By Amalia Driscoll
I heard that my former husband, Charlie Driscoll, to whom I had been married for twenty tumultuous years, including long separations, had closed his office. He was a criminal lawyer in solo practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At sixty-five he had decided to quit. As I was told the story, he had a conversation with the Archbishop of New Mexico who asked, “And what do you want to do now?” Charlie had answered, “I’d like to become a priest.” “Well,” the Archbishop had replied, “maybe we can work something out.”
My first reaction was disbelief, even amusement. Father Charlie! After our six children and his dismal track record as a father of his own progeny. How could it be?
When he went to Rome to study theology at the Angelicum, also known as the Pontifical University of Thomas Aquinas, I could picture that. He was always a student, had read theology as pleasure for years. He would wear a beret over his bald head and drink cappuccino in the cobblestone squares. That fit. It was a suitable sequel to his youthful Greenwich Village days in New York.
In 1983, Charlie began his theological studies, then received a degree, magna cum laude, in June of 1986. In the middle of this, he worked as an assistant Catholic chaplain at the Santa Fe Penitentiary for the summer, where not long before, after the bloody riots at the New Mexico Penitentiary, he had defended some of the inmates accused by the state of murder. Someone sent me a picture of him, prostrate before the altar at the Cathedral of St. Francis, becoming a deacon. Then, there he was, Father Charlie, working as a priest with his old Civil Rights buddy, Fr. Jaramillo, whom I remembered meeting at my house years earlier, a short and stocky fellow who had been in jail repeatedly for his social protests. Probably that was how Charlie met him. The Archbishop had put the two old firebrands together to run a big parish church.
By 1988, I knew Charlie had some bizarre kind of cancer that had attached to the outside of his lungs and was killing him. He had smoked since he was fourteen, though he had quit years ago. I saw Charlie at a dinner in Albuquerque when he was dragging his oxygen tank behind him, saying, “Come on, Fido.” He fell, tripping on the oxygen connection, as we were leaving. We rushed over to see if he was okay, but he sat up and said, “My daughter, Sara, says I always make good entrances and good exits.”
I got a call from my daughter-in-law in late March, 1989. She said my son Peter had been going to see his father each night but that Charlie had gotten too sick for Peter to handle the situation. Would I come?
By the time I got to Albuquerque the next day, Charlie had just died. My daughter told me he had been lying in his recliner out in the old family room of our 50s house. The Archbishop had given him the last rites. Many friends surrounded him, putting their hands on him. “What a deal,” he quipped, and died with a smile on his lips.
So now he was dead. As if that completed our story. The fact of Charlie’s death was a mere hiccup in our family history. Alive or dead, I could hear him sneer and laugh and scream. After all the turmoil of our life together, he was apparently at peace. Probably no one else knew of the scapular which he had worn for more than thirty years, tangible evidence of his feelings of guilt. I wondered if his old friend, Joe Salazar, the undertaker, had left it on him.
The funeral was in a big, modern, Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation, Father Jaramillo officiating. As I walked in, I could see that Charlie was playing to a full house. Down the center was a swath of black-garbed clergy, rendering obligatory homage to one of their own. One side seemed mostly lawyers, acknowledging Charlie’s twenty-five noisy years as a maverick attorney. The other side held people some of whom I recognized as old friends, political activists and fellow actors from the Albuquerque Repertory Theater where Charlie had played leads in “The Crucible” and “The Little Foxes” and performed so many times a monologue on the life of Clarence Darrow.
I passed the open casket with just a quick, sideways glance at the wax doll clad in ivory vestments, brandishing a chalice. That was not Charlie. I took my seat in the front row in the place reserved for family, along with four of our children, various spouses and their children, and Danny, Charlie’s brother, who had flown in from Las Vegas with a six-pack as luggage. Only the ancient church could have been so tolerant.
I seethed as the admiring eulogies went on. I was still angry with Charlie. Starting as equals at Columbia Law, where we were both on the G. I. Bill, dreaming of doing good for the world together as professionals, I had been irrevocably and quickly demoted to the status of wife and mother. I had not taken lightly to this assigned status. I fought. And he fought. I was still caught up in my admiration of his politics and his courage and my despair and disappointment at his inability to work with any of the practicalities of life — or with me. “You do what you want to do,” he would say, leaving me with all the work that made it impossible for me to do what I thought I wanted to do. He was the lucky one. His story was done.
“Charlie was a flawed genius,” the priest was saying in his homily. “We used to go up to the penitentiary and see his old clients. We made it our mission.” And then the priest surrendered into the irritation which Charlie could so easily raise in his intimates. “But back at the altar,” he said, “Charlie was a pain. He never learned to keep the ribbons straight in the Gospel. Then, about a month ago, Charlie called to ask me to take over his confessions and masses because he was feeling so bad. When I called back in the evening to find out how he was, he was OUT TO DINNER.”
Father Jaramillo went on, “Charlie used to quote his mother: ‘Say what you will about Charlie. There is a lot of good in him.'”
At this, my brother-in-law Danny, sitting beside me, guffawed hugely. Our eyes met in appreciation. We had heard that one before, repeatedly. It was a saying of Mary Speranza, Charlie’s Italian mother.
The mass droned on. Eventually, the pallbearers bore Charlie up the long aisle and placed him in a hearse for the trip to the Military Cemetery in Santa Fe.
Danny and I stood together at the gravesite, listening to the interminable final prayers. “Where’s Charlie, Sr. buried?” he asked, referring to Charlie’s father who had died in Albuquerque years before. “He’d better not be too close or there will be hell to pay in this old cemetery.” We both remembered the shouting matches of father and son, even over the hospital bed when Charlie Sr. was ill.
A front end loader came up as we continued to stand at the grave. It plopped big chunks of hard New Mexico clay into the hole. I saw the clay break through the casket and looked away. An appropriate screw-up. I remembered my daughter’s explanation that the children had chosen a simple pine Jewish casket, knowing Charlie would have preferred it. I agreed. He was, at least in his heart, half Jewish. He had lit fires on the Sabbath in Flatbush when he was a kid. His friends at City College in New York were all Jewish. So were his lunch pals at the delicatessen on Central in Albuquerque. And most of his jokes.
I left the cemetery, knowing Charlie was most certainly dead, but that his children and I had not lost him. He was deep in our beings, his constant criticisms slicing with unerring accuracy to where it hurt the most.
This is how I felt at the time. Now it is many years later. I spent a lot of time trying to be compassionate about my history with Charlie. I tried forgiving him and myself, which never worked. I would think of some affront, remembering it in exquisite detail. I could feel my lips tighten and my voice become taut. I was angry for a long, long time. But I don’t feel that way now.
It seems incredible that we fought so long with such dramatic intensity. It is over now. As if it never existed. And not through any act of will or intelligent resolution on my part. Enough time has passed. It just doesn’t matter anymore. Linked by common romantic ideas, struggling with our disparate histories, thwarted by anger and dailyness, yet repeatedly affirming a sense of possibility, we eluded grace. And yet… and yet… who is to say that any struggle so long continued was useless.
© Copyright 2001 Amalia Driscoll