by Msgr. Steven Ferrari
“Excuse me, sir, do you have a wrench?” asked the slender, middle-aged blonde as I opened the trunk of my car. “I’ve been watering the flowers at my son’s grave and I can’t detach the hose from the spigot.” I, too, was visiting a grave at the central New Jersey Catholic cemetery – my father’s – on this early June afternoon. I couldn’t find a wrench (God knows I had lots of other ‘stuff’ in my trunk!), but I did offer her a hammer, which did the trick. She was able to disengage the hose and didn’t need to phone her husband to come help.
I had noticed her son’s intricately carved and beautiful headstone, situated in a row diagonally behind my father’s. The gravestone depicted the silhouettes of three hikers climbing upwards on a mountain ridge. The dates chiseled in stone indicated her teenaged son had died two years ago.
As I was tending my Dad’s grave, she held up a glass jar of grass seed and asked if I’d like any of the extra for my father’s grave. Yes, the bald spots on the ground could certainly be helped by some extra assistance. As she sprinkled the tiny seeds (which I hoped my friends, the birds, would not hungrily eat up), I asked about her son.
“He took his own life.” I was taken aback. She then told me the sad story of her only child being sent home from a local Catholic boys’ high school after having been given detention for cheating on a chemistry exam. At 16, Michael was a high-achiever in his sophomore classes. He was also very active in outdoor sports – an avid backpacker, hiker, kayaker, scuba-diver. He couldn’t face the shame his one ‘mistake’ would cost him. Upon arriving home that May afternoon, he took… “my weapon and shot himself. I’m a nurse, and I tried to resuscitate him.” My heart was breaking as I envisioned this tragic, modern-day pietà.
“I used to be a regular church-going person, but not any more.” How to respond to her anger, her heart-wrenching grief? “Perhaps,” I said softly, “this is when God needs most to be present in your life.” She shot back at me: “He allowed my son to die! I don’t live anymore.” Silence….
“I don’t know if you live close by and get here often,” she said. “No,’ I replied, “I live in Brooklyn.” “I come three times a week to my son’s grave, so I can care for your father’s, if you’d like.” I thanked her – if she could just assure that the plants would be watered.
She extended her hand and introduced herself by her first name only and I did the same: “Steven,” as we grasped hands. I was dressed in black trousers and an open-collared light grey clerical shirt with the white tab removed. I had not identified myself as a priest. As she walked to her car, I spoke: “I will pray for you.” “I need it,” she responded, “Thank you, Father,” surprising me with her recognition of my life’s calling.
I stayed quite a while at the cemetery after she drove away. I prayed for her and her husband, her son, and my Dad. I prayed for so many teenagers who struggle. I asked Dad to watch over this teen in the afterlife. Acknowledging that Dad’s time on earth was fully lived in his 86 years, this boy’s time was snuffed out all too early. As I left the cemetery to now visit Mom, I thought once again of how only God can read the soul’s heart. I try to leave it in His hands.