“O God, Whose attribute it is always to have mercy, we humbly present our prayers to Thee for the soul of Thy servant, Mathew Stephen Ryan, which Thou has this day called out of this world, beseeching Thee not to deliver it into the hands of the enemy. We pray that your everlasting love and mercy may bear the soul of our brother into paradise; that it may be delivered from the pains of hell and inherit eternal life through Christ our Lord. Amen”
Like the quiet, muffled roar of pebbles and shells pulled, tumbling towards the ocean, the church was filled with the response, ‘Amen’.
Alone together in the front pew, stood four women. Three wore the habits of their Order, individual identity concentrated in a white-framed oval of flesh. The more mundane function of clothing, that of providing protection from the elements was consigned to simple lengths of black cloth. The fourth woman bore the mark of age and loss, unassailable credentials for her place in the first row of the devout.
Sister Bernadine, Mother Superior of St. Dominique’s, stood at the aisle end of the pew. Her massive frame, softened by the black cloth of her habit seemed a quiet protection, until, that is, one was in a position to see her face. Her eyes were not quiet, beneath the protection of the beige ridge of a frown; they glowed like the remains of a campfire on a stormy night. She was the epitome of barely restrained vigilance. Face to face, or even from eight rows back in the pre-quiet of a funeral mass, any temptation to dismiss her as an overweight, middle-aged black woman vanished. Her right hand rested, immovable, on the pew rail, a stanchion for the young woman to her right.
Standing next to Sister Bernadine was Sister Margaret Ryan, novitiate at St. Dominique’s. She stood between the ruler-straight pews as upright as any young willow tree reaching for the sun. It was beneath the shapelessness of her veil and habit that the slight swaying of her body gave lie to her calm demeanor, as winds of rage and grief tore at her; only her eyes, blazing over tear-softened cheeks hinted to the battle within. She gripped the railing with both hands; the paleness of fingertips, the only clue to how precarious her balance, both physical and emotional.
On Margaret Ryan’s right, her mother stood like the statue seen in certain religious festivals, usually of a medieval origin. Like the icons of old, carried from station to station, Alice Ryan allowed others to move her from place to place, trusting that she was of use and value to the ceremony, now standing in a cathedral, as still as eighty-year-old bones permitted.
The last woman in the front pew was Sister Cletus. If time is the measure of all, she was now a ruler worn smooth of markers and marks, as straight and true as ever, her wisdom offered to those in need un-adorned of complication or apology.
Margaret Ryan watched as the Archbishop of Philadelphia stood between the casket that held the remains of her brother, Father Mathew Ryan and the altar. With practiced gravity, he held the silver thurible over his head and let it swing. Intoning the words of the ceremony, a solemn soundtrack as the pungent smoke rose; rivulets into tendrils, ever reaching upwards. Like a fairy tale creature, its wings and therefore, its magic torn by the morning sun fighting to escape the grip of the cold and rational earth, the smoke disappeared into the dusk of the upper reaches of the cathedral.
I stood still. For no reason, a line from an 80s song, ‘eyes without a face’ came to mind and, rather than grimace, I smiled inwardly. It was exceptionally quiet in my head and Billy Idol would not be the worst houseguest. I heard the growing crescendo of padded wood-on-wood thumps as the kneelers were reset; it was the sound of the wheel turning. I could even sense the increase in light, as the doors, somewhere, too far away, opened. The world beyond the unseen doors was a place now changed. It was a place of school and sorrow, it was the everyday world of work and ‘learning to deal with it’, it was a place that, as long as the church doors remained shut, I never need to face.
I stood still. If I didn’t turn, didn’t move, then nothing would happen. I did not want to move. Everything was fine. Sister Bernadine was on my left and my mother was on my right. Sister Bernadine had become a part of the pew and therefore the church. She hadn’t said a word since she arrived, late, just before the start of the service. I felt something inside relax, a wave of peace, as I recalled her arrival, almost late. The Archbishop was at the back of the church, his full retinue arrayed around the casket; a proud general heading into a battle that he knew he could not lose, no matter how many of his soldiers were wounded.
