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A Journey of a Thousand Thoughts and Feelings

a-journey-of-a-thousand-thoughts-and-feelings


Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman who shared with me innumerable thoughts and feelings.

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“Love is...all of human affirmation, with the whole body...with one’s whole heart and mind, a life-shaping force, fulfilling and driving air and light, recurrent as water, dearer than diamond or rarest ruby...” from At the Waters of Oblivion, originally written in Esperanto by Marjorie Boulton and translated by Pierre Lioni Ullman.

“In this silence, in this active calm, there was a romance. [They] loved one another like two halves of a fresh fruit, joined by the same life...”

--from Adios, Cordera by Leopoldo Alas and translated by Pierre Lioni Ullman

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I had been called to give last rites, but when I arrived, I was ushered into the living room of the home. The hospice nurse had just arrived.

It was one in the morning, and, in order to stay awake, I paced around the room. The walls were covered with bookshelves, and the tables stacked with books. I thought I should know more about the person he was ministering to, but, in a typically large Roman Catholic parish, I was glad just to recognize faces.

The books on the shelves were dusty as if they hadn’t been removed for a long time. I didn’t need a sneezing fit if I was suddenly called into the dying man’s room, so I shifted my attention to a table that had newer books.

It was a surprisingly erudite collection given the general make up of their working class, immigrant congregation.

The second book I picked up was a new translation of Adios, Codera by Leopolo Alas, the 19th century Spanish essayist and author. I moved his eyes to the bottom of the cover. Translated by Juliana Hall.
“For C, for our story which in so many ways paralleled this one.”

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I was summoned into the dying man’s room. The adult children were there. I had to do a good job here. This moment would be etched in their minds for the rest of their lives. This was the last thing to happen to this man in this life. And the carefully tended falsehoods of my own life had just been ripped open.

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How many times had I replayed in my mind our first meeting. I was working at a pizza place in a gritty part of Dorchester, just outside Boston. A young woman about my age who was obviously not from the neighborhood, came in to order a salad. When my co-worker asked her what sort of dressing she’d like, she couldn’t understand him and said, “Pardon me?”

“We don’t have ‘pardon me’ dressing. Hey, C.! Have you ever heard of ‘pardon me’ dressing?”

I came up to the counter to rescue the patron from this goofball I worked with. She had a Spanish book under her arm, and I recognized it from the Spanish class I was taking.

“That’s the book we use in my Spanish class.”

“Where do you go to school?
“Just a community college. You?”

“Harvard.”

I suppose I already knew that answer.

“What are you doing in this neighborhood?”
“Teaching Spanish at a neighborhood center. I’m Juliana, by the way.”

“Connor.”

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Next time she came in, I tried my Spanish on her.

“You’re pretty good at this. Are you a Spanish major?”

“Ha, that’s funny. No.”

“What is your major?”
“Right now my major is escaping the fate of my parents.”

Juliana cocked her head and nodded.

“Is your major Spanish?”
“Yes.”

“Why?”
“I love the literature from Spain. Why are you taking Spanish?”
“Same reason I’m going to school. Figure it will help me.”

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So, I suppose you see where this is going, the good and the bad.

Two people of such different backgrounds aren’t supposed to click and fall in love and negotiate all sorts of obstacles to spend time together, but that’s what we did. It was magic, completely natural, like a walk on a June day in the park. I never had felt more real and myself and hopeful in my life, and from what I could tell, she shared this feeling.

Did we think about the reality? We did. We even talked about it, and we felt completely assured that the depth of what we were together would be strong enough to overcome anything.

But, as you know, it wasn’t.

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And you probably already realize that her family would be the ones with the issues.

My family didn’t care about her or me. That sounds harsh. People don’t like to think that “family” won’t care, but it’s the truth.

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Initially, I was hesitant to introduce Juliana to them, but being as open and good as she was, she pressed.

“It’s a gritty place,” I emphasized.

“Probably.”

“It’s not who I am or who I want to be.”

“Maybe I’ll understand that even better when I meet them.”

