Photo: Felix Carroll
Not by Sight, But By Faith
Wayne, with his father, Melvin, squints through thick glasses. As the years went by, his eyeglasses would get thicker and thicker, and the world around him would grow darker — in more ways than one.
The following is an excerpt from Marian Press' new release, Lost Loved, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions, by Felix Carroll:
His retinas take in nothing more than a little light set against shadow. His blind man's cane click-click-clicks out ahead of him, probing for clear passage on unfamiliar terrain, out onto the rocks at water's edge at Belmont Harbor where he has come to kill himself.
How will he do it? He'll take one last breath, exhale, and simply jump off the rocks and go under. He'll sink to the bottom, open his mouth, fill his airways with water and let his bodily reflexes foolishly fight for his survival. That's the plan, anyway.
Cough. Yes, he'll cough underwater. He'll have to. His body will attempt to get that water back out where it belongs, back into that huge lake whose luminescent green-blues he could make out up until the age of eight, when he last could see color, back before his sense of humor grew scornful, back when he first sensed life would not be easy.
Breathe in. The body will fight to survive. The mind will fight to die.
He's always been hardheaded. The mind will win this one, he'll tell himself. But first he'll have to yield to this one final offense — having to breathe when he no longer wants to breathe. His body will want to draw in air; it will discover only water. It'll be of no use.
Will it hurt? He doesn't know. Maybe he'll go unconscious before it does. Maybe he'll go into cardiac arrest. The Chicago Tribune will probably publish a small item on it, right? About how the body of a 40-year-old blind man was fished out from Lake Michigan. The newspaper blurb will be cut to fit depending on who was murdered that day or which politician was charged with graft.
Maybe the discovery of his body will garner 150 words? Maybe 200? What's the suicide of a blind man worth in editorial space?
The tip of his cane finally slaps against water. It's snowing, isn't it? Yes it is. He turns back around and can make out the broad-shouldered skyline of Chicago. It really is magnificent, isn't it? All those vertical lines from here to the heavens, plumb against the gush of light from a November sky.
Somewhere in that maze of streets — all that steel and pavement, all those doorways, all those voices, all those shadows he mistakes for solid objects, and all those solid objects he mistakes for shadows — is the wife he no longer loves. And a 5-year-old son he loves, but not enough to overcome his self-pity and despair. And fools who believe in God.
When he hesitates, he hears a voice: "Don't think about it, just do it!" the voice says.
He sets down his cane, takes in a deep breath like he's smelling a bouquet of roses, and then he exhales as if he's blowing out his birthday candles.
He jumps. He disappears under the surface.
+ + +
Directly behind the ark that holds the Torah scrolls in the reformed Jewish temple of his youth, Wayne Smith one day discovered a small closet, and inside that small closet was a soft drink machine. He was the temple goffer, an energetic boy who sought to please. From then on, while worshippers assembled each week presumably in reverence to the Torah and the Word of God, he was thinking about a Coca-Cola. Behind all the solemnity and ritual of the Sabbath — literally behind all those written laws of the Torah, all those dizzying lists of faceless names and foreign tribes, all those covenants and reckonings, comings and goings, sin and death, punishment and wrath — there was something sweet and simple: a soft drink. All the wonders of the Lord, whatever they might be, couldn't stand a chance.
Long before he convinced himself there was no reason to be on this earth, Wayne Smith had convinced himself there was no reason to believe in God. It was 1959, to be precise. He was 14 years old. The facts were stacked in his favor. These people, neighbors and friends, gathered at the temple each week, but why? Out of faith? Because of tradition? Or worst, for appearances only?
Whatever the case, his mother would lead him and his younger brother Gary to temple each week. He learned Scripture. A bit, anyway, and he wasn't encouraged to ask too many questions. He and Gary giggled when their mother would lay an elbow into the ribcage of their snoring father. That was all fine. But then it wasn't all fine.
Any kid who's curious about life and how to live it eventually asks the big questions, the obvious questions. And if you're a sensitive kid who discovers a soft drink machine behind the Torah, it stands to reason you'll begin to chaff at taking large matters at face value.
