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It is hard to believe. It has been one year since my father died, a whole year he hasn’t been a part of. He was not there to worry about me when I had pneumonia, as he was the first time it happened, when I was 17. He brought chocolates and books to the hospital, put a warm washcloth on my arm when I complained about the coldness of the IV. He is not here now to joke that my new singing voice (I lost my upper register, it appears, permanently) sounds suspiciously like Ethel Merman’s, who he pretended to love but really loathed, setting up a premise the whole family continues to trade on. (Just ask my brother what his “favorite” movies are and be prepared to cringe.)

I often dream about the dead. These dreams are comforting and cathartic; a colleague who works in hospice thinks I have a gift. Just the other night I dreamed about my friend Tim, who lost his fight with cancer last year, aboard a sailing ship, a spyglass to his eye. He sighted me and waved, yelling out cheerfully, “I’ve got your cat!” (Our Lula Mae, who recently passed, would make a fine ship’s cat; she was clever, agile and always up for adventure.) But I’ve never dreamed about my dad, never got a feeling or message or reassuring “nudge” from the great beyond.

Perhaps we never get over the loss of a parent. My friend Kathleen lost her father during the Vietnam War. She still struggles with it. How much simpler it would be if our loved ones really could communicate with us from heaven! When greedy old Mr. Dives begs God to send a warning to his living relatives so that they will not end up in hell as he has (in the New Testament story of Lazarus the beggar), I feel a trickle of sympathy for him. The living need to know what the dead know. I think, in most cases, it would bring us great joy.

Ah, but that’s where faith comes in, right? Bridging the gap between comfort and discomfort, mourning and solace. Faith may come on instantaneously, but it is slow in its work. Perhaps this is for the best. Like a super-strong glue that does not set quickly, but can be repositioned, faith allows us wiggle room in our healing. It keeps up with us as we pass through the stages of grief, setting up only when we have reached acceptance.

I am not there quite yet. I have accepted my father’s loss, but I am not comfortable with it. Maybe I never will be. But to all of us who are mourning, I say, keep at it. We learn about those we love not just in their presence, but also in their absence.



Holy shades of Chaucer! Pope Francis is offering indulgences to anyone who follows Catholic World Youth Day on social media. Indulgences, for those who don’t know (or who thought such rusty concepts were confined to the Middle Ages), grant certain amounts of “time off” in Purgatory to their holders — sort of a “get out of jail free” card for the afterlife. In “The Canterbury Tales,” the Pardoner doles out such indulgences — for a fee — and Chaucer does not mince words in condemning him.

I’d like to think that God controls our destiny, not the Catholic Church (or any other church, for that matter). I can’t imagine it will matter much to God if we end up at the Pearly Gates with souls full of sin and ignorance, but clutching a few magic beans in our sweaty palms. “Oh,” imagine God saying, “You have indulgences. Well, that changes everything.” Fat chance.

I like Pope Francis. I like his commitment to the poor, his humility. I think he will do great things for the Church. And, Lord, do we need them! For every Francis, there’s a Cardinal Dolan, glad-handing his way right over the needs of the people, or a bishop looking the other way at abuse of children by priests. But I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed at Francis’ resorting to the old chestnut of indulgences in order to build interest in a Church event. It reeks of desperation. (Perhaps he is desperate?) But more importantly, it reeks of supposition.

Why any human being — even the Pope — might feel capable of giving people time off from the punishments of the afterlife poses a conundrum for me. For one, who’s to say the afterlife contains the kind of punishments we human beings can conceive of? I always viewed the moment of death as a reckoning: You see your life laid out before you in all its beauty and ugliness, and have to relive every bad-hearted, unloving thing you ever did. For me, this would be excruciating, even if it passed in a moment. My friend Alice doesn’t believe there will be punishment of any kind in the afterlife. Only a welcoming heaven provided by a God whose forgiveness exceeds our wildest imaginings.

We do ourselves — and God — a disservice when we try to analyze God’s plans for us beyond the world we live in. Only God knows what lies ahead. Only God will give us what we truly deserve. Will following an event by Twitter give God pause in God’s judgment? It seems unlikely.

Please, do follow (or attend) Catholic World Youth Day. Just don’t count your chickens — or your indulgences — before they hatch.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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