August 10, 2008
It seems that every day now is like pushing an elephant up a stairs. I awake each morning to begin hauling myself up all over again. What was achieved yesterday seems to be of no use for today. I am somehow disconnected from life and fiercely connected to loss. It’s like a massive hangover, without having had the pleasure.
“You have veiled the Godhead in a cloud, in the clay of our humanity”
(St. Catherine Of Sienna)
The Lord veiled His divinity in the clay of Mam’s humanity, most especially in the ending of her time on earth - the final ten days. The Office Of Readings today has the lovely reading from Hosea 11 and I have experienced the tenderness of that love. The night before she died Mam drew me down to her, holding me to her cheek. I had asked her if she knew who I was and she opened her eyes, smiled and said, “you are Eamonn Monson, my lovely son”. She drifted into sleep still holding me, and in her I believe, I know, that God was holding me, speaking to me.
There is something enormous about the experience of a maternal love that is spontaneous, unfiltered and pure. It can bring with it a certain breaking down of one's being and is followed – and even accompanied by - an extraordinary peace. It leaves no doubt in its wake and is beyond question. It is the greatest security one can have. When life attacks me with its threats I return to that moment on Friday evening, July 25th, and I am made strong.
Motherhood is the best expression of God that we have, especially when it is lived in faith. Next to God our Mother is the most important reality in our lives and when she goes from us we experience a profound shifting of the ground of our being. Profound is probably not an adequate word at all. It is a loss akin to the loss of God.
We spoke one day of the Blessed Virgin. Years ago when Mam was a young married woman in Mervue her uncle Paddy Walsh arrived late at the door one night. Dad must have opened it because Paddy saw Mam coming down the stairs in her dressing gown and he said afterward, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, down the stairs she came looking just like the Blessed Virgin.”
We were tucking Mam in bed in the hospital, smoothing the white sheet around her shoulders and I said, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph you look just like the Blessed Virgin.” So we laughed at that and every so often when we settled her she herself would say “the Blessed Virgin.”
That’s how we got talking about Our Lady. I told her of the Hopkins poem “The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe”. He calls her “wild air, world mothering air, nestling me everywhere.” Mam liked that.
People speak of Mam as being nice. Nice is much too tame. She was in her time and in her ways often the wild, even furious, air; she was the nestling air; and she was deep and strong as the ocean.
She had at one time in her life an untamed fury but she experienced real transformation as her life progressed. Life itself transformed her, tragedy such as Maura's death brought her to a depth in which she recognised clearly what mattered most in life. The material became less significant and what mattered most was the human person.
Prayer brought about its own transformation – adoration, praying alone at home and especially the Mass. It brought her to a level of peace that was radiant, sometimes even visible.
The transformation we saw in her has become for us a source of hope. Transformation, change is possible.
Having been sick since the end of June Mam finally agreed to see a doctor and was admitted to Merlin Park hospital. The indications were that she had pneumonia and systemic infection for which she was receiving antibiotics.
I was at a meeting in Rome the week she went to hospital. For me that was an experience of letting go. Every part of me wanted to go home but reason – and others - persuaded me that there was no need. I went through agony and prayed to get a grip on myself and arrived at peace. I got home on July 12 and on July 16 Mam was told she had widespread and advanced cancer.
Rose, Evelyn, Harry and I were told this by the doctor who then went to tell Mam privately. That morning before talking with the doctor I was alone with Mam who began talking about her illness, wondering why she had so much wrong with her and she asked me “are you preparing yourself for cancer?” I said yes, and asked if she was preparing for it. “Yes, but not fully” she replied.
The four of us (her children) went to see her when the doctor had left. “I’m 82 and I have to die of something.” To Rose she said “no more high heels for me!”
With her death on the horizon I wanted to make sure that no dark traces would remain for me and that she would leave me knowing that I loved her. I apologized to her for all the hurt I had done to her. She said, “you more than made up for them.”
There was no denying of the fact that I had hurt her and that bit of honesty has been good for me. Things weren’t fudged or nicified. I’m not sure if anyone else felt the need to make such an apology. Mam did not feel the need to apologise for the hurts she had done. There was the sense that all such things were past and only love remained.
All the days that followed were spent in preparation for her death, though neither she nor any of us expected it to be immanent. She spoke of all the things she needed to sort out – her will, the house, what she would be laid out in and where. To Harry she spoke of the hymns she would like sung at her funeral.
They were times of great tenderness, love and honesty. She allowed Rose and Evelyn to tend to her most intimate needs. Harry was good to massage her feet and arms. The love in this physical caring and touch was a real anointing. She turned to me for prayer.
The experience of praying with her was so inspiring. There was a pure childlike quality to her way of praying which was as profound as it was pure. It was good that all of us as a family could participate in prayer with her. Sometimes we sat still, in silent meditation, while she slept. And often we would simply hold her hand.
