Hurts can linger. Even old ones you think are long forgotten. But healing comes when you're ready, and in some of the most unexpected ways.
Every day, things happen in life that can only be the work of something greater.
A couple of months after moving back to Atlanta at the end of 2010, I started practicing yoga at a new studio in town where I now teach. Very early on, I noticed an older man that looked oddly familiar. I couldn’t place his face for the life of me and wasn’t so sure that I was comfortable asking him, so I just let it ride figuring that eventually it would come to me. As time went on, he became a regular at my Saturday morning class and I came to know him as “John.”
Then one day, I realized who he was.
My wife Shani was violently murdered several years ago. Just four short days after this traumatic loss, I was in my home surrounded by friends and family. It was a Saturday. There was a Catholic Church around the corner called Our Lady of Lourdes, the first African American Catholic Church in the city of Atlanta. The church had been at the epicenter of the civil rights movement along with MLK Jr’s home, Ebenzer Baptist Church, and the current site of the Civil Rights Museum and Memorial across the street. Shani and I absolutely loved that a Catholic Church, usually so rigid and cookie cutter in style, could fuse the beautiful musical expression of a Gospel choir into the structure of the Catholic Mass.
With so many friends and family that were practicing Catholics there to honor Shani's memory and support me, I thought they might enjoy attending a service at the church she had so loved.
My friend Jeff told me that he’d just spoken with the priest from the Catholic Church. When the priest heard about our plans, he offered to dedicate the mass to Shani.
“Now, Jeff….” I said, looking at him with concern.
“Nope! I know where you’re going. We rehearsed it 3 or 4 times, and he got it. He said he would make sure that the lector pronounced her name correctly.”
Growing up with a last name like Fecht, I found that most people struggled with the pronunciation and had become fine with it. It’s understandable. But not this week. Not now, and not under these circumstances.
The thought of someone stumbling over Shani's name brought news reports and media coverage where both her first and last names were absolutely butchered, as they glamorized her grotesque and horribly tragic death. Not even the local news from the town she grew up in took the time to pronounce her name correctly. It made me sick.
I still don’t understand how a reporter can stand in front of a camera telling the story of someone’s death and not take the time to confirm the pronunciation of their name.
“You’re sure?! I would rather they just leave it alone if they’re going to screw it up.” I said.
“Dude. We went over it again and again. I promise you. He got it. It’s good.” Jeff was adamant.
“Ok,” I said, although I still wasn’t all that comfortable with it. I knew that Jeff was just trying to make the service special for me.
A few friends hung around late, but by 11:00 or so, I was absolutely wiped out and went to bed. Early on, sleep wasn’t a problem. I think the emotional exhaustion just got to me by the end of every day and buried me, although I honestly tried to stay up until my eyes just became too heavy. The thought of having to wake up to reality every day was overwhelming. I wonder who would want to sleep at night knowing that when you woke up it was going to be a repeat of the same horror movie, like Stephen King’s version of Groundhog Day. I crashed.
I woke up around 8:30, and mass was at 10:00, so I had to hurry. Having to get somewhere early in the day and knowing that there was a purpose behind it kind of took me out of my head. People started showing up around 9:00, and we had a group of about 12-15 people going over to the church for the service.
When we got there, they had 3 pews roped off for us. I felt pretty good and knew that Shani would have appreciated the special attention given to us in her honor. At the same time, I had a very uneasy feeling, as if I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was interesting that the sermon that day centered around accepting our brothers and sisters of different faiths, considering that I had Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and a number of Christians from different sects with me. Our friends, like Shani and I, were never overly concerned with anyone’s particular religious beliefs as much as the type of person they were.
And then it was time for the lector to read the daily intentions and prayers.
“Please say her name right," I pleaded with the universe, "Please, please, please.”
As if on cue, the lector said, “Please bless the soul of Sho-nti Fetched.”
“Are you kidding me?! God Dammit!” I muttered to myself as I got up, stepped over my mom who was sitting next to me and stormed out the back of the church.
I walked around the block, ripped my dress shirt off and threw it in the air, as rage washed over me in waves. I knew they would screw it up!
I walked down the sidewalk just wanting to be left alone. My dad pulled up alongside me and my cousin David trailed me on foot. I knew someone would follow me. Of course they would. They would be worried that I might do something, hurt myself or get into it with somebody else. Oh, I was begging the universe to put someone in front of me at that point. I wanted to hurt someone, something….
“Go away!” I screamed at my dad. “GO A-WAY! Just leave me alone.”
