Second Chance

I was raised in the Catholic Church, and at a very young age, I became aware that there were many rules to follow. With God so elusive, and when we struggle to grasp what we can’t explain, someone has to lay down laws for comfort sake. Without standards to follow, who knows where the train could go off the track? The masses might all get the crazy idea that God cannot be put into a box. 

So there were the incense-infused ceremonies, no meat on Friday during Lent, and a series of steps a young person had to go through to achieve the accolades of the institution. 

The basic level was first communion. Barely six years old, I was expected to sit and listen to a really old guy speak. It was on a Saturday morning. How do I remember that? All of my weekend cartoons were on, I was finally out of school for the week, and I had to absorb a lecture that made no sense. I’m sure his intentions were great, but my thoughts were back at home. He didn’t seem to understand children. 

To make it worse, we had homework, and I had to pray these long, boring paragraphs that were just words on a page. If anyone was trying to get me to have a connection with God, I wasn’t getting it. Somewhere in my little self, I knew that I had a spirit, but this was not helping me to uncover it. 

One of the experiences that kept occurring was I would feel separated from my body. The only way I can describe it was like looking through my eyes from behind my eyes as if you were looking through a pair of binoculars. 

These feelings were so strange; I decided to tell my mom. At this young age, it wasn’t easy to make her understand, so I said,

“I don’t feel like me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t feel like I am myself.”

“Who do you feel like?”

“Not me.”

“I feel like a floating feeling.”

“Floating how?”

“Outside of me.”

Our circular discussions amounted to nothing. This started to happen more frequently, even while other people would be speaking to me. I would become an observer, which she began to notice. When she would say something and expect a specific response from me, and I would reply, “I wasn’t feeling like myself,” she started to worry. 

“Chris, you are scaring me.”

Well, who wants to frighten her mother? So I quit talking about it. But it continued. 

Funerals and visitations were another thing. She took me along, and I was so freaked out at first to see an unmoving person displayed in a casket. Everyone was standing around casually talking, and there was a body in the room! Hello?! A dead person! Why was no one feeling alarmed about this? At first, I forced myself to adapt, and then I started to notice something once I got over my initial horror. Around certain dead people, I saw a very bright light. The first time I did, I tried rubbing my eyes to make it go away, and it only expanded farther out. 

With this new feature added, I stopped fearing attending these and started looking for the shine. It made it more like a game. Instead of listening to an adult speak about topics that were way beyond my ability to comprehend, I would stare straight ahead, start to squint, and then look for it. I’m sure the people around me thought I was a little off, but then again, I kind of was. 

I began to notice that most people had this heavenly glow to them while others did not. I also picked up on conversations around me. “I can feel her presence here listening to us,” or “He was such a good man.” Those were the brightest lights. 

One night on the car ride home, I said,

“Isn’t that light around the dead person weird? And others don’t have it.” 

I saw her glance up into the mirror to make eye contact with me in the backseat. 

“What do you mean?”

“The dead people. Some have a bright light around them, and others don’t.”

The silence was loud. She looked back at the road. 

“You see a light around some of them? And not others?”

“Yes. Don’t you?”

“No. Some people call that an aura or an energy type thing. When do you see it?” 

“While I’m sitting there waiting for it to be over.”

“No. I don’t see it at all. I’m too busy listening.”

I felt like she was sending me a message to stop talking about it. We had already dealt with my other odd revelation, so I kept my thoughts to myself from then on.

In the spring, I had to go to confession, and I was petrified. To receive communion, this was an absolute necessity, or the world would end. My infant baptism had begun the process of keeping me from going to hell, but who knew what eternal damnation I could get myself into at the age of six? 

There were a lot of question-and-answer sessions. 

“What do I do? It looks like a closet.”

“You go in, sit down and tell the priest everything you have done wrong,” she said. 

“Like what?”

“Have you lied?”

“No.

“Do you do everything I ask you to do?”

“Yes.”

“You can’t think of one thing?”

I didn’t like getting into trouble, and she had gone out of her way to enforce rules, so no, at that point, I had no infractions to account for that I could conjure up. I tried to avoid punishment and guilt at all costs. 

Seeing that I didn’t have sin on demand, she said,

“Something will come to you. You will know what to say.”

The big day of my unleashing my burdens arrived. I was hoping to wake up sick—no such luck. 

During the drive to the church, I was racking my brain trying to develop a stellar story that I could ask forgiveness for. My quiet demeanor got her attention. 

“What are you going to say?”

“Nothing. I have nothing to say.”

Her mouth popped open.

“Chris, you have to say something. You can’t just go in there and not say a word.” 

Yes, I could. But then I would feel like I let her and the entire Catholic Church down. 

“Ask God to tell you. I thought by now you would know.”

I did know, and I had nothing to say. But that wasn’t going over so well. My mind was blank. 

The church was incensed up when we walked in, and it stung the lungs to inhale. Again, on a Saturday, I was ripped away from my pleasant day of freedom. I stood in a line watching boys and girls enter and exit the tiny closed off rooms. No one looked worse the wear as they walked past me, and most looked happy to have it over with. 

