It is Easter Monday. I wrote a blog post about you. About us. About God. About friendship. About grief. About love. I typed it all out fiercely on Saturday evening. Deleted half of it. Rewrote it on Sunday. Deleted most of it. Decided I hated blogging. Wondered why I didn't just write a book already. Decided I have no patience to write a book. Redecided I liked blogging, and loved you...so here it is:
"Dear Fr. Stan," my 23-year-old-self writes to you in a glittery pink gel pen, on what was bound to be a long, disjointed, and rambling letter, scrawled on my Florentine Italian stationery, with butterfly stickers affixed on the corners of alternating pages...
"We've just started Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Have you read it? Surely you must have ages ago."
Your reply comes neatly tucked into a succinct sentence in one of your letters the following week, "I've picked it up a time or two."
It was only the fourth letter. Our first month of correspondence. Four letters in four weeks.
I am so young then, with sweet wide eyed piety, an optimistic outlook on life (bordering on the Pollyannaeque), that type of wonder that happens in certain saccharinely disposed youth...seeing and believing in divine goodness---everywhere and in everyone, spiritually high and on fire, wanting to evangelize the world with love, with a penchant for glitter gel pens (that never abates with age, by the way), possessing the attention span of a sizable gnat; quick to minimize the seriousness of all I construed as too horrific or depressing in the world...including any of my own experiences which merited gravitas of consideration or reflection.
You...are, in fact, a world expert on Dante...and had, of course, picked up 'Divine Comedy' a time or two. If I have to be teased for some of my greatest bloopers, this perhaps has been one of the best ribbings...akin to asking Einstein if he'd ever come across E=mc2. My only solace is in knowing that you found it refreshingly charming and comical back then. There was so much I didn't know about you that first month...that you won your PhD in English Literature at Cambridge many decades earlier. How very many hats you wore to so many people who cared for you...beloved priest, religious in the Order of Preachers, professor, wise confessor, dear friend, brother, confidant, retreat master, superior, and colleague.
Or...that for the nine years that followed, before your death in 2009, we would write letters to one another almost every week, and over the course of that exchange you would become the dearest friend I've ever known.
We were an extremely unlikely pairing, you an I, as far as pairing go...separated by 50 years in age, diametrically opposed in both temperament and talents. But, we had a common thread you could see at the time, that I could not. "We were both meant for the grand romance of God, seekers of truth and wisdom, and lovers of all in the world, of all of humanity, which was so desperately in need of such love and care. Our hearts were meant for God alone." You saw my vocation to Him long before I was willing to surrender to it. You laughed at me as I told you each new beau, "might be the one," knowing my heart could only be satisfied by the Lord. We also had a thread God could see at the time, that you and I could not. You could love me in a way that would serve as a healing balm for some woundedness in my young life, and I could love you through an extended period of doubt, pain, and depression, and back toward the light. God, in His infinite wisdom and goodness, brought us together in deep spiritual friendship for a decade of this life. And what a decade it was.
It's been awhile since I've missed you. Well, missed you with a tinge of sadness, that is. Usually, when you come to mind, I feel joy...or you skip across my memory like a pebble across a pond, in a fleeting dash of happiness. The first years after your death, I would envision you talking to Jesus and Mary, to St. Dominic, arguing with St. Thomas, visiting with all your family and friends. Then, I would see you turning toward me, peering over your glasses (yes, I realize you don't need glasses in heaven, but it's my post-mourning fantasy--so roll with it) gruffly telling me to stop wasting my time thinking about such things, I would know soon enough what it was all like when it was my time, focus on living and doing good on Earth, and that you were (of course) right about everything you've ever told me. Then, you would give me a little smile and chuckle, there would be little a twinkle in your eye, and I would (finally) get out of my head and move on with my day. It's been years since even those thoughts were necessary to help me through the grieving process.
Yet, here I am on Easter Saturday night, almost eight years after your death, and...seemingly, out of the blue, a couple hours before I am supposed to be at Mass, I am wracked with gut wrenching, sucker punched filled grief. My mind and heart, suddenly and completely, yearn for you. I am overcome with desperately wanting to see you. Right now. In my living room. I want you to materialize onto the couch.
The nuances of your physical appearance feel lost to me now: the memory of the exact shade of your eye color has faded away, your hair line, the sound and cadence of your laughter, the shape of your thick black glasses against your eyebrows...time has stolen away what I have tried so purposefully to commit to memory. That I cannot easily call to mind fundamentals which I ought to know so well, lends to the incorrect, though rather pressing belief, that I have somehow failed friendship, and failed love. Like a small child, I am acutely aware, that I will not be consoled by your materialized presence, and become both irrational and inconsolable. Heavy tears stream down my face for a long period of time. I curl up on the rug and cry your name over and over in my head. I don't make an external sound or whimper. It is all too personal for the air to hear. (That sentence doesn't make any sense to me by daylight hours, but it made sense on Saturday night.) What a strange and unusual type of crying this is. Deep confusion sets in as I seek solace from the pillow I am hugging tightly and burying my face against; intellectually stunned and dumbfounded as to why I am so distraught and upset.
Had you actually materialized in my living room, you would have brought me some Earl Grey tea (with honey) and a biscuit. Then quoted Julian of Norwich to me, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” When you had soothed me, and I was composed, I would have looked across to you, to see your eyes brimming over with tears. I wouldn't have needed to ask, "why on Earth are you crying?" Because, I would have already known. You would have been so moved to see someone love you so much, as to be in such grief at separation from you, that it would strengthen and solidify your belief that such a love must exist in God's heart for you. That emotion would be so overwhelming to your soul, only a response of tears would suffice. I can play out the interactions and conversations that would have unfolded even though you are long gone these many years now.
