Monday, October 27, 2008

The Bear
His name was John, but everyone knew him as “The Bear.” The nickname had nothing to do with his personality. It had to do with his low, gravelly voice and his short stocky frame. He was one of five or six men who hung out in a small Italian grocery store across the street from a church where I served. I stopped in nearly every morning for a cup of coffee and was greeted by a chorus of “Hi, Father!” from the rear of the small shop. The Bear could always be found leaning against the counter, with a cup of coffee in his hand. Every morning he asked how I was, and what was new, and if I liked the Pope. As the days stretched into weeks and then years, the Bear became a living part of my mornings. I developed a deep affection for him and I suppose never really thought about it all that much, until one afternoon when I received a all from Matt, the owner of the store, who told me that the Bear had died. He was crying on the phone and had closed the store and gone home, which is where he called me from. He gave me what details he knew, that the Bear had suffered a heart attack and that this family wanted me to say the funeral Mass.
I never thought to ask the Bear about his family. I realized that I knew little about his life other than how friendly he was and genuinely funny.
At the wake, I met his sister and found out that John, as they knew and loved him, lived with her and her husband and their children uptown in a very nice house. She told me that he loved children, had never married, and that their children brought him so much joy. He lavished them from the time they were very little with gifts and tales of his own youth. Looking around the room, I spotted the children, now young adults, and their loss and grief were deep and obvious.
At the funeral, I started to choke up while speaking of him. I did not realize until I had lost him how much a part of my life he had become, how his goodness and simplicity were something that lived in me far more deeply than I realized. His capacity for being good was as natural and as deeply touching as any friendship that I had ever known.
His buddies from the store stayed in the rear of the church, except for Matt, who sat behind the family. I could not help but see the similarity between the church and the store as regards the position they took. Always in the rear, out of the way, on a friendly kind of fringe.
Late that afternoon, hours after the cemetery service, I was driving back to the rectory and drove over the train tracks that ran right next to the little grocery store. Stopping before I crossed the tracks, I looked to my left and saw a man standing down a ways, his head bowed and crying, his face buried in a handkerchief. He never saw me, and shaking his head, turned and walked into the rear door of the grocery, where Matt and the others were gathered, mourning the Bear. I will never forget the sight of that man crying.
It was Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote that “truth is buried in the earth.” He meant that truth is of being itself, that God is in us and of us. We do not have to go digging all that far, or all that deep.
I saw such a sublime truth that day, in that man who loved and lost a friend, a good friend. The Bear never knew what he left behind, never knew how far his goodness entered the hearts of other people. He would have laughed and scoffed if he had been told that. And then asked me quickly, once again, how I liked the Pope.
How good life is.
How wondrous are those who live that goodness, and in so doing help us to love, and to cry by the railroad tracks only to return to the company of friends, a gathering of the gifted.


An admirer who to this day carries a red-glass memento said...

Thank you for this column, Father James. Your column brought back so many happy memories of my father, who passed away last year. Like The Bear, my dad was the kind of person who would have been hanging out in the back - but all the while guiding his children through life. When he passed, my Mother asked me to give the eulogy - it was while writing it that I realized for the first time, how truly blessed my Mother, my brothers & sisters, and I were to have him as our Father.

But reading your column also harkens back another memory. I think we all know lots of people like The Bear - people who mean a lot to others without them realizing it themselves. In this case, I remembered a time when someone I know very well was going through an extremely rough time. He'd lost his job, his wife & kids, his dignity, and he was carrying a cross that many couldn't begin to understand. To this day, he doesn't know how or why he began corresponding with a philosopher/photographer who lives just east of Atlanta, but he knows the Lord stepped in and had something to do with it. The other letter-writer was genuinely interested in my friend - illuminating God's Plan, and clarifying for him that things would eventually turn around. As time went on, he managed to conquer the cross he was bearing, he found a new job, and he even reunited with his ex-wife (they've been remarried for over a year...19 years in all). His friends marvel at his strength, resilience, fortitude, and good luck. He would like to thank the Good Lord - and the a man who goes by the name of james. I would like to thank you. Thank You!

4get2remember said...

Yay! I found your blog again!

Now you have to update it more often! And take more pictures, write more books, sing more songs, and play more guitar...