Easing the Sting

August 8, 2012

     They heard a shuffling of feet in the hallway, a cough, and then Father Henry pushed open the swinging door. Father McKenzie was glad to see that the old priest was fully dressed, although he did have on his worn plaid bedroom slippers. He should wear his shoes, Father McKenzie thought. He’s more stable in his shoes.
     Karen stood up.
    “This is Karen . . .” Father McKenzie began, but Father Henry seemed not even to notice him.
     “Oh, Mary Elizabeth, dear!” Father Henry said, taking Karen’s hand. “Now you mustn’t dawdle here. You’ll be late for school!”
     It’s going to be that kind of a day, thought Father McKenzie.
     He leaned in toward Karen. “He thinks you’re his sister,” he said quietly.
Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947;  American fiction writer,  from a work in progress

I’d been talking about him for several days, the old priest, Father Henry Belmont, a man in his eighties just beginning to exhibit some signs that signal the onset of Alzheimer’s. He’s a character in the manuscript I took to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, material that developed when Father McKenzie, a minor character in my novel-awaiting-revision, Perpetual Light, stepped away from that work and began telling his own story. By January, Father McKenzie had a first name (although it took a month or so to find the right one), a voice, a personality, a history, and some thorny problems, one of which was his need to manage the care of the elderly priest who lives with him in the rectory of a moribund parish in a dying town. By March I had 6000 words that showed Father McKenzie interacting not only with Father Henry, but also with a young woman who has a car accident, and some colorful characters at a Weight Watchers meeting.

The character of Father Henry Belmont owes much to my brief acquaintance with Henry J. Erhart, S. J., whom I met in 2007 while on an extended sojourn at the Jesuit Spiritual Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. I wrote about him several times, first in Son of a Nun and, a year later, in Oremus Pro Invicem, when his counsel about persisting in prayer came to mind. Father Erhart was living in retirement at Wernersville, and as I noted in Can You Imagine Us, his mental decline was becoming evident. I asked after him when I visited Wernersville last autumn, and learned that he had been transferred to a Jesuit facility near Philadelphia, where he could be more properly cared for.

My manuscript was well-received in workshop at Sewanee, and in my one-on-one consultation with Steve Yarbrough, my primary reader, I became so excited about the potential for this novel that I took up work on it again that very day. I skipped dinner and worked on it all evening, and went back to it again in the next days in the hours that I was not in workshop (this has never happened to me at any other conference).

On Friday, August 3, I opened my Internet browser for the things I check every morning — my Facebook feed, email, the headlines in my hometown newspaper, and the service that tracks hits to Markings. Several pieces had been accessed through searches on Father Henry Erhart’s name, some from connections near Wernersville, some from other places where the Jesuits have a presence. I didn’t have to wonder about this. I knew.

It was Monday before I found the obituary online. Father Henry Erhart died on August 3, probably not long after I’d closed my notebook on a scenario in which I imagined the fictional Father Henry Belmont as a lover of daffodils and sunflowers. The funeral was set for today, on the campus of St. Joseph’s University, about 90 miles east of where I live, with burial at Wernersville, 60 miles west and a little north, but on my way home.

When I arrived at Manresa Hall, I was directed to a sunny lounge that looked out on a leafy courtyard. It had a wide screen plasma television, some bookcases, and a small sink and counter area, over which was a sign outlining the care of sacred vessels and linens. There was an altar at the far end, and chairs arranged in long rows along the side walls. Father Henry was laid out in an open coffin. He looked as I remembered him except, of course, for the utter stillness of his mien. I knelt at the prie-dieu for a moment, and then took a seat.

By the time the Mass began, about thirty people had gathered, most of them residents of the facility, who had come down the hall with the aid of canes, or walkers, or wheelchairs, or the strong support of a nursing aide. I was the only person there who was not either a Jesuit or an employee of this retirement infirmary where Father Henry Erhart had lived since 2009. This did not surprise me. The last line of his obituary read, “Fr. Erhart had no immediate survivors.” In his homily, the celebrant reminded us that the sting of death has no power over us who believe in the resurrection life we have been promised. It is our task in this world to ease the sting of living for others, a ministry Father Erhart lived as a hospital chaplain and a pastor.

I left well before the hearse, and arrived in Wernersville with time to stop at the flower shop at the bottom of the hill for a handful of Heliopsis helianthoides, or false sunflower. Father Henry was laid to rest in the newer section of the priests’ cemetery, an area of the Wernersville campus I rarely visit. The grave markers there are too simple for me, I’ve said, giving only each man’s name, his date of birth (natus), the date he entered the Society of Jesus (ingressus), and the date of his death (obit). As a taphophile, I’ve always preferred the more ornate St. John’s (Hain’s) United Church of Christ cemetery that adjoins the Jesuit property, with its families, its rows of infants, its elaborate monuments, the stories a fiction writer can deduce or imagine.

The committal service was brief, and I think there were more people among the grounds crew and the funeral service staff than there were mourners, although there were some lay people who had known Father Erhart from his various ministries in the area. Afterward, I went up the hill to Hain’s to visit my friends buried there. I left some flowers for the Whitmoyers, then slipped into the Jesuit house to use the bathroom. I looked down the long hall from the reception area to the bulletin board and mail table, the last place I had seen Father Erhart.

Finally, I went back down to the priests’ cemetery, where the grave had been filled in and tamped down. I left the rest of the flowers there, beneath the wooden cross that is the temporary marker.

These rituals helped ease the sting of my regret that I never kept in touch with Father Erhart, never sent him a colorful card, a picture of a sunflower, perhaps, that might have cheered his institutional space. I never visited him, even after I knew his whereabouts, rationalizing that he wouldn’t know who I was. But I would have known who he was. He was a man of courage, a man of peace, and I will finish this novel and see it published, if for no other reason than to honor his memory.

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