After years of suffering beneath a mask of holiness, Thomas Merton, called by Henri Nouwen, "the greatest spiritual writer of the twentieth century," discovered his true love. Despite being forbidden to see Margie Smith, a student nurse half Merton's age, the wise sage learned about how to love, and be loved, for the first time in his life. Writing in his journals, he called Margie, "a miracle in my life," a tribute to the impact she had on permitting him to enjoy freedom just before his tragic, controversial, death at age of 53 in 1968.
Miracles may occur any time, and when one recently appeared in my life, Merton's spiritual path reminded me of my own since I had suffered for many years after a confrontation years ago with none other than the basketball coaching legend, Bobby Knight. This occurred when, out of 40,000 students at Indiana University, he grabbed my stepson and reprimanded him for supposedly saying, "What's up Knight?" instead of calling him "Coach Knight." A war of words ensued as the media became enthralled with whether a chief critic of Knight's -- me -- or a bombastic coach who bullied people left and right -- Knight -- would prevail. In the end, we both lost -- him, his job, and me, the relationship with my wife and step-children.
When divorce occurs, kids most times must choose sides, and in my case, they chose my wife's. I understood their dilemma, but being cut off from them nevertheless broke my heart. Forgiveness was a given, but I wondered how those I had treated as my own children for more than twelve years could abandon me.
For those that don't know, being a step-father is a tough task since while he is a member of the family, he is not really a member of the family. Most step-fathers I know feel as I do, that yes, they love their step-family dearly, but hope that perhaps one day they might be blessed with children of their own. This desire decreases with age, and for me, hitting the ripe young number of 65 meant that having my own kids was near impossible despite my having discovered a wonderful woman to share my later years.
Just when we think the impossible is impossible, a shocker occurs. Similar to when Margie popped into Merton's life, an adventure began to impact mine just a short month ago. Whoever said "the good Lord works in mysterious ways" certainly had me in mind during a strange series of events that began when I received an email from a fellow named James in Minnesota who said he was a "fan of my books." He asked if I had lived in the Minneapolis area in the late 1960s and I told him I had. He then asked if I left there and moved to Chicago before attending law school. I told him, yes, this was true.
The next email hit me upside the head like a thunderbolt since James told me that his wife, Marni, had been adopted at an early age and taken in by a wonderful family that raised her. Two years ago, she decided to try to locate her birth mother and through adoption files, did so. They met and began a relationship, one that permitted Marni to know that her mother gave her up for adoption while she was a student. The mother had not even told her parents that she was pregnant. She also had never told the father.
Based on a file item at the adoption service, Marni was informed that her birth father was a pre-med student who had died in a motorcycle accident. But one day while speaking with her birth mother, she blurted out that Marni's father was not dead but that his name was Mark Shaw, a blond, blue-eyed fellow she had met at a 1968 party through her sister Barbara. The two had dated for a while until Mark moved to Chicago on his way to law school.
Since Marni's adoptee father was ill, no follow-up occurred. Two years passed before James, a high school teacher of world religion, decided he wanted help with publishing a play he was writing. He googled "how to become a published author" and up popped yours truly. Curious, he visited my website and noted one of the photographs displayed there. Focusing in, he noticed similarities especially with the teeth, cheekbone structure, and eyebrows. When he told Marni, she was curious as well but hesitant to believe that I could be the Mark Shaw.
Attached to the email James had sent were two photographs of Marni, one at an earlier age and a current one. When I showed the current photograph to my wife, she noticed the obvious similarities to both me and my sister Anne. I then showed Lu the email and she was as astounded as I was at the potential that I had a daughter and two grandchildren I never knew existed.
To shorten the story a bit, emails began to flow back and forth until it was decided that a paternity test was appropriate. Imagine an old guy like me at age sixty-five taking a test like that. But I did and, within a few days, the results came back that there was a 99.9 percent DNA match. Amazing!
Since the proof was discovered, Marni and James have visited Lu and me in Colorado, and Lu and I flew to Minnesota to meet the two grandchildren and celebrate Marni's birthday. The excitement is evident everywhere especially from those who have been inspired by this story just as many readers of my Merton biography were by his "Romeo and Juliet" love affair with Margie.
To have a child and grandchildren is a dream come true. As I held my youngest granddaughter, Lucy, age 10, in my arms, and then stood with the oldest, Allison, 17, as she wowed us all with her beauty on prom night, I could not help compare my emotions, ones that have brought tears to my eyes many times, with the joy Thomas Merton felt when he fell in love with Margie. Like him, I had truly discovered a miracle, no, three really, and like him, I felt like the most blessed man in the world.
Mark Shaw is the author of nearly twenty books including Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free. Photographs of Mark's new family may be viewed at www.markshawbooks.net and on his Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/markshawbooks.