Sunday, October 29, 2017
I came upon this memoir last week, an experience I wrote about many years ago.
The heavy rain was an ocean in my face as I ran to the street corner where I hoped to find the bus back to San Giovanni Rotondo. It was late afternoon approaching evening in March, 1982, and I was in the town of Manfredonia, on the southeast coast of Italy, about 15 miles from San Giovanni Rotondo. The sky had blackened and turned to night. There was no one in sight, all had fled to some familiar shelter and I was disgruntled and a little scared to be alone.
It hadn't stopped raining on and off for days, but there'd been a long dry spell in this part of Italy and the rain was very much needed. I tried to hold up my umbrella as a shield but then I couldn't see where I was going! So I let the rain smite me. That day I had been doing research at the Manfredonia library for a book I was writing about Padre Pio, but I'd been trekking everywhere for days with camera and notebooks in the many downpours.
I waited at the bus stop. The dark wet streets sparkled with the beating rain and small Fiats darted like beetles for home somewhere near. Their passengers looked dry and comfortable inside and I felt a terrible pang as I longed for my home and my family thousands of miles across the Atlantic. There I was, waiting alone, getting drenched in a town most people never heard of, in a part of Italy most tourists never visit.
At last a bus came along with the destination "San Marco in Lamis" on the front panel--another town in the vicinity of San Giovanni Rotondo. I let it pass. Fifteen or twenty minutes later another bus with the same sign came, but I had no idea how I would get to San Giovanni Rotondo from San Marco in Lamis and I'd be just as stranded there as I was now. So I let it pass, too. The rain drummed on my umbrella and soaked my fake-fur coat, which had transformed from silky to bedraggled. Fifteen or twenty minutes later another bus came--and again, San Marco in Lamis. The driver stopped when he saw me waiting, and opened the door. I called from the curb, "When does the bus to San Giovanni Rotondo come?" "This is it," he called back.
I was stunned by my stupidity! Of course! San Marco in Lamis was the last stop after San Giovanni Rotondo, so naturally the front sign would show that as the destination.
I gladly entered, chugged down the aisle dripping water and dragging my paraphernalia, and plopped exhaustedly into a seat with a grand squish. It was quiet inside, a few scattered passengers like shadows in the dimness, sitting in relaxed contentment as if they hadn't come out of the same rain as I had. No one was talking. There was an atmosphere of, how shall I say, otherworldly travelers coming a long way, going a long way.
We wended out of Manfredonia and plunged into the dark night of the plains of Apulia. I succumbed to the safety and warmth under the lulling drill of the rain on the bus roof and windows. I could see out the driver's window, the headlights shafting the blackness of the storm, and then we were listening to the drag of the motor and the gear shifts as we steadily climbed the hairpin turns up the Gargano mountain.
The Gargano mountain, the spur of boot-shaped Italy, is ascended by millions every year for one thing only--to get to Padre Pio (1887-1968). In his lifetime, Padre Pio was known as the Holy Man on the Mountain, the saint who had the stigmata (wounds of Christ), who performed miracles, who cured. Once, they came to see the living Padre Pio; now it's his tomb. The whole Apulian area has a throbbing medieval history that faded away over the centuries, and The Gargano seemed to disappear in a primeval mist, until Padre Pio came along and put it back on the map. His Christlike love for humanity, for which, along with his stigmata, he became so famous and beloved, passionately prompted him to build a hospital on top of the mountain--which he called not a hospital but a Home for the Relief of Suffering--so the sick of the Gargano could get help immediately without the hour-long winding trip down to the plains.
We reached the top of the mountain where the road flattened out on a plateau, and soon the bus was nearing San Giovanni Rotondo. I went up front to be ready to get off, and became aware of a man and young boy sitting in the front seat behind the driver. The man stood up and peered out the driver's window. He was tall and slender, probably in his early forties, neatly dressed in a long gray coat of fine wool. He turned and spoke to me in Italian. Was I going to San Giovanni, too? Yes. I told him in my basic Italian that I was American and had come to see Padre Pio and was sojourning in San Giovanni Rotondo.
