On this day for the last twenty or so years I have lit my mother a birthday candle at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Today the spires were looking especially beautiful – glowing against the morning sky.
My mother was raised Catholic in an era when Mass was still conducted in Latin. A veteran of years of regimented religious schooling, she harbored a deep skepticism of faith that often lurched into malevolence after (her words) “being beaten by too many nuns”. This morning I wondered what she would think of my strange annual pilgrimage, and I tried to remember why I started doing it – why this ritual? Why here? Especially considering I was raised without the context of any religion: no baptism, no commandments, no catechism. The answer is simple, and sits apart from any doctrine. In the first years following her death, I was a ghost: ambulatory and ostensibly functional, but lost to myself. My daily commute from Jackson Heights to the South Bronx took me through Rockefeller Center, where I pit-stopped at the 53rd Street Library to work on lesson plans. One morning, this ghost was drawn into St. Patrick’s, where the smells of musty wood and incense patted the pew and invited me to sit. Lighting my mother a candle felt proper and right in a way that only cellular memory can explain. I had never done it before, but I had heard family members on her side talk of doing so my entire life: for the dead, the infirm, the hopeful.
My mother was staunch in her disavowal of Catholicism, having absorbed more than her share of its cruelty and hypocrisy, but she was a lover of beauty and a hunter of quiet. In the echoey hush of Saint Patrick’s, I sit with her and imagine where I would take her for her birthday, what we would talk about. I become a bit that ghost who glided through the cathedral’s doors twenty-odd years ago, restless and adrift. My mother, once flesh but who, for so many blank, bitter, unforgiving years has seemed more and more a ghost, existing somewhere apart, beyond my reach or the company of my heart, returns to me. She pats the pew and I sit and reflect and remember how lucky I am.