A canticle for Kathleen Sullivan

A canticle for Kathleen Sullivan

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

I got to the hospital after visiting hours, but the nurse led me to the room anyway. “There hasn’t been anyone,” she confided.

I pursed my lips in grim acknowledgment. “That’s why I’m here.”

Inside the room the patient looked like purple death. It was a critical-care room, bright and white and cheerfully clinical. The bed was surrounded by apparatus, with lines and leads and probes and IV tubes running to him. The only unbruised part of him that I could see were his eyes, and his eyes were more deeply wounded than anything.

I’ll tell you his story, but I won’t tell you his name. His name is yours. His name is mine. His name is legion…

I pulled up a chair and got as close to the bed as I could. I wanted to see his eyes. I wanted him to see mine. His jaw was wired and he was breathing though a plastic tube mounted in his throat, which makes for a fairly one-sided conversation.

“I just came from the funeral,” I said. “Biggest one I’ve ever seen. The procession must have been two miles long. Kathleen Sullivan, mother of six, grandmother of two, with two more on the way, loving wife of Brian Sullivan — in the newspaper it’s just something that’s there, like the basketball scores or the stock tables. People die every day. People are born every day. It doesn’t seem to matter very much.”

I shrugged. “I think it does. I’ll tell you a story: About six months ago there was a woman driving down Endicott Avenue. Driving very safely, five miles an hour below the speed limit, doing everything just exactly right. There were some schoolboys riding their bikes on the sidewalk beside her, and, all at once, one of the boys decided to dart out into the street, right in front of her car. She stood on the brake pedal, but it was already too late. Screech, crunch, tragedy. The boy was killed instantly.

“She saw it, of course. His little schoolfriends saw it. Half a block away was the crossing guard, and she had never stopped barking at those boys to be safe on their bikes. She saw it all, too. That boy’s parents had to live through everything they’d always dreaded, and the parents and relatives and friends of everyone involved had to try to help pick up the pieces.

“Was the driver at fault? Surely not. She was doing just what she was supposed to do. The crossing guard? She couldn’t have foreseen it, couldn’t have prevented it. The boy’s friends? The boy himself? They were just being kids, taking stupid chances because they can’t see ahead to the consequences. The dead boy’s parents? You can bet they blame themselves, but I’m sure they had leaned all over their son about bicycle safety.

“The fact is that no one was culpable in that death. But everyone involved is answering for it. Can you imagine the driver’s nightmares? Can you hear the screams of those boys as they wake up, night after night, reliving the accident? The crossing guard, questioning herself day after day, asking what she could have done differently. The parents, haggard and sleepless, no one to turn to, maybe not even each other. None of them earned this punishment, but they live with it anyway. Not for days or months or years — forever. The nightmares will never stop, and we can only hope that they’ll become less frequent in time.”

I looked to the floor, a safer place to put my eyes. “Every death matters. I hear people talk about killing other people — killing criminals or supposed bad guys overseas or just joking about killing people they don’t like — and I wonder what it is they’re thinking. There is no casual death, no easy death, no safely, comfortably abstract death. There’s only the real death of real people, the death that results in endless, boundless, horrifying grief even when no one is at fault. How could anyone be casual about that?

“I can make their answer; I’ve heard it often enough. They claim that they can kill and not be injured in the way that driver was — hurt utterly and permanently — because killing their victims is an act of justice. The irony is that criminals say much the same thing, that it doesn’t hurt them to hurt people, even kill people. I think the hurt is there, it’s just much deeper. It’s like scar tissue, so thick it can’t be penetrated. They claim not to be hurt by murdering people, but I think it must be because something inside them is already dead. In that way, the people who witnessed that awful accident are luckier, even though they seem to be suffering so much worse. If you can’t bleed, you can’t heal…”

I cleared my throat, but I couldn’t look up. “Kathleen Sullivan was the consummate mother, a model of perfect performance. I didn’t know her. I wish I had. She was everything I admire on this earth, a champion of the very best values. Her husband, Brian, was out in the world, bringing home the bacon, and she was in charge of hearth and home, kith and kin. The children all went to Catholic school, then they went on to the best Catholic high schools. They’re a prosperous family, but they’ve earned every penny they have, and they’ve given a small fortune away. Everywhere you look you see professionally loathsome people spitting at the family, and everywhere you don’t look there are families like the Sullivans — happy, productive, committed people raising happy, productive, committed children.”

I was having trouble blinking back my tears. “Kathleen Sullivan was a Catholic. Not a Christmas and Easter Catholic, not a Sunday-morning Catholic. She was a Catholic all the time, all the way to the core of her being. When one of her children left home, or one of her grandchildren, when one of her friends or her children’s friends left her house, she would trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads, a small prayer for the small miracle of safe travel…

“Someone should have done that for her…”

I was quiet for a long time, until I was sure I could trust my voice. “Just a second later, just a second before she got into her car, just the tiny amount of time it takes to trace a cross on a forehead, and you would have missed her. Blind drunk, a hundred miles an hour in a Corvette, a big dumb dork all wrapped up in a fiberglass condom, all set to penetrate something. She and her daughter had been to the theater, did you know that? A nice little mother-daughter thing, a girls’ night out. Not much of a play, not much of a memory years from now, just the kind of thing that they did together. I expect they were chatting, when you hit them. About the play or school or who has a crush on whom. No huge drama, nothing of any great moment, just more of the current of love that had always flown between them.

