Paul Cioe: Heartbeats
One March evening five years ago after my monthly dinner out, a blue Pontiac tore away from a nearby tavern and dislodged my driver's side mirror as savagely as a wild beast might have mauled an early Christian martyr.
The driver then cut across two lanes of traffic, turned the wrong way down the busiest one-way street in downtown Davenport, and skidded to a stop two blocks short of the Mississippi River.
A young woman jumped out of the Pontiac and ran back toward me. From a distance she looked like a scared kid, pale and thin and dressed in black, her shiny eggplant colored hair cut short like an altar boy's. The lines in her face deepened as she drew closer, and the story of her life seemed to flicker like a silent movie in her watery red eyes, until the twenty-something girl became a woman of about forty.
She shook from the cold as tears flew off her like a light spitting rain. I glanced at the side of my dented Prius and saw that the mirror was not gone but hanging like a dead rat with a black wire for a tail. Along the doors were two long lines where the paint was scraped to the metal.
“Shit,” she said. “What the hell am I gonna do now?”
I had to feel sorry for her. I even considered her promise to pay for the damage and her absurd plea to let her go because she was driving on a revoked license and would rather die than go to jail. I've always taken desperate words to heart.
But as she leaned on me and I smelled the cigarette smoke and alcohol and, well, the death rising up in her, I knew that I had no choice but to call the police, lest she drive off and kill somebody. Her eyes widened and she stopped whimpering when I identified myself to the 911 operator as "Father Peter Larkin."
As I walked her back to her vehicle so she might retrieve her purse, she bumped up against me all the way, sobbing out the saga of her troubles and puffing sour clouds of condensation into the cold air, shivering so hard I feared she was slipping into a seizure.
As we crossed the wide street a second time together and she leaned in close, the curve of her bosom pressed against me. My heartbeat quickened as I pulled away and placed my hand lightly on her elbow to guide her back toward the warmth of the restaurant where, minutes before, I had finished my espresso and cannoli and paid my check.
As we sat at a window table and waited for the police, she pointed to my open-collared shirt and asked, almost accusingly, why I wasn't dressed like a priest. Heads turned when she began wailing like a mother mourning a dead child as a squad car pulled up out front. Then she lapsed into a grim stupor.
While the officer sat in his car talking on the radio, I answered her question: "Sometimes we like to be mistaken for ordinary human beings." I felt instant shame at my sarcasm. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
Seconds later, as a tall young cop approached, she clung to me like a child dreading her first day of school. As I peeled her arms from around my neck, her cheek brushed mine. Then I handed her over.
The first phone call came two weeks later.
"Father Peter? It's Lisa Robinson. From the accident?"
"I'm calling from my parents' home in Long Grove," she said. "Next week I go to jail for six months. It was my third DUI."
Silence. Then a long, scraping cough.
"I, well, I want to thank you, Father," she said.
I flashed back on that night, to her tears and sobs, and to the way I could almost feel her heart beating. I shook off the memory and sought to distance myself from the caller.
"Thank me, my child? For what?"
"I don't know. For stopping me before I hurt someone? Or myself and my little baby?"
"Your baby? I saw no one with you in the car, Miss--"
"Robinson, Father. But please, call me Lisa. And I'm hardly a child. The baby was with me. You didn't see her because she's still inside me. That afternoon I had a doctor's appointment. Just a checkup. It never occurred to me that at 41 I'd be pregnant for the first time.”
Another cough, then a laugh. “And, sorry to say, I wasn't for sure who the daddy was, although there were at least two likely suspects at the bar that night."
I said nothing.
"That's probably why I got so drunk that afternoon," she said. “Anyway, that's my story. In a weird way, you did me a favor.”
I told myself that was the end of it. All that spring and summer I celebrated mass most mornings, as I had for over thirty years. I brought the Eucharist to the sick and administered the sacraments of baptism, marriage, reconciliation, last rites. I traveled to Dubuque and Burlington to speak at social action workshops. I filled in on occasional Sundays at the prisons in Fort Madison and East Moline. In short, I went about my business as usual.
Yet at odd, unpredictable moments, I relived the sensory highlights of that night: my glass of chianti, the antipasti, the linguine, the veal, the dessert. But most of all, I felt the tears of that confused young woman, and the closeness of crossing the wide street as one.
I resisted, of course, as I have resisted inappropriate thoughts since I took my vows at twenty-eight. Now, approaching sixty, I recalled the words of my first mentor and spiritual adviser at seminary. "Let them pass through," he would say when asked about the random desires that attack one's defenses.
