After David was settled into his new place, he decided to go back to school at night. He found a couple of courses that interested him including creative writing and Thanatology. Thanatology was a class on the philosophy of death and dying that they offered. He would combine both courses to write stories and therefore deal with the unresolved issues he still had over his mother’s recent demise. He also took the Bible as Literature, because he liked the professor.
He also decided now that his mom was gone that he should change his name back to his father’s last name. He had changed it in order to separate himself from the man, but now that he was back in Virginia, he really didn’t have any reason to keep the new one. And besides, his brother and sister had their father’s surname, so he might as well.
While at work one particularly stressful day, David experienced chest pains and then his arm went numb. He went to his doctor who diagnosed it as a panic attack. But his blood pressure was hard to read, so he was referred to a heart specialist. It turned out that he had mild mitral valve prolapse with occasional nodal contractions. After what happened to his mother, he decided to quit the stressful world of advertising and take a trip to visit his great aunt in Oklahoma for a couple of weeks (after that he wanted to visit his sponsor child in Brazil). His friends and coworkers threw him a combined quitting/going away party. There was a cake and music and dancing. Since he was leaving, he decided to ask Marie, the nice lady in accounting, to dance with him. He admitted that he had a crush on her for quite some time. She was more than a little shocked, but he just smiled.
He made arrangements for his friend, Patti, to take care of Dawn while he was in Oklahoma. Then he packed up the new car he purchased with some of his mom’s insurance money and headed off on his first adventure. He made a stop just outside Knoxville, Tennessee to visit and spend the night with his boyhood friend Darrel and his folks. David and his family had spent some of the most wonderful summers of his life in the Great Smokey Mountains with them. They had a cabin at Kinzel Springs on the Little Pigeon River, so they had spent their days tubing down the river, taking baths in the river, hiking, crossing the old swinging bridge, and shopping in Gatlinburg.
He arrived late in the evening, but managed to stay awake long enough to eat a little dinner, share family news, and hear all about them, too. He slept upstairs in the attic with Darrel. It felt kind of like an episode of the Waltons, but it was good to crawl into a nice warm bed.
In the morning, his first stop was the outhouse (they had running water indoors, but not a working toilet), then he sat down to a hearty breakfast before a quick tour of the farm. The house was old but in surprisingly good condition. It was the typical white clapboard siding farmhouse with a big front porch. It was a small working farm. There was a barn and several out buildings. Darrel showed him his horse and the calves they were fattening up for veal and of course David felt sorry for the poor little things. Living their whole short lives in small pens fed nothing but grain, all for the dining pleasure of others.
After the tour, he told Darrel he needed to get back on the road if he wanted to make it to the motel in Arkansas by nightfall. He said his “goodbyes” and assured them he would stop by again on the way home in a week. He drove straight through to Nashville, just as planned, and stopped at the Country Music Hall of Fame. He’d always wanted to see Dolly Parton’s “coat of many colors.” Then he was back on the road, driving straight through to the motel. It wasn’t a bad motel, but he didn’t plan on stopping there again on his way back.
He made good time the next day, but stopped in Hartshorne to get some flowers for his great aunt Myrtle. This would be the first time either one of them had seen each other since he was a child. They had been corresponding for years and David had to admit that he loved getting her letters. They were like coded messages that needed to be deciphered, because she only had a second grade education and used no punctuation or capitalization. After picking out a nice bouquet, he got back on the road.
He missed the sign off the highway to Gowen. It was indeed small and easy to miss, just as aunt Myrtle had said it was. He turned around and drove into the small town. It looked kind of deserted. She would later explain that when the coal mine had played out, a lot of people just left. He saw what could only have been the old school house on the left and the old general store on the right. The post office was the size of a small shed with a porch on it. There were five roads off the main, like fingers on a hand. He took the index finger and found her house, next to the last, at the end of the road, across from the shale dump.
She came out onto the porch to meet him. She was a little bit older than the last picture he saw of her, but still much as he’d expected. He handed her the bouquet of flowers,
“These are for you.” He could tell that she was tickled to get them.
“They’re beautiful! Take a picture of me with ’em, will ya?” she asked.
He promised to send her a copy. The house was just as it looked in old photos, small, white with green shutters, two front doors and a covered porch. He had been told by his mother, when he asked her about it, that in the old days, before indoor plumbing, you went out the bedroom door to go to the outhouse so as not to wake the whole house in the middle of the night.
