by Ted Lietz
Father James C. Rockwell had sat enough death watches to sense when the end was imminent. He had that sense as he walked into his mother’s hospice room.
He took a deep breath to compose himself. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hello, Father,” she said, in a hoarse whisper.
“It’s me. Jimmy.”
“Jimmy’s a priest, too. He’s not here now, but he visits every day.”
No point in contradicting. That only upset her. The son had hoped for one more meaningful conversation with his mother. Disappointed and sad, he sat in a chair at the side of the bed to…wait.
“Father, did I tell you my parents were immigrants? I grew up in a Polish neighborhood during the Depression and World War II.”
Many times. “What was that like?”
She told familiar stories. Buying Mary Janes at a candy store that actually was a front for a numbers operation. Worrying that her father, legally brewing a little beer in the basement for his own use, might be arrested for bootlegging.
After a short coughing spell she looked into the distance. Shifting her gaze to back to the priest, she said, “Father, will you hear my confession?”
Hear his own mother’s confession? “Another priest heard your confession only yesterday.”
“Yes. But there’s something I didn’t tell him. Please, Father?”
He had priest friends who would willingly come over. But getting there would take them time—time his mother might not have. She was a devout Catholic. How could a priest—how could a son—deny this comfort, perhaps her last request?
Taking a purple stole from his briefcase, the priest prepared to listen, hoping to hear nothing serious.
“My given name is not Anna. It’s Hania.”
Relief. A familiar story. While his mother would eventually earn a college degree, right out of high school she found a job as a file clerk. Coworkers with names like Dottie and Betty and Sue decided to call her Anna. She didn’t mind, and soon routinely introduced herself that way.
“My parents found out,” she said, seeming to blink away pain. “They were less angry than disappointed.”
“You didn’t set out to hurt them. That doesn’t seem sinful.”
“I haven’t told you the sin, yet!”
“Sorry. Please go on.”
“I met my husband, Art, during the summer of 1943.”
His own father, who’d died a few years earlier. Another story the son knew well.
She stopped telling the story in mid-sentence and closed her eyes. Gulping hard, the son reached over to check his mother’s pulse. As he touched her wrist, she opened her eyes again.
“What was I saying?” she asked.
Startled but relieved: “Meeting your husband?”
“Oh, yes. Art was a soldier. Ma and Pa begged me not to get serious with him. They didn’t want me to go through that again.”
“Go through what?”
“I was engaged a few years before I met Art. To another soldier. We were going to marry as soon as I graduated from high school.” A weak shake of the head and a sigh. “But he died a few days after Pearl Harbor.”
The son never had heard about that man.
“But Art and me? Even though Ma and Pa objected, we got married. Lucky. The date we set weeks in advance turned out to be the day before Art had to ship out. Even though I was going against my parents’ wishes, Ma and Pa paid for the wedding. But I still felt bad for disobeying them.”
“You were of age,” the priest said. “I don’t see the sin there.”
“But there’s more to it. When Art went to war, I stayed with my parents. I wanted to save every penny I could so Art and I could buy a house when he returned. I even skipped lunch. But I stopped doing that when I found out I was carrying Jimmy. I worried that skipping lunch could hurt my baby. I didn’t want to risk another miscarriage.”
A miscarriage? Something else the son hadn’t heard before. Something he wished he could un-hear now. But for purposes of the sacrament, the priest had to understand. “The miscarriage. You had sex before you were married with, uh…with Art?”
The look on her face—she didn’t like the question. But she answered. “No. The baby I lost—the father was the boy who died right after Pearl Harbor. Art and I waited. The miscarriage was my punishment for sex outside of marriage. I wasn’t going to risk losing another baby!”
“The miscarriage was a punishment? A priest told you that?”
A furious tear worked its way down the son’s cheek. “That’s not how God does things!”
Composing himself he said, “Excuse me. I shouldn’t have raised my voice. You said you confessed sex before marriage long ago. Is there something more I should know?”
“That first engagement, the miscarriage? I never told Art.”
“You weren’t obliged to tell him,” the priest said.
“But I did deliberately misled him. And my son, too.”
She shook her head. “When I gave Jimmy his middle name, Casper, I don’t think I’d even heard of that friendly ghost cartoon. Oh, how Jimmy hated that name! So much teasing, so many schoolyard fights!”
All true. No fights for a very long time. But even now people who riffed on that middle name got under his skin.
“When Art asked why I wanted to give Jimmy the middle name Casper, I said it was just a name I liked. I told that to Jimmy, too. That’s the sin. I hid the greater truth.”
“Greater truth? I don’t understand.”
“The man I was first engaged to? The father of the baby I lost? Casper was his name. I loved Art, but I never stopped loving Casper. Jimmy’s middle name was a way of keeping Casper with me.”
She paused. “I’m sorry for that sin, and all the sins of my past life.”
The priest absolved her.
As did the son.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. © Ted Lietz 2020. All rights reserved.