“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I whispered to Father Finnegan who sat placidly in the other side of the confessional booth. “It has been seven months since my last confession. In that time I have felt anger towards my killer, and since I found him and brought him to justice, I have found myself in a place of deep despair, a place of confusion. I have begun to doubt my faith.”
Father Finnegan took a deep breath and sighed, his thumb moving his rosary beads smoothly along his index finger as his mouth moved silently in prayer. His hair was grey, with only a hint of the red that was there when I first met him, and his face was deeply wrinkled. He didn’t say anything.
“I’m a ghost, Father,” I continued, moving my face right up to the brass confessional screen so I could see him clearly. “I sit here, I see you, I speak to you, but you can’t hear me. You can’t tell me how to confront this crisis like you helped me so many times before. You can’t tell me to do Hail Marys or Our Fathers. You can’t assign me an appropriate act of contrition. You can’t…” I trailed off, fighting back the tears. I longed for the life that was past, for the body that let me communicate with the living, for the faith that used to seem so unshakable.
“Sister Dominga is up there in her room dying. I am down here, dead, wishing you could hear me. There is another ghost, a strange woman, who keeps appearing in Sister Dominga’s room. She is probably there now. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know what she wants.
“I have left my ghost friends up in Tucson and walked here to Mexico City, walked home. But I have no one to talk to. I have no one to help me. I can’t leave Sister Dominga, but I don’t think I can stand this. The Bible doesn’t talk about souls in my state… It doesn’t mention ghosts. What does this mean, Father? What can I do? I am so confused, I…”
A woman, large and middle-aged, walked into the confessional. I didn’t want her to sit on me, nor did I want to hear her confession, so I flew up and out of the confessional. As I did, I heard her say in Spanish, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” and I heard Father Finnegan reply in his Irish accented Spanish, “I will hear your confession, my child.”
I felt a sharp pang of jealousy that such a simple act of comfort was now beyond my reach. I slowly flew out of the church and into the nunnery, back towards Sister Dominga’s room.
I didn’t know what I was doing or what I needed, but I did know that I would be there when Sister Dominga died. If she, by some chance, became a ghost upon her death, I wouldn’t let her go through it alone. Not after all she had done for me.
I flew slowly to the old wooden door of her room. It was thick and scarred with age and use. I stood there listening—was the other ghost in there?
I heard her voice, soft yet strong as she whispered to Sister Dominga. “I am here, Grandmother. I am here. I heard your call and I came. I will show you the way if you need. I will be here for you.” Her words were in Spanish with an accent that I couldn’t quite place.
Grandmother? Did she say Grandmother? Sister Dominga was a nun, she had been a nun almost her entire life, how could she be a grandmother? She had been like a mother to me, rescuing me from the streets and saving my life, teaching me, raising me, how could I not know she had a child, much less a grandchild?
I wanted to rush in, to demand an explanation, but I pushed that impulse down. I had surprised this ghost before, and she would disappear if I rushed in. So I moved slowly through the door until I could see her. She was petite and slim with long black hair that was braided in the back and skin a shade lighter than mine. As soon as I was far enough through the door for me to see her, her head turned towards me and our eyes met.
Those eyes made me feel just a little bit alive, and they scared me too. They were blue, shockingly blue, ice blue, the kind you see reflected in the depths of icebergs. Her gaze penetrated me. I just knew that she saw deep into my soul and could see my doubt and my weakness.
This was the third time I had seen her and the longest she had stayed.
“My name is Jesús,” I said. “I just want to talk.”
She continued to stare at me, her lips turning down into a frown, her head moving slowly back and forth. With a gentle “pop” she was gone.
I stood and stared at Sister Dominga for the longest time. Her face drawn and pale, her breathing slow and unsteady, her eyes closed, looking like they would never open again. A soft moan escaped her lips and I feared the worst. I was here because I needed her, and in case she needed me. And what if she did need me, could I even help her when I didn’t know how to help myself?
I longed for the round-faced Sister Dominga with the hard, uncompromising eyes that hid an endless capacity for compassion. I wished she would open her eyes and give me one of her looks, the kind that used to make me scared and excited. The kind of look she gave me as a boy that said she knew exactly what I was up to and that I would not get away with it.
I stood there and felt the doubt that had brought me to walk from Tucson, Arizona, to Mexico City. It was like a disease, a cancer, a darkness inside me, eating me from the inside out.
The mystery of the other ghost, calling Sister Dominga Grandmother, was maddening, but it was drowned out by the noise of my own doubt and fear. I had been back for three days and done nothing but watch Sister Dominga, wander the church and the orphanage, and hope…
But I didn’t know what I was hoping for. A dying woman to wake up? My doubts to magically disappear? To suddenly know what I was doing with my afterlife?
I had been here before, bereft of faith. I had been down low, much lower than this, and had survived. And it was Sister Dominga that had saved me body and soul.
“How can I do this without you?” I asked her. She had been like a mother to me, and it was always the mothers that had brought me to faith.
When I spoke, I saw the smallest change in her face. A slight relaxing of her now gaunt features, as if the pain that plagued her had eased for a moment.