We celebrated Mass with her most days and she considered that to be a great privilege. One day after communion at Mass in her hospital room she went into some kind of trance or ecstasy – he eyes lifted up and focused on some distant reality and she raised up her two hands in a kind of graceful flourish. We were sure that the end would come then but it didn’t.
There were the moments when she would sit up suddenly out of sleep and sit on the side of the bed. The first time she sat in silence with her hands open, palms upward as in prayer and finished by saying “through Christ our Lord.”
The second time was when her sister Eileen was visiting. When Mam sat on the edge of the bed she said, “I want to see the stars.” Another time, after sitting there in silence she opened out her hands and said with humour “ye can venerate me now!”
When asked if she were afraid, she said, “there is nothing to be afraid of. I know where I’m going.” And when I said she seemed so at peace she said that with me she was in the presence of peace.
On the weekend of July 19-20 many people came to see her. We limited the length of visits because it was so tiring for her but it was also vitally important that these visits took place. It was a pilgrimage of farewell. Most people cried on leaving her and I would say went away with a blessing from her. It was a powerful and draining experience.
Friday July 25, 2008 St. James
We brought Mam home on Wednesday and had a bed prepared for her in the sitting room. Yesterday was another day of pilgrimage, with many of the neighbours calling. She had asked to see Rob who had a bit of time alone with her. She was pleased and afterwards said, “it was my hearts desire.”
Today was quieter and Mam slept a lot. We played Strauss. At breakfast I offered her water and she replied, “I’m tired of water. I’ll have a brandy. Brandy and Strauss for breakfast! What better could you have!”
In the afternoon we celebrated Mass and the sacrament of anointing. Katie asleep on Elaine’s lap, Mam asleep in her bed and their breathing rhyming, like they were answering, echoing each other – the new and the old; the beginning and the end; Alpha and Omega.
In the evening Margaret Dowling, Noreen Henry and May Fergus sat quietly with her.
Saturday July 26, 2008 Saints Joachim & Anne
They took into their own a hand unseen
(From the Liturgy)
Harry and I sat up with Mam until 2.30 a.m. when Rose and Bernard took over. Evelyn was on the couch in the hall, ready to be called if Mam needed to be changed.
It was the first sign of pain and it began with restlessness and a continuous groaning. She resolutely resisted oral morphine and even the sleeping tablet she herself had requested on leaving the hospital. When Evelyn tried to get her to take it she asked in a suspicious tone, “what do you want me to take that for?”
Carmel spent some time alone with Mam and ministered to her very naturally when no one else was looking.
In the early morning she got frustrated and said, “why don’t ye leave me alone” and when Evelyn and I tried to lift her up in the bed she said with agony “you’re hurting me”.
Yet there was that morning one of the most tender moments, an experience of touch. Mam needed to be changed and there were only Evelyn and myself. I said I would hold her and not look. So she lay on her left side at the edge of the bed and I held her very tenderly and lovingly. She allowed herself to be held in that way, without any resistance. I had previously said that I would change her if necessary and she said, “sure I know you would but it would not be right.”
We knew at that stage that the pain was severe enough. Evelyn called the hospice nurse who came in the early afternoon. With great patience and tenderness Breda administered a sedative and morphine. It took it a long time to have any effect.
It had not yet taken effect, and the nurse was still working, when I went to Kilgannons for a chat with Julia. Shortly before 5.30 David came over to say the others wanted me. When I got in it was a very different Mam. The effect of morphine was dramatic. Her whole being was stilled, eyes glazed and only a slight murmur when I spoke to her.
There were others in the house but I suggested that the five of us would celebrate Mass around Mam’s bed. Between the Sanctus and Eucharistic prayer Mam passed quietly away. Roisin had just arrived in from work. It was almost imperceptible – a little gurgling, the slightest change in her appearance, a single tear falling from her eye.
A life of eighty-two years, the reference point of all our lives, gone in a breath. The Gospel of Mass was appropriate, Feast of the parents of the Blessed Virgin, “Happy are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13). After reading the gospel I said to her that soon she would be seeing and hearing what every human being desires, that it was our prayer for her. They were the last words I spoke directly to her.
We cried and continued with Mass. I think I cried all the way through and Rose held me. It was very difficult but also the right thing.
Mam died, resting on her left side. When Mass was over we turned her on her back and the last groan of breath went up through her, so that some thought she was not dead at all. Evelyn closed her eyes; we joined her hands and placed her St. Benedict’s cross & beads between her fingers. She looked lucent and at peace.
Word went out and people started to flow in. And so a new kind of gathering took place around her.
August 23, 2008
It’s now exactly four weeks since Mam died and it’s still raining. After the month’s mind tomorrow I’ll go back to Dublin and seek meaning in what offers little. At a time like this I realize how disconnected and irrelevant the celibate life appears to be. From a selfish point of view there is no one like a mother or a spouse to gather you in during a time of grief. When you don’t have children – well, when you don’t have children…. How I miss the children, those last days at home when we were all living at home together. The life, the energy of it – Roisin, Brian, Peter and Katie.
