Roy, Eddie and God
Compiled and edited by Damian Sebouhian
Editor’s note: Former State University of New York at Fredonia professor and OBSERVER columnist George Sebouhian was preparing to write his life story when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. He died three years later, having left behind hundreds of pages of research notes, poems and memoir vignettes.
His son, Damian Sebouhian, has taken it upon himself to complete and share his writings through a series of theme-based articles, each of which represents a chapter in the life and times of George Sebouhian, in his own words. (Note: During childhood, his father was known as Roy).
Orphaned as an infant, Roy was on his fifth family, the Norcias, when he met the boy who would become his best friend. Eddie Keehan, like Roy, didn’t quite fit in with the other boys in the Bronx neighborhood. Both shared a fondness for books, intellectual discussion, and above all else, God. Their love for religion — specifically, the Catholic Church — gave the boys meaning in the otherwise insecure and dangerous world of depression-era New York City.
Eddie was a strange kid, my father wrote as a way of introduction. He never said a foul word, was very serious about his religion — never making fun of the rituals like confession on a Saturday afternoon and communion on Sunday morning. In fact, he would get close to tears if any of the kids jeered his faithful faith, even though the entire neighborhood was Roman Catholic. That was another part of his strangeness: emotion. Once he was in a play and broke down crying because his character had to be sad, but not sobbing sad. It was his strangeness that drew me to him. He was so different from the other kids, so gentle, so kind, so simple yet so smart. Like a reincarnation of St. Francis. We would often conjecture about the nature of God, sin, heaven and hell.
One day, sitting on a high hill in the Bronx, looking across the Manhattan skyline, we went back and forth on which buildings we thought were built by people and which by God.
“Man couldn’t have made all those buildings,” Eddie proclaimed.
I readily agreed. “Yeah, there must be millions of them.”
“Where would you get all the material, the stones and everything?”
“Yeah, it would take thousands of years to build them.”
“But which ones did He make?”
“Probably all the churches.”
“And some of the others, like the Empire State Building.”
The two became altar boys together, positions that provided further opportunities for Roy and Eddie to advance in their comprehension of and relationship with the divine.
We talked about everything, especially our spiritual feelings and thoughts. Memorizing the responses was spiritual fun: “Adeum qui laetificat” and “Juven tutem meum”.
One day when racing down the stairs, I suddenly understood the words because they stopped in my mouth and my mind absorbed them so that “Our Father who art in heaven” conveyed a feeling I missed in communion. I shivered in fright and tears came to my eyes as Father became my father, a caring human being/god at the same time whose very name was holy as I said it silently and felt the holiness suffuse my body.
Even getting up at five in the morning and walking through the quiet dark streets was like a devotional act. It brought back to mind my First Holy Communion, which was surprisingly disappointing because unlike my becoming an altar boy, there was no spiritual feeling. Perhaps because I expected too much.
I really thought I would be changed, the way the nuns told us we would – that Christ would come into our soul and make them white with purity and we would feel this as a change of our entire being and life for a new path, driven by love and the closeness of Jesus.
But I didn’t feel any different after the wafer was in my mouth where it slowly dissolved. I waited and waited, but nothing happened. I felt cheated as if God were not in me at all, just a slice of wafer.
The one time I told Eddie about this experience and some doubts I had, how lonely I felt so much of the time, he responded as if he were deeply hurt.
“Of course it was a spiritual experience,” he insisted. “You know it was. How can you ask, how can you talk that way?”
He looked right at me even though his lower lip trembled and his eyebrows pinched upward in pain.
“You believe in God and angels and miracles,” he continued. “I know He’s here, now. Oh, Roy, Roy…” he broke off in tears.
Roy hated that he had made Eddie feel bad, so he quickly backed off verbalizing his doubts.
“Yes, Eddie, I know that in the morning dark when no one’s on the streets except a few stray cats. I know when I pass the last corner street lamp and see the church. I feel Him in me when I receive. Please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Although Roy’s doubts persisted and his relationship with the church, especially some of the nuns, was not always the rosiest, his bond with Eddie kept him going.
Though I was frustrated, I didn’t lose my faith, mainly because Eddie and I agreed on what was our own faith, not that of the nuns who used humiliation and beatings to keep some kids in line. If anything, our sense of faith deepened.
But life is never stable for long when you’re an orphan. It wasn’t long after becoming an altar boy that Roy was taken from the Norcias to live with his biological father. Roy went to another neighborhood and another church and eventually lost touch with Eddie. Years later, while earning his PhD in Philosophy and English Literature at Ohio State University, my father heard from a childhood friend that Eddie Keehan had been ordained as a priest.
My father wasn’t at all surprised, writing about how their paths had led them to two seperate but not completely dissimilar destinations:
God wouldn’t want it any other way.
Damian Sebouhian, former OBSERVER staff writer, is a Dunkirk resident.