She showed him around which didn’t take long because it was only a four room house. Inside the front door and to the right was the living room and beyond it the kitchen and bathroom (which had been the second bedroom before being converted). She had an indoor toilet. “Yay!” he thought. The bedroom was in the front, opposite the living room. He hadn’t noticed when he first arrived, but half the house was actually lower than the other half. You had to walk up an incline to get into the bedroom and the bathroom. He guessed it must have settled over the years and she was just used to it being that way.
She asked if he was hungry and without really waiting for an answer, she moved into the kitchen to prepare some Spam and home fries. She told him to put his things in her room; that she would sleep on the pull-out sofa bed. As much as he protested, she would have none of it. So he resigned himself to putting her out even though she insisted he was not. They sat down to a nice little meal, greasy but nice, at her kitchen table. She asked,
“Would you like to call home and tell your brother and sister that you arrived safely?”
“Sure, thanks,” David replied.
But when he picked up the receiver from the phone on the wall, he could hear someone already talking! She told him,
“I’m on a party line, Honey. That’s probably Miss Ada. You’ll have to try again later.”
Of course, he let her explain the concept of a party line to him even though he had seen it once in an old TV show.
After breakfast the next morning, they were off to take a tour of the places where David’s mother and father had grown up. Their first stop, however, was the cemetery where his father’s brothers were buried. Jimmie had died as a baby and Charlie had died hopping a freight train with his father when they were going to look for work. She pointed out many more long dead relatives of his and he took fastidious notes to share with his siblings when he returned home. They finished up that day’s excursion with a visit to the café that his grandmother had owned and ran after she kicked his grandfather out for trying to kill her and their children. When they got back, David tried to call his sister again and was able to get through this time because there was no one else on the line.
The next day they took a drive to another cemetery to visit the graves on his mother’s side of the family. He took photos and notes there as well. Then she took him to meet his aunts, his father’s half-sisters, the ones he had never met before. He took more photos and afterwards, they went to see his Great-Aunt Sylvia. When they got to her house, she was hanging clothes on the line wearing nothing, but her bra and a skirt. His Aunt Myrtle ignored it, so he did too. When they got inside, they all sat down at the kitchen table and she shared stories with David, too. Even on the way back to Aunt Myrtle’s house, they didn’t talk about the elephant in the car. All in all it was a great family day.
The following day was Sunday, so he drove her to church. It was a small one, only twenty-nine members and she was related to most of them! David was treated like a minor celebrity. As it turned out, she had told anyone who would listen that he was coming from Virginia to visit. He was happy to meet everyone making sure they knew it was his privilege to be visiting her! In the evenings, they sat at the kitchen table and she told him stories of all his relatives and ancestors; ones he had never heard before. He made sure to write them all down so he could retell them faithfully.
He had to leave on Monday. He wanted to visit the Choctaw museum (to honor his Native American heritage) and then head to Texas to visit the graves of his great uncle George and great aunt Lela. So he gave his great aunt a hug and a kiss, thanked her for her hospitality and told her to keep writing to him. She did just that until she got dementia and had to be put in a home, because she and could no longer take care of herself.
The museum was wonderful and he picked up a handmade Native American doll to bring back to Patti for taking care of his cat while he was away. Then it was off to Dangerfield, Texas. He didn’t actually know where his aunt and uncle were buried, so he stopped in to the local government center and as luck would have it, the woman behind the counter was a “kissing” cousin on his great uncle’s side! She gave him directions to the cemetery and he paid his respects to the aunt and uncle who had been like grandparents to him growing up.
He drove straight through Arkansas to Mississippi. It was very late when he crossed the state line, but he managed to find a hotel that had a vacancy. It was a nice enough place, but he hardly noticed because he was so tired! In the morning, he drove to Itta Bena to visit his great aunt Ethel’s grave. He knew it was near a tree, but that was all. So he started walking. He had no idea where in the vast cemetery it was as he had only seen it in photographs, but something drew him right to it. Afterwards, he went to visit his uncle Sam (his late Aunt Ethel’s husband), but he wasn’t home, so he proceeded on his way back to Virginia by way of Tennessee.