I was up to the plate. I opened the door and sat down. 

In the dark, I could see an outline of a man, and I heard him clear his throat. 

“Bless me, Father, for I sinned,” he whispered.

Oh! I was supposed to say that! I already had messed up my lines. 

Quickly, I repeated it. 

He then instructed me to tell him the biggest offense that was ruining my relationship with God.

On the fly, I said, 

“I hit my brother.”

As soon as the words came out, and he went into some sort of incantations, it was like scalding water was rained down on me. 

I had NOT hit my brother; he had hit me in the arm, hard. And I had just lied to a priest in confession! 

I couldn’t wait to leave that stifling little box. I found my mom sitting with her eyes shut, probably begging God to help her youngest child. I was relieved it was over, but now I had a crushing weight on my chest. I was a liar! In a church of all places! 

She looked down at me and said,

“Do you feel better?”

I started crying so hard she couldn’t believe it. Crying was deemed a weakness in our house and in public? Never! In her eyes, I was obviously having the ultimate spiritual experience. 

“You must have had something that was bothering you. Didn’t it feel good to get rid of that? To free yourself of that burden?”

I sobbed harder, unable to speak. I was going to hell! I had just sealed my eternal fate while in elementary school! 

“No. I lied.”

“What? Chris, what did you say?” She took her hand off my back. The comfort session was over. 

Hunched over ready to throw up, I choked, 

“I lied. I told him I hit Bob. But, Bob hit me.”

She shook her head, accompanied by a sigh. I just wasn’t an easy student. Miraculously, she didn’t make me go back in and undo the damage. She said God would forgive me in the car on the way home. What?! That was an option? 

It is impossible to get through life without missing the mark. If we think we are perfect, we are delusional. But, we also don’t have to swing to the other extreme and live in self-condemnation and write ourselves off as unforgivable. If we do, we are as useless as the prideful and arrogant. 

There’s a nice balance between the two.

In 1 John 1:8-10, it says:

 If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—simply come clean about them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. (Message) 

Why do organizations complicate things? 

Just recognize where there needs to be a minor fix, ask for assistance, and gratefully accept the second chance. 

Oh, Brother!

He would lay down in the middle of my bedroom, stare up at my ceiling and burp.

“Get out!” I would say repeatedly, but he would not budge. Of course, he generally did this when my parents had left and we were home alone.

I never knew when he would show up as I contently played with my toys in my room. As a last ditch effort to remove him from my sanctuary and return to a state of peace, I would threaten,

“If you don’t leave I’m going to go into your room and touch all your stuff!”

When the verbal warning wouldn’t work, I would race down the stairs, turn on the light and begin to loudly proclaim,

“I am touching your stuff!”

I would make a lot of noise near his beloved train collection so he would think I was smashing and destroying all of them. That usually did the trick. I would hear him get to his feet, yell at me to get out of his room, while trying to get down the stairs to see what I was doing. I would purposely, and carefully, move his items just to make sure I could escape and go back to where I had been enjoying myself. By rearranging the layout he would be preoccupied while I ran out the door.

This was just one of many feuds the two of us were constantly engaged in. Anytime I had friends over, he would make them swoon by playing his drums and let them try.   Then, when it came to me, the session would suddenly end.

“Your brother is SO cool,” they would say.

REALLY?! I would think.

This was the guy who would sneak behind me while I was watching tv and squirt me with an empty glue syringe filled with water. When I would turn around, he would be way across the room safe enough to run at a moment’s notice. Yet, he never ran, but just stood there laughing while my hair dripped down the back of my shirt.

I was subjected to his horrible sense of humor regarding bathroom smells, his talk of earwax, bad breathe and every other disgusting topic I had ever imagined.  Not to mention dodging the wet dish towels he attempted to snap me with, and his favorite  saying as he held a clump of my hair from the back of my head,

“Do you want me to pull one time time up, or two times down?”

What a great choice to have.  I always went with the one that would be over the quickest.

There usually wasn’t a day that went by where he wouldn’t do something to hurt me such as tripping, pushing or slapping, and when I would yell for him to stop, I would get sent to my room for being too loud leaving him to point and laugh as I got into trouble. Did I mention that every year on his birthday my mom would make him cupcakes and he would proceed to not only devour the cake, but then chew up the wrapper and spit it at me?  Again, he thought this was hilarious.

So, when my friends all gushed over how great he was, I didn’t.  In fact, I hated him.

I walked by the kitchen one day to hear him say to our mom,

“Chris hates me.”

My mother, coming to my defense said,

“Oh, no, she doesn’t.  She is a Christian.  I have raised her not to hate anyone.”

I paused in the doorway and said as loud as I could,

“No!  I do hate him!  He is mean to me!”

She went on to try to convince me that I really didn’t hate him, but I just kept saying,

“No.  I hate him.”

“See?  She hates me!”

Well, who wouldn’t?

I discovered one evening that maybe my mother was right about my true feelings.

My brother didn’t like to wash dishes, and I was well aware of this.  When we would be asked while eating dinner who was going to wash and who was going to dry, I would quickly say,

“Dry!”

He never was faster verbally than me, and it was my only advantage over him.

