Honor Moore writes about her father, the Bishop
- A father, a faith, and a secret: Episcopalians Shocked By Bishop's Closeted Life
New York Post
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Episcopalians Shocked By Bishop's Closeted Life
MANY Episcopalians are reeling from the news in this week's New Yorker that the late Bishop Paul Moore -- the 6-foot-5 patrician whose political activism drove many parishioners from the church -- was a closeted homosexual who had a gay lover for the last 30 years of his life.
While the Episcopal Church has embraced gays and ordained lesbian priests, Moore's secret life came as a shock. Moore -- who made the cover of Newsweek in 1972, when he took over the Archdiocese of New York -- died in May 2003.
His daughter, Honor Moore, the eldest of nine children he had with his first wife, Jenny McKean, writes that six months after his death, "the telephone rang. [The caller] had a confident voice. Andrew Verver (as I'll call him) was the only person in my father's will whose name was unfamiliar."
When Honor asked "Verver," who had traveled with Moore to the Greek island of Patmos the summer before, about her father's sexual life, he replied, "I was his sexual life," and, "Of course, there were other men."
Then, Honor describes bringing "Verver" on a touching visit to Moore's grave in Connecticut.
The Bishop's Daughter
A father, a faith, and a secret.
by Honor Moore
March 3, 2008
(photo at URL)
It is Easter, and in the darkness of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine the singing soars in descant, the Gothic ceiling multiplying the clamor. Now, as if a great storm had ceased, there is no music, and in the silence held by three thousand worshippers there come three resounding knocks. And, as we wait, the massive doors swing open, an ethereal shaft of sunlight floods the dark, the roar of the city breaks the gigantic quiet, and there at the far end of the aisle stands the tall figure of a man. My flesh-and-blood father, the bishop.
When I was a child, I accepted my father as a force of imagination that flared and coruscated, an instrument of transformation. During the Second World War, he had survived a Japanese bullet, and he had a scar to prove it. "If my heart had been going this way instead of that," he announced once, rowing me across a lake in the Adirondacks, "you would never have existed!" It was a joke, of course, but it was also the text of a lesson that endured throughout our life together. My father had supernatural powers. His fate had determined my existence. I was something he had made and would continue to make. Physical independence from my parents was one thing-I got too big to hold my mother's hand, too big to ride on my father's shoulders-but it took me decades to escape the enchantment of my father's priesthood.
In the weeks before my father's death, the weather in New York was crystalline. It was April, and the leaves were coming out. There were a couple of days when we thought we could actually see the tiny pale-green nubbles growing as we sat on the stoop of my father's house on Bank Street. "We" were me, my father, and whatever brother or sister was also keeping watch, now that the diagnosis was terminal.
"But what, but what . . ." he said more than once, looking at me as if I knew every answer to every question.
"What, Pop?" I said.
"What's going to . . . happen?" His eyes were very wide.
"What do you think is going to happen?" I would say, and I'd watch him think.
"I think I'll just . . . go to sleep," he'd say.
As April went on, he was less often awake when I got there, and so, after I checked in, I might wander around the Village, to buy flowers for the house, have a cappuccino, just get out. Afternoons were quiet on those intimate streets, and as I walked I could feel my father's love for his life on Bank Street. He had been a fixture there for years, a giant of a man with white hair, tilting from side to side (he had a hip problem), often walking Percy, his tiny Yorkshire terrier. There was a café on the corner, and, directly across the street, a one-story building with tall windows and what looked from the outside like a vaulted ceiling. It housed a hairdresser who seemed always to have the most beautiful and exotic flowers in his salon.
My hair had got too long. There had been no time to have it cut, and now the weather was warm. One afternoon, I went into the shop, gave my name, and asked for an appointment. The man looked at his schedule.
"My father is dying," I said, absurdly.
"Is your father Bishop Moore?"
As he washed my hair later that day, the hairdresser told me that his partner, the man sitting in the front room talking with a friend, the man responsible for the amazing flowers, was a friend of my father's, and had recently stopped him on the street to ask him to have supper. "I'm dying, you know," my father had apparently said. When we moved into the front room, the hairdresser told his partner, "This is Paul Moore's daughter."
"Oh, I know Paul," the partner said.
The hairdresser said, "And you saw him the other day. What was it he said?"
"I'd rather keep it to myself," the partner said abruptly. What was my father's relationship to this man, I wondered. When these men said, "Oh, I know Paul," how did they know him?
