by Paul Cuddihy
At my ordination I told the story of my first ever goal, my most precious childhood memory. I used to believe it had some spiritual significance during my search for those 'signs' I was supposed to have received on the road to realising my vocation.
I stood up in the pulpit to speak, staring out at so many familiar faces in a place that had played a pivotal role in my life. First Communion. Confirmation. Altar boy. My dad's funeral. My first sermon as a nervous, blushing deacon.
And I told them of that summer's day when I had charged all over a red ash pitch along with twenty one other ten-year olds. Balls of dust spiralled into the air in our wake so that it looked as though a stampede of cattle had, just moments before, burst through our game. My mouth was dry and I could barely muster up a drop of saliva to spit out.
It was midway through the second-half. We were playing West Park Primary—'the proddy dogs'—and it was a matter of pride for the whole of St Joseph's that we didn't lose. We were winning 3-1.
My granda, who came along with my dad to every game, was shouting from the touchline. "Push up, Martin. Push up front."
I didn't know what to do. He was my granda but I was the right-back and Mr Deans, our manager, wouldn't be too happy if I deserted my defensive post.
"On you go, Martin. Push up, son."
My dad remained silent. He rarely shouted at all during the games, save for the occasional word of encouragement. That was my abiding memory of him. Quiet. Even his death, when I was seventeen and on the verge of beginning my studies in Rome, was understated. He went to bed early one night, telling my mum he had a headache. An hour later, when she went to check on him, he was dead.
My granda, on the other hand, never shut up during the games but that didn't bother me.
So I found myself drifting up the park. I could almost feel the magnetic pull of the opposition goal as it began to loom large in front of me.
"Martin, pull back!" Mr Deans shouted and I felt my legs begin to obey his order. "Martin!" I resisted the temptation to look round at him as I halted on the edge of the penalty box.
One or two of my team-mates began to echo Mr Deans and my face burned with embarrassment. I was on the verge of a humiliating retreat.
"On you go, Martin." My granda's voice boomed across the pitch as the ball was fired in my direction. As it bounced in front of me I took an impulsive swing at it and my left boot connected perfectly.
All of a sudden the shouts from the sidelines and the screams of the players were gone and I watched, mouth open, as the ball soared past the goalkeeper. There was a split second as the ball hit the net and nestled into the bottom corner like a bedraggled dog who'd suddenly and unexpectedly found its way home when I couldn't register what I had just done. Just for a second, though. Then I took off, sprinting all over the pitch. Screaming wildly. Team-mates in delirious pursuit.
As I ran towards where my dad and granda were jumping up and down—even my dad, for goodness sake—I blessed myself just before I was submerged by a tidal wave of cheering pals.
We won the game 4-1. My goal was the last. The best. I was the hero of the dressing room. Even Mr. Deans grabbed me playfully by the collar.
"See what happens when you don't do what you're told?" He joked before releasing me. I felt . . . Well, I don't remember a time before or since when football made me feel better.
I came bursting out the dressing room like an Olympic sprinter off the blocks, my eyes immediately searching for my dad's red car. He sounded the horn and I dashed over, almost diving into the back seat.
"Did you see my goal, dad? Did you see it?"
"It was a great goal, son. Fantastic."
I beamed with delight and I could see my dad glancing at me through the rear-view mirror. He smiled.
"Did you see it, Granda? Sure it was a cracker? Goal of the season."
"I don't remember when I last saw a better goal, Martin."
My eyes widened, amazed at the sheer magnitude of his praise. My dad started up the engine and the car started moving.
"What was all that blessing yourself carry on?" my granda asked.
"It's just . . . just what we do."
My granda shook his head. "Keep your faith and your football separate, Martin. Otherwise you do a disservice to both of them."
There was silence in the car until we got home despite my dad's best efforts to start up a conversation. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to hate someone I loved.
At the end of the sermon, as I sat back down, the congregation applauded. I smiled and looked down at the front row. My granda was wiping away a tear. He gave me the thumbs up.
I could recount a thousand stories involving my granda, each one more sentimental than the last. They've been bouncing around in my head since I found out he was in hospital. A stroke. That was all I knew. My mum left a brief message on the answer-phone and I hadn't been able to contact her since.
As I sat in the car outside the hospital I didn't know what awaited me. Kate squeezed my hand.
"Penny for them?" She whispered.
"You were miles away."
"It'll be fine. He'll be glad to see you."
"I don't know, Kate."
"Just go up. There's nothing to worry about."
"It's just that I haven't spoken to him since . . . he won't speak to me."
"I know, but that's not your fault. They've got accept it sooner or later."
I remembered my granda knocking on my bedroom door, coming in and sitting on the edge of the bed as I lay reading. I'd already spent a year in Rome but I wasn't sure I wanted to go back.
"How are you, Martin? He asked after a long pause.
"Okay." I put the book down. I could tell he was searching for the right words to bolster my faltering convictions.
"You know, son, everyone get doubts about things in their life. It'll pass. Trust me."
"I just don't think that being a priest is me."
He smiled. "You know that it's kept your mum going this past year. She's very proud of you, Martin."
"And your dad would be too, son. If he could see you now."
We walked along the empty corridor. Loud footsteps. Bringing us nearer to Ward 9A. Arm in arm. I saw my mum before I noticed him lying in bed. She was sitting. Stroking the back of his hand. Speaking to him. Occasionally he nodded. His lips moved. I stopped but Kate pulled me on.
It would be worse for her but she didn't falter. They disowned me. She was invisible to them. Ever since the newspaper told them our secret. 'RANDY REV GETS EXTRA LESSONS FROM LOCAL TEACHER'.
My mum looked up. At me. At Kate. At her stomach. She looked away.
"Hi, mum ... How is he?"
I looked down at my granda. He hadn't moved his head. He couldn't. But his pupils darted frantically in their sockets. He had heard my voice. I shuffled round the bed until I was in his line of vision.
"Granda? How are you doing?" I took the hand my mum had abandoned and squeezed it. He was trying to speak but I could only hear noises. I didn't know what to say.
"You shouldn't have come," my mum whispered sharply.
"But you left a message, mum. What did you expect?"
"This is Kate, mum."
"It'll just upset your granda."
"Upset you, you mean."
My mum sighed.
"I'm not doing this, mum. Not here."
"Mrs Kelly ..." Kate started to speak. My mum stood up.
"I'm away to the bathroom. Don't be long with him."
We watched her disappear out the ward.
"Come round here. Say hello." I said to Kate, stepping back, still holding my granda's hand, so that she could move in beside me.
"Granda. This is Kate. My wife."
His eyes looked her up and down. They stopped at the bump. He turned back to me. Closed his eyes. Tight. A tear broke through the barrier and rolled down his wizened cheek. I let go of his hand. My mum was right. This was a bad idea.
I never went to his funeral. My mum left details on the answer-phone. Kate didn't even try to persuade me. I watched the clock that morning. Half past ten. The coffin carried out of the chapel. My mum following. Veiled. Crying. I knelt in the middle of living room. Head bowed. Funny noises coming out of my mouth. A baby squirmed below me on a changing mat. My son. Patrick. Same as his great-grandfather.
Copyright©2004 Paul Cuddihy