When Father Aidan Neary looks out at this congregation, he recognizes some of the faces. Still, most days as far as he can tell, they seem to be strangers. This is not how he should be feeling, he knows that. They are kind, the congregation, or if not exactly kind, at least they leave him alone.
This feeling won’t leave him despite all his prayers to the contrary. He does not feel that he is at home, never has since arriving. Well of course not, he’s not from here. It was a long time ago when his diocese first suggested America, the fellow priests who had already made the journey. Biloxi, Mississippi. He envisioned Blacks hanging from trees. The scourge of it all.
He found, instead, the loveliest sort of parishioners and he wondered if the history had been made up, distorted. They were bright and full of the sunshine that he had found at first overwhelming. And then there was the heat. He had never felt such contrast, the effect of a wee bit of shade on a summer’s day, it was from white to black, or perhaps he should rephrase that. Forgiving, they were, charmed by the accent that he had, he who had no accent at all. They apparently couldn’t hear themselves very well.
They spoke among themselves at times. He couldn’t make it out. They weren’t speaking Irish, but then neither did most of his people. It was English, after all, or at least a form of the tongue. Among themselves, he could see them speaking, nodding their heads, only occasionally looking his way. Many of them were related, cousins, in-laws. He was always meeting someone who was related to someone else, a handful of surnames that accounted for so many: Ladner, Cuevas. And then the French names. Favre, Raboteaux, Boudreaux.
He looks out at the congregation often. They call him ‘Father’, as they should, before they go off to speak among themselves. He bows his head. His head seems perpetually bowed. Everlasting humility, remembering his place, his role, what he was sent out here to do. America was such a dizzying machine of activity, and not all of it, mind you, for the good.
He is being honest with himself, he has never gotten comfortable here. He has lived many more years here than back in the green hills and valleys. That is a fact. It doesn’t matter. Such a tug it has, Ireland, the memory of the place. Father What’s His Name had been telling him that he should get one of the new gadgets, phones. “It’s not such a big deal anymore, calling over there. And,” he added, “you can fly, you know, prices aren’t bad, be there in a day.”
It didn’t help. He had never felt farther away. Seeped into his soul, it did, like a heavy rain that would not relent. And it wasn’t just home. It was himself he missed. A person he sometimes remembered. “Father,” they would greet him, bright as anything, his presence brought something to them. Meaning.
“Father,” she says, the voice of the practical one, the insistent one. “Let’s get you out on the verandah. It’s such a beautiful day.” He thinks of resisting. She is quick, she is behind him, he can’t see her, pushing the chair.
“There,” she says moments later, bringing everything to a halt.
He starts to say something.
“What is it baby?”
“Do you have a phone?”
“What’s that?” she laughs.
“Oh my goodness now. If you’re asking if I own one, the answer is yes.” She plumps the little pillow that always slides to the side. “Now you’re much better,” she proclaims and before turning to leave, adds “I’ll be back to check on you.”
He tries to raise his head. He manages to raise his eyes. He sees a blurry glare from several of the cars in the parking lot. He has to look away. There is no congregation in sight.
“Father?” they would say, in anticipation of their own forthcoming question. He would look at them, square in the eye, knowing each one of them and their children as well. His first response was always, “Yes.”
He lifts his head again, forgetting that all he can see is the fuzzy glare of the cars in the parking lot. He could call out for the practical one. Maybe he did. He sees the pavement passing by under the wheels, and now the threshold, the rug inside, the cool blast of indoor air. She is not the one.
“What’s that baby?” she asks in a deeper voice.
It takes concerted effort. “I’m ready to go home.”
“Of course you are!” The chair rolls along. “It’s getting warm out there,” she adds, though she doesn’t have to.
Some of the others are waiting now in the long corridor and one or two seem to recognize him. They are seated in the doorway of their individual rooms.
“Home,” he says to them in passing, or maybe it’s a question.
They seem unlikely to answer. Only the aides say “yes.”