The picture you see here is Memo’s hand. You can click read more for a little movie. Memo’s not his real name, and when I talked with him about this reflection he said it would be ok to write it but I had to change his name. I took the picture last night when he came over to visit and we were laughing and remembering old times. I’ve known him for 32 years, from right when I arrived in South Chicago at Immaculate Conception. Back in the day, there was a lot of shooting, and Memo got shot in the alley across the street from the rectory. I got called to Cook County hospital and I was wondering what I’d run into when I walked into his room. He’d been shot in the hand, and I remember a skinny terrified kid sitting up in the bed. His mom and dad were there, I think. I was so grateful he wasn’t dead.
We’ve been close for years. He calls me pops, and I’m like a second dad for him. In many ways I’ve been a dad to him, and to a bunch of other guys over the years. Last night we were talking and I said that maybe that was why I didn’t end up getting married and being a truck driver (that was my plan). Maybe it was so I could be a dad for some of these guys in dangerous neighborhoods. If I’d have been married, the first time somebody threatened my son or daughter my wife might have said to me, “Honey we have to move,” and we might have to leave. I think that’s probably the reason the only mainline clergy living in the toughest neighborhoods are the Catholic priests. All the other guys (and women these days) drive in to their churches from somewhere else. Anyway, that’s a digression.
Back to Memo. When he went to college, he wanted to try out the seminary. Maybe he’d become a priest. I think it was his first year in college and he lived in the rectory with me in South Chicago. He borrowed my truck and went out drinking. I went to bed. The next morning my mom came to the parish. We were going to the Art Institute, I think. She went to open the passenger door and couldn’t get it open. “Ma,” I said to her as I got out to go and help her, “you’re not that old and weak that you can’t open a door.” I went over to her side of the truck and tried to open the door. I couldn’t. What the heck? I looked more closely and the side of my truck was crashed in. I spat out a few choice words and told my ma I had to reschedule our day.
I went upstairs and Memo was in bed, hung over. “Get up. What happened?” “I sideswiped a car.” “Where?” “Over on Indianapolis Boulevard.” “Get dressed. We have to go and make a police report.” I’ll need it for the insurance company. I was convinced that he’d get arrested and maybe go to jail. He was convinced, too. It was one of the toughest drives I’ve ever taken with someone. I felt like I was driving him to his execution. We didn’t talk much.
We got to the police station and tried to make a report. As it turned out, you couldn’t make a police report after the fact in Indiana. In Chicago, you could, but not in Indiana. We both breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, it looks like you caught a break. Now we just have to pray that the insurance company will pay the claim.” They did, thanks be to God.
Memo didn’t have a vocation to be a priest as it turned out. He got married and is raising his family. He stopped drinking a while ago, by God’s grace. Now he teaches 3rd grade in one of the top schools in Chicago. He’s a great teacher and a great dad. He and his wife are doing a wonderful job with their kids. Not only that, but he’s stepped up with some members of his own family who needed dads.
We joked last night about life. He said, “We’re Catholics, and so we don’t believe in karma. A couple of years ago my wife’s nephew took her car keys out of her purse. He went out joyriding and crashed the car. He didn’t tell anyone. He just put the keys back in her purse, and we found the car crashed outside the next morning. We always thought that somebody had stolen the car and went for a ride. He didn’t confess for months after the car was fixed.” The things kids do to their families. You couldn’t make this kind of thing up. Who could ever guess that a kid from a tough neighborhood would turn out so well. 17 years teaching, a great family, walking around with a bullet in his hand. That’s God’s grace at work, for sure!