“I made the sign of the cross, and prayed for the people in the places that always made the headlines….And then I prayed for the people I knew….My paper route was one long prayer.

“But then I’d walk up someone’s stairs…and I’d see inside the window, and I would forget about the prayer. Or I would start thinking about the people instead of praying for them…And then something would happen, or nothing at all, and I’d remember the prayer…. I would remember that I was inside the signs of the cross that open and closed prayer; and until I made the sign of the cross that closed it, everything that happened inside was a kind of praying. I knew even then that it was okay if I forgot about the prayer while praying. I used to think that God didn’t mind when I forgot.”

---Billy Lombardo
The Logic of the Rose: Chicago Stories

My favorite of Russ’ many stories was one of the first ones he told me. We were taking a ride up to Redamacks, a Chicago hamburger place relocated to New Buffalo, Michigan. Mostly, we were just going out for a ride.

We were swapping the stories of our lives, and he told me of a dream he had.

He remembered the date well. Halloween night. 1980-something, I think.
He had been in a down-ward spiral. A lot in his life had been going wrong. And he was slipping more and more tightly into the clutches of alcoholism. He had been drinking heavily for some time. And knew that he was “not a nice drunk”, as he put it. He knew that his drinking was at least partially responsible for some of what was going wrong in his life. But despite several efforts, he could not stop. He didn’t know how to stop. And he knew it was getting worse.
He said that he spent a long, anguished, sleepless Halloween night, and that one of his last thoughts before he finally was too tired to stay awake, was a prayer. “GOD, HELP ME! Give me a sign.”
And he woke up that morning (“All Saint’s Day,” he commented) with a vivid dream impressed in his early waking moments.
In the dream, he was driving alone down a dark, lonely, one-lane country road. After going some distance without anything happening, Russ found himself speeding toward an object in the middle of this forsaken road. He slammed on his brakes to avoid a collision with this obstacle.
And he was startled when he realized what the object was.
A big, red, octagonal sign.
A STOP sign.

Russ said he never drank after that dream. It wasn’t easy. He said it never became easy. He went through the Alcoholics Anonymous program. And later he sponsored others who entered the program. But he admitted that he was an alcoholic. And he was grateful for the dream.

He said, “I had asked for a sign. And to get a sign like that! It was so ironic. (Someone once said that irony was God’s Sense of Humor.) It would have been blasphemous to ignore it. Especially on All Saint’s Day.”

On a related subject.

Russ and I shared a common Catholic upraising. Many of our conversations were about religion. Though not a practicing Catholic, Russ never once ridiculed any of the beliefs. Nor did he ever take easy pot shots at all of the “imperfections” and “sinfulness” which we Catholics often reveal. He realized that we are a church composed of humans. He was more interested in what Catholics believe, rather than how Catholics act. And with him, I could actually discuss faith and dogma, rather than argue about it.

He held to some Buddhist beliefs, which he picked up from his Rock ‘n Roll mentor, “Swami John”. He was a firm believer in “karma”. Not the idea of re-incarnation, though he was open to that idea, but the idea that people and places have a certain aura about them, good or evil, and that we reap what we sow. He often said that he felt assurance in his belief that “What goes around, comes around.” He felt there was some truth in the idea of destiny, but I think he felt that our future is “known” rather than “pre-ordained,” and that we are still responsible for our own actions and choices, and that it is our own individual choices in life that help create our future.

And we had many discussions about quasi-religious topics: paranormal phenomenon, alien life, fate. Fascinating stuff.

I think Russ considered himself a Catholic. Not even a fallen-away Catholic. Just a private one. I remember when one of our co-workers, Norm Karnack, had died only months before he was about to retire. Russ had bought a $200 winning lottery ticket just before he had received the news of Norm’s death. He went to his old parish church, St. Patricia’s in Hickory Hills, and asked if he could buy a memorial mass for Norm with his winnings. Just one. The rest of the money he told the pastor to keep as a donation. He and the pastor then spent a couple hours in conversation. Not a confession, Russ said, but a deep, satisfying, and reassuring conversation about the state of his faith.
Russ believed in a living, involved god. He believed in the power of prayer. He believed in an active afterlife. He understood the need for tradition and ritual, though he felt himself outside of it. He once told me that he considered becoming a monk, and evidently had sought advice on the possibility. And he came to the conclusion that he was seeking an escape, rather than pursuing a calling.

I remember once walking along with Russ and watching him pick up a penny that he spotted. He seemed a little embarrassed by the act, and he said, “I don’t really need the penny. But I always figure that if I walk past any money lying on the ground, it’s like telling God, ‘Hey, God, I don’t need the money.’ It’s like I’m presuming God’s generosity.” That pretty much matched how I felt on the subject, but Russ explained it better. I remember that we talked a little more about it, and decided that maybe we shouldn’t bother to pick up change we dropped, ‘cause maybe it was God’s way of telling us somebody else needed the money. (Notice I said change!)

Another time, Russ asked me what I thought heaven was like. I told him about a dream I had just recently had.

In my dream, my dad had met me at the door to a large room, which I recognized as the basement cafeteria/meeting hall of my childhood church, St. Willibrord, in Roseland. There was a large meal going on – a Spaghetti Diner, with a many, many people seated at the long dining tables we had there.

As Dad and I went around the room, person after person came up to me. And each person thanked me for something – a card I had sent, a gift I had given, a deed I had done. And then the person went on to swap stories with Dad and me. And Dad seemed to know each person. As this went on and on, I realized that although Dad had known many of these people – relatives, neighbors, fellow parishioners, friends, there were many people he could not have known. People from work. Customers from the routes. Friends I had made on my own.

And I asked Dad about this.
And his reply was, “Don’t you know where you are?”
And then I woke up.
And I told Russ that I realized where I was.
In heaven.
And I said that is what I thought heaven was like.

And Russ sat there, at his small dinner/TV table where we shared our conversations, and stared ahead. Misty-eyed.
And he said, “I hope you’re right.”

Russ was a holy man. A hard-working, cigarette smoking, drum banging, demon-fighting holy man.

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