When he arrived back at the farm, he was greeted warmly once again and asked about his trip to his parents’ birthplace. He told them about all the people he met, but especially about his great aunt Myrtle. After dinner, Darrel’s mom took David aside,
“You know you’re mom was my best friend. I took it real hard when I heard she passed. It’s been hard on me living so far away from her.”
David just let her talk, because it seemed like she needed to say those things. But more importantly it was nice to hear someone who cared so deeply for his mother praise her like that. And of course, Billie had meant the world to him, too.
The next morning he was supposed to drive back, but he wasn’t feeling well. In fact, he barely made it to the outhouse to throw up! As it turns out, they drank milk straight from the cow and David’s stomach couldn’t handle it. So he was forced to stay another day and night. By the next day, though, he was feeling well enough to get back on the road. It was a long drive, but he made it by dark. And when he got upstairs and into his apartment his little friend was waiting anxiously to greet him. Once he had unpacked, he called everyone and told them he was back. Then he made arrangements to get together with his brother and sister later in the week to tell them what he had learned about their family.
A few months later it was time for his big trip to Brazil! He was going to spend two weeks there. Unfortunately, he left on Election Day so he wouldn’t know whether Mondale and Ferraro won or Reagan and Bush did until he saw the photo in the Brazilian paper. He was to land in Rio de Janeiro (literally River of January), then transfer to a smaller plane for the flight to Belo Horizonte (which means Beautiful Horizon). At the airport, he was met by the guide and introduced to the other gentleman visiting his own sponsor child. They were driven to their hotel and then taken out to dinner.
The next day they visited the community center, met their sponsor children, and their interpreter. They were treated like honored guests and a show was put on for them by the children. They ate lunch and enjoyed themselves immensely. The next day they spent time with their individual families. They got to visit the children’s homes and see how they lived.
David’s sponsor child’s name was Cintia (pronounced Seen-chuh). She had a younger brother and younger sister. The family lived in a rented two bedroom house. It was well-maintained and small, but very clean. While David was there, neighbors came to visit. No doubt to see the “American.” Cintia’s mother served flan to everyone and David had to admit it was the best he’d ever eaten. He had brought dolls for Cintia and her sister, and a toy car for her brother.
The next day they took a trip to the zoo. Their zoo was a little different from the National Zoo in DC; no lush green trees and shrubs there, just a lot of dirt. The kids didn’t seem to mind, though, so David didn’t either. They saw many animals including an albino python and Cintia’s favorite animal an elephant. David bought an elephant carved out of stone as a memento.
The Pampulha Art Museum was next where David saw a sculpture that was of particular interest to him. It was both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. It was a group of heads. Each one was perched on a long thin neck and looking up. Each face was twisted in agony and its mouth was wide open in a silent scream. It mesmerized him and Zezé had to touch his arm in order to shake him out of his trance, so that the group could keep to their schedule.
From there they went to a local church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, built in 1943, but not consecrated until 1959. The church was known as Igreja de São Francisco de Asis and it was an absolute work of art! He noticed something interesting while there. The mother of the other sponsor child put money in the poor box even though she, herself, was poor. It would be repeated over and over again. That small gesture touched his heart so deeply that he started doing it too.
Ouro Preto was the next day’s adventure. It is called the city of churches. Everywhere you look is a church. Most are in the Rococo style and just beautiful. He learned that the city had much gold in colonial times and in order to keep from sending it to the crown in the form of taxes, they spent it on decorating the churches of the city. And because the Catholic Church had great influence at the time, the gold was not confiscated. Rich people and those with great influence were buried in the floors of the church. The less money you had the further away from the center of the church you were buried. The poorest people were buried in vertical mausoleums outside the city and when the time came (i.e. the money they paid as “rent” ran out), their remains were removed and replaced with someone else’s.
The trip to Ouro Preto was not without incident. On the way up the hill, the party noticed that there were children on the hill above the roadway. They were throwing something at the cars below. Before they realized what the objects were, a rock came in the open window and hit David in the leg, barely missing the baby sleeping in her mother’s arms next to him. It was the guide’s daughter.
“I am so sorry that happened!” the guide said apologizing. But David said,
”No it’s okay. I’m just glad it hit me and not the baby!”
Then the VW van they were riding in got a flat tire. But the driver didn’t have a spare with him. Good thing he had a radio and called back to the garage for someone to bring them a new tire. While they were waiting, they realized they had a great view of the city below. It was breathtaking! There was practically a church on every corner and every hill. Their guide had thought to bring lunch for everyone, including the driver, so some of them sat in the van while the rest sat down on the side of the road and ate. The tire arrived soon enough and they were back on their way.
