One of our neighbors, Mr. O’Connor had passed away and my family got me dressed up in my best Sunday clothes to attend his funeral. He was a warm and wonderful man who always went out of his way to make sure that he held the door for any of the residents who were entering the building. He was a person whom we called a “gentleman.”
Mrs. O’Connor was similarly caring and always made sure to ask all the kids in the building how we were doing at school. She was a retired teacher and was passionate about her life’s work. I remember her telling my friend Timmy who was struggling with his spelling that she would be happy to help him if he wanted some extra assistance.
Mr. O’Connor’s was the first funeral that I attended. His Requiem Mass was a solemn high celebration at St. Jean Baptiste Church, a wonderful, traditional building that inspired awe because of its massive size, its excellent stained glass windows and the many candles that flickered at all the side altars. But the thing that I remembered most about that funeral was that I would no longer see Mr. O’Connor’s smile or hear his happy voice. Ever.
Several nights later, mom came quickly into my room and sat on my bed. Apparently I had been yelling in my sleep. She asked me if I were alright – but I didn’t want to tell her the subject of my nightmare. After a few minutes I lay back down but the rest of the night my sleep was troubled.
From the time I was in third or fourth grade I realized that my interests were different from those of most of my classmates. Different doesn’t imply better or worse – simply, different. I would rather spend my free time reading or listening to classical music than playing hopscotch or jacks or softball. While that didn’t involve me with my classmates in many of their pursuits, I was normally the person to whom they turned when they were stuck on a math problem.
In class I was usually one of the first to raise my hand and was typically one of the last to be selected for a team when we chose up sides. So I was “different” but I had a voice and I wanted to sing with it. And then came the nightmare. I can only believe that the genesis for it was both Mr. O’Connor’s funeral and my childhood experience with my peers. While I never shared the nightmare with my parents I remember it today as vividly as when I first had it.
I was in a glass coffin which had been buried in Times Square. I could see through the sidewalk but apparently the passersby had no idea I was there since, despite my yells telling the pedestrians who walked directly over me that I was underneath their feet, no one took notice. The nightmare was centered around this horrible sense of isolation and inability to communicate.
As I look at the country and the world today, I am honestly grateful that I lived most of my life at a time when there were people like my parents and Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor. They were courteous and generous people – not unlike the vast majority of those whom I met on a daily basis. Perhaps they have disappeared because we took their behavior and them for granted.
We have come to believe that the only proper use of the word “civil” is as a modifier for the noun “litigation.” We talk incessantly and say very little that is meaningful. We addict ourselves to media which celebrate the trivial, the mundane and the vulgar and wonder why there is so much rude behavior, violence and mayhem in our society.
As a child, I realized that I was “different” and that caused me to have nightmares. The only thing that has changed in that equation is that I have come to terms with my individuality and I sleep much better. As I view the alternative option, I think I’m in a decent place and am firmly resolved to stay there. And to those of you who, like me, miss the civility of former years and feel estranged in our new world, take heart. We may be few in number – but we are not alone.
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”
― Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”