Anointing the Sick
Pink angels were something only my mother could see, something God sent special delivery just for her. You have to believe in them, Butchie. Or they won’t let you see them. She started talking about pink angels even before the priest came for his Sunday visit.
We were sitting on the back porch having breakfast. My mother actually drank the Ensure now. I tricked her, I drank with her. I spiked the vanilla flavored Ensure with some cough syrup. She loved the color of it, and the sweet taste. I never let her see the can, and I made a big deal of serving our breakfast.
I used the only tray I could find, something they used for their summer crab feasts. It was too big and ugly as sin, but she loved it. They bought it at some arts festival in Rehoboth. It’s art, Butchie, it’s not just a tray, it cost 50 dollars.
There was a bad watercolor in the center of the white tray: blue claw crabs, all red and cooked and looking more like fire ants than crabs, the blurry picture enveloped in a wavy smear of gray that was supposed to be steam, I guess. Instead of the scrumptious meal the artist intended, there was something of Hieronymous Bosch in the drawing, something that said this is what hell will be like, a bunch of boiled crabs still alive and pissed at you for boiling them — you’re the body at the bottom of the river they’re coming to dine on.
On the tray I had two fat wine glasses and a pitcher full of spiked Ensure. I had a small bowl of Pepperidge Farm crackers, the tiny cheddar cheese flavored goldfish she loved. I’d used a blender to make the drink, and when I tilted the pitcher and poured for her I said, “Specialty of the house, madam.” It frothed up like a margarita, brought a smile to her face.
Sometimes it was all she ate, the hydro-codone spiked Ensure.
“She wears pink from head to toe, Butchie. It’s her favorite color. I told her it was mine, too. And she knew, she did. She glows, she’s so beautiful. She’s a pink angel. She told me so herself. That’s how she became a nurse. They needed pink angels.”
Along with the cough syrup in her drink, I gave my mother Percocet and morphine regularly. It wasn’t time for the morphine patch yet, though a few of the aides complained about her behavior and said she should be on the patch. A Hospice nurse visited three times a week and gave her a shot of Demerol.
I figured it was the Demerol that had her seeing pink angels. My father saw pink elephants when he had an operation on his knee. Pearl told me on the phone, she gave me hell for not being there. “It might be serious, Butchie,” she said. “He’s seeing pink elephants in the window of his hospital room.”
I flew into Philly, and my Uncle Milos picked me up at the airport. “Mark’s seeing elephants in his room, Butch,” he said. “His nurse says it’s the medication.” And then he laughed. “I hope it’s the medication. Be a hell of a mess if it’s not.”
He seemed normal to me, spaced out, but in good spirits. We were all standing by the bed — Milos, Pearl, two nurses, Butchie Boy home for the elephant sighting — and the room was flooded with afternoon light. My father looked toward the window, then back to me, his eyes wide in disbelief. “There they go again, Butch,” he said. My mother leaned into my shoulder and whispered, “He’s seeing the elephants.”
“They’re pink. Right, Dad?” I said, “with big-ass ears.”
“Pink,” he said, “the ears too, yeah.” And then he closed his eyes and slept. The nurse said it was the Demerol.
I was in the shower when Father Montgomery did his anointing-the-sick routine. They couldn’t call it Extreme Unction or Last Rites anymore — it might sound like someone was dying. I thought Milos said they already did that, back when she was in the hospital. So much had changed. Maybe they kept anointing till the sick person died.
By the time I was sitting at the kitchen table with the Sunday paper, something else was going on in the living room.
They were praying, saying the rosary together. Father Montgomery said the first part of the prayer and Pearl answered with the second part. When I heard them praying I was relieved. I was eavesdropping because I wanted to hide her craziness from him. He didn’t need to know about her pink angels and birds crying in the night; he didn’t need to know she could cuss like a sailor.
