ATTLEBORO — For almost every one of the last 1,560 Sundays, John McCarron has pulled into the parking lot by the gray wooden house on Bank Street, climbed the rickety back stairs, and pushed open the door to the apartment where Joseph Blanchard waits in his church clothes.
Blanchard lets out a deafening, high-pitched “Whoooooop!” when McCarron arrives on a recent morning. He throws his arms around McCarron’s neck and holds him tight for a long time. McCarron pats his back and waits for Blanchard to release him.
The two graying men are the same age, 56, and about the same size. McCarron is an electrical engineer, a circumspect, three-Rosary-a-day Catholic. Blanchard is legally blind and developmentally disabled, in constant motion, smart-alecky. Theirs is a friendship built on 30 years of routine, ribbing, and idle threats.
“Hey Big Mouth,” McCarron says, when Blanchard finally releases him.
“Party tonight!” Blanchard says, oscillating.
“I’ll party you,” McCarron deadpans.
Caregiver Joe Sheldon slides a church envelope into the pocket of Blanchard’s red dress shirt. “Have a good time,” he calls out as McCarron leads Blanchard down the stairway.
“OK, Ma!” Blanchard yells back.
“Don’t call me Ma!” Sheldon scolds.
This Sunday is like every other: Mass at St. John the Evangelist a few blocks away; a drive to Our Lady of La Salette Shrine to listen to the bells; a visit with a beloved former caregiver who is ill; coffee and something sweet at home to finish. The whole circuit takes about three hours.
Between stops, the pair listen to the radio and do their routine: Blanchard says something cheeky, like how he kissed this or that worker at Beta Community Partnerships, the outfit that cares for him. And McCarron threatens to tell on him. The back and forth escalates until McCarron says, “I will beat. You. Up.”
“I will crack. You. One,” is Blanchard’s practiced, delighted response.
In church, Blanchard rocks in his pew, reaching for McCarron’s hand every now and then, confirming that his friend is still beside him. McCarron nudges him to stand or kneel, offers his hand to fellow parishioners during the Sign of Peace, pulls the envelope from his pocket when it’s time for Blanchard to drop his donation into the basket, which he does very slowly, stretching the moment.
“How am I making present in my life the existence of God?” the priest asks in the homily.
There’s an answer in plain sight in the 10th row. You have to push McCarron hard to reflect on why he makes the one-hour trip from Lowell every Sunday. He met Blanchard as a young aide in his Beta group home in 1982, and wanted to stay in contact with him, that’s all.
“Joe has nobody else who sees him on a regular basis that isn’t paid to be there,” he says. McCarron, whose faith is all of him, is that person, even though his own parents are ill, and he has two children, five stepchildren, and four grandchildren. Even though he’s been unemployed since Thanksgiving.
“The same jokes work every week,” McCarron says. “I have a good time.”
And what is McCarron to Blanchard? The most stable thing in a life where consistency is all. Blanchard had a childhood that is difficult to contemplate. His troubled parents treated him like an animal, even confining him in a cage. The abuse worsened the effects of his cerebral palsy. He walks hunched over. His right side, and sometimes his speech, defy control.
Toward the end of their morning together, Blanchard holds McCarron’s hand tighter than usual.
“Trying to break my hand, Big Mouth is,” McCarron says.
“I’ll break your hand right off,” Blanchard says. They prepare to part.
“Well, thank you very much, everybody,” Blanchard says.
“How’s next week?” McCarron asks. “Sound good?”
“Sounds good to me.”