I was turning seven years old and had never seen my Greatest Generation dad cry. He was a World War II veteran and had survived what most could never endure. But on that seventh birthday for me, the tragedy striking my dad, mom, and two sisters was a war of a different sort.
It was mid-morning when my dad came to our northern New Jersey town’s elementary school to take me out of class. When we got to the car, he leaned over the steering wheel in tears. At first I was frightened. But we kids in those days were not used to being coddled by anyone. You had to “stand up and fly right,” as he used to say. So I reasoned that while something bad must have happened, the best way I could help was by getting out of the way while giving the wiser ones time to work it out.
I don’t recall how long my nana and I wept together.
After we arrived home, however, I got scared. Every room was filled with people sobbing — some I recognized as family and friends. But all were holding one another. Many were praying. It hit me like a thunderbolt: Someone had died!
I looked for my parents amid the throng but couldn’t find them. I ran to the far end of the house and found my grandmother — my nana. While her eyes were red-rimmed, she reached out for me. As she held me, I saw the refraction of rainbow light against the walls from her crystal-beaded Holy Rosary. A devout Roman Catholic, she sat me down on a love seat and began to explain.
After assuring me that my mom and my little 14-month-old sister were fine, she announced the unthinkable: My beloved six-year-old sister, Karen, was dead. What the family and doctors had thought was the flu was a rare fulminating infection that had taken her life. Ten days before her death, a doctor had examined her in preparation for a tonsillectomy; the family now suspected she had picked up the disease from another patient.
I don’t recall how long my nana and I wept together that day; my memories blur into a moving jigsaw puzzle. I see a flash of my mom holding my baby sister to her breast, and then another of my dad pouring himself a glass of whiskey.
Still, I do recall the funeral Mass held in accordance with our family’s High Episcopalian faith at our church in New Jersey. There was a plethora of white lilies, their scent making me gag, and the hymns rang hollow. At one point, I reached out blindly for my lost sister’s little hand — the one I had held every Sunday with tender care.
Days and weeks passed after that, of which I have little memory including Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas — and then Lent leading up to Good Friday. Nonetheless, I recall one evening after dinner while I was babysitting my younger sister upstairs. When she fell asleep, I crouched at the top of the staircase to eavesdrop on my parents down below. I was hoping to learn more about their grief over my sibling’s death because I needed to know they were OK.
To my dismay, though, they were talking about me! I was the one causing trouble, apparently, sleeping-walking all over the house on a nightly basis for hours until I barely came to consciousness in a sweat-soaked nightgown. I remembered some of it — but I’d forgotten most of that nighttime activity by the next day.
My parents had doctors give me a battery of tests for every physical, neurological, and psychological cause possible, but they determined that “nothing” was wrong. Children were viewed differently then, in the late 1950s. It was not an era in which kids were coddled or indulged. One neurologist, however, wanted to assist our entire sleep-deprived family in a practical way by prescribing a small dose of medication that allowed me to sleep through the night.
While this enabled me to function on a physical level, it did little for what today might have been diagnosed as PTSD. Once an outgoing and active kid, I now preferred solitude. Instead of joining family outings, I begged off, feigning a sore throat and needing to stay home to rest.
By the time Good Friday came around that year, my family made a decision about me, with my grandmother at the helm. Whether I wanted to go or not, she was taking me to Good Friday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. We two had many great times together, one of which was sharing her favorite weekly TV show, “Life Is Worth Living,” starring the charismatic and then-very popular Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
We arrived early, but I had never seen so many people, filling every nook and cranny of the church and even spilling outside onto the sidewalks. I remember my grandmother holding my hand tightly and whispering, “Don’t worry. Archbishop Fulton Sheen will be speaking for Jesus, and Jesus will then be speaking to you.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but I hung on.
When we were settled, I realized Roman Catholicism was not all that different from our own Anglo-Catholic Good Friday service at home, with one exception. I had never heard anyone speak to my heart and soul as Archbishop Sheen did that day.
His sermon was called “The Sign of Contradiction,” symbolizing the cross itself upon which Our Lord was crucified. The vertical portion heralded his birth and life, while the horizontal represented his death. Nana turned to me several times and urged that I close my mouth. It was spellbinding and filled my tiny heart to the point of bursting. I no longer felt lost, but found — and with some answers, too.
I recall talking non-stop to Nana all the way home, and she was beaming. I told her that while Our Lord’s suffering was horrific, it was done by the will of Our Heavenly Father. This meant to me that while evil seems to triumph against good — such as in the death of my sister — she did not “die” at all! Indeed, because Christ died for all humankind, she was now happily in heaven with Him.
As a result, Good Friday that year marked the beginning of a journey that would have no end of blessings. The seed planted that day gave this “nobody girl” amid nearly 6,000 people the courage and love of Our Lord to take my fences head on by giving it all the fight I had within one little decathlon heart. Indeed, the fruit borne years afterward was my conversion to Roman Catholicism — the only saving grace that, in the end, has never let me down.
Let’s face it — there are wars of all kinds. Whether it’s my dad’s fight in WWII or the struggle of one child to survive heartbreaking loss, good will always triumph over evil in the end. And when a family has a Christian or a Catholic rock of faith — anything is possible.
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, writer, and columnist based in Arizona.