Lights in My Life

Author: James Stephen Behrens

I was reading in an old lawn chair behind a barn at the monastery. At my feet lay scattered a few magazines and journals — and a single page I had printed from the Internet edition of The New York Times. It was a beautiful fall morning. The skies were clear and a deep blue. An occasional jet flew overhead, on its way to the Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta. As I looked up, I thought of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the field in Pennsylvania. I do not think that I have seen an aircraft since 9-11 without thinking of all those people, the destruction, the pain.

I leaned down and picked up the sheet I had printed from the _Times_’ website. Every morning I read the “Portraits of Grief” section in the Times. It features those who lost their lives on September 11. I am always taken by the power of ordinary lives. On this morning I recognized the name Charles Austin McCrann.

I did not know his middle name was Austin. I knew him as Charlie McCrann. I had read the portrait on the screen of my monitor, then had clicked on the name and saw his picture, a photograph of an older Charlie, his light hair brushed neatly across his forehead, his smile warm and yet shy. I knew it was the kid I grew up with, the kid who lived across the street from me all through grammar school and high school — the kid that me and my twin Jimmy and our next door neighbor Peter spent summer evenings with, all through the 1960s on Charlie’s front porch, laughing and joking and taking on all the problems of the world and settling them like four kings with no opposition at all.

Charlie worked on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center and probably never knew what hit the building that day. He was married and had two children. We had parted ways after high school. All of us had. By the end of the ’60s, Charlie was at Yale, Peter was going to a different university than either of us, and my twin, Jimmy, had already been dead four years. He died in a car accident in May 1966. Perhaps after that summer, the summer of ’66, the laughing was not as frequent, but it was still there. In some ways, I know it still is, along with the sadness.

Montclair is a suburb in northeastern New Jersey. It is a beautiful town, about a 40-minute drive west from Manhattan. Montclair is the home to many who work in New York City. We lived in a Dutch colonial house on Christopher Street, a long, tree-lined street of large homes, many with spacious front porches. There was one such porch across the street from our house. That porch stretched across the front of Charlie McCrann’s house. It had a slate floor, and there were four green chairs with canvas seating and backing that were lined against the wall. Holly bushes were across from the chairs and the bushes were green all year round. In the evenings a street light burned brightly in front of the house. The porch offered a good view of the street and our houses across the way.

As we talked, I could see my parents and grandma and brothers and sisters move from room to room in our house. I would watch them glide past the windows as we chatted the night away. On nights when I still think of the past and the warmth of those nights, I do not think of the weather but of the movement through those windows of those I loved, those who named me and clothed me and fed me and put up with me.

On summer nights Charlie held court on that porch with me, Jimmy and Peter. We must have spent thousands of hours there, talking and laughing our way through the events of the early ’60s — the years of war and Goldwater and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Kennedys and of seething racial conflicts that would erupt into flames in a few years. We discussed everything. We had answers for everything. Nothing was beyond our inspection or youthful zaniness. We would laugh and talk, watching the cars pass by on the street in front of the house and watching people pass by their windows.

I know now that I did not see the pain involved in all the movements of those years. I knew that there was death and terrible things, but I could not imagine the pain of it all. My eyes were so fixed on the movements right in front of me — my family as they passed by in the yellow lights of night windows, the movements of thousands of moths swirling like mad around the street light, a car passing, people walking by. Strange, now that I am much older, people sometimes tell me that my thoughts often seem far away, in another place or time. Some strains of wisdom urge us to stay focused on the present moment; even Jesus said as much. But there is so much in the present as gift from the past, from porches and softly lit rooms through which I feel some sort of peace as my heart’s eye sees, remembers, and looks again and again, before I fall off to sleep.

