Memoirs of a shattered hope.
(Page 5 of 10)
2. GROWING UP
It is hard for me to describe Dick. It would probably come out wrong if I tried. One thing that both his brothers and his sister feel is that his life must not be falsified. I have heard each of them—Jim, Ben, Mary Ann—bewail the effort to make a “martyr” of him, the piteous attempt to idealize him. He was our brother. We felt his loss sufficiently not to wish to lose him from our imagination, too, in the illusions of piety.
He was 28 years old. He had a good heart, a sharp mind, a temper, and sometimes infuriating ways. We all remember arguments with him. We will admit that he was the most gentle of us, the one with the most even disposition. But none of us believes that he was a “saint,” or even what would be called a “good boy.” Compared to the rest of us, our parents have long imagined that Dick was especially innocent. Among his friends, that deception early disappeared. He was mischievous, imaginative, clever, and fearless. He got away with things with our parents as none of the rest of us could. He hid his mischief, using a sense of humor.
I cannot speak about his high school days with any authority, for at that time I was already studying for the priesthood myself. All I know is that to his friends Rich had become Dick, then Nick; that without raising any special trouble he had begun to smoke—even been caught by my father, who discovered the fact by borrowing one of his jackets with a pack of cigarettes in the pocket. My father found it very difficult to believe, for Rich was not a rebellious son, and always seemed placid and innocent. At Johnstown Catholic, likewise, Rich had a reputation for being the originator of pranks and carefully hidden illicit behavior (beer drinking during play practice), of which he himself was almost never suspected by the nuns. No one in authority could ever imagine Dick as a culprit; he seemed docile and sweet. But he was a joy to his friends because of the escapades he used to suggest and carry off in seeming innocence, leading the way.
It is difficult to speak about the earlier years without drawing myself into the story. Dick was born in 1935, when I was almost two. Jim was next, in 1939. So it is plain that Dick and I grew up closest together in the earliest years, though later Jim and Ben (1943) came to know him better than I. As the oldest son, I am afraid much of the first attention of the family was spent on me. Even physically, Dick was always smaller and weaker than I had been at the same age. In studies, my marks were higher. Moreover, I was a bit of a tyrant to him. In our board games, or athletic contests (one on one), I always had to win. He always had to “do me a favor, go get…” (This is a tradition unhappily continued in the family, Rich to Jim, Jim to Ben, Ben to Mary Ann.)
I remember once at about age ten, in a pique, turning to throw a stone in his direction to keep him from following me into the part of the yard where I was playing. It hit him on the forehead. I still remember the shock of that August evening, when his hands went to the place of impact and pain, and I was filled with horror.
He had every reason to resent me. Instead, he was unbelievably loyal. Once, when he was six or so, he used his entire Christmas fund to buy me a present, skipping everybody else. He made me “go away” in the store where he bought it. It was to be a secret and he was immensely proud of it. When we met Mother later, at a predetermined rendezvous in the store, he handed the package to her to place in the bundle of other packages she had. A string slipped. Out fell a propeller-driven metal boat, a foot long, blue, yellow, and red. The look in his eyes, of disappointment and despair, has never left me.
AT FOURTEEN, I WENT to seminary, 900 miles away. I came home only at Christmas and for eight weeks in the summer. In those same years, Dick began to blossom. He was too light to go out for sports; but gamely tried. He shrugged off his failures and contented himself with other activities.
Then, after he graduated from high school and I had just finished my first year of college, Dick went to the University of Notre Dame. He chose to major in electrical engineering and enrolled in a special five-year program. Engineering was a mistake for anyone in our family, and he was soon shifting over to the liberal arts. He played the clarinet in the Notre Dame band; he got the position by keeping his instrument at his lips, he said (implausibly), without making a sound. When I watched the annual television game, that year Navy, in Philadelphia, he told me to look for him in the marching shape of a horse; I’d find him right under the tail.
Dick had never talked about the priesthood. But at Notre Dame he began to spend evenings with the older seminarians who were living on campus at “the old college.” By June of his first year he was determined to enter the novitiate. Surprisingly to me, he chose to enter the Eastern Province, which meant we would spend a year or two together.
In August of 1954, he received the cassock of the Holy Cross Fathers in the novitiate at Bennington, Vermont. The building was an old mansion on the side of a lovely wooded hill, acquired by the community only in 1952, where I spent the last two months of my own novitiate, as a member of the pioneering class. The heavy stone mansion hid out in acres of orchards on a quiet hillside. Brother Protase had the cow barns in pretty good shape by the time Rich got there; and some of the long-neglected apple trees were being pruned again; they were expected to give more abundant fruit the next year.
Dick was apparently the leader of the pranksters in his class. At Halloween, he linked a strong black thread from the porter’s bell at the mansion gate, along the outside of the ivy-covered mansion and up into his bedroom window, along the floor to his bed. After “lights out,” he tolled the bell once. Then a few minutes later. The assistant novice-master went to his window and watched. Not a sound. When he turned away, the bell tolled again. The priest reached for an electric lantern, waited in the silence, and when the bell rang again snapped on the silent beam. Everything was still. Dick lay innocently in his bed, and yanked the invisible thread even with the light upon it. That final ring mystified and infuriated the assistant novice-master.
Rich did another trick with a string—this time he dropped it down through the fireplace from the mysterious, cluttered attic where some of the possessions of the original owners still lay in trunks and boxes. On the end of this string in the attic was a long chain, which from his bed he could drag across the ceiling of the room next to his.
When Dick’s class came to Stonehill College in North Easton to continue their studies, having made temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for one year, my friends among them hastened to tell me about Dick’s escapades. The situation at the novitiate was far from healthy; the leadership was not in all respects admirable; ebullience of spirit was all the more necessary because of the isolation of the mansion on the hill.
AT STONEHILL, DICK AND I were glad for the opportunity to get to know one another again. We had been separated since 1947. Still, our temperaments were so different that we did not spend long hours together, or even take part in the same activities. Yet our affection and unity were very deep. It was perhaps because we feared surface disagreements that we stayed apart. Dick was quiet, quick-minded, ironical, and unless a point of justice was at stake, he usually met challenges with a shrug. I was aggressive and wanted to dominate. Dick and I often joked that as long as we were physically miles apart we were in perfect harmony; when we were together, we hardly spoke to one another, or, when we did, we ended in argument. I’m not sure why we argued. I think it was because I imagined myself as his superior, always right, and his diffidence only revealed my pretensions. When he would tentatively disagree with me, I would bristle. He took it as a point of honor to disagree with me when he thought I was wrong. I deeply admired this trait, and hated my own responses. He never seemed to hold my faults against me.