endless rain

My Cross to Bear

Short Story

As I step into the small chapel, I am overcome with feelings I still don’t understand. I check my watch. 6 minutes after 1. I hear the distant sounds of children and families exiting the 12 o’clock Sunday Mass. I can picture those enormous wooden doors opening, letting sunlight into the massive hall, with its shining marble floors and ornate stained glass windows and stone statues of Peter, James, and Joseph. I am not there. I am just a few hundred feet away, in the tiny chapel room where this parish began, years before it grew large enough to fund the big beautiful new church, with its dozens of pews to accommodate its hundreds of faithful. Baby photos tell me I was baptized in this room. I wouldn’t remember, I was just a few months old, surrounded by loved ones, many of whom are now strangers.

I walk down the aisle, genuflect and touch my fingers to my forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, and kiss my knuckle. I shuffle into the second to last pew on the right side, bend over and pull the kneeler down. Its rubber feet make a dull thud as they fall to the beige carpet. I kneel on the wooden board, its cushioning so worn it may as well not be there. Deacon Arthur walks in from a door near the front of the room. He’s late for 1 o’clock Adoration, but it doesn’t matter, it’s just Mrs. O’Rourke and me here, like always. She’s seated in the front row. Freshly-dyed yellow blond hair falls gently over the back of her small, stout frame. She’s hardly moving. I imagine she’s focused in prayer already.

Deacon Arthur places the golden monstrance atop the altar and opens its frame. It’s an awful, gaudy thing, and its sunburst looks bizarre in contrast with the rest of the dilapidated chapel. He opens the tabernacle, removes the Eucharist and places it carefully inside the monstrance, and closes the frame. He takes a step back, bows at the waist, and exits from the same door he entered.

It is just me, Mrs. O’Rourke, and God in this room now. I bow my head, and remember.


Lourdes and I were five years old when we met. I used to tell her I remember the very first moment I saw her, on that first day of school, but she never believed me. Just another cheesy line, she would say. I came home at the end of my first week of kindergarten at St. Augustine Catholic School and told my mother I had a girlfriend.

We were inseparable immediately. To say we were friends wouldn’t really be accurate – we were more like a single organism, our little fingers perpetually interlocked. Teachers would seat us on opposite sides of the classroom, since that sort of behavior is not typically acceptable in Catholic school, but we would always find our way back somehow, some magnetic force pulling us together. They soon realized they couldn’t keep us apart, so stopped trying. I think we probably looked like brother and sister to most people.

Neither Lourdes nor I had many other friends. We always got along well enough with other children– they would simply stop playing with us when they realized how little attention we paid anyone else. We’d play a game where we would press our foreheads together, stare into each other’s eyes and try to guess what the other was thinking. Somehow I was always right, she’d tell me.

Lourdes’s mother Carmen started picking us up from school together most days, and I would spend the afternoons at their house. She was the first adult I ever met who insisted I call her by her first name. She was also younger than most of the other mothers I knew. Carmen always fed us when we got home, always worried we looked too thin (we didn’t). In those early years, she seemed to be permanently pregnant. By the time we were eight, Lourdes had four little brothers and was soon picking up slack around the house. Lourdes adored her mother. She watched Carmen closely and mimicked her movements, learning to stir simmering pots and console little brothers in distress. She was a child caring for children. And while Lourdes never complained, I know she envied the attention her younger brothers received. I did not see Lourdes’s father much then – he got home from work well after my own working mother picked me up and brought me home. Years later I realized how significant a share of the family’s income went toward St. Augustine’s tuition. As a little boy with little knowledge of how the world worked, I asked Carmen why the family had decided to live in such a small house with so many people. I cringe thinking about it now, but I’m sure she just laughed it off.

Lourdes’s family was more devout than mine. My family only ever attended Mass on Holy Days, whereas Lourdes’s family went every Sunday morning, and Carmen attended every Wednesday morning for the school’s Children’s Mass. I joined them most Sundays, and sat between Lourdes and her father. We joined hands as we sang the Our Father – his tanned, calloused one in my right hand, her tiny soft one in my left. Lourdes sang loudly in Mass, and a stranger once turned around to shush her. She looked up at her parents sheepishly, wordlessly asking what she should do. They smiled, and encouraged her to sing louder.

Every room in Lourdes’s house had at least one crucifix in it – the kitchen had dozens, of different size, style, and material arranged eclectically on one wall. When Lourdes and I were 13, we had our first real kiss (Lourdes kissed me once before, in second grade. At our joint First Communion reception, we stood side by side behind our cake, in my little white suit and her white dress and veil. As adults watched and took photos, Lourdes suddenly grabbed my face and kissed me on the mouth. The adults gasped and laughed, and I saw my parents’ eyes widen in alarm. Carmen and her husband were keeled over laughing, and my face grew very red. Lourdes beamed and said she did it because we “looked like bride and groom.”). In her small, pink childhood bedroom, we sat side by side on the edge of her squeaking twin bed, awkwardly held hands, and pressed our lips together. Her eyes were tightly shut – maybe she was thinking of one of the teen idols pasted on her walls. Mine were open, staring at the simple wooden cross hanging above her closet door.