“And then, all at once, it was over. Screech, crunch, tragedy. A Land Rover, the safest car they could afford, and they worked hard to be able to afford a car that safe. But your little Corvette got under them and flipped them. Kathleen Sullivan, dead on arrival. Margaret Sullivan, critical but stable. She was in her wheelchair at the funeral, the wheelchair she’ll be in from now on. I think her mother would have been proud of how strong she was…”

There were tears welled up in his eyes, and that was what I had come to see: If you can’t bleed, you can’t heal. “The hospital’s all dressed up for Christmas. More sad than cheerful, I think, tiny little twinkling lights trying to compete with the glaring fluorescents. But there’s so much tragedy here, so much illness and sadness and pain and death. The people who work here are very tough, trying to spread cheerfulness and hope however they can.

“I don’t see any Christmas decorations in your room. No cards. No gifts. No flowers. No friends. Where are all your good-time drinkin’ buddies? Where are your friends from work? Where are your folks…? The nurses care about you, you know. They want patients to have visitors no matter how they got here, no matter what they’ve done. But a nurse told me that I’m your first visitor. A stranger, more a hobo than anything else, and yet I’m the only person who took the trouble to visit you in the hospital. Why do you suppose that is…?”

He was crying for himself by now, not for Kathleen Sullivan. “I brought you a Christmas present.” I pulled a book out of my bag and held it up where he could see it. “It’s a biography of Ignatius Loyola. Do you know who that is? He founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, which in turn built Catholic schools — grammar schools, high schools, colleges — all over the world. People say, ‘What can one person do?’ Well here’s a man, a single, solitary man, who changed all of Western civilization, who did more to spread the philosophy of reason than any other person in human history.

“That’s not why I brought you the book, though. The interesting thing about Loyola is that he was a vile and vicious man when he was very young. He gambled. He chased women. He drank and drank and drank. You’re a victim of your own laziness and stupidity, but it wouldn’t be going too far to say that Loyola was actually evil when he was young. But then he got sick, and while he was laid up he read a biography of Jesus.

“It changed his life. When he recovered he taught himself Latin so that he could say the Mass. He was ordained and started to rise through the ranks of the priesthood. He founded the Jesuits and served as the right-hand-man of the Pope. He changed his life completely. Here’s another thing people say, ‘We are what we are. A leopard can’t change his spots.’ Ignatius Loyola changed his life. He went from being the worst sort of man to being one of the best specimens of humanity ever to grace the earth. And he did it by an act of will, by resolving to change his mind, to change his heart, to change his behavior. To do better where he had done badly.”

I smiled a tight little smile. “I don’t know if you believe in God. I don’t, to say the truth. But I revere Loyola, for the gift of reason he brought to the least of us, the smallest and the weakest — and therefore most in need of the treasures only reason can bring. And I admire him for the way he took the dross he had made of his life and spun of it the gold to form those treasures only reason can bring…”

I sat in silence for a long time, just looking at him. “Lives collide,” I said, “and everyone suffers, guilty or not. It’s Christmas at the Sullivan home, a big brick house set back from the street. The decorations have been up since Thanksgiving, blue and green and gold. But the decorations are just a sad reminder of the joy that has always been theirs, should always have been theirs. By now Brian Sullivan is wandering that big old house, searching for something he never could have lost. The children are sitting, saying nothing, staring at nothing. Those two little grandchildren want to rejoice in their Christmas, and they can’t understand why everyone else is on the verge of tears.”

I put the book on the table by his bed and stood beside him, looking at his bruised face, looking into his wounded eyes. I said, “And here we are, Christmas at the hospital, just you and me and all the cheer we can find in blinking diodes. There are people who would say that you deserve to have died in that crash, but I don’t believe there is any justice in death. Every death matters. Every life matters. And yet I don’t believe your life was miraculously spared by God. You just got lucky, that’s all.

“But I do believe in redemption. Not the redemption of Jesus — after death. But the redemption of Ignatius Loyola, the conscious choice to do better in the midst of chaotic life. You have a second chance. You have to live with what you’ve done, live with a grief much worse than the Sullivans are going though, much worse than that poor woman on Endicott Avenue. You have to live with the knowledge that you caused a death, that you crippled a young girl, her life barely begun. But you are still alive, and while you’re alive there is still a chance for you to rise above your past, to do better where you had done badly.”

Somewhere far down the hall a choir of children was singing the Canticle of the Bells, their voices high and sweet and perfect. The tears were rolling down his cheek, and I wet my finger in them. “If you can bleed, you can heal… For Kathleen Sullivan, may she rest in peace. And for you.” Very slowly, very gently, I used the wetness on my fingertip to trace the sign of the cross on his forehead. I said, “Do better…”

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