the Last Supper right there in front of me, in which I got to participate.  This ritual brings comfort to most. 
Like many, I wandered away from the Catholic Church when I was in my late teens and early twenties.  None of my college friends were attending church, after all.  I was married in what was called a con-celebrated ceremony with my husband’s Episcopal priest and my Catholic priest sharing the service.  That seemed right at the time and it pleased my father.  However, I lived in Texas when I had my first child and had him baptized in the Episcopal Church.  It wasn’t a particularly deep decision made for any particularly ecclesiastic reason. Truth be told, I really liked my childbirth teacher and her husband was an Episcopal priest, so this made perfect sense to me!
In the eighties I moved back from Texas to Long Island, and attended an Easter service in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hampton Bays.  It was lovely and the priest was fun and contemporary.  When we went to communion, he had jellybeans in the chalice and he thought is was great fun.  I did too, and after the joke was over and he served communion in the normal bread and wine fashion, I knew I was hooked.  Imagine a church with a sense of humor and one where the priest was not only married with kids, but in the process of getting a divorce! I attended that church for the next 12 years and was confirmed as an Episcopalian as well.   Each of my babies was baptized there and I grew to love the liturgy and the modernistic, sophisticated, nurturing, all welcoming ways of the Episcopal Church. 
So, here is my complaint.  All are welcome at God’s altar.  This is said in most Episcopal Churches before anyone comes to the altar rail.  Some priests mention “all baptized Christians” but many do not, and communion is for everyone.  This makes complete sense to me, because Jesus would not have been picking and choosing who can and who can’t have some bread and wine. 
I understand the whole Catholic “transubstantiation” thing and that Catholics believe that this wine becomes the “precious blood” but do they really, really think they are drinking blood?  Of course not.  So, when a Catholic priest stands up on the altar before serving Eucharist and announces that only “Catholics who have received First Holy Communion are invited to receive communion” I am deeply insulted.  I am insulted not for myself, because disregarding my “conversion,” I am in fact a legitimate “Catholic” under those stipulations.  But, how dare any man, despite having been ordained and gaining four “magic fingers” deny anyone the symbolic bread and wine that represents this historical last meal of Jesus and his 12 best friends?  I mean, where did this designation come from?  It is certainly not in any bible I’ve ever read. Why would it be?  After all, would Jesus have said, “Hey, you can have some bread and wine tonight, but not you or the guy next to you. Only certain ones of us qualify.” This is an arbitrary man-made rule and I say, “all are welcome at God’s altar. “
So, when I march up to communion along with my Anglican husband and I suspect many a Lutheran, Presbyterian and who knows who all else, know that I mean business and I will not be denied the bread and wine that symbolize the goodness and generosity of much of what is right in this world.  So far, I have yet to see an authenticity checker at the Catholic altar, so only God would know who is who and I believe with all of my heart that no matter what, He is so glad to see you and honored to have you share  in His meal.  

Advertisements

WE DON’T HAVE THE WORDS TO TEACH OR PREPARE

My 25 year old niece Katie’s best friend was found dead this morning. It was a shocking, tragic death of a 40 something year old man whom she worked with named, Lee.  Katie spoke of him often and tinkered with the idea of moving from North Carolina to New York with him or traveling through Europe with him and vising his family in the UK.  Recently, when Katie visited some friends in New York, Lee was texting her constantly throughout her stay.  She relied on him for feedback, for laughs, for encouragement.  I noticed when she got back here, that he was the first person she called and spoke to as she went to sleep that night.
Katie is a waitress-supreme.  She is the waitress you always wish you had; one knowledgeable about the food and wine offerings and one who makes sure you are well taken care of for a perfect dining experience.  She does this in Wilmington, North Carolina’s only authentic French bistro and is well loved by her customers, co-workers, and restaurant owners.  Lee was also a waiter and by far one of the most popular in this dining establishment.  Most of the time, he and Katie worked together, laughed non-stop, made life plans, commiserated and drank together after work.  However, Katie was well aware that Lee drank too much and was clearly on his way to full blown alcoholism.  She was concerned and encouraging him to beware or at least to be aware. It seems his death was closely related to his alcohol abuse last night on his birthday.
Lee and Katie were truly best friends and though I questioned her about any possible romantic nuances, she clearly and vehemently denied saying, “He is my brother!”  I believed her.  And though I only met Lee once and very briefly, I felt that I knew him somewhat through Katie’s descriptions and joy in knowing this man. 
So, when Lee was found dead in the most shocking of circumstances this morning and Katie was there instantly to convince herself that this might be real, she became inconsolable saying as we all say many times in our lives, “I cannot do this.”  Ironically, I remember sitting next to her sister Maddie in the emergency room, as her father lay dying a few years, hearing her say, “I cannot do this.”  And then again, when Katie came home to see her father in his casket and decided she did not want to go into see him like that her saying, “I cannot do this.”
There really are so many moments in our lives when we do say, “I cannot do this” and we mean it with all our heart.  It is as if to say, “Someone please take me away from this horror, this unbearable pain, and protect me from this so I do not have to participate.”  The cruel reality is that there is no turning away and there is no protection from the worst that life has to offer and whether or not one thinks they “cannot do this” they will have to anyway.  Rarely, can one be protected and if they are, it will only be for a short while until the water begins to leak through the crack in the vessel. 
So, my heart breaks for the tender and vulnerable heart of this young and beautiful niece of mine who means so very much to me, because I wish I could protect her and her sister, and all of my sons as well, from the angst of life.  But not only is that not possible, but it would not be a life lived in truth and honesty either. Because the reality is such that if you have suffered, then you have also known joy and they do not exist separated from each other.  To know one, is to know both. To not know one, is to know none.  And don’t we elders all wish we had the language that we could use to describe how this flaming pain of love and loss will feel and to prepare our youngest ones for this? But, the words do not exist and each of us seems to have to go through these moments of life changing intensity in order to grow and become wiser and to develop the depth of understanding that enables us to become. 

