Monday, April 04, 2005

Amid Tears From Heaven, Remembering The Pope

Saturday was supposed to be quite a different day than it turned out to be.
April is living up to its reputation, showering us since before dawn and again washing out Alex's baseball practice.

After baseball, we were all planning to head into New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral for a religious celebration bringing together organ donor families, recipients like myself, friends and medical workers. But with the Pope near death late Friday, we learned that the event will be rescheduled.

Instead, we gathered the kids and headed off to a showing of the movie ''Robots,'' which I rate as just OK, as its redeeming message of pursuing dreams and goals manages to fight its way free from an unnecessarily barrage of scatological ''comedy.''

Arriving home, as the tears from Heaven continued to fall, we learned that the Pope had passed just moments earlier. He came up just a month short of seeing his 85th birthday, just as my Mom (who would have been 86 last Thursday) did in passing in February 2004.

Nancy and I felt a special bond with the Pope, having received his blessing in a general audience on a blistering hot September day on our Italian honeymoon (''luna del miele'') in 1991.

We visited Vatican City on a Tuesday and learned that the Pope's weekly appearance before the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square was set for the following day. We started asking Vatican staff how we could get invited, hoping the fact that we were on our luna del miele would get us in.

My Italian is minimal, (mostly a corruption of my thin Spanish) as witnessed by confusion inflicted on a Roman waiter when my after-dinner coffee never arrived. In ordered in Italian what I thought was a double espresso, but the waiter never brought it, despite his return to our table about four times in the span of 10 minutes. When he inquired ''caffe?'' I dispatched him with what I thought was an order for a double espresso. Turns out I was saying ''dopo,'' meaning ''after'' or ''later,'' instead of ''doppio,'' meaning a double espresso. Guess who felt like a dope-o when we figured that one out.

In Venice, my language skills led to confusion over just what it was that a romantic waiter was offering us to commemorate our honeymoon. Along with two Italy-boot-shaped shot glasses, the waiter set down a bottle marked vodka and something I interpretted to mean ''smells like fish,'' (pesci) but, thankfully, turned out to be peach (pesca) flavored.

The luna del miele connection opened doors beyond our expectations at the Vatican. ''Sposi novelli?'' a priest inquired of us, as we asked about attending the Pope's blessing. I knew enough Italian to know this meant newlyweds and we replied ''si'' with the enthusiasm of lovebirds who could still count the time we'd been married in days.

With a swoop of the hand, we were invited to climb an old broad marble staircase. There wasn't another soul in sight as we wandered up, seemingly heading to the Pope's inner sanctum.

Ahead of us lay a long corridor and we walked softly passed several closed wooden doors, imaging that the Pope would wander out in lounging robes at any moment. As we passed an open door, a priest sitting behind a spartan, paper-free desk, motioned for us to enter, posing the words ''sposi novelli'' as a question. I recall wondering if some hidden network of cameras and communications equipment was secretly tracking our every step despite the outward contrary appearance given by the ancient setting.

From a drawer, the priest produced two printed invitations and two small gifts, both pre-blessed by the Pope. Nancy received a rosary and, in a small vinyl pouch emblazoned with the Vatican crest, was a gold key chain with a disk on the end featuring the raised image of "Pontiflex Max. Joannes Pavlvs II'' in a stage-left profile on one side and Mary holding the Christ child on the reverse.

My Pope-on-a-rope is a treasured annual adornment on our always-ecclectic Christmas trees.

We arrived, according to instruction, by 9 AM - two hours before the start of the ceremony - to take our seats in a designed section perhaps 50 yards from the stage. We were surrounded by busloads of pilgrims from eastern Europe, many waving flags from the Pope's native Poland. Yes, no matter where we sat, we were behind a Pole, but we could still crane to see the stage.

