My great-grandfather was an angry man. A drunken, racist misogynist. I hated him. And I’ll remember him, often, with my students. When they make Heaven all rather easy. “Really?” I’ll ask, eyebrows raised. “How about the man who scowled at me just for being a girl?” Not that I think he is in Hell. Only that not all souls are easy to think about, and not all mercies simple to imagine.
So, yes, I hated him. My great-grandfather. Not that I am proud to admit it. Nor was it the powerful hate of venom and spite, the hate of action and consequence. I felt the worse kind of hate: the fearful kind, which knows nothing but trembling inadequacy. It was hard, as a young teen, enduring his scowl. Watching him grin at my brother, the young man saddled with the family name. I did not feel that my brother was lucky. I imagined that it was difficult and painful for him in other ways.
I never heard anyone say anything nice about my great-grandfather. I never saw him smile, except at my brother, and that did not seem nice at all. (Though, naturally, I took it as an opportunity to ditch my brother and sprint out of the room. Because I was much more coward than saint.) And I never saw him without a drink.
Many people have stories like this about one person or another. Sometimes these are the only stories they have at all.
My great-grandfather’s funeral, which I remember in broken pieces, was awkward and sad in all the wrong places. He had lived to his mid-nineties, so most of the people he had known were already dead. The minister, of a Protestant sort, had not known him and struggled to find things to say. I remember asking my dad difficult questions about my great-grandfather, wrestling with what the death of such a man meant. I did not hate him so much anymore. I worried about him, even while I hurt deeply over the memories of him.
He was Irish-Protestant. He made bathtub gin during Prohibition. He worked on the mail cars for the railroads, and for that he had a switchblade and a gun – in case of robbery. I think he had a flask, too, but I’m no longer sure. He seemed like he had one, maybe, is what that almost-memory probably means.
I remember the last time I saw him, and this is really the point of writing him down. The point of the challenge of his being, which was so beleaguered by anger and bitterness.
He was in a home by then. My mom said we were going to see him. I did not want to, because he scared me. My brother was with us too, and I think my sister as well. We are all fuzzy. But I remember my mom said we should see him, that it was the right thing to do. I did not understand.
She bought some cards for him. One was of a cute puppy, and that is the only one I remember. We walked into his small room, and he was sitting at his old desk – a desk that rests now at my parents’ house, and which will be my brother’s someday. I have no idea when or where it is from, though I am sure someone knows. There were nice pens on its surface, and papers and envelopes neatly stacked. “He likes to write letters,” my mother whispered into my ear, “and it is hard, because so many people he knows have gone.”
That was the first stab of sympathy I had ever felt for him.
My mom stuck the cute puppy on his wall, and a few other things. All colorful and lively and so unlike him. She spoke to him cheerfully about how we had come to brighten up his room and to say hello. She ignored his scowl, and asked how he was doing. I can’t remember what he said in reply. I stuck close to my mom, both for protection and yet somehow determined to protect her right back. I can’t remember if I said anything, or if I had a real moment of gentle awareness. I wish I did, but I probably didn’t.
I was rather familiar with death by that age. All too familiar. I had seen it in faces at hospitals, had brushed close to it more than once myself. This kept me haunted, not brave. Not at all.
It should be obvious, you know: I was and I am in terrible need of mercy, too.
My mother said it was the right thing to do, and of course it was. I wonder sometimes if she was remembering the old Corporeal Works of Mercy, which we had memorized at Catholic school. One of them is to visit the sick, and another is to bury the dead. None of them say that we are to do these things only for the kind and good-hearted, for the people we like. We are supposed to care for everyone, in every way. My mother knew that, and I am glad she did. The memory remains with me with a curious sort of power: both my young weakness and my mother’s courage. She insisted that everyone should be cared for, perhaps especially the ones who make it very hard.
God makes no exceptions. Nor should we.
This is what is so very demanding about Christianity.
There is an ancient theme in Christian thought called apokatastasis, a theme both condemned and defended. It refers to the idea that all will be redeemed, even the fallen angels. While this latter portion has been firmly rejected, the genuine hope that mercy will reach all human flesh has remained with the Christian tradition – even as it remains controversial.
We still pray for the entire world in the liturgy. The whole world. For all time.
And why not?
Mercy, real mercy, has a deep cost. It is no easy or simple thing, as we too readily imagine nowadays. But I do not think it a cost God is incapable of paying. Or, if we must part ways with economics, I have a hard time imagining a place where God’s infinity does not reach. I have a hard time imagining the prayers of the Church as futile.
Surely my mother carried God’s own mercy with her when we walked into that dim and lonely room. Surely the prayers of the Church echoed in her very steps.
And, perhaps, God’s mercy found me, too, in my great-grandfather’s presence. Mercy gently goaded me. Through him, somehow, as well as through my mother. Why not? Who says that is impossible?
I do not imagine that my great-grandfather is in Hell. I am not able to know what that would mean. The mind cannot comprehend loss like that. I wonder instead what he might look like transfigured by mercy. Maybe I wouldn’t recognize him, since I knew him so little and since I only knew the bitter old man. I’d like to think I would recognize him, though. I’d like to think I’d be very happy to see him, God willing, and he me.