My father, Ralph McInerny, died five years ago this week. Early in the morning on the last full day of his life – appropriately, the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas – he received Anointing and Viaticum. Later that morning, with some effort, he sat up in bed with a clipboard set against his knees and wrote the last sentence he would ever compose: “I commend my soul to God.”
Ralph McInerny, of course, wrote many sentences in his life, not a few of them in his capacity as one of the founders and regular contributors to The Catholic Thing. Indeed, throughout his final illness he prided himself on never missing his deadline. One morning, when he was still able to be at home but not feeling at all well, I watched him as he got up from his meager breakfast and, in bathrobe and slippers, plunked down in his easy chair with his laptop and pounded out his column. Not out of some Stoic sense of duty, but out of pure joy. What Aristotle says in the Metaphysics found a marvelous illustration in him: “The activity of mind is life.”
My memories of my father become especially poignant at this time of year and dwell upon his final days. Which in a way isn’t fair. I am blessed with storehouses full of other memories of him to contemplate – memories of him in his prime as husband, father, grandpa, philosopher, writer. Yet the crucible of the last stages of his illness commands attention. Not so much because the pain of that trial remains acute, but rather because his final days summoned the very best of his many virtues, in particular his faith, his courage, and his (often mordant, always punny) sense of humor.
That being said, the other day as I was reading an essay of Walker Percy’s, “Another Message in the Bottle,” a much older memory came to mind. Percy himself is remembering his father and the way he read aloud to Percy as a boy Kipling’s Jungle Book and Stevenson’s Treasure Island. That took me back to 1969-70, when I was five years old and our family was living in Rome during one of my father’s sabbatical leaves from Notre Dame. That year my older brother David and I, along with my sister Beth, shared a large room in our crowded apartment on via Ugo Balzani, and in the evenings my father would read aloud to us from Treasure Island.
I remember him sitting up in the middle of the bed with the three of us draped around him riveted to the tale of young Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. I owned at the time a broadsword made of heavy plastic which I always brought along with me to these family readings, and whenever the story reached a pitch of excitement I would grab the sword and go scampering with it down the narrow hallway calling for blood and treasure.
Percy is right that reading aloud, especially to children, allows for re-creation in the imagination that is a thousand times more real and present than what we find on TV or at the movies. The fear I shared with Billy Bones of that one-legged man possibly knocking on the door of the Admiral Benbow Inn has remained vividly with me for nearly half a century, while untold hours of mindless television have swirled down the drain unnoticed and unmissed.
What is not generally known about my father is that he wrote bedtime stories of his own. The ones I remember best featured Granny One-Tooth and her grandson Roy Boy and his dog Rabelais. Joining them were the detectives Mr. Grim and Mr. Gram, not to mention Sheriff Omar (for you newcomers, that’s “Omar Sharif” backwards). The mystery in one of the episodes was solved when someone ran a strand of Granny One-Tooth’s silver hair through the spools of an old tape recorder, revealing the crucial hidden clue.
It is no accident, argues Percy in the essay mentioned, that the novel is almost exclusively a creature of Christendom:
The fact that novels are narratives about events which happen to people in the course of time is given a unique weight in an ethos that is informed by the belief that awards an absolute importance to an Event which happened to a Person in historic time. In a very real way, one can say that the Incarnation not only brought salvation to mankind but gave birth to the novel.
The novel is the genre of ordinary time, which must mean – as every Catholic can appreciate – that the novel is the genre of the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. Both Percy and, before him, G.K. Chesterton, clearly perceived that Christian culture’s decline in the West had resulted in a similar decline in the art of the novel. Percy speaks of the post-modern novel’s loss of narrative and characterization. Making the same point in different words, Chesterton (in his essay, “On Philosophy versus Fiction”) talks about the way the modern novel lacks purpose, “in the medieval sense of a fruition.”
I believe my father was drawn to writing detective stories and thrillers because he saw that these more popular genres are still animated, whether their practitioners are conscious of it or not, by a Christian ethos. He understood that in such stories the extraordinary breaks in upon the ordinary often in the form of a break-in. But he also understood that this surface thrill could be the beginning of an even more thrilling adventure, an adventure in which the novel serves as a treasure-map leading us to the deepest truths of our human being.
This is a voyage that I am still on, but in hope I look forward to the day when I will rendez-vous with my father on Treasure Island.