When I was a child, and we were living in an inner-city rectory in New Jersey, my father wore civilian clothes only on vacations or when he and my mother went to New York City once a week for their day off. When he dressed like ordinary men, it made me uneasy. I knew what the vestments were for and what his clericals signified. Wearing them, my father was clean and crisp, unsullied by everyday life. But when he wore a tweed jacket and a Brooks Brothers shirt he became someone else-perhaps more like the businessman his parents would have had him become.
My father was born in 1919, the beneficiary of vast wealth. He was a grandson of William H. Moore, who, as one of the Moore brothers of Chicago, had made a fortune in corporate mergers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Until he went away to St. Paul's School, at twelve, my father spent every fall until Christmas at Hollow Hill, a gentleman's farm in New Jersey. He went to a private school in nearby Morristown, and played with friends he kept for a lifetime, taking long walks and riding his horse on the farm's hundred acres, tending his dog and his pet roosters, playing tennis and golf. In January, the family migrated to Palm Beach, where they lived in an Addison Mizner villa, Lake Worth on one side of the house and a wide ocean beach on the other. There, between fishing and boating trips with the captain of his father's yacht and occasional golf with his father, my father was tutored until the family returned home at Easter-to Hollow Hill and to their enormous Manhattan apartment, on the eighteenth floor at 825 Fifth Avenue, which had a view of the sea-lion pond in the Central Park Zoo.
By his fifth form, or junior year, my father was beginning to pray on his own and to ask theological questions. In a diary otherwise marked by adolescent confusion, he is clear and certain when he writes about religion, as when Dr. Drury, the headmaster, gave a "spirited & awfully good sermon." The idea of confession scared him, he told me later, but there was no question that he would be among the boys who made appointments with Father Wigram, a member of a contemplative order founded during the Oxford Movement, when he visited St. Paul's in the fall of my father's final year.
Since I always thought I knew the story of my father's conversion, I never asked him to tell it. But six weeks before he died, at our last dinner out together, I realized I might not have another chance.
"He was a very, very old man," my father said, describing Father Wigram. He emphasized the second "very" just as he would have in telling me a story when I was a child, but now I was a grown-up woman and he himself was a very, very old man, his huge, familiar hands frail but forcefully gripping the table where we sat, in the dark-panelled dining room of the Century Club. It was late October, he told me, and the leaves had fallen from the trees. Father Wigram had arrived and was receiving students.
"So you went into the room?"
"Yes," my father said quietly. "And we talked."
"About what, Pop?"
"Oh," he said, his eyes slowly blinking, "about everything."
As my father told the story, I could see the monk in his black cape and black cassock. My father had heard him preach at chapel and speak in his sacred-studies class, but, nonetheless, when my father knocked on the door he was apprehensive. How could he possibly tell anyone all the terrible things he had done? Why should he tell his sins to a man rather than directly to God? And he was confused, as he wrote at the time, that his "religious emotion" came only "in spells."
By the end of the summer before his last year at Yale, my father was seriously thinking of making a life in the clergy, and so he had a talk with his father, who was unmoved. A young man in his position should take a year or two in business, my grandfather sternly advised, recalling that when he was at Yale, after reading Browning and Tennyson, he'd wanted to become an English teacher, had even written some poems. He'd got over it, as he was sure my father would get over this "ridiculous" idea of the priesthood.
But he didn't, and after he got out of the Marines, in 1945-a hero, with a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a Navy Cross, along with scars on his chest and back where that bullet went through him-he made plans to enter seminary, in New York. He had got married a year earlier, to Jenny McKean (the caption of a newspaper photograph of them on a date identified them, in bald summary, as "Marine hero" and "Boston socialite"), and he now had a child; he had returned from overseas less than two weeks after I was born. In fact, it was on board a transport in the Pacific Ocean that my father got a telegram announcing my birth. In his bunk, my father, knowing now that his child was a girl, wrote to his infant daughter, outlining his ideas about men and women and love. "A woman," he wrote, "should know men; not only from her own point of view . . . but also as they are of themselves. Without this understanding, her relationships as sister, daughter, lover or wife, will be inadequate."
Out a window I could see the reddish tower of the seminary chapel from my crib in our New York apartment. Sometimes from my window I would see him, early in the morning, stride across the street and unlock the gate in the seminary wall. In the Gothic buildings, where comings and goings were governed by a bell I could hear from my room, my father was becoming a priest. In the Marines, he had written my mother of his desire to make this life in the Church: "Please help me, darling, to keep alive to what we both must do. I'm so vacillating. So weak." He remembered his convalescent leave, the desolation that could pull him from a night-club table of laughing friends across the room just to say hello to a marine stranger; his need to drink and drink and drink, even though, as he wrote my mother, he considered drunkenness "sinful." Now there was the possibility that all this torment could be swept away, that he himself could be transformed.
