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“MARTIN, YOUR father,” mother whispers, pulling me close.
She grabs me just as I am bending down to pray. The kneeler bangs to the floor.
She points to the back of the pew in front of her and there in the dim light is the profile of a man’s head. Once I focus I see father’s receding hairline, his strong nose, and prominent ears. The light grain of the oak gives him a summer tan.
“It wasn’t there before,” she explains. “It appeared after he died.”
Father has been dead for a month. This is the first Mass I attend in his honour. She comes three or four times a week. Sixty four Masses around the world are being said for my father to get him into heaven.
I have not seen him in three months; did not attend the funeral. I was in Greenland, on assignment, and when the news reached me I faced 24 hours of gravel roads, coastal boats, regional and international airlines. I dawdled. I wanted to punish him for his selfish act of dying.
We had been inseparable as boy and father, but had never been able to translate that passion into my manhood. Now when we both wanted the same thing he was gone.
She leaves an empty space beside her. His spot. The last row, aisle pew for 20 years has been their place. Allows a quick exit, my father once explained, to avoid the congestion. The Church is in the old part of town with insufficient parking. They come an hour early to get a parking spot.
I asked him what he does with all his time before the Mass.
I pray for you, he said.
I reach over to wipe a soiled tissue over the image. I fear kids may have decaled the face to pull a prank.
“Don’t,” she says. “I’ve tried.”
Throughout the Mass she looks down at the shroud. I cannot pray. I think of the Shroud of Turin.
Two weeks later business takes me back to the town. I come alone, after the morning Mass hoping not to meet anyone, with my digital camera to record his image. The church is locked. The sexton opens for me.
“You’ve come for the Shroud?” he asks.
“Yes.” Puzzled at his knowledge.
“Paper or TV?”
“Neither.” His expression changes to concern, debating whether to let me in.
“Magazine,” I lie. He is comfortable again.
The lighting is bad and I try to remember how to adjust the f stop manually on my Canon EOS 7D. I have to lie on the bench to get close. A sacrilege?
“You knew him?” the sexton asks.
“Yes, my father.”
“Oh.” He steps back quickly as though an electrical charge passed between us. His eyes bright.
“Your father was a good man. Every week I spoke to him. They always sat back here. In a way I guess they still do.”
I thank him for his time, and forage in my pocket for some small bills.
“No,” he says, holding up his hand. “The poor box is on the way out.”
I leave town as quickly as I can without seeing my mother.
The local TV station has a spot about the shroud. They have a profile picture of my father to compare to the wooden image. Their shroud picture is better than mine, lighting helps. They interview my mother, holding her rosary – something she never does outside church, a clever producer – who says it’s his way of watching over her. I’m not included.
The Parish priest talks about the mystery of the Lord and how the church is needed more than ever in these unsettled times. Infomercial.
A month later mother sends me a brochure announcing visitations to see my father’s Shroud. She has circled four pm on Saturday. An invitation?
There is a line into the church and I debate whether to leave. The sexton spots me and we enter by the locked back entrance.
“You must be proud,” he says. “There’s talk of a visitation from the Vatican.” I nod and smile weakly.
The back of the pew containing my father’s image has been cut out.
“Chainsaws,” the sexton explains. The cut piece was dressed and mounted on an easel surrounded with various pictures of the stages of my father’s life. I see one of him and me with my first wife and small sons.
I move away from the procession, which stretches out to the parking lot. “Good for the poor box,” the sexton says.
I had cleared my life for father, to spend his final months getting our lives settled before the cancer took him. Three good months the doctors assured. No assignments; no distractions; I broke off with the woman I had been seeing. After failed marriages, two sons I never knew, numerous affairs, I needed him to say he understood. That I had not disappointed him as a son the way I had disappointed myself as a man. I needed to hear him say it.
Then, before the cancer had its final victory, he wraps himself around a lamppost because he is too stubborn to admit he should no longer drive.
“Very proud of you, he was,” the sexton continues. “Always showed me pictures of places you’d written about. Lent me the magazines. Loved your boys. Brought them to Mass when you were overseas on assignment. Was a regular father to those boys. Never met the mother, your wife I mean.”
The sexton hesitates for a moment. Apprehensive, as though a secret needs to be released.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say,” he whispers, “Your father was uneasy about your coming time together; worried that he wouldn’t pass muster. Worried he had let you down. Hadn’t been there when you needed him. It troubled him.” His eyes are moist.
“Maybe, that’s why he came back,” the sexton smiles. “To say he understood.”
“Maybe,” I answer.