One Hundred and Three Steps:
Chapter from The Geography of God’s Mercy:
Stories of Compassion and Forgiveness (ACTA Publications)
By Patrick Hannon, CSC, ’88M.Div.
If you were to ask any of my brothers and sisters what they liked most about staying over at Grandma’s house on Trestle Glen in Oakland as kids, they would give you the same answer that I would: sleeping in her bed. Second maybe only to the womb, it was—at least on this side of Paradise—a place of great peace and happiness. Sleeping with Mom and Dad as a child rarely offered such lasting comfort. Dad’s feet were too cold, and he snored with such force that family legend has it that as a boy his own brothers made him sleep out in the barn on warm nights, much to the dismay of the cows and the chickens.
Like heaven, Grandma’s bed was not so much a place as it was a state of being. On those rare days—usually in the summer—when I got to spend time alone with her at her house, I couldn’t wait for nighttime, when she would lay out the last hand of gin rummy, yawn widely, and tell me to brush my teeth. Climbing into her bed and diving under the warm down comforter, I would smile broadly as I buried my face in the feather pillow and took in the sweet smell of talcum. I would fall asleep to the sounds of the ticking of the bedside clock, the barking of the neighbor’s dog, and the steady, deep breathing of a wise, old woman. I would wake up the next morning to the sound and smell of frying eggs and bacon. If there were a luckier boy on the planet, I would like to have met him.
Everything else on those summer weekends was prelude to this peace. Hours of hide ‘n’ seek with the kids in the neighborhood, trips to the Dairy Queen for ice cream, expeditions into the back yards of unsuspecting homeowners. For me, it all paled next to the peace in the fledgling soul of a kindergartner as he drifted off to sleep. At the end of my day, adventure always surrendered to the grandmotherly goodnight kiss, the smell of her talcum powder, and the cadence of her ancient breathing. And to think that one summer day I thought I had lost it all.
I was five years old with a five-year-old’s appreciation for consequences. I don’t remember why I had my grandmother’s house keys, but I did. They were a collection of shiny keys on a wide ring that she kept hung on a hook in the kitchen. My summer friends and I probably were using them as a prop for one of our games. Somehow this ring of keys found their way to the bottom of a storm drain, a good four feet or so below the heavy grate at the end of the curb near my grandma’s house. My playmates and I put our heads together and decided we needed some kind of long stick to retrieve the ring. I had just the stick. By the front door of my grandma’s house, lost among several umbrellas, was an old walking stick that once belonged to my grandpa. I quickly retrieved the old weathered piece of walnut, and we went to work.
Imagine my horror when the stick snapped on the third or fourth try at digging out the keys. The bottom third dangled there like the loose end of a broken arm. My summer friends scurried away like rats off of a sinking ship as I sat there on the curb weighing my options for repair that would be both effective and, more importantly, invisible. I tried glue, scotch tape, and thumb tacks, but nothing worked. By dusk I was dizzy with panic. I can tell you now that what scared me the most was not the licking I fully expected or the look of disappointment I anticipated on my grandma’s face when she saw the fractured walking stick. No, it was realizing that I might never get to sleep in her bed again. I simply could not face such an exile.
- * *
My grandmother lived on a cul-de-sac. Between two neighboring houses was a stone staircase that seemed to climb to heaven itself. It was there that I retreated, choosing to wait at the top of the staircase for divine intervention rather than go inside for dinner. It was the longest journey of my short life. One hundred and three steps to be exact. With each step I felt the weight of my sin grow heavier in my heart. The higher I climbed, the deeper I sunk. I don’t remember how long I sat there, but I remember it got pretty dark. I don’t even remember Grandma calling for me. One second I was alone, and the next second she was standing at the foot of the steps below looking up. I didn’t even have time to hide the broken walking stick. Her hands were pasted to her hips. She called for me to come down.
“I’M SORRY!” I yelled.
Come down, she repeated.
“I’M SORRY. I’M SORRY!” I repeated.
She began to climb the stairs. A third of the way up, she stopped.
“I’M SORRY,” I said.
She recommenced her climb. The closer she got to me, the louder I yelled.
Now she stood directly in front of me. I stood up. She took my hand and together we began our descent.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered over and over again, holding the broken walking stick in my free hand.
We walked into the house and made our way to the kitchen, where I knew she kept the long leather switch with which I would be disciplined.
“I’m sorry,” I said one last time, and tears begin to well up in my eyes.
She sat me down at the kitchen table and served me a big piece of pie.
- * *
I had fully expected to be sent to bed in the garage that night, to a cot tucked into the corner next to the water heater. Instead she fed me pie and later played gin rummy with me—she even let me win a game—and let me watch TV past my normal bedtime.
Could it be true, I thought. Could she have completely forgotten my transgression? I had been told that sometimes old people forget things, but this seemed too good to be true. When I climbed into her bed that night and listened to the steady, peaceful rhythm of her breathing, it dawned on me that something strange and mysterious was at work, something that a five-year-old’s mind simply could not comprehend. My heart raced with fury that night, even as its wound was being mended. It was only until much later in my life that I understood it was racing to keep up with the steady beat of God’s own heart. Two hearts beating as one: It was the only thing I remember hearing that night as I drifted off to sleep.
“One Hundred and Three Steps” is a chapter from The Geography of God’s Mercy:
Stories of Compassion and Forgiveness, Patrick Hannon, CSC, ’88M.Div. (ACTA Publications)