“Sacred Heart” by Steven Coughlin

Steven Coughlin


I miss praying Hail Marys with my father as we rode in his oversized El Camino
whenever an ambulance sounded in the distance. I miss my mother knocking

on my door each Sunday morning, 8 a.m., insisting it was an insult to Jesus Himself
if I did not get out of bed. There was the white cassock I wore as an altar boy.

The Feast of the Ascension when Tom Carter, yawning wide,
dropped the thirty-pound wooden cross. I miss Father Barry’s horrified gasp.

Everyone was Irish-Catholic; everyone pretended not to know each other’s secrets:
Mr. O’Shea, always in a green blazer on Sunday, who walked out on a wife

and seven children to a start a new life with a twenty-three-year-old florist.
The girl sitting beside me in eighth grade had hair so fiercely red

I couldn’t ignore the crude thoughts intense as sun flares. I miss Sister O’Connor,
eighty years old, blind in one eye, explaining the function of each bead on the rosary

as David Henry drew stick figures engaged in sexual acts none of us quite understood.
I will never miss walking to school in ninth grade terrified the distant sky

judged my every thought, or kneeling before my bed praying obsessively,
working myself to tears—three Our Fathers for each person I knew who had died.

I will never forgive Monsignor O’Neil for instructing me to say the Act of Contrition
as penance for kissing Sara Lyons in the backyard while her parents watched television.

But there was the annual church bazaar where my father, so often angry,
ran a ping-pong shooting booth looking foolishly kind in a torn felt hat.

And in eleventh grade Father Hickey called our house—my mother answering
the old black rotary telephone—to ask if I’d come out of altar-boy-retirement

to serve Sacred Heart’s centennial celebration. There was the red cardigan
my mother bought, her hair done proudly, and me ringing the chimes

one final time as Father Hickey raised the Holy Eucharist.
I miss the familiarity of the uncomfortable wooden pews, Father Kearns’ sermons,

which oversimplified all human behavior to right and wrong.
I miss the certainty of my unquestioned belief in the Trinity.

And when my mother was dying, I miss Father Hickey—whom I had not seen
in fifteen years, his back now hunched with age—driving to my parents’ house.

There was the dignity of my mother’s Last Rites. How we formed a circle around her,
my father’s cheeks red with grief, as Father Hickey recited the 23rd Psalm.

I miss holding my mother’s still-living hand those minutes before her lungs stopped,
that long hour we waited for the undertaker as her forehead cooled,

and how in the empty silence beside my mother’s body I allowed myself—
once again—to repeat every useless prayer she had taught me as a boy.

from Rattle #40, Summer 2013


Steven Coughlin: “If my twenties were somewhat clouded by a resentment toward the Catholic church, my thirties have been colored by a strong longing for the lost rituals of my youth.”

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