Sitting at the kitchen table of our tiny Manhattan apartment, I stared at my untouched dinner. Pigeons cooed while roosting on the outer transoms of the large opened windows, which offered little relief from the heat and humidity of the August evening.
With paper napkin in hand, I wiped the sweat from my neck and brow. After taking a long drink of iced tea, I traced the droplets winding their way down the side of the glass. My roommate, Derek, sat next to me telling his favorite story--again. But, nothing he said registered.
Instead, the stream of First Avenue traffic honking three floors down like geese heading south for the winter, engulfed me. The familiar cacophony of other striving artists in our building flooded my senses: voices singing scales, someone rehearsing lines, and another wailing on a saxophone across the hall. Each carried me deeper into a surreal state.
Emerging from the hodgepodge of local color, Derek's voice wafted back to me. Oh, no, here it comes--the crescendo of his usual overdone finale. "So, I just put my pride behind me, and I prayed." He paused with a big smile on his face and a too gleamy gleam in his eye, "And my life changed forever."
Derek and I had grown up in Kaplan, a small Cajun town in Southwest Louisiana. Our families were close, so I thought of him as a cousin. We both journeyed to the Big Apple to study acting and dance at H.B. Studios in the West Village on Bank Street.
How quaint. Doesn't he understand? This is 1980, and God, the Almighty Father, is dead. He wasn’t talking about the God who lives in all things. He believed in a Master who measured human virtues, rewarding the good and sending the rest of us to Hell?
In the past I listened politely, but this time, I turned to him and said, "I'm exhausted." His Lord-prattling made me want to escape, and the uneaten meal nauseated me. "I'm going to lie down."
"You all right?" I nodded yes.
Once I closed the door, the darkness comforted me as I stretched out on the bed. Dark notions haunted me as I tried to think, but I only ended up with hot tears streaming down my face. Curled up in a ball, arms wrapped around my chest, I had become tired of life at the age of thirty-two. Why am I even here? Why was I ever born?
Relentlessly, I went through the litany of why life sucked. A few months before, I had divorced an alcoholic husband and still suffered from the fall out. Divorce was rare in 1978. Vietnam killed 5,000 peers--one, a soft-hearted high school friend who stuttered when he asked me to the prom. At the time, most women endured unfair treatment in marriage and career. So, I had convinced myself I would never get a fair shake. James Brown words rang true. This actually is a man's world.
The door opened, and light from the kitchen startled me. With face turned upward, I recognized Derek's silhouette looming over me. "Listen," he blurted. "What do you have to lose? You can either go on like this, or you can try something different." Next, with the precision of a Bach concerto, he hammered his final volley home: "What-do-you-have-to-lose?"
My jaw dropped, and eyes opened wide. A smile spread across his face. Embarrassed at his sudden outburst, he sat down beside me and handed me a tissue. This time he spoke in a soft voice. "Seriously, Connie, what do you have to lose?"
His sincerity and the affection in his voice melted my hardened heart, and I wanted to give something in return. Besides, I hungered for deliverance. I shrugged in response. "Okay, I'll try."
Once the door closed behind him, I stared at the ceiling. John Lennon's words came to me: God is a concept by which we can measure our pain. However, Bod Dylan sang Gotta Serve Somebody. Which way to go?
My thoughts careened and crashed. Conflicted and sorry I agreed to the entreaty, I turned toward the wall.
Probably because of the promise I made and the need for relief, I decided to probe wholeheartedly. A few times I opened my mouth to begin, but shut it, thinking myself a hypocrite. If I would pray, it must be an honest plea. Stomach twisted in knots, I came up with an appeal I could live with: All right God, if you do exist, help me.
The next morning, when I entered the kitchen, Derek opened the refrigerator and replaced a carton of milk before looking toward me. "Well, how did it go? Any luck?
The agony I lived with never let up. The truth: I had hoped the attempt would succeed. At that point, I would have tried anything. No matter how foreign. Derek reached for a small leaflet on the bulletin board next to the door. "My mother sent this to me. You might want to think about this."
The card read Novena Never Known to Fail. Little Cajun ladies from our hometown recited this special prayer. The supplicant made nine copies of the invocation and deposited one in a church for the same number of days. "Oh no," I groaned.
"Why not make the effort?"
"I don't know about this."
Our eyes met. "If you try this one last thing, I'll leave you alone."
Now that's an offer I can't refuse. With head cocked to one side, I glared at him . "Oh, yeah?"
"Cross my heart."
I stood, nodded in assent, and went to the bedroom to dress.
As I plodded the four blocks down First Avenue to 87th Street where I had seen a Catholic church, I pondered how, except for my marriage in 1968, I had not been in a place of worship. And that was only to satisfy my parents.
When I reached the huge wooden portals, I hesitated. My hand rested on the handle. The cool air from inside streamed through the bottom of the doors and drifted over my sandaled feet. I persisted only because of the vow I gave Derek. So, applying all mental and physical strength, I managed to squeeze in.
The darkened cavern of the cathedral carried me back: high ceilings, silence, statues, and water fonts. I could hear the kneelers dropping and raising with each undulation of the ritual. Nothing struck me as unique. I guess if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all.
The last bench stood only a few feet away. I intended to drop the thing and run. The events turned out otherwise, though. After taking a step or two toward the back pew, a unknown fragrance unencircled me. Am I imagining this? Even though it mesmerized me, I glanced around looking for incense, flowers, or other possible sources. Nothing.
The gentle, yet beguiling, aroma held me on the spot. Transfixed, I lost track of time. When I came out of the reverie, I hobbled to the bench and left the copy, but now I didn't want to leave. This had nothing to do with religion, but something greater. The bouquet contained a presence.
Filled with remorse, I sank to the kneeler, as I realized how much I had always been loved. In fact, I could not be separated from this love if I tried. Simple, yet profound. Cleansing teardrops ran down my face. The more I cried; the more I released; the more I healed.
Later, I would learn about the stigmatist, Padre Pio, and the mysterious scent which radiated from his person. This miracle is experienced around the world in many belief systems. The term Catholics use to refer to his perfume is a Gift of the Holy Spirit.
For now, though, purged and renewed, I leaned back and thought of the feeble appeal the night before.
A faint smile crossed my face. I guess it was good enough after all.
by Connie Hebert