So when Maddie reacts by asking, “When is this going to stop?” as if magically one day we will all be in the Emerald City and be done with the sorrow, the disappointments and the sometimes terrifying events, my answer is probably not the one she wishes to hear.  As long as we are living, “it” does not stop. The sadness and the joy keep on coming, side by side, in sync or totally imbalanced, but they are life forces and since no one promised us a rose garden, the thorns continue to grow on the vine.  

A Nickel for a Coil

My sister, Alice was the most darling, little girl with a head full of red ringlet curls and creamy skin dotted with freckles.  As little girls go, she was spectacular and in the age of Shirley Temple she met all criteria for cuteness!  Wherever we went, folks would stop and comment about her adorableness.  I remember boarding the Decatur Street bus one day in Brooklyn.  The driver of the bus stopped everything to carry on with his passengers about this “Little Red” with the head full of ringlets. My crazy mother loved the attention. I, on the other hand, always felt like the gawky, skinny, plain, straight-brown-haired sister on stand by. I simply got none of the attention or glory yet, I loved Alice so much that it was almost okay for I too, enjoyed the spectacle of her!

My grandmother lived at 10 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.  It was one of the more posh, Brooklyn neighborhoods and she lived in a formal and desirable pre-war building right across from Prospect Park and the lake. Most of the residents of this fancy building were older Jews, and they spent the majority of their time sitting in lawn chairs in the front of the building, kibitzing about all that was right and wrong with the world. Having these Irish Catholic granddaughters had to be material for fodder, but we never really heard about it and the flaming red hair that Alice brought into the picture, really sealed the deal.

Mr and Mrs. Halem were amongst my favorites because they always pinched our cheeks and carried on about our sweetness. Mrs. Halem sported a pair of classic piano legs that slanted outwards.  I was always afraid that her legs would just completely bow out and leave her flat on the ground. She wore these huge, clunky black shoes referred to as “Old Lady Shoes” at the time and she groaned, “Oy” a lot. Mr. Halem had the most wretched, wet, crackly cough and his habitual throat clearing could really be sickening. To make matters worse, he had been a Kosher butcher and had chopped off one of his fingers which left just a stub, which always grabbed my eye and fascination.  However, he was madly in love with my little sister to the point where he would stop dead in his tracks every time he laid eyes on her and say, “Hey Red, a nickel for a ‘coil’! Look at all those ‘coils.”  Lemme have just one for a nickel, eh?”  We would all laugh and feel a little scared that he might actually abscond with one of those curls of Alice’s.

So, the irony of ironies here is that yesterday, Alice shaved her head and all but the very least of her red hair remains. She has officially crossed over into wig wearing territory and is donning a wig that really looks great on her and is a lovely strawberry-ish color.  Yes, she is yet another woman with breast cancer and has just begun the journey of chemo, surgery, and radiation. Her trademark for all these years, into her mid-fifties has been “Hey Red!” so this is particularly poignant and emotional for her.

In many ways, we look alike or have similar features, though she is more fair with the curly red hair and blue eyes, and I always donned the straight dark hair with green eyes.  So, seeing her with a shaved head makes me see myself in the same light. My hair is not special, it is not my main or best feature and I am not sure I even have one.  It is an odd and entangled emotional experience beginning this breast cancer journey with my sister. I wish we lived physically closer than the two hours there is between us.  And, I wish that she wanted me around her more, but I am trying hard to respect her boundaries and her wishes, hard as it seems to be for me.

One day when this wretched journey is over for her and she has recovered, I know her hair will begin to grow back. One never knows just how thick, or curly, or straight, or red, or white the hair will be, but Alice, will always be Alice and perhaps, she will always be, “Hey Red!”