Author’s Note: This is a character sketch based on a play I wrote
Michael Hurley stood at the edge of the cemetery, clutching the wilting bouquet as if it were a lifeline. Why was it so hard to be here? He’d spent the better part of his career in cemeteries, burying the young and old, well-to-do and poor alike. Death was the one equalizing force in his parishioners’ lives and he’d always been thankful for the love and solidarity he’d seen from them when mourning the lives of loved ones. Why was it so hard to be here? Because the one person who shared his grief was a complete stranger with whom he shared nothing in common. The same couldn’t be said for the woman he was here to see. Stephanie had completely understood him and the commitments that a life dedicated to God demanded. The great misfortune in his life, one of his deepest regrets, had been meeting her after he had married his college sweetheart, Marjorie. Of course, when his marriage had ended, nothing Marjorie or his parishioners had said was any worse than the thoughts that tormented him in the quiet spaces when he lay alone in his bed, unable to sleep. Eventually, the pressure Stephanie felt about being the one who came between him, his family, and his congregation had proved too much and she, too, had left. Losing everything was a just penance and he tried to accept his solitude. Life moved on, and he went through the motions of living, unable to find lasting peace. Suddenly, Stephanie returned, but the thunderbolt she brought with her the second time was far different from the one that had undone his marriage. She had stage four cervical cancer. There was no hope of recovery. Michael had felt like he’d been shot when faced with the finality of her illness, but in a moment of forced levity, she had revealed an even more stunning truth. Joking about her “lady bits” as she called them, Stephanie said the only thing they’d ever been good for was giving them a son. The only words that came out of his mouth were “excuse me?” He’d barely heard her explain that keeping Jack’s existence a secret had been the only feasible course of action at the time. Being a single mother had been difficult, but she didn’t want to add further insult to injury by expecting Michael to help her raise Jack after he’d already raised his own family. It had been for the best, and Michael knew he couldn’t really argue with that. After the divorce, he’d withdrawn into himself and wouldn’t have been a good role model or provider. He wanted to be angry, but then she showed him a picture of his son – Jack was 43 and a software designer in Seattle, and looked too much like him to not be his child. He was married to a creative writing teacher and had two daughters, aged 13 and 16. Michael had wondered how on earth he’d ever make up for lost time; prayer and careful consideration told him that he couldn’t. The only thing he could do now was make the best of the time he had left, no matter how difficult it might be. He started slowly walking along the path that led toward the gravesite, focusing on the man standing at the headstone. It would be a long way back, but in the name of solidarity, he was willing to make it work, for Stephanie’s memory if nothing else.