We all listened to the Rosary Hour on the big stand-up radio when we lived on 29th Street. We fingered our beads and said the second part of the Hail Mary or Our Father. I was little, there was something about the drone of the voices that scared me. My mother, my grandmother and Aunt Peg, my grandfather when he was sober — I couldn’t hear any of them. What I heard was like the sound I heard on the big radio when we lost the station; not static, not that, a kind of humming sound, something like what I heard in the walls at night when I’d wake up and couldn’t get back to sleep. Sometimes I raised my voice, I pretended I was a ventriloquist, I wanted something to cut into the insect drone of anonymous voices. And my mother threw me a look that told me to shut up.
They said the rosary at wakes, too, when you went for the viewing. I’d been to exactly one wake and that was enough. It was when my Aunt Vera died, it was 1959 and I was 16 and driving the old man’s Buick. I was in a hurry to make an appearance and get out. Death and the rituals that went with it gave me the creeps.
The funeral parlor, O’Grady’s, was in Wilmington and they had three or four wakes going on at the same time.
Names and room numbers were listed in the hall where you walked in, where the smell of flowers hit you hard enough to knock you back out the door. I took a wrong turn and stood in a line of people I didn’t know. I figured the family was in another room, that the people in line with me were neighbors or friends.
When my turn came I knelt down and made the sign of the cross by the casket. You were supposed to say a prayer for the “dearly departed,” for their soul. I didn’t think anything I said would carry much weight, but I bowed my head and pretended to pray. I didn’t want to look into the casket — I’d never seen a dead person except on TV and in the movies. But I snuck a peak at Vera’s hands, the rosary beads and crucifix wrapped around them. They were big hands, they were scarred and callused, they were covered with curly black hair. It wasn’t my Aunt Vera in the casket, not unless she’d changed into a bald-headed old man with a thick mustache.
I didn’t know what to do, so I sat in the back of the room, stayed until the priest started saying the rosary with the mourners.
In the living room my mother began again. “Holy Mary, mother of God…” And then their was a long pause. I thought maybe she’d forgotten the words, maybe she’d fallen asleep.
“God sent her to me, Father,” she said
“Yes, well, umm, let’s continue,” he answered.
“She’s an angel. She’s for Butchie, he doesn’t know.”
Father Montgomery tried again. “Pearl, I think we should –”
“You know his first wife died. It was awful.”
“I’m sorry,” Father said. “I didn’t know.”
“A plane crash. The one that was on the news. A cornfield someplace, where he teaches.
He teaches at the university you know.”
“No, I –”
“South Dakota. Iowa. Maybe it was Nebraska. Someplace where they have cornfields. Yeah. They didn’t have a viewing. They couldn’t find all the pieces of Butchie’s wife, you know, to put her back together right.”
“Let me give you my blessing now, Pearl,” Father Montgomery said.
“I never liked her, she was too tall for Butchie. He had another wife, he did. After the one that crashed in the cornfield. She had big ones, too, that’s why he married her. They found parts of her in another state, Butchie’s wife — I won’t tell you what parts. That’s why they couldn’t have a funeral, you know, not a real funeral. I had Mother’s black dress, I was all ready to go. It was politics. Mark said everything was politics. You know, crossing state lines with body parts.”
“You’re fortunate to have Butchie here for you,” he said. “He’s a good son.”
“Ha! He’s a shit, that one. I’m sorry, Father. The shit, I mean. Things come out of my mouth I can’t control. He was like that, Butchie was. That boy had a mouth on him. He had good qualities, too, he did. Such pretty red hair. He lost it, didn’t he.”
“The second wife wasn’t a real wife. She wasn’t Catholic either. He made her up so we wouldn’t feel sorry for him. He makes things up. He’s scared of everything, that’s why he lies so much. You should hear his confession. He’d have some stories for you.”
I got up from the table and looked into the living room. My mother was kneeling down by the recliner. Father Montgomery had his left hand on her forehead, and he was saying something in Latin I couldn’t understand. The rosary was still in his right hand and Pearl was still talking.
“He has a little weenie, that’s his problem. They didn’t drop when they were supposed to. You know, his balls. I don’t know what else to call them. He sounded like a girl when he was little. The prick, the shit. He became another person. Magazines, you know the kind. And pictures. He thought I didn’t know. That dog of his, we had to get rid of it, put it to sleep.”