To block the scorching Mediterranean sun, scores of our neighbors crafted paper (pronounce it ''papal'') hats out of newspapers and maps of Rome, or knotted handkerchiefs on their heads, creating an odd, holiday camp atmosphere. Hymns in many languages drifted up from the crowd. Despite the wilting heat, several brides and grooms in full wedding attire promenaded through the square.

Soon the Popemobile swung into action, moving slowly and silently through the pathway of barriers behind which the faithful clambered, praying for a view of the Pontiff or a touch, as his gestures moved from handshakes to waves and broad blessings. We were less than 20 yards away and we moved quickly to take our ''me and the Pope'' photos which show the immaculate, white-clad Pontiff looking like a mininature parrot nearly perched on our shoulders, while our close-up faces were a contortion on satisfied smiles and involuntary, into-the-sun squints.

On stage, the Pope read list after list of welcomes to different groups in many languages, getting a big whoop from our section when he cast his attention and blessings to the sposi novelli.

But it's far from the fact they we ''met'' the Pope that leads to our admiration for the man. I was always impressed by the real world aspects of his biography, running an underground theatre group, working as a laborer in a quarry and as a union organizer, his athleticism and his insistence on continuing to swim and ski as often as his aging body would allow him.

Our former NY chiropractor, a good friend who happens to be Jewish, had the pleasure to treat the Pope for his aches and pains on several occasions. He told us how he and his patient joked about using the now ever-present cane ''as a weapon, not a crutch.''

While respecting the Pope, I didn't agree with him all the time. I believe in the fundamental aspects of the church (Jesus Christ, I've always believed, was the first organ donor), but their practical applications sometimes leave me disappointed. At times, I've been more of a ''Roaming Catholic'' than a Roman Catholic. Having said that, I doubt there are many 85 year olds out there that I would be in full agreement with on all issues. When I heard that someone named Karol was named Pope back in 1978, I hoped that the church was finally giving women the status they deserve.

For me, the most inspiring aspect of the Pope's life, beyond his key role in erosion of the Soviet Union - and the episode I tried to explain to Alex, who turns 7 next month - was his forgiveness of Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot him in an assassination attempt in 1981.

In theory, all Catholic men are eligible to be Pope, but about the only thing I have in common with the late Pontiff (apart from being in the same place on Sept 25, 1991) is that we've both had our gall bladders removed.

It's my hope, and bet, that next Pope will come from Africa or Asia - a selection that would show the church's global reach and end Euro-centricism. The world is ready for a non-white Pope and someone to advance the steps of his predecessor - let's hope for a John Paul III - with all the similarities and the differences that implies.

While we've dwelled on the Pope and the way he could truly seem like an old friend to so many, it's been a time for surprise visits from old friends - who are more like brothers.

George, who inspired me to propose on the spot to Nancy nearly 15 years ago, stopped by on Friday with wife Nora and their children, Sam and Sophie. They moved from Maryland to Michigan while I was awaiting my liver transplant, and we thought it would be at least a year before we saw them again. But we had a blessing, not a joke on April Fool's Day as they popped in for a quick visit while driving to see family in NJ.

On Saturday, instead of going to St. Patrick's, we had the pleasure of the company of Patrick - a good friend of nearly 30 years - who invited Alex and I to a basketball game with his son, Kevin. The bonus was that Martin, another brother/friend was a special surprise guest, along with his daughter, Leah.
A winning night, despite a last-second one-point loss by the Nets, who lead through most of the game.

Still, as ever, joys are tinged with sorrow and we mourn the passing of the mother of our neighbor, Matt, who with his wife, Amy, and children Emily and David, have been a great source of support and strength to our family throughout my illness.

We hold them dearly in our prayers, as they have us for these many months.

Today, I'm off to a regular appointment with my NYU transplant doctor, feeling great, but somewhat odd because for the first time in many months I don't have a single bandage on my body. I'm working on getting back my strength, muscle tone and conditioning, which are weakened from the operation, weight loss and medications.

I won't be attempting that last-second jump shot for the Nets anytime soon, or jetting off to the Vatican, but I'm further down the road to full recovery.


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