"Hail Mary, full of grace..."
It was the worst kind of family reunion. The kind where someone has to die for it to happen. We had worried about grandma dying for quite a while. Of course, no one wanted her to go, but no one wanted her to suffer either.
"... the Lord is with Thee..."
My brothers and parents all piled into a plane to fly across country, to meet my sister and all of my uncles, aunts, and cousins in California. We didn't leave home until it was already over. When we decided that, the first wave of guilt set in. We would wait until she was gone, then we would go to her. It was perfectly logical. Nothing we could do could help make her better, and if we went and she was fine, then all we would get was a visit and a chance to travel SoCal's wide freeways. It felt ... wrong. But logic prevailed.
"... blessed art thou amongst women..."
She was a strong and powerful woman, but most would also admit that she was hard to get along with and opinionated. The eulogy made that point in particular – in jest, evincing a low laugh, in the way that an uncomfortable truth often will. But just as many people knew she was a hard nut to crack as knew she was generous and giving of all of her resources.
"... and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus."
All four of her children were together in one place again, my aunts and uncles, and father of course. Getting the four of them and their spouses together was not always a guarantee of anything resembling a loving moment, but as I searched my memory, I realized that the bad or uncomfortable times were just prominent because they stood out like a lone mountain on a smooth plain. The love between her children was evident as they looked at each other in the days leading up to the memorial service. There were a few loud moments, a few raised voices, even a set of rolled eyes or two, but the most prominent emotion was love.
"Holy Mary, mother of God...."
I remembered the many times that we went to grandma and grandpa's house when I was younger. A few times I went with my parents, a few times by myself. Inevitably, I stayed much or most of the time at their house. I slept in my uncle's room or on the floor in the living room or, when it was warm enough, out on the lanai. I was sleeping in my father's mother's home. It is an interesting mingling of the generations that I didn't really appreciate until I helped introduce my own "next generation" to the world. Then, suddenly, "mom" wasn't my mother any more, but my wife. Of course, I've understood how the species propagates for a long, long time, but until you're really a part of the cycle, it is hard to feel the significance.
"... pray for us sinners..."
She would disappear for an hour at a time in the middle of each day, without fail. She wasn't gone, but she was out of touch. She was saying her prayers. She would finish watching one of her soaps, or would finish one of the myriad books I watched her read, and she would rise and go to her bedroom. She left the door open, so what she was doing was no mystery. I, or one of my brothers or cousins, would walk by and see her lounging on her bed, prayer card in one hand and an old rosary in the other.
I'd learned to say the rosary, like any Catholic child had, a long time ago. But I have not said one in so long, the span would have to be measured in decades. Not she. She said it daily, and I learned from the eulogy that she said the entire rosary each day. Most of the time, you pick five of fifteen "mysteries" to pray about and reflect upon, but she said all fifteen. Recently, Pope John Paul II added five more mysteries, and I quickly wondered if she'd added these to her routine or if her prayer card had only had the original fifteen and had stuck with them. I may never know.
As we sat around and discussed religion one night before the service, we discussed the wide-ranging religious beliefs of her progeny and theirs. All of her children had a strong sense of right and wrong, a strong sense of ethic, but did not all follow her example of piety. One had abandoned the church completely, an other had come back to it after leading a far from pious life. But the real surprise was in the faith, or lack thereof, of the grandchildren.
Most had been raised Catholic, but few retained the faith. One is an atheist; several others agnostics at best; others still converted to other Christian sects; some practiced Catholicism simply by going through the motions; and a minority could be considered "good, practicing" Catholics. But even with all the variety, and even with her presumed disapproval not far from her lips, her children and grandchildren were all good people, all loving, all devoted to family. Is there a better legacy?
"... now and at the hour of our death."
She'd outlived her husband, my grandfather, by nine years. She only recently had taken so ill that she could not get around on her own. That may have been the true beginning of the end. You have to have a very strong will to live even when you cannot do for yourself. And if you have the faith, you believe that there is a whole other life, far better than anything this world could give you, on the other side. Even if you don't believe, there is no shame in realizing that your time is at an end, that any suffering is not worth the days it might bring, and you let yourself go.