“Ok.  Bob you wash. Chris you dry.”

And on this particular night, the dreadful duty had once again fallen on him.

He moaned while he ate, and I felt downright giddy that I had done something small to make him suffer.

He departed after he finished his meal, I went to my room and my mom began clearing and rinsing the dishes.  As usual, he began banging on his drums downstairs while listening to music with his headphones on. My floor vibrated with every slam, bang, crash as he worked his drumsticks. After awhile, I heard my mom yell from the top of the stairs,

“Bob!  Come do the dishes!”

Of course, she had to repeat herself and then make the trek down because he couldn’t hear her.  Or, he was ignoring her completely.

When she came back up, I walked into the kitchen and grabbed the white sack flour dish towel.  I stood by the drying rack waiting for him.  She methodically wiped down the stove, removed all the burners, and scoured so deeply she did not see him at the top of the stairs.  He walked toward the sink, and he was breathing in a peculiar way.  Sweat ran down his forehead from exerting himself so hard while playing.

He put one finger in the water and said,

“That’s hot!”

My mother, a registered nurse, would run the faucet until the steam was thick like a fog.  Not a single germ would survive the process.

While still engaged in her stove scrubbing, she said without looking up,

“Start washing.”

She had tired of his antics of not wanting to be near water.  He had such an aversion to it that she had caught him one time in the bathroom sitting outside of the tub filling it while pretending to be bathing.  When he went swimming, he never got wet!  It was a mystery to her and my dad for years.

“This is so hot,” he whined again as he immersed one hand in.

“Start washing,” she said again.  I saw his second hand slip in.

“I don’t feel so good,” he replied.

He took both hands out of the water and began walking towards the living room.  His balance was off as he wobbled and ran into the refrigerator.  I stepped back so he wouldn’t run into me.  His pale face didn’t look normal and he wasn’t smiling as if he were joking.

“Bob, wash the dishes,” she repeated.

I saw him bounce to one side of the door frame and then the other like a pinball.  Then, he simply crumpled down to the floor at me feet.  This caught her attention.  She threw down her wash rag and barked,

“Go get your father!”

I didn’t want to step over him so I ran the long way around to the bathroom door where I knew my dad had gone.

“Dad,” I said as I knocked on the door.

No response.  I heard a newspaper page turn.  This wasn’t unusual.  He had retreated, and like trying to get a turtle out of its shell, getting his attention once he had locked himself in was not easy.  Once behind that door, he was a free man away from work, kids and any other responsibility.

“DAD!”  I knocked louder.

No response.

“DAD!”

“Bob!”  I heard my mom yell from the living room.  “Bob! Wake up!”

I felt my chest tighten and my throat was beginning to close from the panic that was starting to engulf me.

I threw all I had into one loud pounding session on the closed door.  I banged with two closed fists.

“DAAAAAADDDD!  DAAAD!  DAAAAD!”

“WHAT?” came the annoyed reply.

“Bob..Bob…Bob…is dead!”  My throat was closing and my tongue wouldn’t work right.

“WHAT?”

I gave one last attempt to try and scream what was happening.

“Bob. Is. DEAD!”

I heard the sound of crumpling newspaper as he scrambled to upright himself and do whatever he had to so he could exit.  The bathroom door was flung open, and a pair of large boxer shorts ran by.

I don’t know how long I stood there frozen until I heard my mom say,

“Where is Chris?”

“You can come out here now. It’s okay,” my dad said.

I slowly peered around the corner into the living room.  I could see my brother sitting upright with his hair going in all directions.

“Bob isn’t dead,” my dad said.

“Who said he was dead?” my mom asked.

“Chris thought he died.”

“No.  He just fainted.”

They both started to laugh as he continued to try and see straight.  He still kept leaning to one side and wasn’t fully himself.

“He just got too hot playing his drums and when he stuck his hand into the hot water, his body couldn’t handle it.  He will be fine,” she assured me.

And, he was.  He went on for many years after to follow me to the bus stop singing annoyingly out of his car window at the top of his lungs, waking me up on the first day of summer vacation just because he didn’t get to sleep in, and burping wetly and loudly into my perfectly groomed hair.  Just for fun.

I found out that my mom had been somewhat right.  Deep in the recesses of my heart, God had planted something so permanent that no matter what he said or did that was unkind to me, I could not hate him.

Before I was born, she went individually to each of the five kids in the family and told them I was on my way.  She was amazed by his response as he was in kindergarten at the time.

He said, “I already know that.  I prayed for a baby to come.”

I found out later that a lot of what he did was to get my attention as I was getting older and he didn’t know how to handle it. Miraculously, we get along now just fine and even laugh about some of the things we did to each other.

Sometimes growing up with a sibling can be quite messy, funny, miserable, unpredictable, frustrating and exhausting.  Often, I am grateful that those days are over. As we celebrate Valentine’s Day this week, I am reminded that hatred can quickly turn to love when God is in the mix. That person you think you cannot stand suddenly can become your best friend.  Just when you think you have it all figured out, you just might not.  Oh, brother!

 

(Bob and me wading in the pool on a hot Minnesota summer day)bob