When I was growing up, my maternal grandmother was one of my best friends. Nana and I were close, not just in spirit, but in proximity. I lived for most of my early life just a few doors away, and I visited her almost every day, sometimes for breakfast and sometimes for a snack of soda and pretzels after school.
Back in those days, my parents didn’t always get along, so I would often do my homework at Nana’s house. It was a respite from all the arguing that often punctuated the days and nights at my own home.
As I sat in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen working through my math, I’d take breaks and listen to her tell stories about growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression. Her family was poor, but they had fun with the little they had, she would always say. Once in a while, she would help me forget my troubles by dancing a bar or two of an Irish jig.
I continued making my daily pilgrimage to Nana’s house as I grew older, throughout high school and college, and even after I started my New York City career in publishing. I stayed local, and while I never really thought about it until just now, I may have never gone too far from home because I always wanted to be near her.
One evening after work, I was walking from the train station to Nana’s. As I crossed the street, I heard her calling out to me in a panic. She was leaning out her living room window, her face contorted in grief. “Grace has been calling you. Her father had a heart attack and died. Go to her, Gary. Go to her!”
Grace was my girlfriend at the time (and would become my wife a couple of years later). I was in shock. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cellphone. Earlier, I had switched the ringer to silent mode and had forgotten to turn it back on (this was back in the day, before we had become addicted to checking our phones every few minutes).
Ten messages flashed on the screen. I raced to my car, and as I did, I could hear my grandmother calling out to me, “Go to Grace! Pray for Grace!”
Fumbling with my keys, I cranked the ignition and pulled away. My heart seemed to dislodge from my chest — broke in two — and began pounding in my temple. I sped toward Grace’s home, blowing through traffic lights, flipping through my phone and listening to her messages.
She was crying, and it was often difficult to understand her. But I was able to make out how her father had felt ill at work, how her mom and brother took him to the hospital, how Grace stayed behind to make soup for when he got home, and how he had died in the hospital as doctors tried to resuscitate him. She never got to say goodbye to him.
As I drove, I remembered that Grace’s father’s favorite saint was Jude. I started praying to the patron saint of lost causes for help. “St. Jude, please make this all a big mistake. Please save him. Please, St. Jude. Help.”
When I arrived at Grace’s house, I was still holding out hope that the news was wrong. But when she opened the door, I stepped into the living room and saw everyone in her immediate family in tableau, a living portrait of shock and grief.
In a split second, it became evident that my prayer to Jude had not been answered.
Jude, also known as Thaddeus, was one of the 12 original apostles. He doesn’t get much face time in the New Testament (he asks Jesus a question in the Gospel of John: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” and there is a letter attributed to him known as the Epistle of Jude).
Nonetheless, he has become the patron saint of desperate situations. Jude is often depicted with a flame, signifying the sacred fire of the Holy Spirit, over his head. He carries an image of Jesus over his heart, and in his left hand he carries a staff as a symbol of his martyrdom.
What happened to Grace’s father, Bert, was way beyond a hopeless cause. There was seemingly no possibility for a miracle, but we were all still hoping for one, praying this was all a big joke and he would walk through the door and shout, “Surprise!”
That never happened, but the anticipation was so very real. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Grace’s family and I were experiencing the first and second stages of grief: denial mixed with anger. This can’t be happening. How could God allow this? Where was Jesus in all of this?
Of course, I have no answers to those questions. But in the days that followed, while God often seemed far away, Jude seemed to be close at hand, watching over Grace’s family, offering all of us not miracles, but consolation and strength precisely when we were at our lowest.
This came through random acts of kindness from strangers, flashes of peace, inspiration from Jude prayer cards given to the family by neighbors, and certain odd occurrences. One possible moment that seemed to be divinely inspired happened on the day of the funeral.
The family had been sitting around the dinner table, talking about the church service earlier in the day. At one point, the conversation invariably turned to Jude. Grace’s father’s beeper — more common than cellphones in 1997 — went off.
Grace’s brother checked the pager to see who was calling, and the number on the device indicated the call was coming from their house. Eerily, no one there was near a phone.
To this day none of us know what happened, but we like to think Grace’s father and Jude were reaching out to remind us: “Even in hopeless cases, do not fear, for I am always with you.”