My aunt would tell us that she felt her love of family, her generosity, even in the waning moments. They were ready to pull her off the ventilator, which, by all accounts, her living will should have prevented her from even being on in the first place. But who could have known that the ventilator, when first plugged in, would be an "extraordinary effort"? She had come in to be treated for an infection, that's all ... an infection that had, fatally, reached her blood stream. So as they stood over her and said goodbyes, they asked her just go – to make it so that there was no reason to "pull the plug." And within a few minutes, her heart had stopped. Had the timing just been perfect, or had she really heard the plea to make the final moments just a little bit easier? I don't know – can't answer that one, because it all depends on your faith. But it happened.
We prayed five decades of the rosary for her, and everyone, even the atheists, agnostics, and Jews in the crowd, stayed because it was to honor her, even if the words had no religious meaning to the individual. I said my first rosary in those many decades. I could still recite the Hail Mary from memory, no doubt aided by the fact that my own kids had recently been assigned to learn the prayer in Sunday school.
After that, my father delivered the eulogy, which had many poignant moments as well as many amusing ones. My uncle noted that though he did not have her faith, he knew she prayed for a good many causes, and if good was to have come from that, she had helped many people. I rose to deliver a short message from my daughter, to her great-grandmother. She wrote that she would miss her, that she was sorry they had not been able to know each other better, but that the visits that they had had were important to her.
She told her that she shared her love of books, a gift that I thought I had given my daughter, but which I realized had been passed to her not from me but through me, from my grandmother's generation, to my father's, through me and to her. The cycle of life lives not only in the passage of genes from one generation to the next, but also in the passage of ideas, philosophies, morals, and values. Though we all differ in the fine points, in the details, in the broad-brush strokes that are the art of our family, there is continuity.
Finally, my daughter wrote that she hoped that she was now with great-grandpa, and that she was now in a perfect heaven – one filled with lots of books and endless time to read them. Could there be a more fitting wish for a child to have for her deceased great-grandmother? Or for a grown child to have for his grandmother, or for another grown child to have for his mother? To have rediscovered one love of your life, waiting for you with open arms, and for another passion to suddenly be boundless in its exploration?
As I read her words to her great-grandmother and to the audience of four children and ten other grandchildren, I could barely contain my own grief. I had to pause several times to regain enough composure to speak only a few words of the message. But I had to get it out, to fulfill a promise to her, and to say her words in my voice, because they echoed my own feelings. I wish I'd known you better. I'm glad you're not in any more pain. I'll miss you.
"So, are you going to write about all this?"
Obviously, I did decide to write about "all of this," because it is cathartic. It is a reminder to myself of how I felt that day. I'd been smiling in the funeral home parking lot, as I saw cousins for the first time in, sometimes, a long, long time. "I think the last time I saw you was at your wedding," one cousin had said. I have a photo of myself, all decked out in a gray tuxedo, holding her on the dance floor of my reception – a big, newly-married cousin with his little lithe cousin in his arms. And now she stands before me, a fully-grown woman. Could it have been that long? If I'd not already given it much thought, I'd have known then exactly how my daughter felt. But I had thought about it and was sad at the time missed, but happy now to at least, at least, see them all.
But after the hand-shaking and hugs had ended, the idle chit-chat had died down, it was time to go into the room to see her one last time, to bid goodbye, to the body at least. As I approached the open coffin, I felt the levity slide away and felt sadness and regret take its place. I was sorry she was gone. I was sorry we had not had more time. I felt tears well up as a I recalled my daughter's words, which I would read soon enough, and knew she had written not just for herself but for me, and for her brothers, and for my brothers, all isolated from her by so many miles, too few letters, and only the briefest of telephone conversations.
I knew I would have a hard time reading her words as soon as I felt the first catch in my breath. But I knew I had to do it, to fulfill the promise, to be her voice, and to express my own feelings in her words.
She's gone now, dead and buried, perhaps gone on to a better place. I don't know if her spirit lives on. I hope so, because it would be a fitting end for us all. But I am satisfied to know that she lives in me, and my daughter, and my father. In my cousins, and their children. We all have a piece of her in us, and as long as we live up to the lessons she taught us, directly or indirectly, we honor her.
"P.S. My brothers miss you, too."
We all do. Whether we called you mom, or grandma, or great-grandma, or even just friends, we all miss you.
Take care. Amen.
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This was written in April 2006, the night of my grandmother's vigil service. It is not an exact account of anything more than just the way I was feeling, and I embellished a bit here and there. For me, dealing with death means writing. I wish I felt the urge to write for more pedestrian reasons, but for a while, something like this is the only motivator. I'll keep working on it.
Last Modified: 21 Apr 2006
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