14 February 2013

My memory of Benedict

It being Valentine's Day, I figure I might ruminate on love and the papacy in a brief respite from stories of geckos and motorbikes in Malaysia.

Yoko and I got married, like Johnny and June Cash, in a fever. We met in April of 2005, went on our first date in August, engaged in January, married in July. A whirlwind, a tempest, a tsunami of love: pick your natural disaster metaphor. There was a quote from Gravity's Rainbow that hung over me the whole time: They're in love; fuck the war. I briefly, for six months, lost my ability to be cynical or careful or cautious; I was Walt Whitman at one with everything, loafing in pasture grass and taking it all in. To cap the run of passion, I had planned our honeymoon–four days in Malta, four days in Rome–fpr October, three months after we had married. Italy in the Autumn; I couldn't think of anything more romantic.

But then in September–the ultrasound printout says it was a Wednesday, the 20th–we found out Yoko was pregnant. Not part of the plan, not anywhere close to the plan: I was scared and embarrassed (I've written about this before). Everything changed in the matter of a week. I had been an English teacher on a motorbike: little responsibility, little holding me back from what seemed like an endless number of possible universes. And then: there was only one universe. One where I was a father, first and foremost. Tied to responsibility and forever cornered by obligation.

The little fleck of baby floating in Yoko caused nothing but pain and illness for the first nine months of her existence. Yoko was sick, very sick, and as the day of the honeymoon got closer and closer, I thought the whole trip would unravel. I remember standing at the door of the apartment with the bags, Yoko looking again like she was about to vomit, and saying, Should we just not go? We couldn't, of course, just not go. We had spent so much money: everything was non-refundable. In what has become a hallmark of our marriage, we just did it; me, dragging the suitcases, and Yoko, following behind slowly but steadily. Into the taxi and then onto the train and then onto the next train and then onto to the plane. When we got to the hotel in Malta, some 24 hours after we had left Japan, we were exhausted, ready to give up and sleep for days and days. I opened the hotel door and there were two double beds: insult to injury.

The trip went on with varying degrees of marginal success. Yoko was able to leave the hotel room a couple of times in Malta, but when we got to Rome, she slept and slept, and I spent two days out by myself, site-seeing and cursing the whole thing. This wasn't what I wanted, what I had imagined. I had done everything right, for the most part: why was god punishing me with this misery? I visited all the monuments full of anger and deep, unmitigated spite. There's the Sistine Chapel. Great.

The last day, a Friday, Yoko was feeling a bit better and we decided to go back to the Vatican where I had been earlier in the week. We moved slowly, up and down stairs and through the piazzas, but things were going better. The sky was electric and blue, the way I had imagined it would be when I made the reservations in June. At St Peter's Square, we weren't able to enter the Basilica as they were preparing for a mass, but we decided to wait and see if things would open up eventually. The mass started, and then went on and on, but we were happy to sit in the back, in the sun, and not have to deal with any sickness for a short time.

Benedict came suddenly, without an announcement. The crowd cheered and he rode out, standing on the back of a Jeep. We were behind the crowd, craning to look over the throngs of pilgrims from some Eastern European country who were getting a saint that day. Benedict was far away, but there were screens set up and cameras following him around. They cheered, we snapped pictures of the crowd, and Benedict spoke, saying something I either didn't understand or can't recall.

And then, my lasting memory of Benedict: how I will always remember him. After he spoke, people came up to be blessed while music played. A child was there, and instead of kneeling like everyone else, he ran up and jumped into Benedict's arms, and Benedict held him. It was hard to see the reactions of those around him, the mother who had come with the boy. I want to remember her as embarrassed, but I can't say if that's a real memory or not. I honestly don't even remember if the child was a boy or a girl. But I do remember how tightly the child held on to Benedict and how comfortable Benedict seemed. This couldn't be the scholar Pope, I thought, the cold, bookish old man who hated pastoral ministry. The Pope living in the shadow of John Paul: certainly not.

The mass ended and Benedict was cloistered away back behind the walls of Vatican City. The Basilica opened up and the pilgrims all clamoured in to pray at the tomb of John Paul II. In the Basilica, as you walked over a grating above the crypt you could hear them mumbling, but Yoko and I wandered around, looking at the statues of the older popes, the ones that burned people and started wars.

Yoko was wearing a corduroy jacket that day; I looked across the Basilica and saw her in the cavernous light. She had cut her hair short in September and she was looking up, her long neck perfect, confident, and in control. And that phrase, the one that comes back again and again all these seven and half years we've been together: I love you; stay with me. As I pull the narrative thread taut, from this moment through all the moments that brought me from there to here, I was thankfully not cornered  Things, as they do, work out. and there were, and are, still plenty of different futures to explore.