My father was prepared for the excitement of a community of worship-morning prayer that began at 7 A.M. and evening prayer at the end of the day. The revelation was that one made the effort not for one's own "subjective experience" but as "heavy work which you rendered to God as a duty and as a form of thanksgiving day by day." He learned to withstand the ebbs and flows of his faith. As he had been at St. Paul's, my father was part of a community of men which was virtually monastic. Unlike at Yale, where he was constantly striving to prove himself and partying to relieve the stress, or in the Marines, where the requirements of his being an officer held him apart, he was one of many, a seminarian among seminarians.
Once, after supper, my father swept me up into his black seminarian's cape and across the street for Evensong. I remember the starry sky, the cold darkness as we climbed the stairs to the seminary and stepped along the grassy path to the chapel. I could already hear it, something like the rushing of wind, the coming of a storm. We were late, and as we slipped into the pew in the candlelit church full of men I understood that the rushing sound was singing. The rumbling voices of priests and seminarians, resounding against the stone walls of the small chapel, were otherworldly, even Godlike. I was scared, and so I leaned against my father, nuzzling the black cape still fresh from the night air, but he didn't look down at me or put his hand on my head. Now he belonged to something else, this big and strange sound, so deep and loud it made me shake. I could hardly breathe as all the men together spoke words I couldn't yet understand. And with thy spirit. Ah-men. Alleluia.
After that night, I looked at my father with new curiosity. He was no longer different from my mother just because he was the father and she wasn't. He was in touch with something that couldn't be seen but that was also real. When he left our apartment, he visited a place where utterance had a use beyond ordinary talk, was something frightening and beautiful. Across the street in the dark, inside the reddish tower, in the honey light of the candles, was a landscape like a dream, a place to which my father belonged and from which my mother and I were excluded.
His first parish, where we moved in the summer of 1949, was in lower Jersey City, a gritty neighborhood blocks from where "On the Waterfront" was filmed, four years later. Paul Moore-whose older brother was then an executive vice-president of Bankers Trust, on his way to the chairmanship-found himself in a team ministry that included two other priests and his wife, pregnant with their third child, residing in an "open rectory." They had chosen to work with the poor. Men with nowhere else to go and breath thick with whiskey sipped my mother's homemade soup on the front porch. Families burned out of their apartments outfitted themselves in the "clothes room" in the basement, leaving a child or two to stay with us until the church helped them find a new apartment. The ministry's understanding, innovative at the time, of what it meant to be a Christian in a modern city led to political and social action on behalf of parishioners who were evicted, jailed, or excluded from illegally segregated federal housing projects.
I remember a Christmas Eve-let's say it's when I'm first allowed to go to midnight Mass. My father climbs the pulpit and says, "Merry Christmas," which is strange since it's something he would also say outside church, and this raises laughs in the congregation. And then, as he begins to speak as a priest, his tone changes and he is preaching. Tonight, the sermon is just like a story. Mary is pregnant and lives with Joseph, her husband, right near here, but because he has lost his job they are without a home, and because they are black the motel has turned them away. They are cold and afraid and her time is near as they walk the dark, empty streets until they see a garage, its door ajar. There Joseph finds an old kerosene lantern and a heater in the corner-and a few pasteboard boxes and some rags, blackened with motor oil. Stretching out his long arms, my father tenderly describes Joseph's settling Mary onto a pile of those rags, and he looks down at us, and then, lifting his face, he says, emphasizing certain words, "And as a bright star appeared in the sky, the baby was born. Jesus was born." And, he continues, "the Christ child was laid in a box of those rags, by the light of the strange old railroad lantern."
I could see Mary and Joseph-I could see the shadowy, cold garage, the kerosene lantern, the heater. My father was both someone else entirely and just as I knew him; and the story seemed completely true, happening right here in the neighborhood where we lived. I understood miracles-my mother read me the lives of saints, of martyrs, and my father had told the story of St. Christopher, who carried a child across a river, the child's weight growing heavier and heavier until Christopher could hardly walk, terrified he might stumble. But he did not stumble or allow the child on his shoulders to fall into the turbulent current, and when he reached the opposite shore the child leaped from his shoulders and, standing there in the darkness, was suddenly illuminated, revealed as the Christ child. This Christmas night it seemed that my father, by telling the Nativity story in a new way, had himself created a kind of miracle. He had made me see and smell and feel it. When I told him how much I liked his sermon, he looked down at me and smiled.
