There were children playing in the park. It was hot. And that’s what kids do in the summer. You have to admire kids, taking advantage of the dog days, even though there’s a pandemic going on.
Remember how euphoric it was being out of school for summer?
Yeah. Me too.
These children wore face masks. They were on the swing set, having a non-stop party. They achieved high altitudes. Did dangerous somersaults. Broke femurs. Loved every minute.
I saw the old man on a bench. He arrived early for our meeting by about ten minutes. He wore a mask. He was reading.
I introduced myself, then asked, “What’cha reading?”
But it wasn’t nothing. It was a comic book. This elderly man, old enough to be my grandfather, with dove-white hair, was reading comics.
“Thanks for meeting me,” I said.
“No, thank YOU,” he said, stretching his frail hand outward to shake mine. “I’m retired, I get bored sitting at home.”
I stared at his outstretched hand. I hadn’t shaken hands in half a year since the pandemic began. So we bumped elbows.
“Is that a comic book?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I like the pictures.”
It was Batman.
I had to laugh. When I was a boy, I was a Superman fanatic. I subscribed to “Action Comics” for nine bucks per year and received 24 issues in the mail. It was the best deal in town.
Before our conversation got going, he offered to say an official blessing. This was a little weird, but I went along with it. I closed my eyes because I didn’t know what else to do.
If you’ve never heard a blessing from a retired Catholic priest, it’s cool. They recite what sounds like antiquated poetry.
Which is different from the way I grew up. We were Baptists. Our preachers’ prayers were pure improv. They would say anything that came to their minds. And when they ran out of words they’d say, “Yessssssssss Lord!” until they either thought of something else or someone’s mom passed out.
In a way, when it comes to praying, Baptist preachers are like blues musicians. Catholic priests are Beethoven.
Men of the cloth—even retired ones—use language that transcends our era and reaches backward into a time before a coronavirus. Before Europe. Before Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, or Monday Night Football.
I’ll confess. I’ve been fascinated by the Catholic viewpoint ever since this quarantine started. Not because I’m a religious guy—I’m really not—but because I grew up knowing NOTHING about Catholicism.
Which is especially bizarre when you consider that my late father was raised German Catholic. He converted to hard-shell fundamentalism before I was born.
And he wouldn’t step foot in a Catholic church. I never knew why.
He had gone to Catholic school, was taught by nuns, and played baseball on a team coached by priests. He was an altar boy, for crying out loud.
One time my father and I attended an infant baptism for my cousin. The ceremony was in a Catholic chapel. No sooner had my father entered the church than he took a knee and crossed himself.
“What’re you doing?” I asked. But he refused to explain.
After he died, I never thought about his early years until I wrote a book about him. Then I started digging and realized I had ignored a huge piece of his upbringing.
“So what’s on your mind?” the priest said.
I tried not to burden him with all that was on my mind. But I found myself unloading.
He only nodded, but said nothing.
I was a little disappointed in his response. He offered no wealth of knowledge. No insightful proverbs like: “Seek and ye shall find.” Or: “If at first you don’t succeed, do it the way your wife told you to.”
This priest wasn’t flexing any intellectual muscle. He was just sitting there. A comic book beside him.
Then it occurred to me. Here was a real person. Plain and simple. Just like me, but older. The only difference was, he wasn’t pretending to be a grown-up like I often do.
“You know,” he said. “This year hasn’t been an easy year.”
I waited for more. But nothing. He had no ground shattering insights. No big answers. I kept expecting him to say something valuable that I could take comfort in, reflect upon, and above all, use for a topic in a column.
I waited for him to act like he was smarter than me. But he never would.
Instead, we found ourselves staring into the distance, along with several nearby parents. We simply watched kids play on a swing set.
The children kicked their legs hard, swinging high into the air. They were shouting. Laughing. Screaming. Doing what kids do.
“I used to do that,” the old man said.
Me too. I was one of the best swing-set Evel Knievels this side of the Mississippi. I was giddy about everything. And so hopeful. How could I have changed so much?
“Would you just look at those kids?” he said.
And I did. For a long time. I just watched kids until I forgot what I was doing.
Then he prayed a small prayer. The prayer was short. But it would’ve put Beethoven to shame. And we parted ways.
He’ll probably read these words. And I’m sure he wouldn’t want me writing about him. But I thought he’d like to know that after our meeting, on the way home, I stopped to buy a few comic books.
Because I think I heard what he was trying to say.