I’ve been reading Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Mortal Blessing: A Sacramental Farewell, about the death of her mother and what she learned about family, the nature of the sacred, dying, and herself. During the 48 days of her mother’s final decline, small, commonplace things became sacramental.
Like O’Donnell’s mother, my own mother fell and broke her hip. She had surgery to repair, and although she was in her late 80s, the surgery was successful.
As she recuperated and started physical therapy at a nursing home, I flew to New Orleans and spent a long weekend visiting. And we talked, for hours each day. The talking didn’t seem to tire her. I’m not sure what prompted it, but it was important for her to tell me what she did, most of which I had never heard before.
O’Donnell might call this the sacrament of listening.
My mother had been a wartime bride (World War II) and like so many others had gotten divorced. Her first husband had been her childhood sweetheart and joined the army, fighting in Europe. In 1945, she and their not-quite-two-year-old son lived with his family in Gary, Indiana, and then with his sister in Chicago. When the war ended, her husband chose not to return home. He wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of a family. And so they were divorced in 1947. It was important for her to tell me he did pay $42 a month in child support; she repeated it several times.
She was dating my father when her former husband called her one day at work, asking her to reconsider and get remarried. After work that day, she said, she walked slowly to the streetcar stop to ride from downtown New Orleans to where she lived with my grandmother in the Ninth Ward. She stopped at St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street (not far the present-day D-Day and World War II Museum). She was not Catholic, but she sat in a pew and prayed. And clarity came.
When she got home, she wrote her first husband a letter, telling him it wouldn’t work. As she prayed, she said, she realized she would never be able to trust him.
She married my father in 1950. I was born a year later.
|Mother, May 2013|
At first their marriage was happy, but once he started his own business, she saw very little of him, except late at night and an occasional Sunday. (The same went for me and my older brother; I didn’t really see much of my father until I was in junior high school.)
She said that there would be days when she would sit on our back breezeway and cry for sheer loneliness. She’d see me play in the backyard and knew my older brother was with friends in the neighborhood. No one would see her cry.
“I couldn’t believe how lonely I was,” she said, talking to me while she lay in her nursing home bed.
It was not an easy story to tell or hear. But I listened. And in those few hours my mother became a much more complex person than I had ever realized, with her own joys and sorrows, with her own stories of a life lived.
Sacraments work two ways, as O’Donnell explains in Mortal Blessings. They work for both the giver and the receiver, for the object of the sacrament and the participant.
That weekend in New Orleans, my mother was blessed by the sacrament of listening, and I was blessed by the sacrament of her story.
Tomorrow, I’ll complete this meditation.
Photograph: Interior of St. Patrick’s Church, New Orleans.