I’ll put my head down against the weather and keep going a while further up the road.
“Words have no meaning now,
Silence is master,
Laughter and songs bow”
The words of Brendan Behan spoken at the funeral of Ronnie Drew. It’s the kind of event Mam would be tuned into and now I think of picking up the phone to talk to her about it. This is part of the absence that hits us every day - the need to tell her something and she’s not there.
Laughter is almost out of the question and silence is a hard taskmaster. It holds such heaviness and pain. But there are songs that fit the time and they rise spontaneously, expressing something of the sorrow and the desire - Go Rest high On That Mountain; Softly And Tenderly; You’re My Best Friend.
Mam’s death is not tragic. There was a plane crash in Madrid, horrific deaths. Ours is not that kind of tragedy but it is still life changing because it is our mother who has died. The reference point.
Rose and I are in Aran. The last time I was here with Derry in June, Mam came up with Rose. There’s a lot of “the last time”. There will be many more. Being here, getting out on the sea has peacefulness and a sense of getting far away from everything - especially my work. It’s my work as Provincial, my life as a Pallottine, which is the hardest thing. I hate it with a vengeance and yet engaging in it brings life. It’s the thought of it...
People have spoken about Mam’s funeral being the best ever experienced, saying it was so dignified and prayerful. We avoided excess. The singing - provided by the senior choir, Pat Naughton and Harry - was uplifting and in tune with the mood of the day. Over thirty priests - mostly Pallottine - concelebrated. Mam had a great love for priests - especially the Pallottines - and their presence in such numbers would have pleased her. For me the funeral was emotionally demanding but the strength to hold it together was also there and it is a privilege to be able to celebrate Mass for Mam.
We have just been up to see Agnes Powell Faherty. She was someone Mam loved and I missed her the day of the funeral. Her son drowned four years ago when his trawler sank off the Connemara coast. He had no fear of the sea, she said, no respect for it - and everything has to be respected. Her son Oliver brought us up in his mini bus before his day’s work began. We had met him near the old pier yesterday and when I said I had missed seeing his mother, he was on the phone to her and had the visit arranged.
The dead made up a lot of our conversation and each time the name of the deceased was mentioned her husband Tommy raised his cap. They are of that generation that had great respect. Tommy used to be a jarvey, carrying tourists around the island with his pony and trap.
Our talk was not just about the dead. I asked about Maura Dirrane who used to work in Powells house the time I stayed there as a child. She is someone I have always wanted to meet ever since, but never had the opportunity. Now I hear she is back on the island and working in the restaurant in Kilmurvey.
September 2, 208
“You have seduced me Lord and I have let myself be seduced; you have overpowered me: you were the stronger.” (Jeremiah 20,7)
I’m reading Paul Auster's “The Invention Of Solitude”. His father has died suddenly and is portrayed as an empty man.
Mam was anything but empty. Strong, powerfully present, alive and finding meaning in the ordinary, fiddling with the objects of her solitude of eighteen years.
I'm a long way from home, from the house that is now my own. It speaks of her in its way, speaks an emptiness and absence. The objects associated with her, things she used, picked up and put down again – are somehow disconnected with her now.
But the clothes she wore are different, more intimate, retaining a touch of her. I've taken one of her scarves; maybe one of those I bought her. It's got her scent. From time to time I hold it to my face, put it under my pillow. It is gentle and kind.
Since she died I am thinking again about the meaning of my existence and go back to the catechism – God made man to know, love and serve him in this life and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. I know, love and serve Him. But something in me wants more, to know the meaning more deeply in every fibre of my being.
There is a veil to be stepped through, unexplored ground to be walked upon. And confidence – more confidence in who I am. Queen Catherine challenged Henry VIII to “be the king that you are.”
Be the man that I am – the priest and the provincial.
When Mam died Rose said no one will ever know her like Mam did. One is only truly known by one's mother.
I dislike being known because something in me has learned that to be known is to be known to be wrong; knowing gives the other power – too much negative power over me. It has proved dangerous, an entrapment. The only knowing I really trust is God's. I only feel truly safe with him.
What I sense in the past seven weeks since Mam died is that I have to stand on my own two feet now and live in fidelity to the man God made me to be. While Mam was alive she was always there as a reference point, a point of approval or approbation. This is natural between child and mother.
In the days before she died she gave me unreserved approval. And she did what I always wanted love to do. She set me free.
That moment when she drew me – her “lovely son” - to herself and held me. Right then she set me free and launched me into my own rightful orbit. The outer space of my being in God.
Sometimes I think that the confinement of marriage didn't suit her and when dad died it was as if her solitary soul were allowed to breathe. That is not to say she should not have married. The confinement of it produced greatness in her. I am not made for confinement either – the intimate confinement of son – but it too has produced something in me.
I am no longer a son in the flesh. No longer bound. My mother has given me away, given me back.
The phone at home has been disconnected – a chord snapped, umbilical cut. A very symbolic statement of what has happened in our lives and it hurts.