The morning outside was sunny and bright; a shadow grew up the aisle as Sister Bernadine stood in the open doorway. The bishop stepped forward as if to walk her to the front. With a nod so slight, only those who knew her could see it, she continued; the bishop stepped back to the head of the casket and waited for her to reach the front pew.
Sister Bernadine walked up the aisle towards where I stood with my mother and Sister Cletus. Her eyes never stopped moving, yet her body projected a peace at rest. In the small, hidden part of my mind, rose the image of a lioness in the tall grass of an African savannah, eyes half closed at rest and body full of life. I felt safe and secure.
I sensed movement and willed my eyes to shift from the altar to the woman now standing in the aisle. Sister Bernadine looked back at me. There was no urgency or impatience. Not the slightest hint of worry that I wouldn’t do what I was supposed to do. For the second time in two minutes, a small, secret smile grew inside me. I recalled a late afternoon sitting in her office, neither of us speaking, until day turned into night. That she would stand in the aisle watching me (and everything else in the cathedral) forever, if necessary, gave me a new feeling of strength.
I nodded to Sister Bernadine. I turned back to face my mother. Her pale and tired face was filled with a childlike trust; armor against an enemy still in the un-seeable distance. Her hand grasped my wrist, the dry delicate touch of the tendrils of an ancient vine clinging to stone.
I knew Sister Cletus was next to my mother without even looking directly at her. She has that power to be where needed, sometimes before anyone recognizes it.
I stepped into the aisle with my mother on my right side and we proceeded towards the light at the back of the church. A frown grew in the lower back of my mind. I felt my jaw muscles tighten and my lips pressed together.
Moving up the aisle towards the back, I saw the church was three-quarters full; parishioners and friends of my brother. They would forever be people who were friends of my brother, friends by rite of death. The frown hidden behind my eyebrows grew deeper. I felt a certain….certainty; it was the feeling of a beast waking, not from sleep but from hibernation.
My friend, the Chicago police detective, Maribeth stood at the end of a pew. I was surprised and, somehow, alarmed. I only then remembered that she showed up, un-announced, at the wake. I know we spoke and cried, but could not remember when. The evening had been an endless series of hugs from strangers and condolences from people who wanted me to know how much my brother meant to them. I looked at her in her favored outfit of a nearly-mens-tailored suit, a glint of gold from the badge on her hip. I looked for her gun and I smiled. It was the first genuine smile I could remember in the last three days. She frowned affectionately at me and silently lip-spoke three words. Then I was past her and she returned to what I knew she’d been doing, memorizing everything about everyone in the church.
I saw a blonde girl looking at me from a pew in the back left. Her remarkably pretty face showing as much desperation as I suspected mine was sad. Her name appeared a blank rectangle in my memory. I continued to stare at her until I remembered she was a part of the same outlier group of nerds and malcontents I was part of when I was still at Radciffe. Her name remained at the far edge of my mind, something about a mineral or jewel. As I flipped through my memory, she slide-stepped out of the pew to the far aisle and, without a backward look, disappeared into the vestibule.
There was a man, in the next to the last pew that I only glimpsed before a family stood up waiting for us to pass and blocked my view. When I passed them, he was nowhere to be seen. There was something about him that made me certain that, were you to ask anyone there, they would say with certainty he was there for most of the Mass. I was equally certain not one of them would have been able to describe him other than, darkly dressed.
Standing in the middle of a pew was a very large man wearing a white suit and a smile that would seem inappropriate to the occasion. Next to him was a young man I recognized only after doing a little memory editing. His clothing was very expensive in a low-key way, but when I superimposed a University of Maryland tee sheet and dirty Adidas on the Harris tweed and Bruno Maglis, I immediately recognized Alex Dumas. He was the grad student behind a series of articles profiling me for his college newspaper. Originally intended as a PR-friendly piece on my efforts to earn a Masters degree through their online program, it became much more. Alex got wind of the social media campaign I’d launched to try and stop the foreclosure of my mother’s house. To his credit he should not have been able to find me beneath the fake names and avatars. The title of his story was changed to, ‘The Billionaire and the Nun’ and it kind of went viral. Last I’d heard, there was talk of a book deal and maybe even a byline on one of the ‘investigative-human-interest’ cable tv shows that were always spring up.