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Good Letters

20090411-receive-my-memory-by-evelyn-benceTake, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me; to you, O Lord, I return it. All is yours; dispose of it as you will. Give me your love and your grace, for this is enough for me.
—Ignatius of Loyola

As a toddler, my nephew Rob listened as his father read an illustrated adventure. Beginning. Middle. End. Done. Dad closed the book, and Rob, maybe anticipating the next scene—his bedtime prayers—turned reverent: “God bless you, and thank you for that story.”

The blessing has become legendary among my siblings—an e-mail “reply to all” when one of us sends a slightly rambling personal anecdote. “God bless you, and thank you for that story.”

The benediction has taken on new meaning for me, as John Breslin, SJ, a friend of thirty years, slips into Alzheimer’s. We met as publishing colleagues, lovers of books fictional, theological, poetical. He is the editor of the short story anthology The Substance of Things Hoped For and has written for many journals and magazines, including a number of incisive book reviews for Image over the years.

For more than a decade we’ve lived in different cities, he now in a Jesuit care facility on the edge of the Fordham campus in New York.

He no longer e-mails; I phone maybe twice a week, to stretch his shrinking world, to draw him into mine by relaying some tidbit. “You’ll never guess who called today.” Or “the car wouldn’t start this morning.” Or “the weather outside is frightful.” Then I ask a question: “Did you go out this afternoon?” Or “Are you watching TV?” He answers sparingly.

One night I asked, “What was for dinner?”

“Meat.”

“Unidentified species?”

After we clarified my pronunciation—species not feces—he closed the topic: “Yes. Unidentified species.”

One night I impulsively changed the routine. I made a request: “John, it’s your turn—tell me a story.” About your day, the discussion at your dinner table, the essay you read in America or the news in the Times. Or maybe a rehashed tale—your travels to Ireland or Hamlet’s to England.

I listened with anticipation. I envisioned John as captured in several photos: drink in hand, holding forth—not so long as to bore his audience but always engaging enough to liven up a party.

But that was in the beginning and middle of John’s journey through adulthood. In his response to my request he succinctly summarized his present: “I don’t have any stories.” I didn’t hear despair or even sorrow just a flat statement of reality and maybe surprise that I would expect him to recollect a yarn.

In her book I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl notes that “Consciousness, not experience, is the galvanizing core of a personal story.” And consciousness is what John is losing. We don’t talk about his losses, though maybe that’s the underlying subject when I recall some shared experience—a funeral, a day trip, a gathering—and he responds, “I don’t remember that.” Whole scenes and settings, gifts and graces, erased.

Alluding to the Gerard Manley Hopkins line, “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” Eugene Peterson (Tell It Slant) writes, “We die ten thousand deaths before we are buried.” He’s commenting on Jesus’ crucifixion prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but he quickly draws us away from the despair, reminding us that the question is the first line of Psalm 22, which eventually turns from the singular voice of abandonment to a corporate voice of hope; someday all “shall remember and turn to the Lord” and “future generations will be told” the great story.

Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels include Jesus’ questioning “why?” but it doesn’t appear in Luke’s narrative. There, rather, I note a request. The topic is memory, and the appeal comes from a side-lined man: Jesus, don’t forget. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds immediately: I’ve got it. I’ve got you, like this nail, in the palm of my hand. Luke continues, describing darkness, and then a final statement from the cross. In faith—the substance of things hoped for—Jesus addresses Heaven: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The narrator concludes: “Having said this, he breathed his last.” The end. Close the book on Messiah, Part 1.

I sadly but gratefully see Christ playing in John’s life.

In December I traveled to see him. On an afternoon walk around campus, we slipped into the chapel. From a back pew, I pointed out the large Stations of the Cross—fully illustrated scenes carved as wall paneling; the Stations complement towering stained-glass portrayals of the Evangelists. As we rested, I tried to draw John out. “Remember that Ignatian prayer, from the Exercises, ‘Take, Lord, receive…my memory’? Ever think about it?” Into your hands I commend myself.

“I don’t know what he’d ever do with my memory,” said John, puzzled.

Thank God I thought of something to say. “Maybe it’s like our tears. A psalm says he puts them in a bottle. You know, for safe keeping.”

“You sure? I don’t remember that.”

“I’m sure.”

After dinner—roast beef, no mistaking it—I tidied up John’s room. On his desk, deep down among papers, I noticed a poem he’d torn from a magazine more than two years earlier, the very month he’d reluctantly moved into this room.

I turned to John, sitting in his recliner. “Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver. Read it to me?”

“OK.”

“Making the House Ready for the Lord” is in the voice of a pray-er who has “swept” and “washed,” and yet, approaching winter, the homestead harbors mice in the cupboards, squirrels in the attic, a raccoon at the door. That’s the beginning and middle of the story. Then it ends with an invitation, for God—alongside nature—to “come in, Come in.”

The next morning I said good-bye and boarded a bus. Somewhere in New Jersey, in the haze between wakefulness and sleep, I reached back across the river, toward John, and whispered my nephew’s benediction. “God bless you, and thank you for this story.”


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Evelyn Bence

Evelyn Bence, author of the novel Mary's Journal, has recently published essays in the Washington Post and Books and Culture.

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