At his suggestion, I turned to the 15th century work of Thomas A' Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. When I was ordained, determined to approach my vocation and life's work with my old teacher's lessons and example always in mind, I knew the key elements of Chapter Thirteen, "On Resisting Temptation," by heart:
So long as we live in this world, we cannot remain without trial and temptation. As Job says, 'Man's life on earth is a warfare.' . . . Although temptations are so troublesome and grievous, they are often profitable to us, for by them we are humbled, cleansed, and instructed.
I was reflecting on those words after noon mass on the Feast of the Assumption in mid-August when the parish secretary buzzed in a call. I could have guessed who was on the line, for I was in the middle of a thought about her: humbled, cleansed and instructed. Maybe that's what prison will do for Lisa. Maybe that's what purgatory does.
"Father. It's Lisa. I just wanted you to know that I'm back. I've paid for my crime--my sin, you'd call it." Her tone was different this time. Teasing, almost. And, well, irreverent. Music blared in the background, the bass pounding like the beating of a single monstrous heart.
"I'm happy to hear that," I said stiffly. I could feel the blood rushing to my face as the memory of our awkward, fleeting closeness returned, and I must have been thinking out loud until she spoke again.
"Purgatory, Father? I never thought of it that way, but maybe that's where I was." Her speech was slurred, as it had been that night in the street.
"How'd you like to hear my confession, Father? I'll bet you could stand a little excitement. Boy, the things I could tell you. The things I could show you." She was drunk again, maybe even at the bar where it all began.
I took shelter behind my collar, which this time, thankfully, I was wearing.
"The Sacrament of Reconciliation is available at the church every Saturday, Lisa, from noon until three."
"The church would be a problem, Padre, since I'm not Catholic. Hows about I just call it in, and you give me a freebie?
"Forgive me, God, for getting knocked up by a loser and for getting an abortion because I could not handle being pregnant in prison. But most of all forgive me for crossing paths with your numb-nuts out-of-uniform messenger, who's cost me six months in hell, purgatory, or whatever."
I winced at the sharp crack of a cellphone hitting a wall or a table top. Then the line went dead, as did the sensations I had fought off since our encounter that night on a Davenport street. Within the hour my heart was beating normally again, but a new heartbeat, one I could only imagine, began to haunt me: that of the child who never saw the light of God's creation.
Last Monday, these words screamed out at me from a front-page story about a vehicular homicide trial: "I CAUSED THAT WOMAN'S DEATH."
My stomach fell as I moved down the page to the courtroom photo of the defendant, Lisa Robinson, at her sentencing. I recalled the words of the Davenport police officer who answered my call that night five years earlier: "You did the right thing. You probably saved a life by turning her in. She could have killed somebody."
She did, I'm thinking as I stare at my newspaper. It took a while, though. I reflect on her sad resignation to her culpability: I caused that woman's death. Then this:
“The defendant wept as her sentence was read and said, “Now I won't be home for my daughter's fifth birthday.'"
I put the paper aside and walked to the window across from my desk. For several minutes I stood looking at my church across the parking lot.
Next morning I drove for two hours to tell the bishop, an old friend and classmate, that I would be leaving the priesthood. "I am not worthy to perform the duties of pastor or priest," I said simply.
The inevitable questions and appeals followed: Why now, Pete? You realize, of course, that the Church needs you now more than ever. You're youthful and energetic for your age. You could give five, ten more years.
"Besides," the bishop said, "You have nothing over which to feel regret or guilt. Your actions did not drive that woman to commit a grave sin. The child was born. There was no abortion. Her revenge, her sin, was her lie to you. It's you who have suffered greatly."
That night before I switched off the light beside my bed, I opened my copy of The Imitation of Christ. For the first time in years, I read chapter fourteen -- the chapter that follows the one I had always assumed would guide me through life's trials. "Judge yourself," it begins. "And beware of passing judgment on others."
"I'll submit my resignation in writing, your Eminence," I had said that afternoon as I took my leave of the bishop.
How could I explain my true sin, for which there could be no reconciliation: that since that second phone call five years earlier I've come to embrace the belief that the world would be better off if this woman did not have a child, and that a child of hers would be better off having never been born? DSS
Paul Cioe, is a retired college teacher. Now he spends his time singing and performing in nursing homes and preschools, and writing.
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