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Waking the bishop.

The late bishop was an enormous man and it took 10 men to carry his coffin. Among the men were two nephews, big strapping fellows like their uncle, and a Buddhist monk the bishop had befriended in the latter years of his career.

The monk was a slight man and had to hold up his corner of the coffin with both hands. The nephews were up front and the monk was at the rear with the diocesan communications director, also a slight man. The other six men, representing various aspects of the bishop's life and ministry, were arranged along either side of the coffin, but as the communications director said darkly to the monk afterwards, It wasn't like those six fellas in the middle were doing a whole hell of a lot of work, if you know what I mean.

The monk smiled but said nothing.

To get the bishop from the hearse up to the burial site at the top of the hill took major muscle, and none of the pallbearers spoke during the climb. When they reached the crest of the hill they set him down, their shoulders crackling with the strain, and stood silent for a moment waiting for the rest of the burial party to ascend. The monk noticed that the nephews' suit jackets were dark with sweat.

The big fella always did like the long view, said the communications director companionably.

It is a good place to rest, said the monk.

The rest of the burial party straggled up the hill and arranged themselves around the coffin, and the auxiliary bishop led them in prayer and then spoke briefly of the bishop's endless capacity for kindness and humor, his personal warmth and grace, his admirable simplicity of style and consistent clarity of purpose, and his mindfulness at all times of Christ's insistence on love as the rudder by which we steer the flawed vessels of ourselves down the tumultuous and confusing river of life.

His metaphor license is expired, whispered the communications director.

Lowering the coffin into the hole took some doing, but two cemetery workers had come up to help, and they silently cleared away the ropes and planks once the bishop was properly in place. People tossed lilies--of various colors onto the coffin--the late bishop had dearly loved lilies--and the auxiliary bishop tossed down a handful of dirt, saying, in his singsong way, And God formed ye of the dust of the ground, and breathed into thy nostrils the breath of life, and so ye became a living soul, and now ye return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken, for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.

Kind of a free translation of King James, eh? whispered the communications director as the two cemetery men stepped up with shovels and began to quietly cover the bishop. The monk noticed that the men leaned down into the hole with their loads of dirt and slid the soil gently onto the coffin so the clods and pebbles didn't rattle against the wood, and when they were done, and there was a mound of fresh redolent soil over the bishop, one of the men knelt and smoothed the mound with his hands.

Because the bishop had died on Holy Thursday, he had not been formally waked, the events of Holy Week taking precedence, and the auxiliary bishop had decided that a big funeral at the cathedral on the Tuesday after Easter would cover the necessary public bases, which it had, and then some. The communications director had estimated 2,000 people in the cathedral proper, 5,000 or so lining the road from the cathedral to the cemetery, and untold thousands watching on live television in homes, schools, and offices. The television negotiations, as he told the monk, had been surprisingly smooth; even the secular media understood the bishop's unique stature in the city, and for the first time in the communication director's career, he had been able to play one request for exclusive access to diocesan officials against another for the greater good of the diocesan coffers.

In the flurry of events there had also been no time to read the bishop's will, so the diocesan chancellor arranged for the interested parties and a few of the bishop's friends and colleagues to gather at the bishop's house after the burial. The house was on the campus of the university where the bishop had been president before his sudden and surprising elevation to the episcopacy; indeed the house had been built to his personal specifications by the university's carpentry crew, and thus featured a bathtub as big as a small pool, a greenhouse for the bishop's endless botanical adventures, and a vast back porch complete with an immense barbecue pit. The bishop had been very fond of grilling sausages and drinking beer, both of which activities, as he said, drew students like doughnuts draw cops. It was not unusual, remembered the communications director, for the bishop's back porch to be milling with a dozen or more students when he came by the house on diocesan matters of state.

The fact is, Jack, the bishop would say, I do more priestly work at the grill in an hour than I do in the chancery in a month. Maybe I should open a rib shack, eh? You remember Christ cooking fish over that little fire after he made his comeback, no one talks much about that part of the gospels, eh, but me personally, I think the guy was a barbecue maniac. You remember the lines from your namesake evangelist, Jack: Children, have ye any meat? My favorite line in the gospels, eh, and the poor hapless apostles mumble no, and Jesus then miraculously arranges for 153 fish to line up for the grill, and you remember the next line, Jack, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread, and Jesus said unto them, Come and dine. See? Barbecue as sacrament, Jack. It's right there in the Good Book. We have only to follow his glorious example and we will be fed. You want a beer?

