Prologue: The Move On
The sun was beginning to rise over Stockton, California, when the weary driver and his car pulled into the parking lot of the non-descript motel on a chilly morning in May of 1982. The voice on the radio was promising another sunny day. However, the driver, fighting back the fatigue of three days of virtually non-stop driving across the country from New York, was paying little attention. More important to him, was the flashing “vacancy” sign outside the motel office.
As he stepped from the vehicle, he paused for a moment. For, even in the vague first light of the morning, he could see what he had done to his trusted companion. This was no ordinary car after all, but a most special charge with which the driver had been entrusted, and which he had named “Mary Bernadette”. The normally shiny silver 1979 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL that he had so meticulously maintained for the last three years was now in uncharacteristic form. She was covered in road dust, her head lights and windshield were littered with the remains of dead bugs, her brilliant wheels were dull black with brake soot, and her rich red interior was cluttered with empty coffee cups and fast food wrappers from the trip. Much like a husband might look upon his wife with love and gratitude after she had endured the ordeal of child birth to give him a beautiful baby, the driver gazed with affection and gratitude upon his cherished friend, that had gotten him there safely, and asked himself what had he done to that magnificent machine that was so dear to him. However, the driver knew in his heart, that if the car could understand, it too would agree that their mission warranted all that had been endured by both man and automobile.
Opening the trunk, he took out a small gray suitcase, and proceeded towards the office door. A few minutes later he emerged again, with a key to room 38. Once in the room, he fell fast asleep on top of the bed, his clothes still on him. When the alarm went off a mere three hours later, he awoke with a jolt, momentarily forgetting where he was, but quickly regaining his orientation. Showering and shaving for the first time since leaving New York three days earlier, he put on the newly pressed suit he so carefully had packed in the suitcase. As he knotted his tie he looked at himself in the mirror to see if the apprehension he was feeling was apparent to the naked eye. Relieved that it was not, he quickly packed his belongings and walked out of the room to the car.
Following the directions the motel clerk had given to him, he soon spotted the car wash, which called itself the “Car Spa”. According to the clerk, they were known for their meticulous attention to detail, and were even rumored to use a tooth brush to clean the most intractable parts often ignored by others. While he waited for the car to undergo its makeover, as they called it; he walked to the flower shop next door to buy a single yellow rose. As he did, he contemplated what he would say later that day when he visited the grave site that had brought him across the country. He knew that no matter how much he prepared, it would not be easy. The last time he had seen the young woman was in 1971, when she was still very much alive, vibrant and beautiful.
When the car emerged, it was shinny and clean again, and it glistened in the sunlight. The top now was down, revealing the clean bright red interior. Putting on his sun glasses, the driver got in and set off for the cemetery. Both car and driver were crisp and clean a far cry from the way they had looked earlier that morning, when they first had arrived in Stockton.
As they drove into the cemetery and pulled up to the grave site, the young man exited from the car. Walking over to the hallowed ground, he knelt, made the sign of the cross and began to pray quietly. When he was finished praying, he said softly:
“Hello Claire. I am sorry to have been so slow in coming to see you, but it has been too hard for me, and I always have been able to find an excuse for not coming. Well, that is, until now.
Please understand that my love for you was so strong, and the void in my life left by your loss, so great, that it has taken me this long to be able to move on. But, I now think, after eleven long years, I have met the ‘soul mate’ you were so sure that I would meet.
She is a lovely person, of whom I know you would approve. Not since I first set eyes on you, back in 1971, have I felt this happy and this completely at peace. She too is a package deal and comes with a little girl or as you liked to kid: ‘Buy one, and get one free.’ She has a daughter, who is as cute as Mary Bernadette, and to whom I also have become very attached. My only prayer is that The Good Lord will allow us to raise a family and grow old together. It seems such a modest request, but it was a bridge too far for you and me.
I am returning your scarf, as you asked me to do, for I no longer can be your ‘dragon slayer’. However, I want you to know that there always will be a special place in my heart that belongs to you alone.”
As he spoke, he had been digging a small hole in which he buried the scarf, having gently kissed it before placing it in the ground. Covering the hole, he then placed the single yellow rose on it and stood up. Putting his hand on the headstone, he bent over and kissed it, as he continued to speak:
“When I promised you that I would come back for a kiss, I never dreamt it would be like this. Once I get back to New York, I intend to ask her to marry me. I only can do that, if I’m free to give her my undivided love. This is the reason for my visit – to say goodbye. I finally have found someone new. Please wish us a long, productive, healthy and happy life together.”
With that, he turned and began to walk away. Not going far, he stopped, and with a backward glance that revealed the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye, he conceded aloud to her: “I know, you knew it would happen all along – didn’t you?”
He then drove to the home of Claire’s family, to visit with her parents and her brother, John, a fellow Boston College alumnus. They insisted that he stay for dinner, and he did.
Afterwards, he got into the 450 SL and drove into the California night. Chasing first the beams of his headlights and then the rising sun, he motored east. Three days later he was back in New York, the trip across the country having been a safe and uneventful one.
On the following Saturday night, May 22, 1982, he became engaged.
My name was Mary Bernadette. I say was, because I am dead. I was buried alive before the age of eight, in June of 1971, by Captain Ton That Dam, a member of the Three Hundred and Twenty-fifth Division of the North Vietnamese Army. Born in the jungles of Vietnam on the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, I lived just long enough to see his true assassin apprehended by the man Captain Dam called the “Devil Priest”.
The crime of which I was accused, and of which I was guilty, was that I knew this Devil Priest. Captain John Joseph Chrisandra, or JJ, as people liked to call him, was a U. S. Army Chaplin assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He was an Episcopal priest in civilian life, and one of the kindest persons I ever met.