Religion Class


           Despair was the one sin God couldn't forgive. I learned this in 1965 when I was preparing for my First Communion. Sister Agnes Adele's steel-blue eyes scanned rows of seven-year-old faces as she explained to us that despair was really pride. It was prideful indeed to think you were so lost not even God could reach you. That, Sister said, was the mistake Judas made. After betraying Jesus for thirty silver pieces, Judas fell into despair. He should have asked God's forgiveness. Instead, he hung himself from a tree.                

            Four years later, in sixth grade religion class, we talked about despair and forgiveness once again, about why suicide was a sin. Joey Sheen, a popular kid who had a nasty streak in him but knew how to suck up to teachers, raised his hand. "Sister, I think killing yourself is cowardly. It takes more courage to live." Sister nodded.

            Although not now a practicing Catholic, Catholicism is inseparable from who I am. I can still feel the cool silence that enfolded me as I walked into St. Patrick's Church after school to say the Stations of the Cross. I recall my burst of holiness – soon to be regretted – when at thirteen I promised Mary I'd say a rosary every night for the rest of my life. But I'm puzzled why after sitting through dozens of religion classes, those two in second and sixth grade are the only ones I remember, each scene like a pink or green country on a faded globe I can look down on. I'd like to know if a former classmate of mine, Tim O'Casey, gazes down on them as well. Tim was nine when he walked down the steps of his basement and discovered his fourteen-year-old brother hanging from a rope.

            My mother always insisted it was an accident. Perhaps that's what the priests said, too; Mrs. O'Casey's son did, after all, have a Catholic burial. Her child's death might have been what turned Dorothy O'Casey's hair silver. I saw her every now and then at parish functions – hotdog lunches, fun fairs. She was tall and slender, with a beautiful smile and carriage. She reminded me of a candle flame, not just because of her bearing, but because light seemed to surround her.

            My mother loved Dorothy. She spoke of her with tenderness reserved for very few. They did not spend a lot of time with each other, but I think Dorothy O'Casey might have been the one person my mother unburdened herself to after my sister Teal came home from California in 1983. Teal was twenty-eight. Her mind and body were ravaged from what was to be diagnosed as schizophrenia. She had been drinking heavily for weeks and eating little. Doctors at St. Joseph's recommended my sister be admitted immediately to the psychiatric ward. Mom refused. She told me later that she knew if she took Teal to the hospital and left her there, her daughter would die.

            Looking back, I think it was harder on Mom after Teal began, slowly, to recover. Then came the rage and the accusations, the tension between Dad and Teal that snarled into bitter words it was my mother's job to mend. Then came the sneaking of alcohol, lit cigarettes dropped on bedspreads, hour-long phone calls to Monterey. And something more: an unspoken blame that hung about my mother like a toxic cloud. She refused to acknowledge it. She denied that the books she took out from the library to educate herself about Teal's illness – books that accused the mother unconditionally of causing a child's schizophrenia – hurt her.

            They had to have hurt. My mother had to have felt devastation. She might have shared it with Dorothy O'Casey, for I suspect Mrs. O'Casey  knew not only about devastation, but about the assigning of blame – the unspoken assumption that a child's ruin has, in some way, to be the mother's fault.

            The last time I saw Dorothy O'Casey was in 1997 at my mother's funeral. She was one of the few people at the wake who did not jabber to me about themselves – their illnesses, their vacation homes, their children's successes. Instead, still tall and slender, she looked into my face and folded both of my hands in hers. "How are you holding up, dear?"

            I think of what a heart holds during these moments. I think of a stunned mother kneeling in a basement holding her lost boy in her arms. I consider a God who cannot forgive despair. And I know what I knew in second grade. It isn't true.

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