Charlie was, in the early ‘60s, a student at George Innis Junior High School in Montclair. Jimmy and Peter and I were in the eighth grade at Immaculate Conception grammar school, the school of our Catholic parish. Charlie had an older brother, Tom. He was quiet; we did not get to know him all that well. Emmet and Betty were Charlie’s parents, a gentle easygoing couple who impressed us back then as being the richest people in the universe but who did not have a need to show it. They called Charlie “Charles,” and we guffawed every time Mrs. McCrann smiled in wonder at Charlie and then looked at us, beaming, and said, “That’s our Charles.” No sooner would she vanish from sight when we howled “Our Charles, our Charles, our Charles” in a chorus which drove Charlie crazy. Then he punched the three of us on our arms and threatened to throw us into the holly bushes. We would calm down and wait a while before starting the chorus once again.

Mr. and Mrs. McCrann lived private and quiet lives. When we were on the porch trashing the world, they were in their living room, reading the evening papers and maybe wondering how best to save what we were so gleefully tearing to pieces. We never cursed in front of them. Charlie was super polite with them, which I suppose was a good and son-ly thing to do. We always told him that his real self was with us. His ribald, crazy, funny self blossomed through us, and he seemed most at ease with us. We told him that we brought the best out of him and that he would always be grateful to us for that. He punched us again when we said as much.

Peter was my next-door neighbor. We grew up together. He was the first person I met when we moved to Montclair from Hempstead, Long Island, in the summer of 1957. He had recently moved from Teaneck, a place I had never heard of, and walked through some bushes over to our house as we were moving in. I remember sitting with him on the back steps of our house. He had broken both his arms when he was climbing a tree and the limb snapped off the tree and he held onto the limb as he and it crashed to the ground. He had the casts on, the old plaster kind, and as he spoke to me on the back porch of our house he picked away at the edge of the casts where they were soft and frayed. His smile and laugh were contagious. I can see him now, looking at me and smiling and telling me that he hoped we would become friends, as we surely did.

I look back and remember those summer nights we would play basketball or just shoot baskets at Charlie’s house. He had a good, flat court at the end of the driveway. I was never that good at shooting baskets. Jimmy, Charlie and Peter were really good but put up with my lack of talent. Spotlights shed a generous amount of light, so shooting at nighttime was easy. After an hour or so of playing, we would go back to the porch and chat until late. Sometimes Mom or Dad called me and Jimmy home. I can still hear their voices, calling that it was late and we should come home and get to bed. And so me and Jimmy said goodnight to Charlie and Peter and ran across the street and into our house. And soon we were upstairs, passing a last cigarette back and forth as we leaned out the third-floor window, not saying much to each other but looking at the lights of Manhattan way off in the distance.

Jimmy always got annoyed if I “lipped” the cigarette. We smoked nonfiltered Pall Malls pilfered from Mom and Dad, and it was easy to turn the drag end of the cigarette into a soggy mess with a sloppy inhale. Jimmy would look at me and say, “You lipped it, idiot. You wrecked it,” as he squeezed the soggy end of the cigarette to better inhale through the muck I made. We would spit on the glowing ember, making sure that with the hiss and sputter of the spit hitting the ember that it was out, and then flick the butt into the darkness. And then we would crawl into our beds and fall off to sleep.

There was an article in America, the Jesuit weekly magazine, praising the efforts of The New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief” to give warmth and recognition to the lives of ordinary men and women who perished on the 11th. That article lay at my feet that morning behind the barn. Light shone all around me, and I closed my eyes and thought of other lights that burned so brightly a long time ago — the light that is laughter on a porch, the light of my home and Jimmy’s eyes, the lights of Manhattan and a soggy cigarette butt flicked into the darkness of night.

It is late and I should get some sleep. But I will watch life with my heart’s eye tonight and feel sad but grateful. Sad that Charlie and Jimmy are gone. Grateful for Peter, who will read this before he sleeps tonight. Grateful for all the lights we never asked for but were given all along. Grateful for Charlie and Jimmy and for all who were real lights as we grew up. And above all I am grateful for the light that will come some day, and call us all home. I hope there is a porch or two there.

James Behrens is a Catholic priest who now resides in Covington, Louisiana. His most recent book is Memories of Grace.

Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002