My father's extreme height-he was almost six feet five-made him seem even more distant than he might have had he been of ordinary dimensions. I thought his tallness had to do with the brocades he wore, with the music, the candles, and the gold crosses that preceded him when he walked down the aisle; that it rendered him closer to God than those of ordinary height and therefore closer to enchantment. The place where my father changed out of his day clothes was called the sacristy, and when we lived in Jersey City he took me there once, down a narrow hallway. It was a small, silent room, all dark wood that gleamed silkily in the parchment-yellow light. There were closets that opened like gates and shallow drawers that pulled out evenly, with a sound like exhalation. The warm air smelled like wax, bitter and smooth, and as I breathed it I began to forget the color of daylight. Here my father spoke to me in a grave voice, and familiar things had other names. Getting dressed was "vesting," a scarf was a "stole," and the black, sculpted hats were "birettas." In the sacristy that evening, one of the other priests, a man who lived with us, looked at me with different eyes, as if he did not know me, and quietly folded his vestments. The boys who teased me when we played handball, now vesting as acolytes, were quiet in front of my father, and so I bowed my head and didn't look at them.
My father showed me what incense looked like, and where you put it in the brass censer, which looked like a lantern with holes in it. He showed me the ciborium, the round silver vessel in which the bread was kept, white wafers that came to be called "the Host" when he blessed them. He put on a cassock, buttoning it from his neck down to his ankles, and opened a tall narrow door to pull out a cotta, a white, gathered garment with sleeves like wings. Hanging there were smaller cottas for the acolytes and more long cassocks, black for ordinary Sundays and red for festivals. In another closet were the gleaming brass crosses and candlesticks on long poles and fat creamy candles and a crucifix that was real gold, with a gold Jesus on it; and in a small cupboard with a caged door and a brass lock were Communion vessels-silver chalices and silver plates, kept separate, I thought, so they wouldn't lose the touch of God.
I believed that I had been invited into the sacristy only because I was a little girl, and that if I ever became a woman I would no longer be allowed in; that once I became a woman the smell that would come from me would cause violence to God, as if when I became a woman I would have great stores of violence and sweat, enough to wipe out an entire town. In the sacristy, my father left being a father and a husband to become someone more like God-God, who had a son but no daughters; God, who had had a son without touching a woman. In the sacristy, as my father put on his vestments, I watched him become more like Jesus. When my father put on the long white alb and the colored chasuble over it, and knelt at the altar and raised his arms, he became more like Jesus still: someone without skin, without smell, without weight, in a separate dimension where everything shone from within and existed beyond any sound but music.
A memory: I am nearly three, and my little brother and I are awake. He is wearing diapers and rubber pants. We crawl along the hall to our parents' closed bedroom and scratch at the door till my father lets us in. The cloud of my mother's black hair is on the pillow, and she holds the sheet over her face. My father talks, though I can't remember what he says, and he doesn't let us onto the bed. My beautiful mother is hiding. Had they been fighting? Usually my mother was radiant, smiling, her arms open, already saying something funny, my father laughing with her. Her hair was so black on the pillow. Why couldn't I just touch her? And why do I remember this? Did I already understand that there was something sad and difficult between them or did I just want to see her face?
This memory came years after my parents' marriage exploded, when I was in my twenties. I imagine now that eventually, as my mother grew out of girlhood, she began to feel my father's distance as a sexual complication. Having entered into what I now understand to be a marriage of their time, my parents had no language to explore what might have been wrong with their erotic life. Instead, they began to feel mutual disappointment. My mother, being a woman of her era, considered the problem hers. Decades later, I learned that when we were living in Jersey City each of my parents was visiting a "shrink" in New York.
I had encountered, and repressed, the suggestion of my father's homosexual desire only once. I was in college, home for vacation in Washington, D.C., where my father was then a suffragan-or assistant-bishop, and it was in the evening, after supper. Perhaps my parents were out, because I walked into their bedroom and no one was there. The giant bed was on the right as you came in, and in red frames, arranged around its semicircular headboard, were baby photographs of their children, all nine of us-an altar to the generative power of my parents' marriage. I could have been looking for a safety pin or a Kleenex, but this night the light in my father's study was on, and suddenly, mysteriously, I was in search of something else. I don't remember if the book of photographs was already open, or if I opened it, but the image I saw was unlike anything I'd ever associated with my father. The photograph, in black and white, was of a young man, naked, standing on a stony beach. The texture was almost grainy, and the youth was beautiful, dreamy, slightly sullen. I remember that he stood, three-quarters turned from me, facing out to the sea so that his genitals were obscured. I understood that if I turned the page there would be another photograph like this one, that this was a book of such photographs, but I did not want to see another photograph like this one, nor did I want to be caught looking at the book.
