“I won’t be buying green bananas again!” was Fr. Bernard’s greeting as I approached his hospital bed. He had phoned me earlier that day, requesting that I come to visit him. After we exchanged a few pleasantries, he informed me that the doctor had told him that he had just a few more days left on this earth, and so he now wanted my help to bring his life to a smooth close.
I was shocked and saddened. Fr. Bernard had been not just a colleague, but also a dear friend. Just a few days previously, he had been admitted to hospital with a seemingly minor ailment. However, as the results of various medical tests were analyzed, it emerged that he had a critical underlying condition. As I listened to him describe the diagnosis in a matter-of-fact manner, I felt numb with disbelief.
Once Fr. Bernard had completed his medical report, he began to outline the various concrete ways in which he needed my assistance. He wanted to go to confession, receive Holy Communion, and be anointed in preparation for his final journey. He asked me to contact members of his immediate family and inform them about the seriousness of his condition: if possible, he would like them to come for a farewell visit. These and a few other requests concerned matters that many people would wish to attend to as they approach the end of their lives.
Having reassured Fr. Bernard that I would promptly attend to his various requests, we sat together in silence for a few moments. Then, he spoke again: “There’s one other matter. You will find a package of love letters in the second drawer of the closet in my bedroom, please shred them.” I simply responded, “Sure!” and then we continued sitting together in silence, though I struggled to conceal my surprise and curiosity.
Fr. Bernard must have read my expression because a few moments later he started to talk about his early life before he entered the seminary. “Ellen and I had grown up in the same town and fallen in love as teenagers, but she went out east to college, while I moved west. Back in those days, we could only meet each other when we went home for holidays, which was only a few times a year, such as Christmas and summer. There were no computers or cell phones, so we had to rely on snail mail to keep the flame of love alive. We wrote to each other once or twice a month, and whenever I got a letter from Ellen, I felt like I was walking on air for a week afterwards.”
However, during his final year in college, Bernard found a tug of war going on inside himself between his love for Ellen and a mysterious desire to do something extraordinary with his life. He had always valued his faith, but now to his own surprise he discovered a yearning to dedicate his life to God. Then, during the months that followed, he began to wonder if God was calling him to become a missionary priest. By the time his graduation came around, he had made up his mind: he would go home and explain to Ellen his decision to end their relationship and he would apply to enter the Columban seminary. To his surprise — and disappointment — that conversation with Ellen seemed to cause her less pain that it did him!
After completing seminary training, Fr. Bernard spent the next forty years on overseas mission. While he had no direct contact with Ellen, he did hear occasional updates about her from family members and neighbors: she seemed to be happily married to Paul, had become a mother, and then a grandmother.
Then, a few years after Fr. Bernard retired back home from the missions, he received a phone call out of the blue from Paul who told him that Ellen had died some months previously and asked if he could come to visit him.
With a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, Fr. Bernard opened it to discover several neatly tied packs of his love letters to Ellen.
After spending some time reminiscing together over coffee about Ellen, Paul said, “I had thought about blackmailing you ….” and then with a cheeky grin handed Fr. Bernard a plastic bag. With a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, Fr. Bernard opened it to discover several neatly tied packs of his love letters to Ellen from fifty years previously. The envelopes were yellowish, and the ink had faded, but the handwriting was unmistakably his own. For the next several moments he was overcome with a mixture of emotions as memories of Ellen came flooding back. Paul sat in the silence.
Later, Paul explained to Fr. Bernard that, after Ellen’s death, he found the love letters among her personal belongings and that he “didn’t have the heart to throw away something that was so precious to her.” He was glad to discover, therefore, that he could return them to their author, Fr. Bernard.
Fr. Bernard soon came to realize that he too didn’t have the heart to destroy those love letters, so he kept them in his bedroom closet. However, some years later, as I sat by his deathbed, I promised him with a tinge of sadness in my heart that I would shred them.
However, Fr. Bernard, having just shared with me his love story, was still in a jovial mood. I dared, therefore, to ask him, “And what about those love letters from Ellen that had you walking on air as a college student? Where have you stored them?” Without pausing, and with a smile that stretched from ear to ear, he simply replied, “Within my heart!”
Columban Fr. Timothy Mulroy lives and works in Hong Kong.