“Get in the car, Mike. C’mon…” he said.
“Dad, I’m telling you right now, if you guys don’t go away, I will leave and you’ll really wonder where the hell I am. Just get the hell outta here and leave me alone. I’m done.”
And with that, he pulled away. All I did was walk around the block. In dress pants and my undershirt, I came back around to the church and my thoughts were absolutely racing. The thought of storming into the middle of mass and telling the priest what I thought of him crossed my mind more than once. I was pissed and ready to let him have it. There were a couple of male parishioners outside that had just finished working with the children’s bible study. Upon seeing them, I went straight to them and let ‘em have it.
“You're both parishioners here, yes?!”
“Uh….yes, we are.” One responded.
“Look, I was just in that service. My wife was killed this week — murdered by her own son. Last night a friend of mine called and spoke with the priest..." As I told my story I could feel my blood boil, "...And the lector fucked it up! The priest didn’t take 30 seconds to make sure it was done correctly!” I was fuming!
“I lost my wife, my buddy rehearses her name with him, gets a guarantee that it will be done correctly and this happens?!" At this point, I was crying. Tears pouring, my face red with anger. I could see that these two guys had just been blindsided, but I kept screaming. "I feel like I was slapped in the face! How could he?!”
I wanted comfort. I wanted everything to be alright. But at that time, there was nothing either of them could do or say that was going to give me that relief.
“Can we pray for you right here?” The one man asked.
“You know what? Why don’t you save it for yourselves. And for that asshole priest!”
And with that, I turned and stormed out of the church courtyard. I walked the 5-10 minutes back to our place and cried the whole way.
When I got back to the house, my anger hadn’t subsided at all. I sent my family and friends home, trekked up the iron spiral staircase to the roof, and looked up the number to the church on my cell phone.
I expected a receptionist or volunteer to answer. To my surprise, it was the priest.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“You’re kidding, right?!” I told him who I was and then laid it on.
“How could you?!" I screamed, my face still hot with tears. "How could you make a promise like that to my friend and then screw it up so badly?! You have no idea what you did to me today!”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t get with the lector before mass,” he said.
“Well isn’t that what you said you were going to do?! Isn’t that why he rehearsed it with you?!”
“Mike," his voice was gentle, "People make mistakes. I’m sorry.”
“You’re unbelievable! I knew you would screw it up. I don’t know why I would even have brought anyone there today! I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish. But don’t worry, you’ll never see me in your church again! EVER!”
I hung the phone up on him. And then I started to sob.
In the years since that terrible week —with help, hope, love, yoga and meditation — I made peace with that and so much more.
And in a moment of peace, I recognized the man in my class who looked so familiar.
He was the priest.
Barb and I were driving in Miami on Christmas Day. My thoughts wandered. Christmas... carolers... churches... stained glass windows…THE PRIEST!
His face popped into my head and I knew immediately. When we stopped, I Googled the church and sure enough, there he was. He had retired the year before, but it was most definitely him. I couldn't believe it.
After giving it a lot of thought, I stopped him after class one week.
“Hi, John. I’d like to grab coffee or lunch with you sometime if you’re up for it.”
He looked at me kind of strange and said, “Ok.”
I added, “You know me. We haven’t met, but we have spoken, and I owe you an apology.”
He looked even more perplexed. I told him my story.
At lunch, John and I talked about where I’ve been, what I’ve done and where I’m headed. We talked about yoga and how a Catholic priest made his way to a 4 day a week practice. We talked about being a couple of the few, rare men actually practicing yoga. We talked about the spirituality associated with my path and how, in sitting with everything rather than acting on emotion, I continue to listen to the voice of something greater that’s been leading me all along.
We talked about healing.
We talked about the affinity I had for his church, “Until I screwed it up,” he added.
“It was a mistake. I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to meet you and apologize. If you held onto any of that stuff for any length of time at all, I AM sorry. As much as you know about where I was back then emotionally, I’m glad you’re able to see how far I’ve come, and please know that I was over it a long, long time ago.”
With soulful smiles we looked at each other for a brief moment, both of our eyes welling up. Then we stood, shook hands and walked out the door.
“I’ll see ya at the studio,” I said.
As we turned to head in different directions, I took a moment to acknowledge what had just occurred and how blessed I am to have had that experience.
The universe continues to move in mysterious ways.
And as I started the car to head home, I scratched my head and smiled, thinking about the healing I’d just received from a Catholic priest and a yoga mat.
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