When I was a child we prayed to saints for various favors, it’s an old Catholic practice and quite widespread. Although we didn’t pray for more money or anything selfish, we prayed for pretty much everything else. For example, if we were taking a test, we might say a little prayer at the start, or if we lost our wallet, we’d pray to find it. To demonstrate how wide spread was the practice, the famous charitable hospital, St. Jude’s, is named after the saint that Danny Thomas prayed too when his career was faltering.
Yes, we also prayed directly to God, but these intermediaries were favored in popular Catholic lore. (It also explains the behavior that to protestants still looks every bit like idolatry.) The Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother was considered the “intermediatrix for mankind" – Can you imagine!
Our Catholic culture was formed by nuns in Catholic schools, which in the pre-Vatican II heyday of the late 1950s, were where most Catholic kids went to school. Our teachers kept one foot in the modern world but the other was distinctly medieval. Incense, holy medals, crucifixes, statues and pictures of various holy men and women were everywhere. So was prayer. To this day, I cross myself as a reflexive response – like saying “oh well!”
We also prayed for favors that had little genuine meaning to American children. For example, we would have a monthly intention posted on the wall of our classroom – we prayed for things like the conversion of Russians to Catholicism. (To any Jewish readers, I am sad to say that we probably also prayed for the conversion of Jews.) One very peculiar intention was to pray to St. Joseph for the grace for a happy death. That children in the modern era have no idea what a happy death was seemed not to dampen the enthusiasm of the nuns at St. Phillip’s for such a morbid prayer.
Of course this world too is now far away, perhaps as far away to the 21st century, as the horse and buggy days seemed to my childhood. In healthy middle class post war America, death was confined to the aged. At 60 years of age, I understand death much better. Both my parents are dead, as are all of my aunts and uncles. My father was an old father – he was 48 years old when he married. His death came in the summer nearly 40 years ago; we children were all still at home – he was 72 at the time. My mother’s death occurred almost 30 years later, when she was 87. A very close aunt, Aunt Violet died a few months later – she was 93. My mother’s death was very much the happy death that her prayers to St. Joseph purchased. My aunt’s death came after a short period in a nursing home and so was not as easy as my mother's, but it was ultimately peaceful. My father’s was unexpected and so a shock, but given his massive stroke, his swift end was surely a mercy.
My mother in law was 90 when she died in 2007. I’ll give you the details at the end.
Dying at 72, my father’s death was not early in the terms of the time, but with young children, his death shocked his family, his neighbors and his friends. He was still working every day and had not been ill other than having high blood pressure, and indigestion. He complained about his ulcer, but knowing what I know now, I suspect that he had GERD and not an ulcer at all (sorry dad). He could have relieved his pain with TUMS. Oh well! The evening before he died, he was fine. He got up the next morning, collapsed, and died that night.
His wake was the sort of well-attended affair that happens when a breadwinner dies. It was also loud, as Irish wakes are supposed to be, even if it lacked some of the trappings (for example, no bottle of whiskey). We had several priests and nuns in attendance, and at one point an Irish born priest, friend of my older brother, decided that the prayer service that our parish priest was conducting was too “protestant” for his taste, and so he led us to pray the Rosary. To Irish Catholics of that era, there was no worse slur than labeling something as “Protestant.”
Of course we, the children, were shocked. For the three oldest, one already working, and the other two in their last year of college, perhaps we had gotten all we needed from our father. My sister was in the middle of her teen years and perhaps ready to fly on her own as well. But for my youngest brother, only 13 years old, I suspect he still needed a father, even though I can’t spell out exactly what he missed.
My mother’s death was far less disruptive. My mother died on a Saturday evening, just a few hours after my wife and I had visited her in the hospital. Her hospital stays were fairly regular in the last decades of her life. She would have a bout of shortness of breath, an ambulance would be called; she would stay a week or so, and then come home. These episodes occurred maybe twice a year. She was 87 on the last Thursday of her life when she was admitted once again. The kids were all concerned, but this spell did not seem at all different from the other episodes.
When we visited, my mother was sitting up and fairly animated. It seems everyone had been by, from each of her children, to her grandchildren. She was happy for the attention.
My mother had been a voracious reader. In fact, after a cataract operation a few years back, she had better vision than she had had for ages. Better vision than I have now, I suspect. Yet this time, she had no books or magazines with her. We (Monta and I) offered to come by with a book or two at our next visit, but she said not too. I wondered at the time if she knew it was her time. We parted a little after 5 PM and went home.