Father Montgomery made the sign of the cross with his right hand, the rosary beads clicking and flying up like startled birds.
“He did it to everything. Butchie did, just like the damn dog. I know, I washed his underwear. The clothes pole in the backyard. He shinnied up and wouldn’t come back down. You should’ve seen the look on his face.”
And I saw the priest backing away from my mother, looking over his shoulder to where I stood in the doorway. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands, his rosary; he just kept backpedaling and looking to me for help.
“She’s not herself,” he said.
“He bent our good floor lamp rubbing up against it,” she said. “Told me the sun ate my babies. He read it in a book. We sent him to college for that.”
My mother started crawling after him, moving like a baby across the rug as he crawdaddied toward the stairs. “Runt Fuck,” she screamed. “I should’ve drowned him with the rest of them.”
I asked him to wait for me at the downstairs door. I picked up my mother and cradled her in my arms. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said, patting her on the back.
“You trying to burp me, you fuck. I’m your mother!”
I placed her back in the recliner. “Open up,” I said. “Communion time.” And she opened her mouth wide for the pill, the tiny purple host of morphine.
Father Montgomery and I stood just outside the front door. The sunny suburban street was a mix of sprinklers and lawnmowers and weed-whackers, a regular home owner’s rhapsody. He was nervous and I didn’t give a shit about being kind. I was pissed at him for making her kneel down, pissed at myself for letting her go on with her babble. I told him he didn’t have to come back anymore.
“Don’t the sick stay anointed?” I asked. “Or does your blessing wear off?”
“Usually we –” he began.
“What’s the shelf life for one of your blessings? Or do you get off making old ladies kneel down for you?”
“I didn’t,” he stammered. “The kneeling was your mother’s idea. I wouldn’t –”
“Don’t you have to confess that? I mean I’m just curious. Is it the fifth commandment? Or has that been changed too? It’s like hitting someone isn’t it, making an old lady kneel like that. Probably it was only a venial sin. Be mortal out here on the sidewalk, or on the kitchen floor.”
He was young, fair-skinned like me. His face reddened as I went on; his face looked like I’d slapped him. I was sorry I said those things, sorry I made him blush — I could feel my own face stinging from a long-ago slap — but I wanted him out of my sight.
“Don’t come back,” I said. “I’m serious.”
“As you wish,” he said, and started walking backwards, doing his little crawdaddy dance again. “Your mother will be in my prayers. So will you, Butch. Bye now.”
And he turned and disappeared into the company car.
We learned it in second grade, the altar boy game. Sundays we dressed in our black and white uniforms and went by the numbers. You couldn’t vary from the routine, you couldn’t forget your place or your Latin. If you stumbled or dropped something, you were in deep shit.
Father Paul was even more serious, graver than the nuns. It looked like he had to shave his entire face. Even the nose and forehead were ashen. His skin looked like our foreheads on Ash Wednesday when a sign of the cross was thumbed and smudged into place; it was the color of the dust of moths we killed for the fun of it. Jimmie used to call him Father Five O’Clock Shadow.
I didn’t know I was anything special for him in second grade. The only thing personal he said to me was after I’d been beaten up by some hillbillies. He reached a hand toward my face — I had a cut lip and a black eye — and I flinched when he withdrew it quickly. I thought, he doesn’t want to hurt me; I thought, he doesn’t want my blood on his hands
“What happened to your face, Butch?” he asked.
I told him I had a fight and he said, “Maybe I’ll teach you how to box, later. Would you like that? We could spend some time together.” I asked him if I’d get out of class for that too, and he laughed — his ashen face almost brightened. “We’ll see,” he said.
Then there was the special training he came back for when I was in fifth grade. He was teaching me to be an altar boy for a solemn high mass. Father Paul had become a monsignor. I didn’t know what that meant. Politics, Butch, my father said. Your Father Paul is a good politician.