“My first memory is of Mass,” I continued, studying her face. “It was around 1972, I was maybe three, my mother had dressed me in my best shirt—which was admittedly not much back then—and walked me to the church. I remember all the people, beautiful in their suits and dresses and shiny shoes. I remember the hard wooden pews, and how my mother had me kneel on the padded bench when she did.”
Sister Dominga let out the smallest of sighs and I felt a tear run down my ghostly cheek. Maybe there was something I could do for her, some small way I could help her while she still lived. It was like the tiniest sliver of sunlight after a terrible thunderstorm.
“You want to hear my voice?” I asked her. “Does that help somehow?”
She didn’t answer, but I could feel it. I could feel just a glimpse of the woman who had saved me and raised me. I could feel her longing for company, to not feel alone as she passed from this world. I could see her, in her coma, physically relax.
I laughed, a brief awkward bark. A tiny bit of the pent-up pressure I had been feeling for the last several months escaping. This I could do. This would help Sister Dominga. This would help me.
When the deacon came around swinging the thurible full of incense, I remember that scent was so sharp and strong that I wrinkled my nose and sneezed, the smell of frankincense overpowering me. I moved closer to my mother; the man in his white vestments scared me. He looked so old and so serious. Like if I didn’t do what he told me I would receive much worse punishment than the scoldings my mother gave or the spankings my father gave.
I slid still closer to her on the pew, enjoying how I could slide on the polished wood. I might have turned it into a game, but my mother took my hand and held it tightly.
Her hand was warm and so much bigger and stronger than mine. She looked down at me, a thin smile on her face. I needed to be quiet—she had told me before we had left. I needed to behave. I bit my lip and nodded so she would know I knew what she wanted. Her smile became full and wide and she gave me a small nod before turning her attention back to the deacon with the old brass thurible.
My mother was so beautiful. I remember staring up at her and thinking there was nothing more beautiful in the world than my mother. She had light-brown skin and big brown eyes. Her black hair was swept up in the back and piled on top of her head. She wore a blue dress, worn, but the best she had. She sat with her spine straight, her eyes on the priests.
She felt so strong, so true, like nothing bad could ever happen to us just so long as my mother could go to Mass. She prayed all the time, for our health and well-being, for God to give her and my father another child.
I didn’t know it then, but in that church as a three-year-old boy, I was experiencing faith. Faith in my mother.
She was smart and beautiful and could do anything.
Faith came easy. Faith came naturally. It has not been easy or natural since then.
“Start at the beginning, and don’t leave anything out, Jesús.”
Sister Dominga would say that to me when I came back to her orphanage with a black eye, a split lip, or a guilty look on my face. She had a knack for listening and would always seem to know when I was leaving something important out. She would stand there, her arms crossed, her lips pursed, her eyes relentless until I spilled the essential facts.
Start at the beginning, and don’t leave anything out.
That was a long time ago, when I was a boy, when I was such a terrible mess. My family had been killed, I had been living on the streets, and was nearly beaten to death when Sister Dominga found me. She saved my life, she got me off the street, and eventually, she saved my soul.
Sister Dominga ran a small orphanage called Orfanato de San Miguel Arcángel (the Orphanage of Saint Michael the Archangel). It sat in Miguel Hidalgo, one of the sixteen boroughs of Mexico City. Just an old brick building behind a humble city church, the Iglesia de San Miguel Arcángel (the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel).
When she found me, nursed me back to health, heard my story, I was eleven years old. I was older than the kids they usually took in, and way too old to be adopted. So my role there was a bit different. Sister Dominga wanted me to act as a big brother to the other kids, watching over them, making sure they followed the rules. I saw my role a bit differently. I saw myself as their protector. I wanted to make sure no one ever did to them what had happened to me.
The one thing we didn’t have any trouble with was my role as storyteller. There were anywhere from six to eight boys there at a time, and we all slept in the biggest room of the old building, beds lining all the walls. When it was time for lights out, I would read stories to the younger boys. I would first read them in Spanish, and then in English. Sister Dominga loved it that I knew English so well and thought I should pass it on to the other boys.
When I first got there I had this habit of reading the ending first. Sister Dominga would give me the books, something like Hansel and Gretel, or a Hardy Boys mystery. I would always skip ahead and read the ending before I sat down to read it to the boys. I wanted to know how it would end so I could do a better job of reading it. That’s what I told Sister Dominga. But she knew better—I skipped to the end so I could brace myself for what was coming. It’s just the kind of life I had lived.
And here, now, as I stand here trying to figure out how to tell my story, I would love to jump to the end. But I can still hear Sister Dominga telling me to start at the beginning and don’t leave anything out.
I talked this over with JJ, my ghost friend, who’s done this whole memoir thing before. I told him what Sister Dominga used to say and asked him what he thought. He looked me over with those intense blue-grey eyes of his and said, “Yeah, that works, as long as you leave the boring stuff out. Stick to the story you need to tell.”
I have to tell this story. Not that I think my life is all that interesting. Maybe it is, I don’t know, though. It’s my life, so it’s completely normal to me.
So, no skipping to the end. No leaving out anything important. JJ tells me it takes some guts to do this. I believe him. I hope that I am up to the challenge.
My name is Jesús Manuel Rivera Dominga. I was born without the Dominga on the end. I added it once I was an adult to honor Sister Dominga and what she meant to me.
This is for you, Sister Dominga.