It’s April Fool’s Day 2012 and I feel like a king. With a broad smile, I step to my door ready to tell my girlfriend that I’ve survived without becoming the fool. Not one prank got me. I rehearse the tale in my head as the door creaks open.

I step in, ready to give my lines; it’s like opening night. But the look on my girlfriend’s face tells me that the curtains need to stay shut for now.

“John,” she says as her big blue eyes sheepishly meet mine. “You’re going to think I’m joking, but I promise I’m not.” She pauses for a moment, “I’m pregnant.” From her look, I could see this was no joke.

My broad smile fades and a narrow pain arises in my stomach. Fear overcomes me in an instant.

“And I’m not going to keep it,” she blurts. “I don’t want to keep it. I still want to travel. I want to see Europe. I’m not ready to be a mother.”

Now a brief second of silence. She continues, “What do you think?”

After several shallow breaths I muster, “I can’t afford a baby. I’m not ready to be a father.” We weren’t married at that point. But not long after, we were.

The Amish have a rite of passage called rumspringa which roughly translated from Pennsylvania German means “to run around.” It can be marked by a time in which young adults intentionally segregate themselves from their community to acquire knowledge of the non-Amish world.

For the better part of my 20s and 30s I was on my Catholic rumspringa. Even before I met my girlfriend, I had had my fill of religion and rules. While I knew the general importance of living a virtuous life, I had neither the patience nor inclination to do so. I wanted all the glorious trappings life had to offer. I saw my religious upbringing as noisome and narrow-minded. The secular ideologies of the modern world were somehow more sophisticated and therefore enlightened. Who was religion and God to tell me my behavior was wrong?

For some years, I had been a secret agnostic. In college, I had grown atheistic. As many college kids do, I rejected any reminder of my past. I walked confidently down paths when I could not see the end, either out of arrogance or curiosity. Back then, I thought it was intelligence.

Like an Amish youth, I was out of my Catholic community, not because of the church or its members, but because of the dangerous cocktail of my choices.

And, like an Amish youth, I lived my new life in abundance. I said yes to everything. I tried anything. I forgot what was important to me.

Then I met a girl, and from April 1 to April 6, 2012, we I we had a baby. But we wanted him gone, and we had our way.

In my naivete, I was sure that my rumspringa was never going to end. The abundance of life would never stop. During this time, God had given me (ironically) the answer to every objection I had. My girlfriend and I were married. We travelled. It turned out I could have afforded the baby. But I didn’t care. My life seemed good.

But then my father died on March 30, 2018 — Good Friday and three days before April Fool’s Day. The cold afternoon my papa left this world was no joke. 

It’s funny how, in times of grief, our path can seem so clear. My father’s longtime insistence that I return to Catholicism (which later turned to polite requests and finally episodic suggestions I at least go for holiday Mass) were never lost on me. Though consciously I was irritated at the demand for indoctrination, I secretly needed the structure to rebel against. It’s how I knew someone in the world cared. And now without the demand, I found I needed it more than ever. My father’s death brought me back to these pews. 

Prior to this, my wife and I had been fighting. Incessantly, with no plan of action, we bickered. Then my father died, and I went back home, back to church. Prodded gently by the memories of my father’s love and wisdom, I sat down.

Inside God’s house, arguments with my wife seemed silly. I was surrounded by love, and I hadn’t felt that in years. Not since before the rumspringa began.

I decided to come back more often, to walk down the one path I had refused to take. Paved with familiar cement, littered with footsteps I had known since I was young, this was my path. Wanting deeply never to return to the chaos of my former life, I asked to meet the pastor of our church.

I approached with guilt in my step and fear in my voice. I told him about my rumspringa. About my girlfriend turned wife. About my father. About the baby that I never had. He was more interested in the baby than I was. Questioning his interest, I remarked, “I’m not so emotional about the abortion. It happened so fast it made it feel less like a loss of life and more like a medical procedure.”

“Have you ever had surgery?” my pastor replied.

“Yes, on my wrist.”

“You didn’t tell me about the surgery.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I don’t think about it.”

“Because it’s just a medical procedure,” he said. “A baby is not just a medical procedure. You should pray on it.”

I hadn’t prayed in years. I didn’t want to and I wasn’t ready. But not being ready hadn’t helped me before. So I prayed.

Sitting in those pews, I met my son. I didn’t know that he was a boy in 2012. His name is Peter. I never got to know that.

My pastor later told me that all children, even Peter, want one thing: attention from their parents. For that brief time he was with us, I didn’t give that to him.

I had walked away from the church with reckless abandon. I walked into a relationship with reckless abandon, and so did my wife. We ended Peter’s life with reckless abandon.

Predictably, our marriage faded. Despite my return to my faith and the importance virtue now had to me, there was no going back. We had built a house of cards, and it came crashing down.

Veering from a life of righteousness, I learned, does come back to you later. When we put the things that feel good now above those that feel good in the long term, the long term will come.

My son died for my sins, but there is attention I still can give him. I pray so that my son knows I love him, and that I care. I’m ready to be a father now, even if I must do so long distance. Now, through God, Peter can be my son.

Raven is a member of the Christ King Parish in Milwaukie.