In hindsight of a few days, I realize I am so incredibly wrong, that I begin to laugh at the comedic nature of my incorrectness. That scenario would never unfold in the way I imagined, because all your tears have been wiped away. You have no reason to ever doubt, be confused, wonder at suffering, feel sadness, or confusion ever again. You now know God's love in its fullness. My imagination is insufficient because I do not know you, as you are now. One day, I will. But for now, who you are in your new form...is...and will remain, a mystery to me. Oh, how I shall try not to envy you, and simply rejoice.
It is a curious business, grief. The moment Fr. Vincent told me you had died all those years ago...oh, the scream that left my body as I dropped the phone...it wasn't even a scream really. It was a wail. The next day at Lauds, when we prayed De Profundis, I fell again to my knees. Wailing. There was no way to easily explain our friendship, or the anguish that accompanied the blow that had been dealt to my soul. You weren't my grandfather, you weren't my father, you weren't my parish priest, you weren't in a category that would make sense to most people. I doubt most of your religious brothers, or any of my friends, would have known I was sobbing my broken heart out because my 83-year-old priest best friend had died. They couldn't understand the significance my empty mailbox would carry in those months that followed.
When I pray the Psalms now, read, or listen to stories about grieving; and the word "wailing" comes across the page in a text, I call to mind the moments of those first two days. That was what it was like to wail. The first morning I woke up after you died, I remember thinking, "You're not on Earth today. You're not breathing. You don't have lungs to breath!" For some reason, knowing you weren't breathing any longer bothered me more than anything else about your death. I cried and cried because you weren't breathing.
Do you remember...a couple weeks before you died, you told me, "Don't think of me as that little grubby caterpillar crawling along the Earth, Anastasia. Imagine me with my wings outstretched, like a butterfly at the Resurrection, finally free, flying higher and higher, toward the beloved, after so much waiting, finally seeing the face of God." Or, when I pleaded, "Fr. Stan, when you are in heaven with the Lord...will you please send me a butterfly? I need to know. I need to."
"Just one?" you laughed.
For those first two years after your death, a butterfly came to me in some form, every day. It was absolutely amazing to experience. Every. Single. Day. That's about how long it took to get through the soul crushing part of missing you. Thank you.
The vulnerability. Can people grasp what this kind of corresponding relationship does to one's soul? If they could, wouldn't they seek such friendships out immediately? To write and receive a letter to and from another human being every week for almost nine years...it opens the most fragile vulnerability, freedom, duty, dependability, depths of acceptance, loving, knowing, nuances...to take and cherish part of another person, able to cipher their thoughts and feelings like a sieve. Impulsive, heat of the moment impassioned scribble in anger or stress (which will vanish in a fortnight and should be discarded as such), or new onion layers of the soul being revealed, sentences of intense profundity, seemingly innocuous lines, little gems and invitations into the depths of another's inner life, humdrum activities of the day, commentary on world events, witnessing another's triumphs and tragedies, a welcoming to the soft glow of the embers of the soul fire, stoking the flames of trust and companionship brighter and brighter with each passing year. The ritual, the familiarity of the stationery, the comfort of seeing the handwriting of your cherished friend. How very deeply I wish this type of experience for others.
So much that has been the best about my life was in my correspondence with you. To be completely uncensored, accepted, and understood by another person is a beautiful gift. You taught me about love, about God, humanity, about poetry and beauty...about myself, about the world, perception, expanding the way I looked at life...much of my becoming a strong and confidant woman came as a result of my friendship with you. I often reflect upon you as my compass-due North back to Jesus through some very difficult storms during that decade.
And now that our letter writing is no longer dearest Fr. Stan...I read, watch, and listen to other peoples letters... searching for the echoes of familiarity and fulfillment, listening for the intimacy of sharing of souls, of those seeking truth and beauty, of those looking for the face of God in neighbor. I've read all of the books I can find about the world's greatest letters, famous correspondence, any works of fiction about writing back and forth. Last week I listened to a dialogue on BBC called 'My Dear Bessie.' The writing and performance was excellent. You would have enjoyed it tremendously. Then we would have talked about how differently their letters would have been if God were actively recognized as part of their lives. If they wrote about God during the war...God and war...some of the conversations we would have had...are still quite predictable.
I catch glimpses of you every now and then, a moment here or there, but most are hollow echoes...because...they are not your voice, nor your thoughts...many 'nots' that in the end...are simply not you. In new friendships, I still continue to seek you, looking for similar traits in others I suppose. Futile really, and quite unfair of me to do. What a laugh you would have though, for I have become dear friends with one of your brothers who knows Dante well, and finds it unacceptable that I've yet to crack Dostoevsky. Tolstoy is "baby food" evidently. You would be terribly fond of him. You know full well how secretly delighted I was, to be teased, and slightly condescended to...in a sweetly challenging manner (to improve my literary competence). The comment was indeed, "so you." One of my best girlfriends is busy reading 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.' She has such interesting opinions, and you'd find her as fascinating as I do. Your heart for social justice, in that one. She'd give you a run for your money in conversation, and you would happily argue for hours, purposefully baiting her... to critique the defense of her arguments. Then, if triumphant, you would recite a poem for her on the spot.
Many of your letters have been returned to your community's archives, to be opened 100 years from now. By then we'll both be dead, and anyone we talked about will be long gone. Most of what you have given me has been passed along to others.
When I really miss you, I open one of your books and read a chapter. Or I drive out to Beluga Point (listening to that cheesy Celine Dion CD you liked) and pray, hoping you are there listening to me through space, time, and dimensionality. Then you lean over to one of your other dear girlfriends up there and say, "Julian, dear, will you please repeat it one more time for her?"
And she does, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."