|The Ottawa Citizen|
An old man I know told me how he became a Roman Catholic, after an upbringing that would perhaps have better fitted him to become some sort of "humanist." He was young, at the rebellious age, and weighted more with questions than with answers. His relation with his father was tense and difficult, perhaps creatively so. His father died, and his world shattered. The inadequate Christian faith he had absorbed in childhood was tested, against grief, and found wanting.
On the question of weight, a lady I know said, "I remember when my father died, it felt like someone weighing five hundred pounds was sitting on my chest." People may do strange things under such circumstances. But usually they are muffled, quiet.
The man began sitting at the back of Catholic churches, during Mass. He needed something to do with all his time. Those were the days when the old Tridentine Mass was available everywhere; was the bond that held Catholics together. He did not go to church to look at the Catholics, he went as a spectator of that Mass. He was a young man with a classical education, and some poetry in his soul: he wanted to hear the Latin words and the music. (To this day, people who are not even slightly Catholic go to concerts, and buy CDs, to hear the old Mass ordinary -- because it has been set, gloriously and repeatedly, by so many of the world's greatest musical composers, over so many centuries.)
Went to hear, and inevitably, went to think, while the words of the Mass were sung for him, from the invocation of the Kyrie, a text old as the Psalms if not older: "Lord have mercy."
From one Mass, he was drawn curiously to another, until in due course his diverse thoughts organized themselves into a single thought. And that thought was: "This is the only thing that is equal to my father's death."
I learned of this when my own father died, the Sunday before last.
In much different circumstances: he was quite old, and I'm well into middle age; I'd already done my converting. Even when young, I never rebelled against my father, was never tempted to do so. I remember him as my hero from the age of two or three, and in all the half-century since I cannot remember a time at which he was not my hero. The reader may wonder at this, but I came from a very good home, with exemplary parents, and even an adoring little sister.
My mother by her own account "lucked out." Luck comes most often to the brave, however, for she married the man among her many suitors who had the poorest prospects: a young veteran of the war -- a daring young flyboy -- who may have looked splendid in his officer's uniform, but was now in a tuberculosis hospital. And worse, if he ever got out: some kind of artist. (He became a pioneering and accomplished industrial designer, but first he had to learn that trade.) She might have enjoyed great wealth and security, but she married for love and damn the torpedoes.
Now she is an ancient widow, in a nursing home, cherishing every remembered moment from more than 60 years of marriage to a man who was also her hero.
It is from raw, and prolonged experience that one learns what family means, and through it of the awesome power of love, reaching beyond the grave. But these are things that can never be communicated to outsiders. Each family is its own country, with its own culture, its own language, its own mythology, its own universe.
I've mentioned my father before in these columns, over the years, especially in November, around Remembrance Day -- both him, and his father, who went up Vimy Ridge, for Canada in France. They were warriors in their youth, but each in his turn a man for all seasons.
The family extends in space and time. I opened my father's pilot log, and found a photograph in it of him at the age of 19, at the controls of some aircraft I cannot identify. I was taken aback, for in the first glance I thought it was my elder son: the same insouciant look on the face, and the face itself bearing the family resemblance. It took me a moment to get the timeline straight: this is not my son, it is my father. My father.
David Warren's column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday.