I am an assistant professor at Chadron State College where I teach writing and American literature. Though no longer a practicing Catholic, I still find myself drawn to the rituals I observed so ardently as a boy. "Sacred Heart" appears in my first book of poetry, Another City, which recently was published by (and is available at) FutureCycle Press.
I miss riding with my father in his El Camino, praying a Hail Mary
whenever an ambulance sounded in the distance. I miss my mother
knocking on my door each Sunday morning insisting it was an insult
to Jesus Himself if I did not get out of bed. There was the white cassock I wore
as an altar boy. The Feast of the Ascension when Tom Carter, yawning wide,
dropped the thirty pound wooden cross. I miss Father Barry’s horrified gasp.
Everyone was Irish-Catholic; everyone pretended not to know
each other’s secrets: Mr. O’Shea, in a green blazer each Sunday, who walked out
on a wife and seven children to a start a new life
with a twenty-three-year-old florist. The girl sitting beside me
in eighth grade had hair so fiercely red I couldn’t ignore the crude thoughts
intense as sun flares. I miss Sister O’Connor, eighty years old, blind in one eye,
explaining the function of each bead on the rosary as Ryan McGrath
drew stick figures engaged in sexual acts none of us quite understood.
I will never miss walking to school in ninth grade terrified the distant sky
judged my every thought, or kneeling before my bed praying obsessively,
working myself to tears—three Our Fathers for each person I knew
who had died. I still do not forgive Monsignor O’Neil for instructing me
to say the Act of Contrition as penance for kissing Sara Cook in the backyard
while her parents watched television. But there was the annual church bazaar
where my father, so often angry, ran a ping-pong shooting booth
looking foolishly kind in a torn felt hat. And in eleventh grade Father Hickey
called our house—my mother answering the black rotary telephone—
to ask if I’d come out of altar-boy-retirement to serve Sacred Heart’s
centennial celebration. There was the red cardigan my mother bought,
her hair done proudly, and me ringing the chimes one final time
as Father Hickey raised the Holy Eucharist. I miss the familiarity
of the uncomfortable wooden pews, Father Kelly’s sermons
that oversimplified all human behavior to right and wrong.
And when my mother was dying, Father Hickey—who I had not seen
in fifteen years, his back now hunched with age—
drove to my parents’ house. There was the dignity of my mother’s Last Rites.
How we formed a circle around her, my father’s cheeks red with grief,
as Father Hickey recited the 23rd Psalm. I miss holding my mother’s
still-living hand those minutes before her lungs stopped,
that long hour we waited for the undertaker as her forehead cooled,
and how in the empty silence beside my mother’s body I allowed myself—
once again—to repeat every useless prayer she taught me as a boy.
-first appeared in Rattle
©2015 Steve Coughlin