Father Theodore Hesburgh, who died Thursday at 97, was no longer Notre Dame’s president by the time I enrolled in 1994, yet he remained a campus legend, instantly recognizable in his crisp black shirt and clerical collar and with his shock of white hair. I knew he’d done important things — advised six presidents, chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under Nixon until his policy disagreements got him demoted, and transformed Notre Dame into an academic powerhouse, independent from Rome.
Still, Father Ted remained an abstraction to me until I recognized him at O’Hare airport in 2001. I was 24, waiting for a plane home to Denver. He would have been unmistakable even without his blue and gold Notre Dame bag, bedecked with shamrocks. I introduced myself, and he asked whether the flight attendant could switch my seat to be next to his. He told me he suffered from macular degeneration, was blind in one eye and could barely see out of the other. Despite near-blindness, he was traveling across the country without an assistant.
I helped him present his ticket and find our row. I stowed his leather Mass kit, and sat quietly as he said a blessing as our plane taxied down the runway. “How’s that?” he asked me.
“Good,” I said.
“No one on an airplane has ever refused it,” he said.
When our food was served, Father Ted asked me to identify his fork, napkin, mustard and macaroni salad. He placed the fork in his right vest pocket and the napkin in his left so he could keep track of them.
My three-hour conversation with Father Ted took on a “My Dinner with Andre” quality. He described the time he was a guest on a nuclear submarine and a ride he’d taken on the fastest airplane ever built. He spoke 20 languages “with varying levels of fluency.” He gently interrogated me about my love life and advised me to marry a Notre Dame alumnus. “Fifty percent of marriages don’t work out,” he said, “but 93% of Notre Dame marriages last.” (He didn’t mention the source of these statistics.)
He had known all the presidents since FDR, and gave me his opinion of Kennedy and Carter. Father Ted met Condoleezza Rice for the first time when she was 19, an accomplished ice skater and pianist. He advised her to learn Russian so she’d be a step ahead of the competition in the field of foreign affairs. “I always wondered why she never got married,” he added, “with her cute dimples and all.”
He’d met Mother Theresa in the Seychelles once: “It’s stupid that the Church doesn’t go ahead and make her a saint, but you have to wait five years before anything begins to get done.” I asked whether people needed to attribute miracles to her before the canonization process could begin and he waved this off, as if impatient with the thought, and said, “Her whole life’s a miracle.”
He asked me what I did, and when I told him I was a writer, he said, “That’s a hard business.”
When we arrived at the Denver airport, Father Ted had to find the gate for his flight to Vail, where he was going to visit his brother. I was eager to assist him make his way through the terminal, but then a young man came up and said, “Father Hesburgh!” He was a Notre Dame alum, too. Father Ted explained that this happens to him all over the world. I left them so the young man could have his own encounter with the illustrious priest.
It struck me then what an act of absolute faith it was for Father Ted to travel across the country alone with faltering sight. He trusted that if he carried that Notre Dame bag, someone would approach and provide any help he needed.
I was at a point in my life when not much was settled, and I inched forward on a tightrope of faith, afraid to make any Kierkegaardian leaps. My experience was worlds away from that of this world-traveling befriender of presidents and popes. I was far from a state of grace. I had a boyfriend I loved, but I’d just moved out of the town we’d shared and wasn’t sure what would become of us. I’d started my first real job as an editor of The Onion A.V. Club in Denver — a position that mostly required me to type in entries for the local events calendar and write one-paragraph critiques of bands. It wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.
At several points during those years, I experienced moments of complete confusion over my love life, job and the wisdom of continuing my as-yet-fruitless efforts to write novels.
I got through these threshold moments by blindly plunging ahead, setting out from Chicago with the trust that I’d make it to the Rocky Mountains somehow. I married my boyfriend (a French, lapsed Catholic, not a Notre Dame alum — we’re hoping to beat the odds). I decided to have a baby and leave my job, not knowing if I’d ever find employment in this “hard business” again. I kept working on those novels and finally published one.
My life feels much more settled now than it was when I encountered Father Ted, but I’ve never stopped stumbling into those moments of blindness, those times of unforeseen calamity, where the loss of a loved one or job or another setback leaves me utterly puzzled about how to get to my destination.
In 2013, when massive floods in Colorado destroyed part of my home, including my office, I didn’t know how I would ever feel secure enough to embark on a new novel. After months of procrastination and excuse-making, I just started, even though my research materials were scattered or soaked; my office lacked walls, flooring, a ceiling or a door; and I didn’t have a clue what the story would be.
I’m two-thirds of the way through a draft now, but the final, crucial plot points and meaning remain mysterious to me. Every day as I sit at my desk to make my attempt, I feel lost, more assured of failure than of producing one decent paragraph. And yet I continue to sit, because this feels familiar. This feels like setting out from O’Hare, blind, and having faith that I’ll one day arrive in Vail.