Maybe as his sight progressively worsened his hearing became acute. He tuned in when the rabbi gave a particularly searing sermon, like the one concerning the sin of gossip. The Hebrews have their own lexicon for the degrees of damage inflicted by the evil tongue. Lashon Hara: any derogatory or damaging statement. Rechilut: any communication that generates animosity between people. Look what happened to the prophetess in the Book of Exodus when she spoke ill against Moses because of his choice for a wife. God punished her with leprosy. It's right there in Scripture, Wayne would think to himself. Could it be any clearer?
So what happened after this fiery sermon? Wayne was out in the lobby of the temple, and what does he hear? It seemed like in almost every conversation — gossip, whispers, the wagging of tongues.
Religion? This is where the hope of humanity resides?
There's a good life to be had for those who follow God's commandments and eagerly await Him?
"This is garbage," Wayne thought to himself. "There's no God. People come here because it's a tradition or because it's socially obligatory. It means nothing to them. There's no presence of God here."
+ + +
He's fully clothed. The water bears down upon his body. He's sinking. The water temperature has to be somewhere in the low 40s, right? But he's not cold. Amazing, isn't it? Not cold at all!
+ + +
The year he blows out 14 candles, he wishes for a medical breakthrough. Fourteen years old and he's already figured everything out. He's sharp as a tack, proud of his bold conclusions, a raw recruit to the bottomlands of atheism.
Fourteen years old, and his world is about to be rocked. Neither his father nor his mother accompanied him on his eye appointment. Wayne wasn't surprised that his father declined to take him; Wayne felt he never measured up to his father's expectations. Rarely could Wayne even catch a baseball. But his mother? Marital problems seemed to have rearranged her priorities. Wayne took the bus downtown by himself. After a quick exam, his ophthalmologist didn't pussyfoot around.
"What do you know about your disease?"
Not much, was the answer. He knew his grandfather had the same disease, but still his grandfather elected to marry and have children. His grandfather was an attorney. He had friends. He lived a full life.
Called retinitis pigmentosa, the disease — a congenital deterioration of the retina — is hereditary. Armed with new genetic information — not all of it accurate — the doctor informed Wayne that because his condition is hereditary, if he were to have male children they'd have the disease and if he had female children, they'd be carriers of the disease. Oh, and within 20 years, Wayne will see nothing but shadows and light, and even those he'll see only barely.
When Wayne walked out of the doctor's office onto Michigan Avenue, he felt like he had just been given a death sentence. He was going to be blind. Lights out.
He had forsaken Judaism, and there was no God. He was alone on Michigan Avenue, and his future literally was going to be very dark.
+ + +
"Woe unto me."
Didn't Job say that?
"Woe is me now."
Didn't some woman in Leviticus say that?
What's her name?
+ + +
In school, his affliction increasingly stood out. He wore thick glasses — bottle-glass thick. He could only see through the very center of his lenses, so his head had this natural movement, bobbing and weaving, in an effort for his eyes to piece together a fuller picture of the world before him. Some of the kids took sadistic pleasure in imitating his involuntary head movements. Sometimes they'd be met with a punch. Wayne had a handicap, true. But he also had a temper and zero tolerance for jerks. Thusly, he spent plenty of time sitting on the radiator in the principal's office. He was a battler.
+ + +
Water isn't gushing into his lungs as he expected. He rises to the surface and treads the choppy water. He's not chickening out. Not at all. He's determined for the waters to take him. It's Lake Michigan after all. Ships have gone under here. Lots of them: steamers, schooners, car ferries, yachts.
People drown in these waters every year. Even in the calm waters of summertime. Therefore, drowning on purpose should be a cinch, shouldn't it?
He exhales deeply and disappears till there's nothing but the choppy waves of Lake Michigan, notoriously reluctant to give up its dead.
To learn how Wayne was shown mercy and then chose life instead of death, read Loved, Lost, Found. To order, visit our online catalog.