Awakening to Giants

This article appeared in the January 3, 1998 issue of America: The National Catholic Weekly.


IT WAS ANOTHER DAY full of blessings and "wide-awake" moments, as a friend calls them. I wasn't trudging through the day like a sleepwalking zombie, unfeeling and far removed from the stories of my desperate clients or deeply saddened senior citizens. Rather, my senses were fully alert, wide awake to the difficulties of the day, but also sensitive to the innumerable instances of joy that gladden a heart--a heart made of flesh and not stone, a heart able to be shaped and molded by our Potter God, touched with goodness, yet also vulnerable and fragile, breakable.

Sometimes I curse those wide-awake days for the pain I allow them to cause me, but not today. I think that on these days I am best at my job, and I felt that this afternoon when I spent two hours with Frank, an 85-year-old parishioner whose wife, Bernice, died 10 days ago. In the past year, I had grown close to both of them through my weekly visits to bring Communion to Bernice, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Earlier in the week, after the funeral, I had visited Frank, who was alone for the first time; and we had sat at his kitchen table, looked around the house that seemed so empty and cried together. At first I felt a bit self-conscious when the tears came; after all, I was the pastoral minister, Frank the "client"; but then I remembered the tears shed by a certain carpenter/minister outside a friend's tomb, and I stopped trying to check their flow.

Today Frank invited me out to lunch, and I knew we would be more subdued in the restaurant. Still, in that public place, we sat and reminisced, spoke of heaven, remembered Bernice's loveliness and fought the tears that still wanted to spill from our eyes. Over his sandwich and French fries, Frank told me that when he was a child he was taught that little girls cry, but little boys don't. I don't understand it," he said, genuinely puzzled. "Don't little boys have the same feelings as little girls?" Yes, Frank, and big boys, even 85-year-old boys have the same feelings as big girls. His hands were shaking almost uncontrollably, and he talked openly of his grief. Everything in the house reminds him of Bernice, and when he awakens at night he gets confused by her absence from the bed. His heart thumping so fast it frightens him, he has to put a nitroglycerin pill under his tongue to slow it.

I could see so much of Bernice in him that I thought to myself, "So this is what it is like after you've been married 49 years." A phrase from Genesis lying dormant in my mind, came alive. "A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one."

We talked too, Frank and I, about images of heaven, because a week before her death Bernice had marveled at the passage in John's Gospel, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places." Bernice was thinking in literal terms and was amazed at the consequent image. A mansion so large there might be a special room prepared for each of us? Her curiosity called to mind a recent conversation I had had with Naomi, a four-and-a-half-year-old, so I shared it with Frank. Naomi and I were saying bedtime prayers together, and when I told her that I wanted to pray for her entire family--Mommy, Daddy, Naomi, Faith and Olivia plus assorted cousins, aunts and uncles--she stopped me, protesting that God couldn't handle prayers for so many people at the same time. I suggested that perhaps God is so big that it's possible for God to know everybody in the whole world. With that, her eyes grew as big as silver dollars. With amazement in her voice she asked me, "Does that mean that God's as big as a giant?"

"You know what?" I answered. I bet you God's bigger than any giant we can think of, but God is like a good giant, not the scary kind." Frank chuckled then, and despite his tendency toward a pre-Vatican II image of God as the big policeman in the sky, he seemed to appreciate the explanation.

We had to part soon after lunch, but I drove Frank home before I went back to work. He didn't look well, physically, when I left him at his house, but I pulled out of his driveway more touched than ever by the acute sensitivity and vulnerability in this one man's heart of flesh.

Oh Lord, great giant in your mansion, teach me to be as wide awake as Frank is.

ANN NAFFZIGER, a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, has directed the social services of St. Luke's Parish in Woodburn, Ore., for two years.