Today all I really wanted to do was to sit on the front porch with my sweetheart, drinking beer out of the cooler -- for breakfast, even, this sounded like a good idea. I often wonder about this Sunday-as-day-of-rest thing, because if ever there were a day made to wring me out and hang me up to dry, it is Sunday. Up and out, with children, for choir practice at 8:20, Mass at 9, and after that an hour with miscellaneous second-graders. By noon I'm generally in such a state of exhaustion that I start falling asleep at the kitchen table, over my after-church coffee; I then stagger to the nearest couch and wake up in time to wish that someone else had made dinner. Even then I don't feel rested. I feel undead.
First Communions were yesterday, and today the children wore their finery to church again, so that everyone who hadn't been there for the actual event could see who had been there. Over the years I have begun to develop theories pertaining to the peculiar universe of First Communion: for example, the smaller and scrappier the girl, the bigger and poofier and more unspeakably princessy the dress. Also: the more enthusiastic the student -- as in, the more likely to write the teacher love letters and beg every week to erase the board after class -- the faster the disappearance once First Communion is over and done with. I tell them it's not graduation. I tell them that we call it First Communion for a reason; First implies that there will be a second, at the very least. I say these things, but I say them in vain, and this morning my gussied-up children were thin on the ground.
This morning, too, something happened which was the reverse of my law of diminishing returns, and I hope it's not going to become a law in itself. What happened was this: I have had in my class many lovely children this year, and among them was a particularly lovely little girl whom I'll call Jocelyn. I assure you that's not her real name. It's actually the name of my classroom assistant, but I'm sure she won't mind be impersonated just this once. Anyway, this little girl Jocelyn was the kind of child you mark out early in the year as the girl you'd pray to win, in a random drawing of names, the opportunity to carry in the crown of flowers for Our Lady, with the fancy pillow, wearing the special blue cloak of honor, at the First Communion Mass: a smiling, cheerful, well-behaved, helpful child who answered questions and gave the general impression of actually liking to be in class.
There was weirdness in the air around Jocelyn from the beginning, however. For some reason, she never did show up on my official attendance sheet, even after several rounds with the DRE and the church secretary and heaven knows who else. We all ascertained that she belonged in my class, having taken the requisite first-grade catechism class, so I just kept writing her in and counting her present. That is, I counted her present until suddenly she was absent.
And absent, and absent, and absent. The rest of the class made their First Confessions, in drips and trickles and dabs, until at last (like, last week) they'd finally all gone. All except Jocelyn. Nobody knew where she was. I talked to the DRE about her. The DRE talked to the church secretary, who tried to call her parents. The number we had on file didn't work. Nobody seemed to know anything about her or her family. She just wasn't there. And then she wasn't there some more.
By last weekend, when we held a morning retreat for the First Communion class, we'd written her off. The family must have moved. People do come and go, as if under cover of darkness, so that when somebody doesn't show up for weeks at a time, you begin to assume that they're gone for good.
But then, this morning, out of the blue, there Jocelyn was, in her gray hoodie jacket, her hair still damp from the shower when I hugged her. There she was, in her gray hoodie jacket, surrounded by little girls in poofy white dresses and veils, looking understandably disoriented. We got through class -- we spent most of it praying the rosary, to practice for the dedication of the church rosary garden next Sunday -- and then I went and found the DRE in the hall outside the church kitchen and said, "All right, I'm going to cry right now."
Before I could begin my cry, however, someone pulled at my sleeve. It was Jocelyn. She said, "Um, why was everyone else wearing white this morning?"
And I had to tell her, that sweet child, that she'd missed it.
Hopefully she hasn't missed it for long. Even as I was speaking to her, the DRE was swooping down on her parents with, I believe, leaflets about Confession in several languages, and then going straight to Father to try to arrange something.
Still, there was something about the way she asked the question -- Why was everyone wearing white? -- and her wavery smile, and the brightness of her dark almond eyes -- that was, I think, the bravest thing I've seen in a long time. I'm going to watch Foyle's War now with my sweetheart, up late together in the quiet house, but all night, I think, I'm going to think about Jocelyn.