The world is a scary place. Last week I had to double up on my anti-anxiety medication to keep from rocking back and forth in stunned silence at the depth of man’s inhumanity to man. Then someone posted that wonderful message from Fred Rogers – though really, everything that man said was wonderful – and it reminded me that in the midst of babies ripped from their mother’s arms, and the indifference to suffering of “nice” people, to look for “the helpers”.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
The helpers are everywhere – the attorney working more hours pro bono than paid to represent immigrant children. The pastor risking the wrath of his polite congregation to call this injustice what it is. Mr. Rogers is right, of course. In the midst of darkness, indifference, and injustice, the helpers live the call of Christianity. The helpers show up with compassion and whatever water they can manage to put out the fires raging.
It got me thinking about who “the helpers” have been in my life, and how one of the most profound and unexpected helpers came during the darkest time of my life, via a popular television show.
When I was 8, I called Unsolved Mysteries to make my confession. I asked them to find my mom. Never mind that she’d been buried in the ground for over a year, or that I saw the coffin lowered with my rose and handful of dirt on the top, my world swallowed whole. She was dead, I knew, and yet the day I glimpsed her face in the front pew at Mass, hope swelled in my small broken heart.
Perhaps it was all a ruse, an elaborate plot to keep her safe from the mob – she had talked with John Gotti that one time at a bar – or she’d been recruited for a secret mission and had to leave to ensure my safety. Another scenario: she has amnesia and doesn’t realize who I am and why I am studying her so intently. Looking at the face of the woman I was certain was my mom, life exploded with possibilities. Mom was alive! She was here! I would find her after church was over and make her look at me, reach through her secret identity or forgotten memories and see me: Her daughter, her sunshine, her girl. The air around me swirled with possibility and I was swept away with longing.
I never did talk to her though. I tried, you see. Several times. She was there every single Sunday for a couple of months, with me sitting just to the side or behind her. Staring, always starting at this elusive woman wearing my mother’s face. I saw nothing else in the church – not Mary – silently, serenely, sadly to the side. Not Jesus hanging bruised and broken on the cross. Not Fr. Bryan, who would later stand in the same posture as he married Eric and I all those years later. I could see nothing but her and my future with her – my own resurrected ghost.
Every week was a countdown to Sunday Mass. Normally, my grandparents had to drag me out of bed on Sunday mornings to get ready for church. During this time, I was up and out of bed by 7, fully dressed for church. My new-found “religious devotion” was very inspiring to my grandparents, however, I doubt they ever realized the source of it. Not the pious love of God and joyful anticipation of Mass – no, rather it was the desire to see “her” and fantasize about approaching her. She would look at me and realize who I was, gather me up into her arms and we would ride off into the sunset together, mother and daughter together forever.
It continued this way for a few months of Sundays. I would spend Mass planning to approach her after church, wearing my Sunday best. If someone took a photo of me on one of these mornings, they’d see a little girl with chubby cheeks and long, dark curls falling down her shoulders, wearing the frilly dresses she loved. They’d see a face of hope – the kind that Emily Dickinson describes as “a thing with feathers, perching in the soul”. Oh, how hope perched in my tiny soul on those Sunday mornings with “her”. How I longed to spread my wings and fly away with her on the sweet summer breezes wafting through open church windows.
At home, there wasn’t much to hope for. Living with my grandparents in the wake of my mother’s death was a lesson in isolation, sadness, and submerged grief. It was during this year that I learned – at 8 years old- that they could handle a lot of things, but not my tears. The rawness of my grief threatened to unravel the lies they’d told each other about “getting along just fine”. I did the only thing I could to grieve: I went in the closet to cry. I had a small closet in my bedroom, where I put a pillow and blanket on the floor. I’d go in there with a book and stolen snacks – there were always snacks to be stolen – to cry and eat. There was no therapy, no counseling, no acknowledgment that an 8-year-old whose mother died a year ago might need some help coping with her loss.
Eating and crying alone in my closet is the closest I came to coping. No, there was nothing of Dickinson’s hope in the trailer on Main Street. Whatever had perched in my soul, it was nothing like feathers.
Then one Sunday, about four months after she first appeared, she was gone. Just like that, and I never saw her again. Since I’d never told my grandparents about her and never had the nerve to approach her, I didn’t even know her name. Mystery woman, harbinger of hope, destroyer of worlds. How would I survive losing her twice?
You might be wondering how I ended up calling Unsolved Mysteries. It was easy – I used the phone. Unsolved Mysteries, that show hosted by a smoldering Robert Stack wearing a trench coat in a darkened alleyway or spooky-ass church, was family favorite. My mother loved Unsolved Mysteries and I would watch the show with her as a young child, well before she died. It would scare me silly and I’d scramble under the blanket in her warm lap, where she’d stroke my hair back and tell me not to be afraid. “There’s nothing to fear, bug, we are safe and I’m here.” If only such things had been true. I cling to those memories as if they were.
That’s how I got the idea to ask Robert Stack to help me find “my” church mother, vanished so suddenly. I knew at the end of the episode there was a phone number to call in case “you were able to help solve a mystery”. I figured you could also call if you had a mystery in need of solving, and that was absolutely me. Furtively scribbling Robert Stack’s phone number, I stuffed it into the pocked of my jammies. It was Friday night – I would call on Saturday when my grandparents were outside working on the yard.
Back in 1992 we still had a rotary phone attached to the wall, just out of my reach. I pushed a chair over to the phone so I could reach, and shakily dialed the number for the show. It rang a few times and I almost hung up. Maybe I’d vomit, I thought to myself. Just how much trouble would I get in for calling a TV show?
Before I could chicken out and hang up, a voice on the other end of the phone said, “You have reached the Unsolved Mysteries tip line. To speak with the call center, please stay on the line.”
The woman who picked up the phone saved me, because you see, she listened to my confession, the words of my story tumbling out of my frightened mouth. My mother dying, and then seeing her miraculously at church, only to lose her again. I asked, could Robert Stack do anything to help me find her? No, I didn’t know her name, but surely, I could work with a sketch artist and a drawing made and posted? Yes, I was only 8 and I had been a “loyal viewer” of the show for years. Was she judging me? This was no time for judgments about my television habits.
I wondered if she might hang up on me, thinking it was a joke. I begged her to help me, to air a segment about my mystery. How could she come back from the dead? How could she be gone again?
In the background was the whir of the lawnmower as my grandfather rode it, the click of the clothespins on the line, and the quiet of Van Morrison playing on the radio as my grandmother worked. The thought of how much trouble I’d be in if they caught me ran through my mind. I needed to hurry up – I had to convince Unsolved Mysteries to help me.
In the end, they never aired a segment about the woman at church I was sure had to be Mom, but they did help me. I stayed on the phone with the call center for nearly thirty minutes, during which time the woman on the other end of the phone helped me understand that my mother had died, and whoever this woman at church was, she wasn’t her. It was hard to hear, but I knew deep down that she was right, and maybe that’s why I never spoke to her.
Shortly before we hung up she told me this, “Whoever she was, she was a gift to you from God. She appeared in church and drew you in to God’s house again and again. Just her presence gave you hope – hope that you might feel the love of family once more. Sometimes we find our families in the places we least expect. Keep your eyes open and expect the mysteries. Expect the gift.”
Feathers in the soul, indeed.