Clenching the wheel of his community’s beat-up beige Ford Taurus so tightly the color had fully drained from his hands, Father Eugene Felusiak raced up the Jersey Turnpike. As he successfully steered the vehicle from one lane to another, finding a way through the accumulated traffic, he half-wondered to himself whether his maneuvers were being aided, not only by the St. Christopher medal on the visor above his head, but also by the residual oil that sealed his priestly palms.
He had only been a priest for a day—just long enough to impart first blessings on friends and well-wishers and celebrate into the night with his fellow priests and brothers at their community’s backyard tent party. As the festivities finally dissipated and he returned to his room, he eagerly climbed into bed, anxious to catch a few precious hours of sleep before another momentous day dawned.
So exhausted was he that it was not until after he had already showered, shaved, and dressed the next morning that he noticed the blinking red light on his room’s phone, signaling a new voicemail. Thinking some friend might have left a congratulatory message, he was not prepared for what he heard: his beloved grandmother had taken a turn and did not have much time left. If he wished to see her, he had better come up today.
At the end of the message, he hung up the receiver and went in search of Father Stan, his superior. Finding him, he conveyed the message and received permission to depart immediately. Father Stan even offered to cover the morning Mass Father Eugene was to celebrate at St. Hyacinth’s, the Mass which was to be his first Mass of Thanksgiving. After thanking his Prior and being blessed for his travels, he hopped in the car to journey towards the hospice in Westchester County where his babci—the Polish term of endearment by which he had always called her—lay dying.
As he hurried up the drive and onto the stone sidewalk, wringing his hands with each step, the door opened, and Sister Miriam greeted him with the serene countenance of a holy woman doing holy work. Preempting the request he saw forming on her lips, he told her he would be happy to bless each sister, but after he had said Mass for his grandma. She nodded in affirmation, and then led Father Eugene through the long corridor to the sacristy.
“Bro—I mean—Father,” she corrected as she directed, gesturing into the shoe-closet sized room, “you go vest and I’ll make sure that Sister Beatrice has prepared things for Mass in your grandma’s quarters. I will meet you there.” Then, after pausing, she added with just a touch of gravity in her moistening eyes, “She will most likely die this evening. She had been looking forward this past week to your ordination and knew you were going to come up to say Mass for the residents here next week. She was so proud, it was all she would talk about at mealtime: ‘My son the priest!’ But after she took a turn yesterday, she has been in and out of consciousness. I pray she’ll be able to wake up and see you.” And as Sister Miriam departed in that rapid yet dignified manner with which sisters can seemingly glide through the air, Father Eugene was left to prepare for a most peculiar first Mass.
Putting his hand against the white silk chasuble, he could feel his heart thumping away inside his chest as he walked to his babci’s room. Within those walls lay his only living relative, the woman who had swooped in and raised him after his parents were killed in a car crash. Already sixty-seven at the time, this strong woman became a mother again, this time to her seven-year-old know-it-all grandchild. She had loved him unconditionally as a son, taught him the Catholic faith, corrected some faults, overlooked many more, and encouraged his discernment of the priesthood and religious life. In these last few years, even after the cancer diagnosis had left her with much to fill her conversations with God, she never ceased to pray incessantly that he might be made a good and holy priest. That’s the cruelty of it all, he thought as he turned to enter the room. She had carried him—materially, spiritually, lovingly—to the altar, and now she would not be able to share in the fruition of all her sacrifices.
He entered through the doorway. He looked at her in bed, flanked by Sister Miriam on the left, her white habit glistening in the sunlight that streamed through the window as she gently stroked the dying woman’s bald head. On the right was Sister Beatrice, lighting the candles she had placed on the makeshift altar. The room did not smell like a hospital, and there were no machines issuing off a cacophony of beeps and buzzes. The vision before him, Father Eugene confessed to himself, was beatific. Just as he was about to enter into the sacred mysteries for the first time by himself, his babci was at the threshold of the same mysterious heavenly portal.
Sister Beatrice motioned for him to come next to her. She stooped down and whispered something gently. Father Eugene saw his grandma slowly open her eyes, setting her sight squarely on his face.
Moving closer, he took her frail, cold hands into his own and said in Polish, “Kocham cię babciu.” I love you, grandma.
She gave no reply, but her gaze seemed to deepen and intensify all the more. Sister Beatrice whispered again, “Dominika, do you recognize who this is?”
At this question, Father Eugene felt his grandma take her hands and envelop his, her thumb and forefinger gently caressing the fleshy part between his own, a sign of comfort between them since he was a child. Then she smiled and replied in a voice filled with both weakness and strength, “Jezu! Jezu! Jezu!”
Father Eugene kissed her on the forehead. Then, turning around, he traced the sign of the Cross upon the altar and kissed it. His first Mass had begun.