Today, though, the bishop's back porch was empty and bereft, the deck chairs stored away for winter. It looks ... forlorn, thought the communications director, and he thought of kindling a fire in the grill, for old times' sake, but the other guests were shucking their coats and moving briskly toward the kitchen, so he followed them.

In the kitchen the university's cafeteria staff had laid a buffet, complete with various sausages, for they, too, had much liked the bishop, and the guests all loaded plates and drew coffee from a red urn nearly the size of a wine barrel. The auxiliary bishop was there, and the diocesan chancellor, and the university president, and two abbots and one abbess, and the lawyer the diocese carried on retainer, and the two large nephews, and a vice president or two, and a smattering of other priests and nuns. One nun was the tiniest woman the communications director had ever seen, hardly 4 feet tall, and he realized that this must be Mother Thanh, superior of the Vietnamese nuns, of whom the bishop had often spoken with affection and respect, and to whom he had devoted much of the fading energy of his last years.

They're relentless women, Jack, he would say, and they don't take guff from anybody for all they are so tiny and smile so polite. Half of them survived seven hells and the other half worse. You mark my words, Jack, they'll do great things. Mother Thanh, now, she's intent on opening a hundred schools, and I bet she will do it, too. Woman has about 11 cents in hand and already two schools going great guns. Should make her bishop, that's what we should do, and then sit back with a beer and watch Rome burn, eh?

For a while the guests talked shop and quizzed the garrulous university president about the university's capital campaign. Then the diocesan chancellor told a story in her gravelly voice about the time the bishop had to ride a horse while blessing a new rodeo ring, which set them all to laughing and broke the ice, and then out poured the stories--about the bishop's pet parrot, a vile creature who hated everyone except the bishop, and how he once had a mule carry champagne and steaks on a camping trip, and how he often spent as much as 10 hours a day listening to Confessions, and how once when someone had thrown a stone through his window in protest over something or other he had had the stone engraved with the words the stone thrown by the one who is without sin and presented it to the chancellor in celebration of her many years of service, and how he never gave a sermon or a homily more than three minutes long and never delivered any talk of any kind whatsoever without a joke in it like a seed, and how he carried a salami in his car and had one in his desk for emergencies, eh, as he said, and how he cheerfully presented dignitaries with salamis, which led to many hilarious photo opportunities, and how he had been the classmate of the pope at divinity college in Rome and the Holy Father chaffed him ever after that if the bishop had been more interested in academic matters and less interested in Roman salumi then maybe their roles would be reversed and the pope would be wearing a purple hat and the bishop the white robe, and this story made them all roar with laughter, for all of them had heard the bishop say cheerfully that if he was ever sentenced to the papacy, God help us all, the Church Eternal would immediately close up shop having proved itself madder than a wasp in a jam jar.

Well, I suppose we better get to the business at hand, said the auxiliary bishop, and they gathered up their plates and cups and put them in the sink and moved into the living room. The lawyer spread his papers out on the glass coffee table. The diocesan chancellor, with something of a proprietary air, sat down in the bishop's reading chair, and the university president, smiling, leaned back in the recliner and said something about beer and salami, which made his vice presidents laugh.

The bishop's estate is somewhat complex, said the lawyer, given his vows of poverty, his membership in a religious order, and his long service to the diocese. There was a small family trust of which he was the sole beneficiary, his sisters having predeceased, and he assigned that to the diocese, specifying that it be used to foment vocations to religious orders. I have here a signed instrument making Mother Thanh the executor of those monies on behalf of the diocese.

Mother Thanh, who was standing near the TV, bowed.

Additionally, continued the lawyer, the bishop over the years received many personal gifts from friends and admirers, all of which he was constrained by vow to present to his order, which years ago established a scholarship fund at the university in the bishop's name to receive such gifts. I am assuming that gifts made now in the bishop's name will go toward that fund, isn't that right, Father?

We certainly hope so, said the university president from the depths of the recliner, and everyone smiled.