When they arrived, they picked the Church of St. Francis of Assisi to visit first. David wasn’t Catholic, yet he found these churches beautiful, spiritual places where you could actually feel, through your skin, the holiness and sanctity of the space. He had been brought up Southern Baptist with no stained glass windows, no crucifixes, no images of any kind, and definitely no saints! But he found himself drawn inexplicably to these places of worship and their sacred images.
While they were walking through the city, Cintia stopped at an open window and asked the woman inside for something. A few moments later the woman appeared back at the window with cold purified water for everyone. David was surprised by the whole thing. First, that a little girl would ask a complete stranger for water and second, that the woman would then give the group of strangers cold filtered water. It was amazing to him. Ouro Preto was the place he first felt his guardian angel’s presence.
The next trip planned was to a local cave and archeological dig. David had been spelunking many times as a Boy Scout, so going into caves was nothing new to him. This one was dark and dank and it went deep into the earth, but he could tell Cintia and the other girl were not so sure about going in there. So David squatted in front of them and with his best “it’s gonna be okay” smile on his face, he looked at them both reassuringly. They both seemed to understand and looked up at their respective mothers and nodded. Zezé, the interpreter, just looked at him and said,
“How did you do that?”
David replied, “I just remembered how scared I was the first time I went into a cave and then how much I liked it afterwards. That’s all.” He decided not to tell her that he had often encountered rats, snakes, and bats in the caves back home.
“No problem. Shall we?” David asked as he motioned toward the mouth of the cave.
They all had a great time looking at the cave paintings and when they came back out, they noticed that there were fossils for sale. David knew his brother, Perry, would love to have one, but he decided to wait.
As his time in Belo Horizonte was drawing to a close, they had one more trip planned, to the Parque Municipal Américo Renné Giannetti. It was a beautiful! There were rides, beautiful birds, and a flower market. When it was time to go, David bought Cintia’s mom a bouquet of flowers and presented them to her saying a phrase he had memorized,
“Obrigado por tudo.”
Her reply was, “Obrigado para patrocinar Cintia e por ter vindo visitar. Esta é uma experiência que ela vai se lembrar para o resto de sua vida.” Zezé told him it meant, “Thanks for sponsoring Cintia and for coming to visit. This is an experience she will remember for the rest of her life.”
David said, “De nada. O prazer é meu,” which was the other phrase he knew.
David gave them both hugs and watched them walk away. He and Zezé sat down at the outdoor café and ordered some Guaraná. It was a soft drink that David had gotten used to drinking while he was in Brazil. He didn’t know at the time that it was an energy drink, he just liked the taste. When they were finished, David hugged Zezé, thanked her and then got in a cab. She told the driver which hotel to take him to and he drove away from the last person he knew from part one of his Brazilian adventure.
The next day he took a plane back to Rio. He was scheduled to spend a few days there before flying back to the states. He checked into his hotel, a really nice one located right on São Conrado beach. He had a view of Christ the Redeemer from his balcony. He woke up to that view every morning and went to sleep to it every night. The sight of the favellas (the shanties) built all the way up the side of the mountain, below the statue of Jesus, the juxtaposition of the wealth of the hotels on the beach against the slums at Jesus’ feet, would have a profound effect on him for years to come.
There was a trip to Sugar Loaf Mountain on the first full day back. It was a beautiful, clear day and the sight of the mountain was incredible. It seemed to rise straight up out of the ocean. You had to take two cable cars to get to it. The views both going over and coming back were amazing! And when you got back, they had a plate with your photo on it ready for you to buy as a souvenir. Since it was already made, he decided to go ahead and buy it.
On the second day, he took a bus tour through the rain forest to the top of Corcovado Hill. On the way up, they stopped to see a waterfall and it felt like it was raining. It was actually just so humid in there that the water falling off the leaves, where it pooled, made it feel like it was raining. Before he was ready, they were being told to re-board. And once they reached the top and the bus was parked, all the sightseers disembarked to get a better look at the statue of Christ the Redeemer.