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Then it was time to meet her parents. I put myself together as well as I could.

“You always look great to me,” she said.

“You know that’s not what they care about.”

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Her mother was really sweet, and I knew instantly that her thoughts and feelings about me wouldn’t carry an ounce of weight.

Her father made no effort to hide his disdain and his suspicion of me, and, to make it clear that he would control our future, he announced that the only way Juliana could fulfill her dream of studying in Salamanca would be if she broke off relations with me.

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We went to our favorite spot one last time, a place on the edge of Dorchester along the Bay. A plane flew overhead.

Juliana lay in the crook of my arm crying.

“The plane makes me think of the train that took Cordera away in the story.”

“What do you mean?”

“In Adios, Cordera, the boy and girl lay in the grass and watch the train take away their beloved cow, sold by their cash-strapped father. The cow was the symbol of their innocent love, sold for money. Our love is being sold away, taken away on a plane...”

“Do you have to go?”

“No, but Connor, if I don’t go, he’ll just come up with another roadblock. This is a no contest situation.”

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Juliana left for Spain. I continued at my pizza place job and pursuing an unknown degree at a community college. Of course, I was still living at home which meant attending church each Sunday.

One Sunday, there was a young priest preaching who used the sermon to tell what Catholics often refer to as his “vocation story.” He talked a lot about purpose and peace, and I was in need of both.

The whole process went pretty quickly: talking with our parish priests, going on retreat, making a plan to get a bachelor’s degree as soon as possible, going to seminary, etc. The one thing I asked is that, once ordained, that I be transferred to a diocese outside of the Boston area. By that time, my Spanish skills were pretty solid, so the request would be easy to fulfill.

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If I had begun college to escape the fate I might have otherwise had, I entered seminary to escape a broken heart. I knew any other woman would be some sort of bad consolation prize, that I would be using them to fill a need that couldn’t be filled. This way, I didn’t hurt someone else; I escaped both the culture I was born into and my broken heart, and maybe there was some potential to do something good with my life.

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When I returned to the rectory after the last rites, I immediately looked up Juliana on the computer. I hadn’t done it in the decades we had been apart. I didn’t want to know.

Standing at the bed of a dying man reminded me that our time is limited. Seeing Juliana’s book made me think our story wasn’t over yet.

Given her stature as a scholar, she wasn’t hard to find. She was teaching at a liberal arts college in New England. I suppose I could have tried to find out more about her personal life, but her work email was enough.

“Dear Juliana, I saw your book. Thank you for the dedication. How are you? Connor”

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I didn’t think ahead. Questions arose, “What if she wants to see me? What if the old flame is still alive?” and worse, “What have my last decades as a priest been? Were they real?” They were too big, and, at the same time, they weren’t the issue. The issue was my heart crying out and needing, finally, to be heard.

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Juliana wrote back. Not much. We were living five hundred miles away from each other. A casual meeting wasn’t the next step. She asked if we could talk on the phone.

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We talked on the phone for an hour and then planned the next call and the next. Soon we were talking every day. We had decades to catch up on, but the stories of each other were more than the stories of our lives. They were the stories of what we contributed to the world all the while knowing that an important part of ourselves had been set aside.

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She watched my masses online. She shared videos of her lectures. I found the articles she had written in English. She read my weekly bulletin articles.

We began video chats and finally decided that she would come to visit.

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And, after that, I decided to leave the life of a priest and move back East to live the rest of my days with Juliana.

I didn’t own much and had it sent ahead. Then I boarded a train to take me to Boston at which point I would take a bus. A plane would have been much faster, but I wanted to feel the miles. I wanted to lean my head against the window and sift a thousand thoughts and feelings, call to mind images of the long ago and more recent past, and pose questions about the whys of it all.

Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I slept. Sometimes I was overwhelmed by the unwieldy nature and unanswerable questions of our lives.

It seemed no coincidence that I spied Juliana’s book in the home of a dying man. I was reminded in a flash of her and us and how quickly this life goes.

The end.