Can you say hero?
|And so we went to the graveyard. We were heading there all along, because
Mister Rogers loves graveyards, and so as we took the long, straight road
out of sad, fading Latrobe, you could still feel the speed in him, the hurry,
as he mustered up a sad anticipation, and when we passed through the cemetery
gates, he smiled as he said to Bill Isler, "The plot's at the end of
the yellow-brick road." And so it was; the asphalt ended, and then
we began bouncing over a road of old blond bricks, until even that road
ended, and we were parked in front of the place where Mister Rogers is to
be buried. He got out of the car, and, moving as quickly as he had moved
to the door of his house, he stepped up a small hill to the door of a large
gray mausoleum, a huge structure built for six, with a slightly peaked roof,
and bronze doors, and angels living in the stained glass. He peeked in the
window, and in the same voice he uses on television, that voice, at once
so patient and so eager, he pointed out each crypt, saying "There's
my father, and there's my mother, and there, on the left, is my place, and
right across will be Joanne...." The window was of darkened glass,
though, and so to see through it, we had to press our faces close against
it, and where the glass had warped away from the frame of the door—where
there was a finger-wide crack—Mister Rogers's voice leaked into his
grave, and came back to us as a soft, hollow echo.
And then he was on the move again, happily, quickly, for he would not leave until he showed me all the places of all those who'd loved him into being. His grandfather, his grandmother, his uncles, his aunts, his father-in-law and mother-in-law, even his family's servants—he went to each grave, and spoke their names, and told their stories, until finally I headed back down to the Jeep and turned back around to see Mister Rogers standing high on a green dell, smiling among the stones. "And now if you don't mind," he said without a hint of shame or embarrassment, "I have to find a place to relieve myself," and then off he went, this ecstatic ascetic, to take a proud piss in his corner of heaven.
The next afternoon, I went to his office in Pittsburgh. He was sitting on a couch, under a framed rendering of the Greek word for grace and a biblical phrase written in Hebrew that means "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine." A woman was with him, sitting in a big chair. Her name was Deb. She was very pretty. She had a long face and a dark blush to her skin. She had curls in her hair and stars at the centers of her eyes. She was a minister at Fred Rogers's church. She spent much of her time tending to the sick and the dying. Fred Rogers loved her very much, and so, out of nowhere, he smiled and put his hand over hers. "Will you be with me when I die?" he asked her, and when she said yes, he said, "Oh, thank you, my dear." Then, with his hand still over hers and his eyes looking straight into hers, he said, "Deb, do you know what a great prayer you are? Do you know that about yourself? Your prayers are just wonderful." Then he looked at me. I was sitting in a small chair by the door, and he said, "Tom, would you close the door, please?" I closed the door and sat back down. "Thanks, my dear," he said to me, then turned back to Deb. "Now, Deb, I'd like to ask you a favor," he said. "Would you lead us? Would you lead us in prayer?"
Deb stiffened for a second, and she let out a breath, and her color got deeper. "Oh, I don't know, Fred," she said. "I don't know if I want to put on a performance…."
Fred never stopped looking at her or let go of her hand. "It's not a performance. It's just a meeting of friends," he said. He moved his hand from her wrist to her palm and extended his other hand to me. I took it and then put my hand around her free hand. His hand was warm, hers was cool, and we bowed our heads, and closed our eyes, and I heard Deb's voice calling out for the grace of God. What is grace? I'm not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it…and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed, that this was the moment Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—had been leading me to from the moment he answered the door of his apartment in his bathrobe and asked me about Old Rabbit. Once upon a time, you see, I lost something, and prayed to get it back, but when I lost it the second time, I didn't, and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I'd been waiting to say a very long time.
"Thank you, God," Mister Rogers said.