When David looked up, he noticed that he couldn’t actually see the top of the statue. A cloud had descended over his head and shoulders. It was a little disappointing to have come this far, to be this close, and still not be able to see him! But David got over it pretty quickly, because there was nothing he could do about it… Mother Nature and all that. Before he knew it, it was time to board the bus again for the trip back down the mountain.
When David got back to the hotel, he wanted to do some shopping for souvenirs to take back to friends and family. They had a really nice little gift shop right in the hotel lobby. He went in and immediately struck up a friendship with the salesgirl. He had a list of people to buy for which made it easier. While he shopped, he would talk to her and she would practice her English and ask for him to correct her when she made mistakes. He ended up stopping in several times a day just to talk to her.
That evening, David thought a steam sounded like a good idea. He presented his room key to the attendant and he wrote down the number, gave David a towel and directed him into the locker room. He stripped and put his clothes in the locker. He didn’t need a lock because of the attendants. He walked into the steam room, climbed up to the top tier and sat down on his towel. There was another guy in there, slim build, dark hair. And he was shaving with no water, no mirror, and no shave cream! He tried not to look, but it was fascinating. When he left another guy came in. This one was big, burly, and had a hairy chest.
When that guy left, David thought he’d sweated enough, so he got up to leave, too, but when he stepped off the last tier and put his foot down on the floor, it slipped out from under him and he fell flat on his ass! The attendant and another man came running. They helped him up, through the door, and back into the locker room, helping him sit down on the bench. But that hurt and the big guy could tell, so he helped David back up and into the massage room.
David was pretty sure that a massage was going to be extra, so he tried in vain to get the message across to the nice man that he didn’t have any extra money with him. The man was well-muscled and incredibly handsome and he seemed to finally understand and indicated to David that it was no charge. He helped David onto the table and had him lie on his stomach. He didn’t give David a full body massage, both sides, but he did try to make the affected area feel better. Maybe he was just being nice. Maybe he was hoping David wouldn’t sue the hotel. He didn’t know. He just knew that it felt good and was trying very hard not to get hard, but it didn’t work. When the nice man was finished, David was hesitant to get up due to his state of arousal. The guy was nice about it though. He offered David a towel and looked away while David got up. He thanked the man and went back into the locker room relieved that he hadn’t embarrassed himself too much!
The next day was free. It was a beautiful day, so he decided to go shopping for something for himself. He went outside the hotel, found a small shop and picked out a sweater, because it was Fall back home, and an album of Portuguese music. Then he had lunch in the little café in the hotel. It was easy to order from the menu and the food was good. When he finished the last of his lunch and his Fanta, he took a walk on the beach. While he was walking south, he noticed the hang gliders floating lazily from the top of São Conrado Mountain. He was fascinated by the sight of multiple “birds” gliding in loops and circles on the thermal updraft. While he was standing there, a young woman in a bikini came up to David and asked him something he didn’t understand. He replied,
“Não Português. Inglês.”
“Não?” She asked. He was pretty sure she was interested in him, but since he had no idea how to say, “Wrong tree… I’m gay,” he shook his head and replied,
“Não, ” and walked back towards his hotel.
He went to the front desk, introduced himself, and asked if the cute desk clerk could recommend a place to go dancing. He thought Rafael was gay, but didn’t know for sure. Rafael asked David if he didn’t mind company, he could take him to some clubs that night. That was a pretty good indicator, so David smiled and said,
“That would be great. Do you want to come to my room when you get off duty?”
“I can’t. It’s against the rules.”
“No problem. Meet you here then?”
Rafael nodded. David gave Rafael his most alluring smile and went upstairs to take a nap.
When it was time to meet Rafael, he grabbed his coat and headed for the elevator. They met in the lobby. He told David they were going to take the bus to the club, but that David should remove his rings, necklace, and watch and put them in his pocket. He explained that anyone wearing jewelry was just asking to be mugged, so David did as he suggested.
Their first stop was a club on Ipanema Beach. David paid the cover charge for the two of them. It was a nice place, it had good music, and they danced. But Rafael could tell he wasn’t really into it, so they went to another place. It was okay, too, but he asked David if he’d like to go to one more place. David said, “Sure.”
Once David figured out that Rafael was taking him to a hotel that rented rooms by the hour his mood changed drastically. They walked up a flight of stairs to an open window. A man came to the window and they spoke to each other. Rafael told David how much the room was and David handed the cruzeiros over to the man and he handed David the key. Rafael said they had the room for the next hour.