At the time, I was still ignorant of any fissures in my parents' marriage, and I learned that my mother's dissatisfaction had a sexual element only after she and my father separated, some years later. It was the early nineteen-seventies, and I was visiting her in Washington. The Roma, where we were having lunch, was a big neighborhood trattoria that was quite empty at midday. The maître d' took us to a table in the back. We sat down, an unlit candle in red glass on the table between us. My mother was on one of her perennial diets, and she had no gray in her black hair and no wrinkles on her long face. We rarely looked directly at each other, and I recall her face turning aside. We both ordered wine, and then she looked up at me. My mother and I often talked about the changes in sexual attitudes from her generation to mine. At the time, for instance, like many of my friends, I was living with a man to whom I was not married. I don't remember how the conversation began, but suddenly my mother was saying, "I didn't have an orgasm until I was forty." I had no reply. "And when I finally did," she continued, "Paul said, 'What's the matter, Jenny?' " But this, like the picture of the young man in the book of photographs, was nakedness I did not want to see-my father, fumbling and insensitive as a lover; my mother new to sexual pleasure in her forties. It would be nearly two decades before I learned of my father's hidden life and the deeper suffering behind my mother's painful announcement.
In September of 1972, my father was installed as diocesan bishop of New York. For its Christmas issue, Newsweek celebrated by putting him on the cover, photographed in a red cope and mitre, holding a gold crosier, or bishop's crook, jewel-tone stained glass behind him. He looked like a Christmas card. In the photograph, his expression looks a little sad, and there is something close to the bone about the cover line, "The Church Faces Life," and about the title of the article, "An Activist Bishop Faces Life." The "life" under discussion was not his faltering marriage but the new reality the Christian Church confronted with the end of the heady nineteen-sixties. The article opened with a description of my father's installation service and went on to discuss the uphill battle he faced in his huge diocese and his major fund-raising efforts for ambitious urban work. The reporter wrote:
In the cathedral's soaring Gothic nave, the cast of the rock musical "Godspell" danced and sang through the traditional Anglican Holy Communion service. Outside, 5,000 well-wishers-blacks and Puerto Ricans from nearby Harlem and the WASPish well-to-do from Wall Street and Park Avenue-picnicked on the broad cathedral close. A steel band, folk guitarists and gospel singers entertained like minstrels at a medieval feast. Promptly at 3 p.m., the most solemn moment of the day began. With a fanfare of trumpets, the great bronze cathedral doors swung open to admit a procession of prelates in brightly colored vestments. When it was all over, a rock band joined a choir in a joyous Gloria in Excelsis from a mass written by the composer of "Hair," and the Episcopal Diocese of New York had a new bishop-the Rt. Rev. Paul Moore Jr.
My father had made social activism a central part of his work, and the article was accompanied by photographs of him performing a confirmation in Harlem, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., fleeing tear gas at a Saigon peace rally in 1970. And photographs of my parents standing together at a family wedding in the Adirondacks two months earlier, and, even though my parents were separated and my father living in New York, a game of touch football in the Washington yard "with Jenny and the children." My mother died, of cancer, a year later.
Being bishop of New York offered my father new opportunities for activism. During the cathedral Easter Eucharist of 1976, at a time when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and corporations began to depart their New York headquarters for sprawling glass buildings in the suburbs, he preached a sermon denouncing the captains of industry for abandoning the city, "like rats leaving a sinking ship." My father not only ordained women priests but, in 1977, ordained the first openly lesbian priest, and wrote a book about the resulting controversy, "Take a Bishop Like Me."
A year and a half after my mother's death, my father fell in love with and married a woman who swept away our family's past. She reminded me of Natasha in Chekhov's "Three Sisters." Sometimes my father's need to please her took the form of disloyalty to my mother. I was willing to listen to my father's stories about my mother's shortcomings when he took responsibility for his part in the difficulties of their marriage, but it enraged me when he blamed her, and, because he consistently blamed her, I defended her; she became my cause. A formality grew between my father and me that, for many years, verged on estrangement.
