There’s this thing in Catholicism, and maybe other religions too, where they give you a little card for attending a wake or funeral. They’re always laminated, with a picture of the deceased person, the dates of their birth and death, and a prayer.
And no matter how much time has passed, or how well you knew or didn’t know the person, there’s something about those cards that makes them impossible to throw away. Maybe for sentimental reasons, or maybe it’s that good old-fashioned Catholic guilt. Maybe it’s a reverence for the dead.
I’ve kept a few in my writing desk until recently, when I was cleaning out the clutter, and decided to move them to a less of an “everyday” space. From this drawer where I keep my birth control and my grandfather’s pens, envelopes for my rent checks and encouragement from my favorite teacher, to a memento box full of letters and handwritten notes, a copy of the high-school newspaper I wrote for, and photographs so old they came from a disposable Kodak.
One of the letters is from the office of Barack Obama, from 2005 when he was a U.S. Senator. It’s just a templated response, but at fourteen it felt important for some reason, so I held onto it, not knowing that he’d go on to become possibly the most influential president of my lifetime. The irony is that the only reason I got it in the first place is because I’d participated in a church campaign to write letters about the importance of federally funded food programs.
I no longer identify as Catholic, or as a member of any organized religion. It irks me to know in the back of my mind that by all church standards, I’d still be considered a Catholic. It’s not like a gym membership I can go and officially cancel. I can’t even humor my family by being a Chreaster – someone who shows up for mass only on Christmas and Easter. Someone who says the words and sings the songs. I’ve never been good at saying things I didn’t mean.
What I realized while leafing through all of these keepsakes, is that I didn’t have my grandmother’s prayer card, the one that has the most sentimental for me. So I looked in a few different places; I flipped through the pages of my bible, another possession I can’t find it in me to get rid of, where I found another prayer card, only one that wasn’t hers. I checked a jewelry box and found some of her old golf cards and balls, but still no prayer card.
And finally I resigned myself to the fact that it must be somewhere in my apartment, or maybe my parent’s house — I’d just forgotten where I had put it.
You’re like a prayer card to me.
Your memory. My feelings for you. Things I’ve wanted on several occasions to throw away, but somehow couldn’t. For a combination of reasons that are sentimental and guilt-ridden and reverent. I just can’t do it.
And you’re the only one who can say how well I knew you. No — say is the wrong word. You’re the only one who knows for sure. Because what you said is that we didn’t actually know each other – right after you told me all that time it had felt like you knew what I was thinking and feeling like you could read me so easily as if you had known me for years. It wasn’t for you to decide.
If you read yourself as well as you read me, you’d see someone who couldn’t trust their own feelings: “I guess there is a small possibility that you aren’t what I think,” you once told me. I think you knew all along who I was. I think you had it figured out more than I did at the time.
Because there was a moment where you probably knew me better than anyone. And I know for a fact that in that same moment you definitely understood me better than anyone. For me, that was always the more important part.
But you’re the only one who knows if I really knew you. If you were that moment on a twisting mountain road, in your grandmother’s bathroom, or a ransacked apartment. You’re the only one who knows if the person you painted for me, the person I miss, was real or a figment of my imagination. If the prayer card I hold onto is of someone who ever existed in the first place.
But whether you knew me or not, was never for you to say.
Because regardless of my own personal reasons, whatever happened between us guarantees I’ll never go back to the church. Will never get married and pop out a few kids and try to mean the words and the songs and everything that comes with them. Because despite what they think, sometimes the things we think will never change about us, can never change, are the ones that do.
But I loved how grey you were to my black and white. How when you couldn’t sleep, you’d mumble your way to slumber with as many Hail Mary’s as it took. How you didn’t think that a god who loved us would send anyone to hell.
I bought those books you told me about. They opened up my mind beyond what I felt was right for myself. And so did you.
You’re like a prayer card to me. Because I know you’re never coming back, even if I wish you would. This isn’t that movie where you ask to see me after I’ve followed my dreams and tell me how I’ve blossomed. This isn’t that book we read. The one whose title I never understood until now – If you want a life with flavor, you’ve got to pay for it.
I got a small taste and have been paying for it ever since.
You’re like a prayer card to me. A source of nostalgia and grief all wrapped into one. You’re not coming back, and I can’t throw you out, and if I did pray these days, maybe I’d pray for the day where I forget where I’ve put you. Except, like I said, I’ve never been good at saying things I didn’t mean…
Like that time I wished you all the happiness in the world. I wanted to mean it. With all my heart, I really tried. But in a tiny corner of that same heart, I knew that your reading, that your writing wasn’t that of a happy person. And that tiny corner wasn’t upset about it. For once, there wasn’t an ounce of Catholic guilt to be found.