“There he is,” he said. “There’s my man.”
I was surprised when he called me “my man.” It showed he cared for me a lot more than I knew.
“So, Father. What’s up now?” I asked.
“I’m going to go up there,” he replied as he pointed to the sky, “And I’m hanging out with the big guy upstairs.” I think he knew that he didn’t have that much time left because he was getting old and had been ill. But he was trying be upbeat about it. This was just another classic moment that showed Father Ryan’s optimism.
Father Ryan died a few months later, though I still don’t know why. I heard that it was complications from having diabetes, but I never got any confirmation of that. But it doesn’t matter that I don’t know because either way, he’s gone.
When I learned that Father Ryan had died, I felt sad and angry. But what I felt most was guilt. I felt guilty for all the things that I didn’t do—like stop my excessive cussing, which he always pointed out to me. It’s a hard thing to realize that there are no more second chances after someone’s died.
I was already an altar boy when Father Ryan came to our church, St. Mary Elizabeth Korean Catholic Community Center, in 2002. During his first homily, which is the time during the mass when the priest discusses the day’s Bible scripture, Father Ryan noted that he would be speaking about Jesus staying in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. But because of his thick Irish accent it sounded more like “farty days and farty nights.”
I laughed so hard that I had to put my head down because I didn’t want Father Ryan to see. But soon enough, everyone in church was giggling and laughing. It took about a month for the whole church to get used to his accent.
One of the reasons I love Father Ryan is because he made such an effort to try to connect with me. He would always talk to me about sports and politics while other people read the first or second Readings.
“Kevin … do you watch soccer?”
“Not really, Father,” I replied, “But I watch basketball!”
“Oh,” he said seeming kind of disappointed.
Then I noticed that he was concentrating deeply and I just looked at him, wondering what he was thinking about. It seemed like forever when he finally looked at me and said, “So you watch … Michael Jordan and uh … Kobe Bryant?”
This made me smile—he thought so hard to come up with some basketball names.
“Yes Father, I watch Kobe Bryant all the time.”
No other priest has tried to socialize or connect with me during mass. My priest right now hasn’t said a thing to me in mass except, “Kevin … get my book for me from the altar.”
But behind that funny accent and the guy who talked during homilies (even though he wasn’t supposed to), was someone who would taught me that Catholicism wasn’t God being the dad who punishes you for your mistakes, but rather it’s about God and Jesus loving you.
When I was younger, I took church as a joke. I only went because my parents were die-hard Catholics. I even considered leaving Catholicism for good. Since I was going to sin anyways, why not just go to a Protestant church where most of my school friends are and have more fun?
But when I was 12, I actually listened to one of Father Ryan’s sermons and my view of God changed. Father Ryan said that God forgives no matter what sin you commit. He said that everyone’s a sinner and that we, as God’s children, should avoid sin as much as we can and that we should all strive to live our lives like Jesus Christ did. We should all love, preach, and give to family, friends and our community. This talk changed my view of Catholicism completely.
But the bad thing was that I was never able to commit to living by Father Ryan’s sermons, not even for a week. When Father Ryan gave a sermon about forgiveness, I forgave people for a couple of days. Then I would give up the whole “forgiving” thing and go back to getting mad at people for doing things that annoyed me. Same with cussing.
Father Ryan always told me my cussing was a problem. I say the f-word in one out of every five sentences when I’m with my friends. I think it has a lot to do with the music I listen to: Eminem, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z.
Father Ryan first confronted me about my cussing when I was in eighth grade during a confession. “Kevin, cussing is a bad thing and I don’t want you to do it. I was very surprised when I heard someone cuss, but was even more surprised to find out that it was you.”
That hit me pretty hard. I never knew he expected a lot out of me and I felt horrible because I had let him down. But for some reason, I didn’t take it seriously enough to change. After that first confession, it seemed like in every confession he would talk to me about my cussing. He’d always say I’d be a better man if I just stopped cussing. My dad told me that Father Ryan had told him that my cussing was a problem, too. My dad also said it was a problem that I needed to fix, but I ignored him too. I didn’t stop listening to the music I loved. Plus, all my friends were cussing around me, so it was hard for just me to stop.
I found out that Father Ryan was in the hospital the first week of November. My dad told me that he’d be out in about a week, so I thought it couldn’t be that serious. I even turned down two chances to see him. The first time I didn’t want to go because as I told my dad I was “out of it.” I don’t even remember what I did that night. I think I talked with my girlfriend at the time or fell asleep. The second time was Nov. 17. I went to a Boy Scouts meeting instead. I figured I’d have more chances to visit him, but after the meeting around 9 p.m., I got a call on my cell phone from my friend’s mom. I could hear her crying.
“Kevin … Father Ryan just passed away.”
I hung up. It was rude of me, but I couldn’t handle it. My troop leader asked what was wrong and I told him. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “But you know, clergy members are the happiest people in the world. Your priest died doing what he loved.”
Those words didn’t really help. He asked me if I needed a ride home. I said no thanks and ran home instead. I was too proud to cry in front of my troop leader. I was talking to myself as I ran, saying, “Maybe he’s not really dead, maybe it’s just a rumor.” “It’s all a dream Kevin.” “Kevin, stop being such a baby.”
When I got home, I saw that only my sister was there. I went into my room and turned up the radio. Then I cried. I kept thinking of all the times I let him down. I thought about the opportunities I turned down to visit him, how I always took him for granted, and how I never really listened to him when he tried to help me, especially with the cussing, which I never did stop.
Since the minute Father Ryan died, I’ve been feeling guilty about everything—how I didn’t pay attention to some of his sermons, mostly that I never visited him when he was in the hospital.
A few days after Father Ryan died, my mom told me that Father Ryan had asked the nurse to put some extra juice in the fridge because he thought people would come to visit him. Only two people (that I know of) did.
Why didn’t I visit him? Why was I so selfish? Why must this guilt over not being able to see him ever again haunt me every time I think about the guy? Why couldn’t I have gone and sat down, had a juice box and just talked with him?
Every time I look at a picture of Father Ryan, it’s just another reminder of what I didn’t do. It’s also a reminder of the good times, but mostly just the regret. I don’t know how to stop this, and I don’t know if I ever will. But I do know one thing—every time I pray, every time I ask God for help, every time I’m in need, Father Ryan is there with me, praying with me.
I know he’s watching me right now from Heaven. I know he’s wondering, “I wonder why didn’t Kevin visit me?” Father, let me tell you right now, that I couldn’t visit you. I couldn’t accept that you might die. But I hope you know I love you. I hope you know that I care about you. And I hope you can hear me when I pray for you. And I hope you’ll pray for me too. Even as I’m writing this I’m crying. And I hope you know that Father. I love you Father Ryan. I’ll be up there someday. You, Me, and the Big Man Upstairs.