Homily by Fr. Roger Keeler

October 1, 2021

He sat across from me at the table on the Starbuck's patio, sipping his Nitro Cold Brew. We were alone. He wanted to meet with me, just to talk things out – to process his feelings. "They’re all a jumble right now. I just don’t know what to think.”

I sat quietly and let him talk.

“She was my closest cousin. We were ten years and one day apart. She was the big sister I never had. I loved her so much! She came to live with us when she was sixteen. You see, her family ran a small gas station and café in a small town north of the city where we lived. But doing what she could to help the family business on evenings and weekends and a school in that small town that didn’t give her much to challenge her keen intellect, together with a small social circle for her gregarious personality, her circumstances didn’t look bright. My parents invited her to live with us.

“She moved into the guest room with her record player, her treasured books and posters for the walls. She introduced me to the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan. We would sing “If I Had a Hammer” as she applied her morning makeup. She was so pretty!

“She took me to see Son of Flubber, Mary Poppins, and though my mother wasn’t particularly thrilled about it, From Russia with Love, at the Strand Theatre downtown. We would nestle down in the front row of the first balcony with a big box of buttered popcorn to share. I have a picture somewhere taken by a street photographer of the two of us walking into the Strand with snow swirling around us, holding hands and squinting to see the path trodden by other pedestrians.

“She excelled in what was then the second-largest high school in the city. She was on every girl’s sports team and was a cheerleader for the boy’s teams. I wish I could be as popular as she was! But then I was only in first grade, and she was in tenth. She always had a date on Friday and Saturday evenings, yet never seemed to miss the curfew my parents had set for her. There were never any squabbles, and she simply became part of the family. She made French fries like mom never could! She was a fantastic cook!

“But when she was in her senior year and dating the quarterback, it all went awry. She found herself ‘in trouble.’ I still remember when he came to the house – at my dad’s insistence – to talk about him ‘doing the right thing.’ Although I was in my room because this was ‘a conversation for grown-ups,’ I can still hear the sobbing and raised voices.

“He wouldn’t do ‘the right thing’ and marry her. And she didn’t want to get married! She had dreams and hopes and ambitions. Marriage wasn’t in her plans.

“She was expelled from school the following Monday. Now, the only way for her to finish her final year and continue the pregnancy was for her to move into ‘The Home for Unwed Mothers’ run by the Sisters out on the west end of town.

“We visited her every Sunday afternoon for the single hour allotted for family visits. She always tried to appear happy and carefree, accepting with gratitude the maternity clothes mom found for her at the Army and Navy Department Store downtown.

“It had been agreed by all concerned that she would give her child up for adoption when the time came. On the day of her delivery, both of my parents fled to the hospital, leaving me in the care of a grandmotherly neighbor. I was not up when they returned home late that evening. Breakfast the next morning was fraught with the silence that only anxiety can produce. She had seen the baby – a boy – and declared at that moment that she would not surrender him. She would raise him on her own.

“She finished her senior year with us, caring for her newborn, taking him on the bus for the long ride to ‘The Home’ to finish her classes and graduate.

“She moved out that autumn, finding a small apartment for herself and her son. Her father was tragically killed in a hit-and-run that summer. The gas station and café were sold, and my widowed aunt moved in to care for the baby.

“With her stunning looks and winning ways, she took jobs as a model, waitress and store clerk. Before too long, she found herself working in the most sought-after restaurant in the city. Her social circle expanded. She was the one people wanted to wait on them with their next reservation.

“She entered university then, working on a degree in psychology. Attending classes during the day, waitressing almost every evening, modelling when the calls came in, she provided for her son and mother. Yet, she still had time for me, visiting every Sunday, curling up with me to watch ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ with a big bowl of popcorn between us. She was always my big sister!

“She was a constant encouragement to me throughout my schooling, egging me on, proofreading my papers, and helping me plan the next semesters’ classes. She would tell me that, though she was the very first one in the extended family to complete a university degree, she expected me to outshine her, ‘You have to be the first one in the family with a Ph.D.!’

“I had just finished my first degree and was launching into my second when the accident happened. She was a respected and terribly successful realtor then, with a house in the suburbs, a new Lincoln Continental, and a standing table at the restaurant she had worked as a waitress to put herself through university. It was a plane crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

“I visited her in the rehab facility every afternoon after classes, often sharing dinner from her tray. Soon, I learned how to get her into her body cast, how to transfer her from her bed to a waiting wheelchair, and then from the wheelchair into the Continental she gave me to drive. Imagine! I was the only student on campus with a new Lincoln Continental! I couldn’t afford much to eat, but there was always gas for the car! It was the very thing needed when it came time to find a date!

“And we had adventures! We would drive an hour east of the city to join our grandparents for dinner, returning just in time for her curfew at rehab. Concerts, too! There was always a section set aside for people with physical limitations that we could access free of charge. As her caregiver, I had to stand. Yet what did that matter? The Who, Dolly Parton, The BeeGees! We attended everything that came to town. Musicals, the symphony, lectures, movies! If there was something on, we would take it in.

“I was chauffeur, date, confidant, physio-therapist, and errand boy when something needed to be done. It was like this every day right up until I moved away to start my third degree – a degree that ultimately led to the Ph.D. she so much wanted me to earn.

By now, she had her own home with her mother, renovated to accommodate her needs. Her son was away pursuing his own degree with an athletic scholarships to ease the financial burden on her. We stayed in touch as often as we could, made all the sweeter when we could be together.

“She launched into a new career as a European importer and soon found herself earning a Master’s degree in Linguistics. Once again, she was a highly successful, well-respected member of the business community.”

He stopped and sighed, the look on his face betraying far-off memories.

“I loved her so much!”

to be continued