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On March 2nd, 2018

A Direct Line

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After a series of mishaps, wrong turns, and poor decisions made by his teenage son, an exhausted father emphatically gave this wise counsel to his oldest child: “Son, you will find that in your life you will eventually come to a fork in the road, a crossroad of sorts. Remember this my dear boy, there will surely be potholes in whichever road you choose, but that doesn’t mean you have to hit every single one!”

The warmth of the sunshine was finally beginning to matter after a long, snowy stretch of winter in this tiny mountain town. Although it was only mid-morning, already the roads were just damp instead of icy, a true sign that spring was quickly approaching. Big blue sky, sunshine and snow patches melting back several more inches each day meant the seasons were changing. Most of the gutters were filled with muddy ice that refused to melt until the very last few days of winter. Still, mud is a welcome sight at the end of every frozen season.

The funeral director pulled the beautifully cleaned, long nose of the shiny black coach up to the northeast side of the cathedral, carefully stopping a few feet away from the curb so that the pallbearers would not have to step in the muddy snow when lifting the casket into the back of the vehicle. The white walled tires were glistening against the black topped country road. The funeral went long that day and the crowd of friends and family members of the nearly century-old man who had passed were eager to be outside in the sunshine. “May I help you with the door, Father?” the funeral director said as he quickly reached for the handle. The Catholic priest, Father O’Reilly, shuffling quickly to the car, gently nodded and slid into the front passenger seat. He was pleasant but deeply serious about his duties. He buried his head into his pamphlets of prayers to be read at the graveside. Refreshing his memory was not necessary at his age and longevity in his calling meant that he could recite them word for word, but he always reviewed nonetheless.

As the pallbearers slid the casket into the coach and stepped away, the funeral director tucked in the last few petals of roses that had fallen off of the casket spray and secured the key to the rollers that held the casket in place for travel before closing the door. The traditional family limousine fell in line behind the coach, followed by the cars of family and friends. The procession that followed was long. Seriously long. Unusually long. The funeral director pulled away slowly, giving ample time for the drivers to follow.

The cemetery of choice that day happened to be several miles outside of the tiny town. It was an older cemetery, not often used, which rested atop a very steep mountain terrain. Earlier in the day, the funeral director had surveyed the cemetery’s dirt roads and found them mostly dry with a few patches of muddy potholes dotting the path. Snow doesn’t melt as fast at such an altitude as it does in town, but it had been plowed to clear the narrow cemetery road, and snowbanks lined each side. Hundred year old headstones were barely visible above the mounds of snow.

The funeral coach led the procession through the snow tunnels of the cemetery and approached a fork in the road. The driver needed to make a quick decision at the fork. Right or left? Either way would get him to the grave sight, but which way would be easiest for the long line of cars that were following? The driver chose left. Driving along the unfamiliar cemetery road, dodging potholes as best as he could, the coach came to an abrupt stop. Sitting directly in front of a pothole which had seemed to be a small dip from a distance now suddenly appeared to be a great crevice the size of his vehicle. The long line of cars slowed down significantly at the fork, hesitating, they were confused as to where exactly they were supposed to go and watched the dilemma ahead. With so many cars lined up and no where to turn around, the one lane road with it’s walls of snow on either side indicated that there would be no avoiding potential trouble ahead. The funeral director looked over at Father O’Reilly, who hadn’t taken his eyes off of his prayer pamphlets, but was waiting patiently to arrive at the grave. Crossing his fingers, the driver gunned it. He was hoping the power of his heavy tank would allow the coach to just skim over the top of the massive hole, but the sharp blast of fuel threw the car directly into the pothole.

All four white walled wheels sunk and were embedded. The mud was now even with the bottom of the doors and no one was getting out of the car at this point. The driver tried giving it more power, switching gears, then reverse and forward and back again to reverse, desperately trying to rock the car into submission. The long hearse wasn’t rocking. The spinning wheels refused to budge in the mud and clods of black dirt sprayed over every inch of that car. The sexton of the cemetery was watching the commotion from his tower and sprung into action. He ran toward the line of cars in the procession and directed them opposite at the fork. “Go to the right, to the right! ” he waved frantically, but the spectacle of the long black hearse sunken halfway beneath the earth sent panic through the crowd. The funeral director was in a panic too. Frantically, he tried to think of what to do next. He looked over at the priest. Still, the Father had not taken his eyes off of his prayer cards. He didn’t offer a word of advice, nor an ounce of concern, it seemed.

What to do now? Who could help? How could a tow truck get past the line of cars at the fork? And, most importantly, how could he facilitate getting the casket out of the hearse in this muddy, snow walled bog? Even if he were able to get the casket out, how would he get it past the walls of snow and up the hill to the grave sight for the burial? His mind raced. It seemed his only option was to gun the gas peddle again. The wheels flung even more mud through the air. Surely, they would eventually hit solid ground and throw this monster out of the pit.

They didn’t.

The funeral director groaned in defeat. His breathing was heavy and he felt faint. His hopes were dashed and his embarrassment flushed his face to a bright, crimson red. Finally, he asked in a slightly flippant tone, “Well, Father, do you have a prayer for this one?” With a brief glance, the priest quietly said, “My son, bow your head and receive the Lord’s blessing.” Those words will forever ring in that man’s ears. With more than a hundred family members and friends watching on, both the priest and the funeral director bowed their heads in that long, muddy, black, grounded coach. After a few short moments of sacred, silent prayer, Father O’Reilly raised his head and said, “Try it now, my son.”

Now, whether you are a believer or not, anyone who witnessed what happened next will never be convinced that it was anything but a miracle. Surely Father O’Reilly had to have the number of the direct line to heaven for the aid that came without pause. The funeral director barely dared to raise his head as he opened one eye and then the other. With his jaw clenched, he slowly reached for the wheel. He touched his foot to the pedal and gave it some gas. Without even so much as a slight tug, the funeral coach eased forward. It rolled smoothly out of the pit, out of the mud, out of the entrenched hole, and onto the dry ground beyond as if it had never been stuck. It felt as if it were gliding toward safe ground. The director’s eyes were like saucers, his face stunned, and his mouth wide open. He kept driving onward and upward toward the final resting place. He wanted to shout for joy, cheer with jubilation, but he didn’t. He kept his cool. He showed professionalism and respect, but inside he was rejoicing. He contained his urge to throw his arms around the priest’s neck and plant a wet one right on his lips. He gently but sincerely thanked the priest for his fervent prayer and offered one of his own. Father O’Reilly, just bowed his head, surely to give thanks to God, and then continued to review his prayer cards as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred. Apparently, he was familiar with miracles in potholes.

Everyone will come to a crossroad in their life and heaven knows, we all take a wrong turn now and then. Whichever road you choose, remember this: always live a life that ensures a direct line for help when you land in a pothole, because chances are Father O’Reilly won’t be in the car.

And always go right at the fork.

It’s a true story.

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