A soft smile was on the man's face. It seemed a permanent expression, a way of life. His son was ill, he explained, and he was taking him to Padre Pio. He half-turned to the young boy, about 8 or10 years old, sitting by the window of their seat, bundled in a neat coat and a knitted cap. Through the dimness of the bus light I saw a blue face looking up at me. I felt the sensation of a silent gasp and thought don't show shock! He had a thin, tender face much like his father's, and his skin and lips were totally blue--enamel blue or cadet blue or the blue flame of a gas jet. He sat patiently, no hint of pain or anxiety or fear in his eyes. Just his calm gaze on me as he saw me seeing him. I think I smiled, but it must have been weak.
The blue boy's father didn't say what was wrong with his son and in my state of sadness and shock, I didn't ask--I assumed it must have to do with his heart or lungs or blood. The father asked me questions; did the bus stop at the church, would the church be open in the evening, would they be able to go down to Padre Pio's tomb? I answered yes to everything, but I was distracted. I did not want to stare at the boy but I did not want to look away, either, as I might give him the impression he was a sight I could not bear to see. I was trying to realize the situation, settle the child's blue face in my heart and know what to say. I was suddenly emotionally involved with these true believers. They had come out of their world, wherever it was, with trust, and were not deterred from taking this slick curving mountain road in a monstrous deluge to put their prayers before Padre Pio. Padre Pio had prophesied this would happen, that the people would come to him in his tomb with their prayers, and there he would be, waiting, and he would not refuse them his intercession.
We had to switch to a local bus once in the town of San Giovanni Rotondo. Our Lady of Grace church and Padre Pio's tomb were about a mile and a half up the main road, and we waited near some shops in the piazza for the next local. I kept sliding my eyes to Blue Boy. His gaze had now become a stare of wonder. Americans encountered on a local bus south of the Gargano were not a common sight and I must have been a curiosity. All I could offer was another smile--I had to let Blue Boy know Americans can smile, because maybe I was the only USA he would ever get to see.
The bus came. . . We stood together by the front door as we slowly went up the Viale Cappuccini, the main road. My hotel stop came first and the father and I said a friendly, strangely optimistic goodbye. I dashed to the hotel porch and, still feeling as though the earth had shifted a bit, I turned immediately as I heard the bus take off and saw it diminishing up the hill into night. . .and hope.
Friends were waiting for me in the hotel and I was swept into answering questions; where had I been? In this weather? But I was thinking I would never know the outcome for Blue Boy. Was he to be one of Padre Pio's miracles . . .or one of the little suffering ones? Padre Pio had both in his camp. He had cured many children but also, either in bilocation (two places at once) while he was alive, or in an appearance after he died, he told other children that they would soon be with Jesus. As far as I could ascertain from research, just as "Our Lady of the Rosary" told the Fatima children, Francisco and Jacinta, that she would soon come for them and take them to Heaven and they were not frightened (indeed they awaited the moment even while seriously ill with the Spanish Flu, saying their rosaries as Our Lady had asked them to, to save sinners), so, too, the children who received the same message from Padre Pio did not fear that passage. Their fearlessness came from their ability to believe without doubt in Heaven.
A little more than a year later, in the June, 1983 issue of The Voice of Padre Pio (the magazine published by Padre Pio's friary), there was an item on page 15 among the many graces received through the intercession of Padre Pio; there had been a cure of a child turning blue with encephalitis.
It could have been Blue Boy!
I had never forgotten Blue Boy and his father. Even if they had not been the ones to receive that grace, their undaunted faith would go on, because, especially in children, you can't undo the imbedded faith in the heart--that is why Padre Pio wanted children to have First Communion very young, to have the spiritual power of the Eucharist before the world impressed its secularism. The faith of Blue Boy and his father was an invincible gift from God, and would keep Blue Boy in good stead. And maybe me, too. In the past year and a half my sister died, the last of family, and my health collapsed into many debilitating illnesses, all at once, one thing after the other. There were times when I felt I was waiting alone in the rain for the bus.
Physically, I am semi-incapacitated these days, and struggling with the painful reality of my sister's death. I try to remember what it's like to be able to run through rain, but my legs won't follow through with my commands, and my back rebels. Then the Blue Boy memoir I had written so long ago suddenly reappeared in a carton of old manuscripts. Reading it, I remembered how I often wondered what made me pass up two buses that rainy afternoon until Blue Boy came along? Where did this otherworldly bus come from, and why did the driver stop for me and open the door (when the previous two drivers had not) so I could call to him and he could answer "This is it."
The world is a display of supernatural things we seldom recognize or associate with the Divine. Reading my old memoir, I was on that bus again, and I am succoured.
I pray to become like little children.