As puberty arrived Lourdes and I found it difficult to reconcile how we felt with how we were told we were supposed to feel. I don’t think any of our young classmates really had to deal with these issues in the same way we did. Lourdes and I had always been physically close – not in a sexual way, but with an innocent, casual openness and comfort about our bodies. We shared beds at sleepovers, and changed clothes in the same room. We didn’t think anything of it, and neither did anyone else. That changed in middle school. Suddenly, we were learning sexual education in science class, and then an hour later learning about how premarital sex and contraception were mortal sins: transgressions severe enough to completely sever your relationship with God. Mortal sins require detailed Confession and intense penance to recover from, and even then forgiveness is not guaranteed. So we kept our hormones in check, for the most part. We would still occasionally steal away from family gatherings, say, to touch and kiss and chase that warm feeling deep in our bellies from the privacy of a bathroom or closet. Carmen would smile and shoot me knowing glances, but never said anything to Lourdes or me about it. Boys and girls in our class whispered indiscreetly about us in the hallways. Every so often, a brave one would approach us and ask what we “had done.” “Nothing,” we always lied.

In high school, the religious curriculum became a bit more explicit. A speaker from a local pro-life organization gave our class a presentation during the school’s annual Chastity Week. She described having an abortion in her teens, and how much she regretted it after coming to Christ. She called Roe v. Wade worse than the Holocaust – 11 million, versus the hundreds of millions of fetuses aborted since 1973. If you aren’t ready to get married and have kids, don’t have sex. Abstinence is not only the most effective form of birth control, it is the only righteous one, since sex without the intention of procreating is a mortal sin. Lourdes raised her hand.

“What if you get pregnant and then get married right away?”

She was describing her parents’ own relationship, a fact I had gleaned only by looking at the dates on photos from Carmen’s wedding, compared to Lourdes’s birthday.

The speaker paused for a moment and thought.

While it was certainly sinful, she said she was inclined to believe that the Lord would be more willing to forgive such a situation.

Lourdes and I began having sex soon after, when she turned 16. We knew we wanted to be married as soon as we could, and begin our lives together. Lourdes becoming pregnant seemed as good an excuse as any to do that. Either she would become pregnant and we’d marry right away with our parents’ consent, or she wouldn’t and we would wait until graduating. How we would afford to support ourselves and a child before finishing high school was not even a thought. Her parents had managed it alone – we would certainly be fine then, with their help. What my parents thought of such an arrangement was the least of my concerns.

I felt guilty every time. But only briefly. Then those feelings of shame and guilt were taken over by feelings of love and passion and thoughts of commitment. Daydreams about our future together. We talked about baby names – Gabriel for a boy, Maria for a girl. After a few months, we weren’t just hoping anymore, we were actively trying. I waited on the edge of that same twin bed where we shared our first kiss as she took pregnancy tests in the bathroom. A year of frequent sex between two apparently healthy young people, and nothing but negative tests. Her face grew more sullen with each try, month after month – eventually it grew numb, apathetic. She knew the result before she even checked.

As the situation became clear to both of us, Lourdes gradually withdrew. Over the course of several months, her typically bright disposition dulled. We stopped having sex, stopped doing most things. We continued to spend all of our time together, only now in painful, uncomfortable silence. Carmen asked me what was wrong with her daughter, if something had happened at school. I lied that I didn’t know.

A few months later, on my 18th birthday, Lourdes seemed to improve. She smiled brightly all day, and showered me with gifts. She made a cake, and sang me Happy Birthday. I didn’t remember the last time I had heard her sing. Those feelings of passion and love suddenly came flooding back, and I thought about our future together for the first time in months, though now, that future looked different. I was relieved, certain that this depression had just been a phase, a mourning period, that had already started to pass. We laid in bed together for a long time that evening. I still remember the feeling of her cheek pressed into mine as I held her. I felt her tears on my face as her breathing steadied and slowed into gentle sleep. I got up slowly, careful not to wake her, and kissed her forehead. I drove home that night hopeful.

Carmen found Lourdes's body in the bathroom the next morning. She wouldn’t tell me anything more. I assume she didn’t want me to have to live with some mental image. Still, I spent the week before the funeral in shock. I tried to scan her body for some clue as it laid in that open casket: her tiny wrists, her neck beneath her favorite silver necklace. But all I could think about was how young she looked.


The door at the front of the chapel opens suddenly, and Deacon Arthur appears. He bows at the altar, and begins removing the Eucharist and monstrance. Mrs. O’Rourke stands up from her pew and genuflects in the aisle. She smiles politely as she walks past me and out of the front doors. I check my watch. An hour has passed. A lifetime. I stand and lift the kneeler, unsure whether it is the cause of the numbness in my legs. I step into the aisle and bend my knee, touch my fingers again to my forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, and kiss my knuckle. I walk quickly out of the chapel and into the afternoon sunlight, trying not to look at the church.