Rafael reached for David’s hand as they climbed the stairs together. The room was easy to find. David was more than a little nervous when he slipped the key in the lock and opened the door. The room was clean and the bed was a good size. Rafe started to undress when David stopped him. He wanted to do it for him. He unbuttoned Rafe’s shirt, then slipped it over his shoulders. He liked the curly black hair on his slim, but well defined chest. He proceeded to undo his belt and then unbutton and unzip his pants. He had him sit down on the bed so he could slip Rafe’s shoes off one at a time and was then able to pull each pants leg over his muscular calves. That just left his boxers. David hadn’t expected that. He thought tight little bikini briefs would have suited him better, but he didn’t care. He thought they were actually kind of sexy.
David knew he should still have been nervous, but he wasn’t. Rafael seemed to put him at ease for some unknown reason. Now it was Rafe’s turn. He did the same to David. When they were both standing there, facing each other, in nothing but their underwear, as if by mutual agreement they came together in a kiss. It was tentative at first and then more passionate. Each one could tell the other felt the same heat. They rubbed their erections together while their lips made love. But neither one could take the suspense anymore, so they fell into bed, each removing the other’s last bit of clothing. Hands explored skin and hair. Lips and tongues explored more than just mouths. Discoveries were made and new territories were conquered. Climaxes were reached and heated passion gave way to warm caresses and tender words.
David moved to get a towel to clean them up, but Rafe offered. Once they were more or less dry, he asked Rafe about his life here. And Rafe asked David about his life in the states.
“My mom died a few months ago, so I quit my job and traveled here.”
“Why? What brought you here?” Rafe asked.
“I sponsor a little girl and I wanted to meet her, meet her family, see where she lived,” David explained.
“Does she live here in Rio?”
“No, Belo Horizonte.”
“Oh. I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s quite beautiful,” Rafe remarked.
“It is actually.”
“What will you do when you go back?” Rafe asked. He seemed genuinely interested.
“Get a job, I guess.” David answered.
“What do you like to do?” David thought that was a funny question, but he didn’t laugh. He didn’t recall anyone ever asking him that before.
“I like graphic art. Do you know what that is?” Rafe shook his head, so David explained. They were still talking, holding onto each other loosely, when they realized at the same time that maybe they had been in the room for more than an hour. When David checked his watch, they were right. They had been there almost two! They got dressed quickly and just before they got to the door, David pulled him into an embrace and kissed him one last time. They decided to leave the key in the room, so they wouldn’t have to turn it in. They snuck past the brightly lit window and down the stairs, laughing once they reached the safety of the street.
Rafael rode the bus with David back to the hotel. He wanted to make sure he got back safely. They said their goodbyes and thank yous. David went inside; Rafael went in the opposite direction. He saw Rafael again the next day, working behind the front desk. He slipped Rafe his number in the states and was treated to that heart-warming smile one last time. He waved and then left for the airport. Rafe did call him once, after he got home. It was nice to hear from him again. Each one updated the other on what had been going on since they last saw one another. He remembered the lovely man fondly; the man with the handsome face, the beautiful brown eyes with flecks of green in them, the curly black hair, and the amazingly gentle smile. He would remember that trip for the rest of his days. It was a life changer.
The flight out of Rio was not without incident. It was postponed once and then again due to mechanical problems. Finally, at two o’clock in the morning they were allowed to board, but even before they took off, things were still not quite right. Panels opening spontaneously did not make David feel at ease. Luckily, the flight over the ocean was uneventful and he landed in Florida safely. Unfortunately, Bill had no way of knowing when he was arriving due to the later departure and the fact that David had forgotten to tell him which airlines he was coming in on!
Bill being the smart guy that he was deduced the correct airline, arrival time, and was there to meet David and take him back to their place. They even had some naked time in the hot tub before driving to Key West. David had never been there, so it was a real treat to see the sunset over the water on the East Coast. People gathered together to witness the sight each and every night. All too soon, it was time for him to head back home. And it would be the last time he would ever see Bill.