As regards to personal effects, continued the lawyer, they are disbursed in a detailed document I can read aloud if necessary.

No, no, Michael, said the auxiliary bishop. There wasn't much. The chancery will see to the distribution of his effects. I think we can be trusted.

What about the parrot? asked one of the nephews.

Hmm, said the lawyer. I don't see anything here about the parrot.

Where actually is the parrot? said an abbot.

We have him, said Mother Thanh quietly.

I want the parrot, said the nephew.

I would suggest that perhaps we can work out custody and visitation schedules later, said the university president smoothly.

It belongs to us, said the nephew. I'm not saying I like the bird. I can't stand the thing. It's a mean animal and it bites. But it belongs to the family and it should be the family that decides where it goes. You all have taken everything else he had, and at least we should get the parrot.

Exactly correct, said the other nephew.

These are very good points, said the auxiliary bishop, and the desires of the family are of course paramount at this time of bereavement and loss. Jack, will you arrange a meeting among the interested parties?

Of course, said the communications director.

Now as to the house, said the lawyer. It is of course university property, the bishop being resident by invitation, and the furnishings, with the exception I believe of the recliner, are also university property.

I bought the recliner for him, said the chancellor suddenly. He had the bad back, you know. It was a birthday present. A personal gift.

Does the diocese ...? said the lawyer.

I think perhaps it should stay with the house, don't you, Father? said the auxiliary bishop to the university president.

Absolutely, said the university president. It will remind us of the bishop.

The chancellor started to say something but then fell silent.

At this time then, said the lawyer, I will ask for everyone to convey keys to the house back to the university. The communications director and auxiliary bishop detached their keys from their key rings and placed them on the table. The communications director was interested to see Mother Thanh produce a key and hand it to the lawyer. One of the vice presidents held up his key to show everyone the university's key.

That's four, said the lawyer. As I understand it there are five keys.

There was a long pause, and then the chancellor angrily opened her purse and took out a key and dropped it on the table with a clatter. The lawyer reached for it but she suddenly bent and snatched it up again. No one said anything for a moment and then the auxiliary bishop said, Dorothy ...

Don't, she said. Don't lecture me. Not today.

Dorothy ...

Don't, Ken. Don't give me advice. I can't bear this. I just can't. This is his house and his chair. This is his house. It's his parrot, for heaven's sake. And you all just sit here calmly. It's all so cold. How can you sit there and just talk about him like this? How can you?

Silence.

Not today, Ken, said the chancellor. Not today. No wise counsel in times of bereavement today. Take a day off, OK?

No one said anything for a long moment and then the chancellor leaned down silently and put the key in the center of the table with an audible click.

Well then, said the lawyer carefully, I think we are done here. Thank you all.

What about the parrot? said the first nephew.

Jack here will be in touch about the bird, said the auxiliary bishop, staring at the chancellor. You know, said the communications director quietly, why don't we step into the kitchen with Mother Thanh for a moment and talk this over? I'm sure the bishop would much prefer that we settle this with humor and grace if possible, and where better for those virtues than this house? Mother, if you have a moment?

Mother Thanh moved without a word toward the kitchen and the university president hoisted himself out of the recliner. The auxiliary bishop took the chancellor's elbow and asked her about a school dedication the next day, and they were followed out the door by the rest of the party. The burly nephews moved toward the kitchen, and the communications director heard Mother Thanh's quiet voice embrace them.

Give me two minutes, folks, said the communications director in the direction of the kitchen, and he headed down the hallway toward the bathroom. He thought for an instant about hauling out the deck chairs and putting them in a circle around the grill like the old days but concluded that would look even more forlorn, so he continued down the hall. As he flipped the light switch in the bathroom, though, he suddenly heard the bishop's voice in his head: Jack, with your permission I'll be stepping down the hall to see a man about the purchase of a horse, which is what the bishop would say whenever he was in the same position, and hearing the bishop's grinning voice in his mind made the communications director suddenly immensely hilariously happy--happier, as he later told the monk, than he had been in a very, very long time.

BRIAN DOYLE is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author most recently of The Wet Engine (Paraclete Press, 2005).
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Author:Doyle, Brian
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:2841
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