“Mijo? It’s your father. Your mom passed away.”
That was two months ago. Those words crushed me. The pain remains and my mom’s presence is like a phantom limb to me now; I forget she’s no longer here.
About a year ago the reality of her mortality manifested itself in a combination of serious health issues. She pulled through, but never recovered entirely. I began to agonize over the possibility of her death with months of tears and a growing sense of loss. A divide emerged between hope that she would improve and despair that she would die, between my life as a Jesuit and my life as a son, between a God who loves and a God who takes away.
It’s 2:20 a.m. The ministry I’m involved with commits me to late nights on the streets of Chicago. Usually I’m the only Jesuit out-and-about at this hour, but tonight a Jesuit friend just so happens to be in the area. We want to ride home together but we just can’t seem to connect. I head to the “L” and wait near the tracks hoping we find each other. As I linger I recognize that I’m feeling pretty good about who I’m becoming. I grin because 15 years earlier — five if I’m honest — I would’ve been going bar to bar, hopping from last call to last call. Instead my 36-year-old self spends late nights with the poor; I sure have changed.
And this is when I feel my phone pulse in my pocket. Its vibrations become chills up my spine. I know exactly who it is. Before I answer, before I look to see who’s calling, before I even touch the phone, I know why the call is being made. It’s 2:20 a.m. and no one calls me at 2:20 a.m. “Oh no,” I say with a weighty sigh. I take a deep breath. I answer the phone.
My dad stammers, and as he speaks his normally warm baritone sounds coarse and drained. “Okay,” I say. There’s no emotion. My response is sterile. Moments ago I spent the evening accompanying people through their suffering, and now would be a good time for some of that spirit to grace itself upon my dad. Upon me. Suddenly I hear my aunt on the phone explaining details of my mom’s death, and I’m not listening because I can’t comprehend what’s really going on, but at least my dad has someone with him.
A siren down the way pulls my attention so I turn my head. There he is, my friend. After an evening of confusion and miscommunication he is with me. He’s not aware of the conversation, he just sees me talking on the phone. My face doesn’t give anything away, my interior is a mess, and yet, with his arrival, I’m comforted. I acknowledge him with a smile. I’ve not been alone.
As a child, my cousin and I played with Little People, small, armless, cylindrical figurines. We would move them about playing house or school or whatever scenarios our little minds could conjure up. I imagine God doing the same thing: arranging my friend and I to be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps this is not the only time God provided me with what I needed without my even asking. Perhaps he has been doing this the entire year my mom has been sick, and only now I recognize my small, powerless self held by something greater.
Situate me in a beautiful wood or introduce me to someone homeless and I can see God, but in my own life? Barely. I blame God for taking my mom away, for robbing me of my best friend, for making me an only child because I sure could use a brother right now. It’s easy to fault a distant God instead of one who walks with me through it all.
Then, when I least expect it, I’m given a friend — a brother, a Jesuit — at my side, comforting me. I see God in that face, and in the face of every person who has held my hand since. It’s embarrassing to have thought being in a religious order would immunize me to crises of faith. But, I am just as mortally skinned as the next person, deep into this thing called life, trying to understand God and my own humanity. And to know this I need the humanity of everyone around me — their faces, their hands, their help.
Now that my mom rests in peace I am pursuing some respite and harmony inside this new life without her. Who knows how I will find it. Who knows how long that will take. In the meantime I will continue to be a Jesuit and a son. I will go on with my late nights of serving the poor; continue being accompanied by family, friends, and brother Jesuits; trying everyday to see where God’s love directs me. One day at a time.
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