About a week after he got home from Brazil, David was lying on his bed listening to Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead when something very strange happened. His eyes were closed but he could see an unusual scene in front of him. Everything was black, blue, and grey. There was a paved blue marble walkway in front of him with a building at the end. It looked like a church or a mausoleum of some kind and it was in the Baroque style. He started walking toward it when he noticed a bench to his right, very close to the building. There was a figure sitting on the bench and the closer he got, the better he could see that the figure was a woman. The woman was dressed very much like the Madonna from the Pietà and she was holding something. He thought it might be a baby wrapped in a blanket. Soon enough he was standing in front of her. He leaned in to look at the baby, but what he saw was a face twisted in anguish, mouth open in a silent scream. But the face changed to another horrible one and then another. He opened his eyes and it was gone. He wrote it all down in his journal even though he knew he would never forget the vision as long as he lived, because those faces were the very same ones he saw in Brazil at the art museum.
A few weeks later, David was lying on his bed again, but this time he was listening to Handel’s Messiah. His eyes were closed and he saw himself lying on his back with his arms outstretched. It was very dark, but he could see a light off in the distance. It was hazy and indistinct and he could just barely make out a figure approaching. The man knelt down and bent over him. When he got closer, he could see that the man had his face. Then he was the man leaning over himself. He had a wooden mallet in his hand. He brought his arm back to take a swing at David’s hand that would drive the nail in. He screamed out in silent agony. The next blow was to his other hand and he screamed again. One more blow to his feet. Then he was being brought upright. The heavy wood timbers sunk into the hole with a thunk. The other “him” looked around to the back of the cross and he was hanging there, too. He opened his eyes and it was gone. He wrote this vision down in his journal as well.
One vision David could dismiss as no big deal, two, not so much; but what to do? He thought of only one person he could talk to about them, Patti. He called her up and asked if they could have lunch. When they met up, he told her what had happened and how he felt he was being called to serve God. She said she could see him at the Franciscan Monastery in DC. She suggested he visit it. She told him that it was a really beautiful, spiritual place. They had gardens he could walk in and he could take a tour of the church and the grounds. So he decided to do just that.
The Monastery was located in Northeast DC. It was an easy drive and he chose a weekday to visit just in case they were busy on the weekends. He went in through the gift shop and asked about tours. They were offered every hour on the hour and he only had to wait a few minutes before the next one. There were a few other people milling about in the tour lobby waiting, so he joined them. An older friar came in through the double doors and introduced himself as Bro. Cornelius. The brother was on the short side, had white hair and a white goatee and mustache and he could only be described as stout. He led the small group into the church starting with the chapel devoted to St. Joseph. While the good brother was explaining the chapel’s decorations, the weirdest thought came into David’s head. “I would get down on my hands and knees and scrub these floors anytime,” then “Where did that come from?” David asked himself silently. He’d had a bad knee since he was a teenager, so there was no way he could even do that!
He tried to dismiss the thought as they moved through the next chapel, St. Anthony’s, barely listening to the knowledgeable yet personable guide. He snapped out of his fog when they had to climb the steps to Calvary. After they finished with the chapels of St. Mary and St. Francis, it was time to descend into the catacombs. A series of long narrow passageways with niches carved out of them, just like in Rome, connecting small and large chapels. By the time they climbed the stairs back to the upper church, David had resolved to do whatever it took to live there.
He met with his pastor and told him his plans. Needless to say, the Baptist minister was not thrilled to hear that David wanted to become a Catholic! Try as he might, David would not be dissuaded. The next step was to get in touch with the local parish and find out when they would be holding the next RCIA (Rights of Christian Initiation for Adults) class. They told him the program took a year to complete, but he didn’t have a year! He made more calls and they all said the same thing. He still had to apply, interview and be accepted to the Monastery all in the next year. The last parish he called said they were starting a new class and it would take just three months. So he said, “Sign me up!” He met with a young priest by the name of Fr. Passato. He asked David a lot of questions, mostly why he wanted to become a Catholic, so David told him of his plans to become a Franciscan. He seemed satisfied with David’s answers and enrolled him in the upcoming RCIA class. David was excited to begin his conversion.
David had been keeping Patti up to date on his progress toward becoming a Franciscan, so he called her after his meeting with the priest. She was so happy for him. Then he asked if she would be his sponsor. She gave him an excited and very enthusiastic, “Yes!” The next call he made was to his Auntie. She was excited for him too. She had converted decades before in order to marry David’s uncle. She was thrilled and asked to be kept informed as well. The last one was to his sister, Susan. He knew he could trust her with the news and he was not disappointed by her reaction either.