Early in the winter of 1986, I went to an AIDS memorial service at the cathedral. It was a requiem, and as part of the liturgy the names of the dead were recited, a process that took more than an hour. As I listened, I heard the names of friends, actors and poets and artists I had known, and then my father preached. In his crimson chimere and white rochet, he climbed the pulpit and began. It was a sermon about sexual freedom, about the lives these dead men had lived, about the presence of Christ's sacrifice in human suffering. This was not a new subject for him, but I had never heard him so fierce, so passionate, so loving. What came to me was this: Here is where I can come to find my father's love. There is, I told myself, magnificence in how he can give, opening his long arms, practically weeping on behalf of these men, dead of a plague; here is where I can come to be close to my father. In 1988, when my first book of poems was published, I dedicated it to him, taking it uptown and making a presentation. He had recently announced his retirement, after nearly two decades as bishop of New York. After his death, I found a note he wrote me then but never sent: "I have been savouring your poems. You are a VERY GOOD POET. Someday we'll talk about them."
Five years ago, my sister Rosemary and I sat with our father in a consulting room at New York-Presbyterian, listening to an oncologist trying to be gentle. My stepmother had died in 1999, and now my father had been diagnosed with melanoma. The doctor told us that when he looked at the MRI of my father's head, he stopped counting at six. Six sites of cancer, and they were continuing to spread-to replicate-across my father's brain. Something like spiderwebs, or mold.
Shortly afterward, I went to the house on Bank Street to meet my father for supper. He was wearing bluejeans and a red plaid flannel shirt, and, though he looked much younger than his eighty-three years, he was unsteady, and I held his arm as we walked to the restaurant. Despite the news, his spirits were high, and he was calculating whether in the time he had left he would be able to finish a new book.
"What is the book, Pop?"
He told me that he'd entered the priesthood not "to have people admire me" or "to do good," but because he'd always had a longing to celebrate the Eucharist. In the book, he would talk about some of his most powerful experiences of giving the sacrament, and how the time and place where a particular Eucharist had occurred-in Vietnam during the war, in a dry riverbed in India for a hundred thousand people, in Mississippi during the civil-rights movement-illuminated its meaning.
My father didn't accept that he was dying, and for that entire spring he travelled and preached. On March 23, 2003, four days after the United States invaded Iraq, he gave the sermon at St. John the Divine. ("Your fate will be determined by the power of millions of people of all faiths against the war and one solitary Texas politician being alone with Jesus. . . . This has to do with two different kinds of religions, it seems to me. The religion that says 'I talk to Jesus and therefore I am right,' and millions and millions of people of all faiths who disagree.") But, in spite of treatment, the cancer steadily progressed.
Two weeks later, my father received a terminal diagnosis; hospice caregivers were now on duty around the clock. In mid-April, Rosemary and I sat down with him and the hospice nurse, and Pop said that he wanted to stay at home "for the duration." It was as if he were asking our permission.
"Yes," we both said. "Yes, of course."
The next day, Good Friday, was my day to take care of him; I arrived after lunch, and stayed on. He was no longer able to finish sentences, so our talk, as darkness fell, was jagged with silences. What was one supposed to say in one's last conversations with one's father? We'd had no definitive reconciliation, but over the months of his illness our long estrangement had begun to dissolve, and, with it, the familiar, inchoate fear that sometimes kept me from touching him. As he got sicker, I found myself spending more and more time with him, almost running from the subway to the house on Bank Street; it was as if my childhood love for him had returned. The longing was almost physical, and its satisfaction came in just being in my father's presence, taking in his weight, the shape of his head, his posture. And now I was losing him! Wasn't there something I might say? Something I might offer him or ask of him that would make everything right? Of course not, I was thinking, when suddenly I heard him say, "Once upon a time . . ."
And then he stopped. He seemed a bit embarrassed.
I said, "Oh, tell it."
"I think I'm too-" He couldn't find the word, so he tapped his head.
"Please," I said into the darkness and moved across the room to sit next to him. I leaned in close, but he pulled away. All the old anger, I thought; it can't be helped. But I kept still, and then he began to speak again.
"Once upon a time," he said, "there was a little girl who lived by herself in a house in the forest. Every night, she dreamed of a wonderful man who would come and save her." He said "wonderful" as his mother would have, bouncing from syllable to syllable, the sound of the word becoming a world of tenderness and fascination. "Night after night, she dreamed of this man-oh, how she wanted this man!" My father was inside himself, not looking at me. "And then one night she heard the sound of footsteps outside." And here he tapped his chair with a finger. Tap. Tap. Tap. "Footsteps through the forest. The little girl was frightened. What was it? Who was it? And then she heard a knocking at her door." And Pop knocked on a table, hard: the bishop knocking on the doors of the cathedral. "Should she go to the door? She couldn't tell if it was a mean man or the dream man." A mean man or the dream man! I leaned forward, and he continued, no problem now with the sentences. "She was so scared. But she heard the knock again." And my father knocked again on his table. "And this time she went to the door and opened it, and there before her stood the most extraordinary man she had ever seen, dressed in white armor and carrying a sword and a spear."
