[This is the sixteenth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]
By the time the phone rang during Thanksgiving week 2007, I had been attending daily mass for a month; I was enrolled in weekly RCIA class; and I had told my parents about my decision to become Catholic. I thought the hurdles were all behind me.
I answered the phone: “Hello?” There was a silence at the other end, but the line wasn’t dead. When I tuned my ear, I heard a faint sound of breathing—not quite the sound of the ax-murderer in a slasher movie, but almost as creepy. There was a wheeze: residues of asthma. There was a hitch as the tongue clicked and the lips smacked. Whoever it was was gathering the force to speak and possibly fighting back emotion, or feigning it. Then a moan, partly pain, I thought, partly feeling.
“Weh-pster!” the voice said, and of course it was Gulliver. “Weh-pster! Thank you for the geeeft! You deed noht for-r-rget me!”
“How could I forget you, Gulliver?” I said. I knew before the words were out of my mouth that my rhetorical question had several levels to it. I felt several emotions at once: annoyance, curiosity, and terror among them.
Gulliver thanked me profusely for the James Martin book My Life with the Saints, which I had sent for his birthday in October. When I asked if he had read it, he said not yet. I had learned from a mutual friend that Gulliver’s powers were waning, that he might not have the concentration to read a full book, unless it was read aloud to him. But I also knew Gulliver. I knew that he might choose not to read a book I had given him out of a sort of principled spite. He would think he didn’t need such a book, and furthermore if any books were going to be read by him and me together, he was going to choose them, not I. Thus he took control of every relationship, right down to the books and movies you shared with him.
I let it go. We exchanged a few perfunctory words, he asked about my wife and children, and then the devil made me do it. “I’ve decided to join the Catholic Church, Gulliver,” I said. Like a mischievous child, I knew this statement would get a rise out of the old bastard. He had been baptized and raised Catholic, educated by priests and brothers, and for as long as I had known him, he had demonstrated a deep knowledge of Catholic history and culture. I appreciated that his knowledge, confronting my desire, had kindled my interest in the Catholic Church.
But now that I was preparing to cross the threshold of the Church to which he himself had pointed the way, his reaction was all Gulliver, and it did not surprise me: “Well, Weh-pster, then something has gone ver-r-ry ver-r-ry wrong.”
He was a nominal Catholic himself. I probably would never have considered becoming Catholic if not for his influence. Now, he was telling me I was making a mistake?! Not for the first time in my many years of knowing him was I reminded of the meaning of cognitive dissonance.
But then, as I had done so often before in the glory years of Dulcinea, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was only a matter of semantics. Was he only taking issue with my saying that I was joining the Catholic Church, as though it were a club or army? I knew that Gulliver was anti-organizational, except where his own organizations were concerned.
I let him rant while I held fire. By the time we hung up, he had spent his ammunition. Or so I thought.
The following week, I arrived at morning mass and took up my usual place in the sixth pew from the front on the Gospel side, in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. After a few moments of silent prayer on my knees, I sat back and settled my hands in my lap and my feet in front of me, waiting for the entry of the celebrant. I drank in the silence, the smell of burning wax, the soft light off gold leaf. Then I heard the sound of Timothy’s walker.
Timothy was a courageous man with multiple sclerosis who somehow found the energy in his legs and the hope in his heart to attend mass every single day. What an effort he must have expended to do so! He put the rest of us daily mass people to shame. I turned to greet Timothy, who usually sat in the pew in front of me, and found myself looking into the eyes of Gulliver.
I jumped to my feet, out of both respect and thunderous surprise. “What—?” I whispered. What was he doing here?! He lived two hundred miles away! He was disabled, using a walker now. He seemed to be alone. He gestured weakly but peremptorily toward the pew as if to say, Stand aside, I need to sit down. Then he sat beside me for mass. The cloth of his corduroy pants fell over his skeletal thigh like a shroud over a corpse. There was little flesh left on his bones, but what flesh he had Gulliver pressed against mine.
Afterward, he explained that a “young friend” had driven him into town last night. They had stayed in a motel. Gulliver said that he had been so moved by my interest in the Catholic Church that he had decided he wanted to come back to the Church himself. He planned to stay in the area for a couple of weeks and attend daily mass with me. Just to get back in practice, or something like that. It might do him some good, he said, with what almost sounded like humility.
“But—,” I began. I was thinking of all the hours he would be around. I had work to do, a family to take care of and to protect. I wasn’t interested in hanging out with Gulliver in my off hours, though I did feel a strange sense of triumph. The devil may have put this thought in my mind too: Maybe I could save him! Maybe my coming to the Church would save his soul!
Gulliver assured me that he wouldn’t be a bother. He and his friend could do some “sightseeing.” I didn’t need to spend extra time with them. And he was true to his word. For the next two weeks, I stood by the elevator at the back of the church, waiting for Gulliver’s “friend,” a handsome college student, to bring him up from the street. From there, I walked him laboriously, click, click, click, to the sixth pew from the front, my place and now his. I helped Gulliver into his seat, tightening up as he huddled beside me but allowing it to happen. I was happy to be encouraging his return to the Church and repulsed by his physical presence.
After mass, before getting into the car, Gulliver would ask about my Catholic journey. He criticized everything Catholic I was getting involved with, including the two priests who said daily mass, particularly the black one. I told him that I planned to attend a retreat at a Benedictine monastery. He told me that monasteries were for losers, people who couldn’t handle life, and that the retreat would be a waste of my time. I told him that I would be making a general confession for all of my life’s sins before being received into the Church. He told me that was not necessary. Meanwhile, he continued coming to mass with me.
Finally, torn beyond tolerance and alone with my pastor one day, I confessed that I didn’t know where to turn. I told the priest that I thought I was doing something good by supporting Gulliver’s return to Church after so many years; and folks at mass thought I was some kind of saint for taking care of him!
“But the things he says about the Church, Father!” I said. “I—”
“I think,” the priest said after I had explained myself fully, “I think that it might be a prudential decision to ask him not to come to mass with you any more.”
I called Gulliver that evening and told him so. Mercifully, he did not argue. He and his young companion returned home to New York State the next morning. When I was received into the Church the following Easter, my father was by my side. My wife and some other local friends were on hand as well. Praise be to God, Gulliver was two hundred miles away.
And still I wasn’t done with him.
NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.
To read the final excerpt, “Merton: To End for Now,” click here.