The classes were going well, when one night the group found themselves sitting, waiting in the basement of the rectory for Fr. Passato. He was late and he was never late. Just when it seemed like he wasn’t going to come downstairs at all, he did. He apologized for being late and proceeded to teach the next chapter. Only afterwards did he inform the group that he had received a phone call right before class was to start informing him that his father had just died. The folks gathered there were in shock, but before anyone could say anything, he told them that he had to go upstairs, make plane reservations, and for the trip home to New York.
The following week, he was back and there were many questions. The first was,
“Why did you teach the class after you received such devastating news?” David asked. He replied,
“I couldn’t get a flight out ‘till the morning anyway. What was I going to do? Sit in my room? No. So I came down here and did what I do.”
David was simply amazed by him. He knew that he would never have been able to do the same thing after his mother died, no way. And he would never forget that selfless act. The classes continued to go well over the weeks and months. The doctrines he was learning made sense to him and he accepted them easily.
He read anything he could get his hands on. One story about a young Karol Wojtyla struck a chord with him. His mother died when he was a young boy. He was looking at a statue of the Virgin Mary and said to her, “You are my mother now.” That young man would grow up to be Pope John Paul II. David found himself saying the same thing to the statue of the Mother of God that had been given to him.
He was approached one evening as he was leaving church by a man who asked if he could spare some money to help him get his car fixed. David asked him how much he needed. The gentleman replied that he needed a hundred dollars. David asked if he could ride with him to the ATM to get him some money. The guy nodded and got in the car. They drove to the nearest bank where David withdrew a hundred dollars from his account and handed it the man. He was very appreciative and asked for David’s address so that he could pay him back. David was pretty sure he was never going to hear from the guy again, but gave him the information anyway. The guy thanked him again and went on his way. David never did hear back from him, but prayed for him anyway.
He met a young woman at one of his classes. Her name was Kate and she was sitting in because wanted to help anyone who needed it. She was a sweet girl, 5’4’’ brown hair and glasses. She and David hit it off right away and became friends as she wanted to become a nun. It was proving difficult for her, however, because she was an only child and her mother wanted her to get married and have babies. They both thought it would be neat to keep in touch after they went away to serve God, but Kate never did make the commitment to become a “bride of Christ.” They drifted apart as friends sometimes do when they no longer have a connection.
Not long after, it was time for his confirmation and first communion. He picked Francis as his confirmation name in honor of St. Francis and the Franciscans he hoped to be joining soon. His sponsor, Patti, came of course and so did his family. They all went out to lunch afterwards to celebrate.
The next step was to apply to the Franciscans and hope for a call for an interview. Part one of the application process was to get a clean bill of mental health from a Catholic psychologist or psychiatrist. The Monastery even made suggestions to make it easier on the candidates. His parish priest had to write a recommendation and David had to write a short essay, just a couple of paragraphs actually, as part of his application:
Christ has asked me to take up my cross and follow him. By taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience I am answering God’s call to service. I feel that being a Religious is my response to what He wants me to do with my life. My vocation to spread the Gospel means that I must do it without a wife and children to distract me. I want to use my mind, talents, and energy to love and serve the Lord and His people. I feel I can best accomplish this by becoming a Franciscan.
In simplifying my life, it is not so much what I rid myself of as in what I concentrate on; what focuses the soul. The focus is primarily on the spirit, to be one with God. And by aiding others I am helping them to see Christ in the world and experience His love through me. There is nothing I would rather do than give hope to those with little or none.
He kept busy with temp jobs as a freelance graphic artist waiting for an interview. Soon enough Fr. Daniel called him and they scheduled a time to meet. Fr. Daniel was a man of average height with brown, curly hair and a beard. He had a very comforting smile and sincere voice. It was no wonder he was head of vocations. He asked David many questions, including how long had it been since he last had sex. He said that it had been about a year and the priest thought that was a good amount of time since the friars had to take a vow of celibacy. When the interview was over, Fr. Daniel told David he would be in touch one way or the other after the committee reviewed his application. David thanked him and made his way back home.
Finally, the call he had been waiting for came and there were so many things to take care of. He had to make arrangements for someone to pick up the furniture that he donated to a local charity. He had to make sure his cat was taken care of. He had to arrange for storage of the childhood things he wanted to keep at his sister’s house. And he had to leave his car with his father to sell. He got more and more excited as the time to start his new life approached.