We’d been at it for hours and I was bored — it wasn’t that difficult and Father Paul acted like it was. I don’t remember what it was called, the part of the mass, but I was supposed to solemnly bow while kneeling. When I bowed I hit my head on the floor and he roared with laughter. I’d pleased him, I’d made old Father Five O’clock Shadow laugh. We started over and I did it again; again to please him, to make him laugh. He slapped me in the face, so hard I could feel the sting of it as we went on with our business.
He kept rising up the ladder. There was talk he might become bishop of Wilmington. When I was expelled from Fatima in eighth grade, Father Paul visited us in our bungalow off the highway. His phone call sent my mother into such a cleaning frenzy that she actually stopped crying.
Father Paul was a tall man and he seemed too big for our little house. My mother was so humble in front of him, so obsequious. She flew back and forth from kitchen to living room; she brought him something to drink, she brought him something to eat. She flitted about the house like our parakeet when I let it out of the cage.
“I’ve tried talking to Sister Elizabeth,” Father Paul said when my mother finally sat across from us. “But she’s determined. Unfortunately, her mind is set, she’s made her decision. Sister is not the easiest person to negotiate with. She wouldn’t be specific about his, about Butch’s crime. She’s convinced he’s losing his faith. Maybe if I could talk to Butch alone, for just a minute.”
The two of us sat there quietly on the old couch, bowls of cookies and potato chips on the little table in front of us. Father Paul sat next to the floor lamp I shinnied up naked while watching Bandstand. It seemed to grow from his shoulder, some chintzy spear or arrow. He told me to stop eating for a second. “Look at me, Butch,” he said. “At least give me the courtesy of looking at me when I’m talking to you.” And I turned and stared into his dark face, saw the lamp and its funny shade I had to remove when I danced it across the room every afternoon.
I was so excited to be starting public school I didn’t much care what he said. I climbed the lamp watching Franny or Cookie or Bubbles or Justine, one of the Bandstand girls. They’d be in public school, girls like that, for sure. I’d have the real thing. I wouldn’t need a pole or a lamp or my hand. I told Turk and Jimmie about the lamp — it was because of my dog Sam I told them. I almost lost it when the dog was in the room with me. He’d be down there on the floor wagging his tail and yipping at me like I was fucking his girl or something, like he wanted to be up there hanging on the lamp with me. Jimmie said it made sense, it was a logical progression from the backyard clothes pole to the lamp — and it was easier on my jeans, they wouldn’t have a worn-out crotch.
“Butch, you seem troubled to me,” Father Paul said. “I know part of your problem is, well, just growing pains. You must show good character now. Think of your mother. You can’t undo what’s happened. But it’s not the end of the world. Finish out the year in public school, and I can get you into Salesianum next year.”
I told him I didn’t want to go to Salesianum, I wanted to go to public school.
“That might change, Butch,” he said. “I realize these years can be difficult. You’re a bright boy, you’ll get through this. Kneel down now, let me give you my blessing.”
He stood up and I knelt down; he put his hand on my head. I could see my lamp in the silver of his belt buckle.
I walked him out to his car. I wanted to say something I thought James Dean or Elvis might say. I opened the door for him.
“We used to have such good conversations, didn’t we,” he said. I was close to the door, too close. I thought I could smell altar wine on his lips. “We used to talk. You were my first, Butch, my first altar boy. You always remember your first.”
He started the engine and turned toward me again. “Is there something you want to tell me, Butch? I’m here for you, I’ll always be here for you.”
I wanted to say, Did you have to confess it, when you hit me for trying to make you laugh? I’d asked Sister Elizabeth if she had to confess her ruler, if it was a sin.
“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” I said to the face in the car.
“You remember,” he said, pleased. “And what does it mean, Butch? Or did you just memorize it?”
I wasn’t sure, I did memorize it. The priest began the mass with In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. He made the sign of the cross, standing at the foot of the altar. He said Introibo ad altare Dei, and the altar boy answered.
“Something about God being the joy of my youth?” I asked.
“That’s close enough,” he said, and drove off.