Hope in the Midst of Despair By Toni Flynn

As a teen, I curled my hair with orange juice cans, wore a Miraculous Medal on a silver chain around my neck and liked to write poetry during Algebra class. Michael Thomas Horton was my classmate and best pal at St. Monica’s Catholic High School in Southern California. He was a red headed, freckle faced Venice Boy who loved to surf at Sorrento Beach and wore Hawaiian shirts to Mass on Sundays.

I first met Michael at a sock hop during our freshmen year. By the time we completed our senior year and marched up the aisle in caps and gowns to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance, we had seen each other through our respective heartthrobs and heartbreaks and had sealed a friendship that would last longer than any of our high school romances.

We kept in good touch over the decades. Eventually, we both found ourselves living, with our respective families, along the California Central Coast and visited often.

Last month, Michael died of an aggressive form of cancer. It struck. It hurt. It killed, robbing him of more precious time with his beloved wife and awesome children. It denied me more years with someone I really loved.

I took it hard.

For the rest of the month, a gauzy layer of my being, the one that filters out the full spectrum of despair, vanished. I missed three days of work, hiding in bed, dreaming fitful dreams. I was sick with a sense of my own mortality.

The morning that I finally got up and dressed and drove myself to the Steaming Bean Café, I purchased three different newspapers and darkly dissolved myself into the news of the day. Maybe I wanted to find news of things more insidious than cancer. And find it I did. From the front page to the back, stories unfolded like a child’s night terrors, bad news, sensational news, scandalous news; violent and fear invoking news.

It was all there in black ink on the paper:
Pimps scarring prostitutes who didn’t perform for enough profit. Drug dealers executing dopers who ratted on them. Homeless addicts dying in gutters, ignored, dismissed and distained. Drunk drivers passing out on their way to fatal head-on collisions. Jealous husbands beating wives and wives stabbing wayward husbands. Cocky cops banging the heads of handcuffed men on cement walls.

Young gang members driving down inner city streets in their cars, shooting rival gang members and anyone else caught in the crossfire.

Foot soldiers and airmen, returning home after multiple deployments in combat zones, departing planes in their hometown airports legless, armless, blind, scarred. Others, injured in less visible ways, feeling soulless, leaving suicide notes on their beds, putting guns to their heads and killing themselves.

Enlisted men, behind the controls of Predator Drones, striking various targets as though it were a video game, knowing that collateral damage may include innocent children and pregnant women.

Manufacturers of B-2 Bombers continuing with production so that, at a moment’s notice, the Bombers can be commissioned to fulfill the unthinkable task of delivering a nuclear payload to any place on earth.

The stories went on, each more unbearable than the previous one. I wept.

The next morning I avoided the café and the newspapers. I walked on the beach and my thoughts returned to earlier years when Michael and I were teens and the whole world - just prior to President Kennedy’s assassination - still felt innocent, at least to to us.

One hot summer night, we subversively sneaked over a wall and under a fence and into the back lots of Desi-Lu Studio where, on contrived Western sets, we scripted, directed and acted out cowboy scenarios borrowed from the real and imagined comedies and tragedies of our own young lives.

We watched James Bond movies outdoors on beach chairs at the back entrance to our local drive-in movie theatre. We tried our best to solve Sherlock Holmes mysteries on the black and white T.V. at Michael’s Granny’s house. We drove to LAX and watched planes take off and land.

Michael experienced hard times in adulthood, battling alcoholism for years before finally finding his way to recovery. He had a sense of humor and used it, rather than his fists, to overcome conflict. He once saved a drowning man’s life. He never made headlines for his achievements. He simply and humbly overcame the odds that were stacked against him and made the world a better place. He was, I think, a noble man.

When I say ‘noble’ I mean a genuine person who transcends suffering. When I looked up nobility in the dictionary, to my disappointment, found that ‘noble men’ and ‘noble women’ over the centuries, have been defined by such superficial elements as inherited title, wealth, property, privilege, prestige, rare jewels, fine clothes, silk purses, Peacock feathers and snuff. Kings, queens, lords, ladies, even bishops and popes have a history of presenting themselves in specially designed wardrobes to distinguish them from the common masses, elevate them to a ‘nobler’ status.

Even in this day and age, we still go ga-ga over the low-cut silver gowns and black tuxedos of movie stars, and the diamond laden gold crowns of queens. More disturbing and dangerous, we exalt the self-appointed 'nobles' of our era who grasp at the illusions of power, politics, money and militarism at the expense of others.

In my dictionary, right underneath the words describing 'Nobility', is the word 'Nobody’ said to mean a person of no public importance, influence or social station.

I believe that truly noble men and noble women more often than not are found among the ‘nobodies’ and in the lowest places. “A high station in life” says Tennessee Williams, “is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace”.

They’re always down there if we bother to look - there in the shadow places - the unwashed and unloved; those who live in the obscurity of low income housing, shelters, asylums, jails and prisons; who hold “I’m hungry and homeless signs” on boulevard corners or wait for rides at freeway entrances wearing tattered back packs, hanging on to their mangy dog or their string-less guitar; those who stand in unemployment lines and food lines, who sit ill and weary in county clinics and limbless in veterans hospitals; who die alone and forgotten in convalescent care facilities and AIDS hospices and on the streets.

Growing up, Michael and I had families that rated among the ‘nobodies’. And Michael was the first, and for a long time, the only friend, with whom I shared confidences about the shame of growing up in an alcoholic household where money was scarce and tempers ran high. No one … I mean NO ONE in high school dared disclose such secrets to their school mates. But I did to Michael.

Then one day, Michael entrusted me with the traumatic story of his own childhood … how, soon after his father abandoned the family - when Michael was a little guy of 6 years old - his mother went up to her bedroom and shot herself. He found her dead. It would have been understandable for Michael to become a haunted, violent, vengeful adult. Yet, instead, he grew into a loving husband, gentle father, compassionate neighbor, loyal friend, quick wit, grateful for life itself and for opportunities to love others.

So then, yes. Cancer claims lives. Despair claims lives. War claims lives. Street violence claims lives. Even so, I’m part of this weary world for better and for worse. I’ve had a few fleeting noble moments in my life where I’ve joined with others in the Catholic peace movement, crying out prophetically that it’s time to repent, that there’s blood on our hands and brokenness in our world and that we must work with God to restore things to wholeness. Really though, more often than not, I’m angst ridden, hiding in bed, hurting and afraid, wanting so much to wash my hands of the whole mess and run like blazes out of Dodge City, as though planet earth was a Western facade on a movie lot. As though I could escape responsibility.

Dark months of despair, like the one I experienced last month, do grip me on occasion. Yet hope prevails in spite of those times. As a Catholic woman, I know deep down that I’ll cling to Catholicism because of the example of nuns and other courageous Catholic women who – though denied access to the priesthood - nonetheless prevent the world from blowing to smithereens through the persistence of their prayers and good acts. And I know I’ll cling to U.S. citizenship because of rag-tag clusters of Catholic Workers and other peacemakers who, by standing visible in prophetic witness and invisible inside of jail and prison cells, call us all to non-violent action and merciful justice. Finally, I know I’ll cling to my humanity because of the noble ‘nobodies’ who transform my life. Great souls like my friend, Michael.