This was a new story, nothing I'd ever heard him tell. It was as if this father of mine had walked the terrain of my dreams, had found there the thread of my story, a story he was now, at the brink of death, weaving from what had gone unsaid all our years together. Soon the girl and the man were dancing, he was saying-and I could see us, whirling around the room.
"Pop," I said after a while, "will they have breakfast?" I was thinking about the man and the girl in the story. My father hesitated, and then he smiled, a glint of mischief in his eyes.
"I can't tell you that now."
My father died in May, and in November a truckload of boxes and a few pieces of furniture were delivered to my apartment, on Riverside Drive. The apartment was small, and I'd chosen, I thought, a minimum of things from the estate, but there were many boxes to be unpacked. As the day went on, I developed a horrific headache. I continued unwrapping china anyway, filling the sink with hot, soapy water, washing the Staffordshire pitchers that had gathered dust for decades, first at Hollow Hill and later at Bank Street. It felt a little like Christmas. Out of a flat mirror box came a big watercolor of the living room at Hollow Hill, in which I could see the very pitchers I was unwrapping lined up on the shelves of a tall New England cupboard.
As it happened, it was my father's birthday, and his absence still sailed through me like a dark ship, alternating with images of his dying, and the visceral sense of his love that afternoon in his sunny bedroom, days before he died, when I sat watching him, imagining what our family might have been had we always had the love from him that I felt that day. Then the telephone rang.
He had a confident voice. Andrew Verver (as I'll call him) was the only person in my father's will whose name was unfamiliar when we sat in the lawyer's office the day before the funeral. Its mention had passed without comment, but later Rosemary identified Andrew as the man who had travelled with my father on a trip he took to Patmos the summer before.
Two months earlier, I had gone to the cathedral press office to pick up copies of my father's obituaries, and among the papers had been a letter from Andrew Verver dated the day after the funeral. He had been a "very close" friend of my father's for nearly thirty years, he wrote in a crooked but clear hand. He would like to visit my father's grave. He would like to see the videos that had been shown at the reception after the funeral.
I wrote him back that day: Of course you can visit Pop's grave-I will try to get directions for you-I would also very much like to meet you. I'd love to hear about the trip to Patmos. My # is . . . He had not called in September, but now it was my father's birthday, and here he was.
The beginning of the conversation was formal.
"Your father was a close friend of mine."
"For almost thirty years."
"Yes. You said so in your letter-"
"I'm sorry I didn't call sooner."
"I was just about to-"
"I had . . . feelings."
Andrew had been a student at Columbia, a Roman Catholic. "I was considering being received into the Episcopal Church," he said. This was in 1975. "I went to your father for advice. He was very helpful. At first it was a pastoral thing, and after a while we became friends." His voice was soft in texture. "We were very close friends," he repeated. "Paul came to my father's funeral. My family knew him."
"I'm so happy to be talking to you," I said.
"I would have called sooner-"
"I understand." Then there was silence. "I want to hear about Patmos," I said.
"I had been there before," Andrew said, "but Paul hadn't. I had had a spiritual experience in the cave, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. And Paul wanted to see it, so we went there."
Should I write this down? I reached for a notebook, and a pen. Andrew was silent, but I could hear him there. I couldn't get over his humility, the calm in his voice. And how he could wait through a silence.
"Your father was a good friend to me," he said.
"I'm so glad," I repeated. We had been talking for about twenty minutes. I kept being afraid he would hang up, that he would stop talking about my father, telling me these things. Oh, please don't hang up. Suddenly I realized I should take advantage of talking to this man who was so close to my father.
"Did he tell you about us? About . . . me?"
"You had some problems with each other."
"Yes," I said, "we did."
"We were so close, your father and I. He told me a lot of things." He didn't want to get off the telephone either.
"About your family. About his life. We missed our plane to Patmos, and we had to spend the night on Samos, another island. Something about the missed connection freed Paul, and we really talked that night. It was a beautiful night, we sat outside, we ate fish." I could hear Andrew breathing. I could imagine this man holding on to my father's hand with the tenderness with which he was staying on the telephone, waiting. The silence opened, my headache throbbed. All over the floor was the crumpled newspaper.
