When I was in the third grade, attending St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School in central California, there were fifty students in my class. Sr. Terence managed us all quite well, though how she kept track of us, I don't know. It was my first year at that school, but I'd scored the role of Mary for the Christmas play and got treated to raised eyebrows from the guy who played Joseph every time we prayed the Hail Mary.
Sr. Terence was unlike any other nun I'd known up until that time. When we had special petitions, she wouldn't just pray, but she'd use her own words. In a time when everything was memorized, she stood out. She also jumped rope with us, 15-decade rosary clattering in rhythm, and was quite at ease during folk dances. But it was those spontaneous prayers that really stood out. And, third graders that we were, we angled for attention.
Which brings me to my story. In the early spring of that year, probably in April, a group of us were at Sr. Terence's desk, getting ready for class. A few spoke their requests to her. Me? This is what I said: "My brother died." She gave me a long look, but when we prayed at the beginning of class, she prayed for my brother.
The next Sunday, as my dad and I were walking to the car after Mass, she happened to come out of the convent. She greeted us and asked, "How's your little boy doing?" My dad said, "He was pretty sick for a while, spent a couple of days in the hospital, but he's home now and doing fine." She looked at me and then went back inside.
Our home was a number of miles from church. Dad didn't say anything about my brother. I think I pretended to be asleep.
Some time that afternoon, both Mom and Dad came into my bedroom and closed the door. Mom sat down on the bed. "Why did you tell Sr. Terence that Geoffrey died?"
"She says you did."
"She must have me mixed up with someone else!" (Fifty kids in the class, surely she could be wrong.)
I don't remember anything else of the conversation. I'm sure my parents were rational about it all because I don't remember getting spanked for lying.
In later years, I think about how inadequate third-grade thinking is. There was one Catholic church for the whole town. The sisters, who lived a block away, would have known about any funeral. I never missed a day of school--it wouldn't have occurred to me.
My brother, who lived through the event, has asked me why I tried to kill him off. How do I explain that I just wanted some attention from a nun who used her own words to pray?
So why do I tell this now?
Over the last couple of days, I've dealt with an offender who received horrific news, that his 6 year old daughter had died of injuries sustained in a bad fall down a stairwell. He was, after several years, getting ready for a visit with her, and now this. When I talked with him, there was more to the story: his brother who'd told him on the phone that their mother had taken the news so badly that she'd had a stroke or heart attack and ended up in the hospital. And she was dead.
But two days later he got a letter from his mother who'd heard about what the brother had said and was furious.
Today, I had an email saying that offender had gotten news last night that his ex-wife had committed suicide.
How can one person hold all that pain?
I talked with him again. Sorted through the things people were telling him ("Well, she was your EX, so it can't hurt that badly") and check with him about a referral to mental health. He's not feeling suicidal, but he hasn't been able to sleep.
Now, in this early evening, I read a note from mental health, saying the coroner was called and has no record of a six-year-old dying in the past several months and there had been no suicides.
I begin to wonder. I'm standing in a third grade classroom again. I know I've told the big lie. Did someone else?
UPDATE: 2/8/08 I talked with a couple of other people who'd also listened to this story and finally called the man who is in charge of investigations. "Something just doesn't seem right with this. Can you use your law enforcement contacts and check it out?"
The short end of the story: the offender came in last night and said, "You know all that stuff? It was a big fat LIE." Someone new was dating his ex-wife; she didn't want to see him again. What better way than to say she was dead?
I don't know all the details. I don't know if I want to know.