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Students thought about a day for candy. The teacher thought about a day for souls.
My Brother's Keeper
Invoking the Power of Heaven Through Intercessory Prayer
When my seventh-grade students came to school last week dressed in costumes that ran the gamut from a bumblebee to a box of Kleenex, I doubt they were thinking much about the communion of saints. Their previous week's journal entries had anticipated a night of trick-or-treating, parties, scary movies, pizza, and — of course — candy, but contemplations of heavenly intercession hadn't seemed to make it onto anyone's Halloween agenda.
Naturally, I didn't blame them. I never thought about those things when I was a child, even though my Catholic-school teachers taught me why we go to Mass on the day after Halloween and why we pray for all the dead on the day after that. This year, however, when Halloween came around, the saints were on my mind, not because of the costumes or the movies or even All Saints' and All Souls' Days, but because of someone who, by the mercy of God, was alive and well: my brother Jim.
I drove to school thinking that this Halloween was already a whole lot better than the last one. For one thing, I was on my way to work. For another, it was already 7:00, and my phone hadn't rung.
On October 31 last year, my mother had called at 5:30 a.m. to tell me that my twenty-one-year-old brother was in the hospital after a bad accident in the middle of the night. We spent the day sitting in the hospital waiting room or watching Jim as he writhed on his bed, too delirious to realize that we were even there. Every so often a jolt of pain would make him sit upright, his body rigid and his eyes wildly searching the room. I don't know what he was looking for: probably something or someone that would tell him where he was, what was happening, and when it would all stop.
Yes, this year was definitely better. My baby brother wasn't in any trouble that I knew of, but to tell the truth, I didn't know much. Always the restless one in the family, Jim had taken a Greyhound bus to New Orleans in August. He hadn't been home since. But I wasn't worried.
Jim was working on a boat in the Gulf and living in a hostel with other laborers, most of whom had been displaced by the hurricane. I pictured him there—talking and joking with those guys, sharing lighters and cigarettes late into the night—and imagined what he'd look like to strangers in Louisiana. Brooding, darkly witty, muscular from construction work, his arm tattooed with the title of Allen Ginsberg's famous beat poem "Howl," Jim probably looked pretty forbidding at first. But I only pictured him that way when I really tried. Otherwise, I always saw him at around six years old. He wore his Superman pajamas, complete with cape, and a huge grin showed the gap where his two front teeth had been. And he wasn't alone. The Blessed Mother was right next to him.
I hadn't been able to think of Jim any other way since the night after his accident, when I took a walk near my mother's house and asked Mary to take special care of him as her own son. When I saw them together, he didn't look at her or seem to know she was there, but she never took her eyes off of him and never stopped smiling at him with a steady, quiet love. She kept her arm around his shoulders and her blue cloak wrapped protectively around him, cuddling him close to her like any mother would.
I knew she was keeping him safe, as I wished I could. In that hospital room, when Jim had stared at me without recognition through the fog of his suffering, all I had been able to do was stare back. He was looking for someone to take his pain away, and I couldn't do that. Mary could, so I gave him to her. And almost a year later, when Jim climbed onto that bus out west, I sent her with him. I was actually surprised at myself, ordering the Queen of Heaven around like that. But I got the feeling that she wasn't offended. In fact, after I told her to go with him, I timidly reached out for her, picturing her face to see how she might respond. She was looking back at me with the same tender smile she always gave my brother.
Last week, we attended Mass to honor the saints. The next day, we remembered our beloved dead in prayer. [The Marians at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy invite you to send them the names of your deceased loved ones for remembrance in prayer throughout the month of November.] There is something especially humbling about that. When our loved ones are alive, we believe that we can protect them, that we can direct their lives in what we think is the right way, but after they're gone, we know there is nothing left to do but entrust them to God.
Maybe we don't have to wait that long. The signature below the Divine Mercy image invites us to trust. Through our prayers to Jesus and the saints, we can wrap our loved ones in a heavenly cloak that, unlike anything we can provide, has the power to keep them safe from every danger in this life and the next.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.