"Did he talk to you about his sexual life?" Two men in Greece, a beautiful night.
"I was his sexual life," Andrew said.
"You were?" There was a silence and then we both began to laugh.
"For a long time."
"I am so happy he had someone like you," I managed to say.
"Of course, there were other men," he said.
I asked him whether there was any significance to the table that my father had left him in his will.
"Only that it was next to the bed!" he said. "Your father had a sense of humor." That quiet laugh again.
"Once, we were on the sofa, talking," he continued, "and Paul took off his bishop's ring and put it on my hand for a minute. The New York bishop's ring has windmills on it, and your father smiled and said, 'I'm your Dutch uncle.' " My father and this man about my age, whom I have never seen, next to him. Playfully, tenderly, he slips the heavy gold ring from his finger and puts it on Andrew's.
On the first anniversary of my father's death, Andrew and I drove to the Connecticut cemetery where he was buried, and, after finding the place where his gravestone would be installed, we drove to the house that had been my father's and parked the car. Next to it is a large town green that gives onto the Long Island Sound, and we walked through the gate and down to the water. After some time, we both turned away. "It's too sad to look at the house," I said. Andrew nodded, and we stood in silence, watching the small waves lap at the sand, foaming up, and then Andrew climbed out on the rock breakwater that extended into the sound. He stood for a while, then he came back.
"Are you sad?" I asked.
Andrew nodded. "I stayed with him here. We'd drive up from the city in his Volkswagen bug, and I'd take the train back." And then he asked, "Are you sad?"
I'd thought it would be dramatic to come back here with Andrew. I thought I would feel my father's presence again, but, instead, I felt empty.
"Let's go to lunch," I said. And we got back into the car and drove to a café. When we sat down, Andrew pulled out a thick folder of letters, twenty-five years of letters, and I began to leaf through them. I've already asked Fr. Pridemore . . . to raise you from the dead-the strange line jumped out.
"Raise you from the dead?" I asked. "What is this?"
"We hadn't seen each other for a while," Andrew said. "There was a mistake. My name was on the list of those dead of AIDS read at that Mass, and Paul heard my name, that I had died. It was a mistake. A friend of mine had died, and I'd submitted his name."
"What happened? Did you go up to him afterward?"
"I couldn't get to him, but he called my number that night."
I had been at that service, and it was during the sermon that night that I'd felt my father almost transfigured in the power of his preaching. It was also that night, years before the discovery of his hidden life, that, feeling the love coming from him as he preached, I had decided to accept who he was, to take the love he gave when he was his truest self, when he was preaching. Now I'd learned that my father had preached that night believing a man he loved had died.
A memory: One Easter, in Jersey City, I am in my new finery, and there he is, dressed in white, accompanied by vested acolytes, sweeping along the dusty street on his way to the church; I get not a kiss but a blessing-my father's hand raised, fingers poised and moving through the air in the shape of a cross.
In the darkness at the altar rail, I would hold the wafer in my mouth, allowing it to become wet with the wine that burned my throat. Take, eat, this is my Body, my father would say. Just as I came to understand that his splendid vestments were not ordinary clothes, I learned that during the Eucharist the bread and wine were shot through with something alive, which vibrated and trembled, and when I watched my father, enormously tall, the color of his vestments blurry through all the incense, in all the candlelight, it seemed to me he brought all this about. It made sense that when he sang Gregorian chant his voice would break. He was being transported by what he called "the presence of God," a force much more powerful than his physical body. What happened to him seemed also to happen in me, behind my eyes, on the surface of my skin, and when it happened I didn't think of how my mother looked with a baby on her hip, how my younger brothers and sisters shouted and screamed, or how awkward I felt at school. Instead, everything became comprehensible-simple, safe, and beautiful.
My father told me that when I was little, after sitting through a three-hour Good Friday service and hearing him tell the story of the Seven Last Words that Jesus spoke from the Cross-of how an earthquake "rent" the veil of the great temple, of how Mary watched her son die-I cried and cried. When he asked why I was crying, I said, "Because Jesus died." I don't remember any of that, but I could tell you the whole story, and as I told it I would see the darkness that descended as the rain fell, the light that broke through a gash in the clouds as the sky cleared, how it sounded when the young man on the Cross said, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" I would tell you about the old rich man who offered his own grave for Jesus at the last minute. I could make you see Jesus' face loosen as he finally died, and what I imagined Mary Magdalene looked like, sitting there on the ground looking up at him, the vials and pots of fragrant ointment in her lap.
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