Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Truth Behind My Vocation

My students frequently ask me if I dated before I entered the Jesuits. I suspect they find it inconceivable that I could do anything but live in the school and focus my entire life on them and their well-being. Nevertheless, they are often interested in learning that I did date off-and-on during college.

What they don't always get is the story of why I (basically) abandoned dating. This is a story only a few of my close friends know but one I thought might be helpful to share in the interest of vocation promotion.

Many years ago, in 2001, I was an eager college senior. My roommate Jeff and I lived in a suburb of Buffalo called Tonawanda. We shared a two-bedroom apartment on Paradise Lane in the Raintree Island development. To meet the (relatively) low rent, both Jeff and I had jobs: Jeff worked overnights at FedEX and I taught grammar school Spanish in a local Catholic school and I played at Irish dancing events.

One day, Jeff told me of a young woman he had met after Mass at the parish we both attended (I had been traveling that weekend so went elsewhere). She seemed bright, vivacious, a little bit snarky (always a plus), and she had just recently been admitted to the New York State bar after her completion of law school. They had gotten to talking and the young woman actually inquired after me: she had noticed us several times as we came in for Mass, apparently, and thought me attractive. Seizing the opportunity, Jeff said that he would set up a date between us. She thought this a good idea and offered to have me over to her place for dinner.

Jeff proposed all of this to me upon my arrival and presented me with her number. I was mortified and Jeff took such glee in this that he called her and told her I'd be over for dinner that Friday evening. All week, I dreaded and fretted over this sort-of blind date. I was in discernment at the time (this is just before the 2002 sex-abuse implosion) and didn't know how dating factored into this process. I consulted with my spiritual director, who thought it a good idea to accept the dinner invitation, and so I resigned myself to going.

On the day of the dinner, I went to Canisius for classes in the morning and then went to teach my three Spanish classes. I arrived back to the apartment at 4:00 pm and decided to shower and shave before my date. I also decided to do one more thing...a fateful decision....that would, I fear, turn out to alter the course not only of the evening, but perhaps of my life.

As a senior, I realized that my hair was falling out. Being more vain in those days, I started to use Rogaine and, actually, so pretty good results from it. After six months of usage, the hair loss had pretty much stopped and Jeff commented a few times that he thought there was even some regrowth. Anyone who has used Rogaine knows that the best time to apply it (a messy procedure, to be sure) is immediately after taking a shower when the pores are most receptive. So I applied my Rogaine to the crown of my head, rubbed it in, and then prepared myself for dinner.

I arrived on-time to a lovely little house not more than three miles from our apartment. I was struck by the young woman who greeted me: she was lovely! She greeted me warmly and I gave her the bottle of wine I'd picked up at the store. I was escorted into the house - she had lived there four months, since passing the bar - and given a quick tour. As we moved through the beautifully appointed house, she even introduced me to her cat.

Dinner, she told me, was not quite finished. I was invited to sit down on her large leather couch and watch TV as she prepared the starter (a cheese tray with crackers and nuts, as I recall). We toasted with glasses of wine, chatted for a time, and began to get to know one another. As our glasses emptied, she told me to pour another glass as she put the finishing touches on our meal.

I did as I was told. Glass in hand, I sat back against the couch. The cat, apparently comfortable with my presence, began to walk along the back of the couch, pacing back and forth, brushing against my head with each pass. I continued to chat with my hostess, making small talk as she plated the food, when I became aware that the cat had stopped moving. All of a sudden, I felt it lick the back of my head - right where I had applied the Rogaine - and then all hell broke loose.

The damned cat, getting a tongue full of Rogaine. hissed madly and went careering over the back of the couch. Hissing and spitting, it rolled around on the floor, gesticulating wildly with its paws. From a third-person perspective, the scene surely was comical: me, kneeling on the couch peering over at a crazed feline with a snootful of hair medicine while an attractive attorney holding a spatula stands in the doorway, an admixture of rage and confusion.

I was terrified.

Her eyes moved from the cat to me and back to the cat. Jeff had warned me of snark (so often a veneer concealing deep rage) but I was not prepared for what was to come. Irate, she picked up the tormented tabby and bellowed at me:

"What the hell did you do to my cat?"

I could have explained. I could have reasoned with her. I could have thrown myself on the mercy of the court. Yet, how do you tell someone that you're going bald and you are willing to apply strange chemicals to your head to preserve your hair? How do you say, "Listen, ducky, curiosity plus Rogaine may well kill the cat?" I couldn't do it. Embarrassed, ashamed, and confused I did what any sensible man would have done: I grabbed my keys from the table and ran out of the house.

I was, and probably still am, a fool.

My heart racing, I ran to my Ford Escort, jumped in, and sped home. Jeff was there on the couch, eating Chinese take-out, completely amazed that I was home so early. I explained to him the saga of my hour that seemed to last a lifetime. I expected sympathy, maybe a word of encouragement or consolation. All I got was peals of laughter and him repeatedly telling me that I was a moron. At least he shared with me some of his Chinese food and then, after a couple of beers, I pitched my remaining bottles of Rogaine into the garbage. I never saw her again and Jeff never tried to make contact with her...and, to ensure this was the case, we even started attending Mass at a parish on the other side of Buffalo just to be sure that we'd never have an awkward encounter.

A decade later, I'm now 6.5 years into my life as a Jesuit. All of the hopes, the dreams, the future possibilities that were bundled up into that date have been cast into the wastebasket of history...all because of a cat. It took a cannonball to begin Saint Ignatius's spiritual transformation; the impoverished of Calcutta transformed Mother Teresa's heart. For me, it was the curiosity of a feline that forever altered the course of my life.

So there is the untold story of my vocation. Truth be told, I guess I'd not have it any other way that my dating life be etched with a completely absurd episode. Some of us are sensitive souls whom God can mold and craft with minimal effort...I am no such soul and require, as I see time and again, sledgehammers and pick-axes to make a dent. Then again, perhaps I exaggerate...for in this case, all it took was the inquisitive tongue of a cat to help me in my discernment of what my heart truly desired!

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