Sometime that evening, maybe around 8pm, Mary Jane called and we found out that our mother had just died. She had not had a crisis, but just slipped away.
She died at peace, knowing that her family was close by and loved her. If any death can be said to be happy, hers was.
Yes we were tearful, but her funeral was also an occasion for remembering. And whatever sadness there was, was brief.
So for both my parents, death was a simple affair.
The third death was that of a very close aunt, and hers came with a bit more difficulty.
Aunt Violet or Auntie, was a 93 year old spinster when she died. Because she was a spinster, and lived close by my mother, she visited us often during our childhood. My mother needed help with the kids. To begin with, her second and third children came at once, we were twins, and twins are always a handful. And by the time I was 12 years old, Auntie no longer needed to take care of her mother, who had just died. So weekends meant that Auntie was there to cook for the voracious McKenna boys. My mother had also just returned to work, so Auntie’s help was even more important to smoothing out the rough edges of managing a family with two working parents. As a cook she was far better than my mother, and we looked forward to her much tastier meals. Her specialty was beef liver and onions for Sunday breakfast. Trained as a cook, she used her skills to remove the organ lining, so her liver was soft and cooked to perfection, but not one second more. She was similarly excellent with chicken, pumpkin chiffon pie, and with pretty much everything else.
After she retired, she moved from Paterson to my mother’s house and a few years later, when my sister had children, Auntie became surrogate mother for my sister’s kids. (My sister also worked outside the home). Such an arrangement might sound as if my sister were taking advantage of my aunt, but in fact, my aunt’s life was enhanced by her still being needed at such a late stage in her life. My mother benefitted too – since it kept Auntie out of the house. As is common for brothers and sisters, they battled each other.
After my mother’s death, it was clear that Auntie could no longer live alone. Still, she had one last performance as cook and hostess before the house was closed. For years we had died Easter Eggs at my mother’s house, not only when we were kids, but when we were older and had kids of our own. So for Good Friday 2003, Auntie used all her remaining energy to get the house ready for her nieces, nephews and grand nieces/nephews. It was a great success. And her last outing. (In my imaginings, I’d like us to start dyeing eggs again.. but it would never be the same with my mother and aunt gone).
Within a few weeks she was living with my brother Joseph (and wife Lisa) who lived just a few blocks the opposite direction from my sister. Auntie needed more and more care. My sister in law did all she could to manage with visiting nurses, but a few weeks after Auntie’s 93rd birthday, she was placed in a nursing home. Still she received lots of visitors. In fact, probably more than anyone else in the home, and it was especially notable because she had no children of her own. Still she was unhappy and began to struggle. Soon she was unconscious and after a few weeks more, she died peacefully.
Because of her great age and her genuinely brief incapacity, her wake and funeral was also less a sad affair than warm remembrance. Although her time in the nursing home was not fun for anyone, it has faded in importance in comparison to the rest of her long life.
Then there was the passing of my mother in law.
Let me start out by saying how good a grandmother she was, and how much she helped us when we were new parents. We were dirt poor; without her help, we never would have made it.
Still, I didn’t like her, nor did she like me. She was also not very fair to her younger daughter – but to spell out how she treated my wife would turn this essay into something else. Suffice it to say that she had two daughters, an older one who conformed to my mother in law’s ideas of how a woman should act and dress, and the younger one, my wife, a well educated woman whose dress and manner (shunning makeup, jewelry and such) her mother could neither understand nor approve of.
She lived alone and for thirty-three years as a widow after her husband died. Robert Harrington died young, in his early 50s, in 1974 (I never met him). She also lived far away from the rest of her family, which resided in Idaho and California, and eventually New Jersey and Maryland too.
Her life was fine as it goes, but by the 1990s she was increasingly isolated as more and more of her friends had moved away (often to live with their kids) or had died. By the late 1990s, it was clear that she was having problems managing – yet she was not so impaired that we felt we could force her to move (either with us, or into assisted living). By 2000 she needed a regular “cleaning woman” – and eventually I took over her bills. She did not like even this small intervention into her life.
Being alone, she exhibited behaviors typical of aging folks who are losing their grip. She was late with her bills (accruing thousands of dollars of late fees). She hoarded. She didn’t bathe regularly, and she refused to use adult diapers (so her house stunk of stale urine!). By the last year, she had been scammed a few times – losing thousands of dollars, including thousands given to the “cleaning lady” – a young poorly educated woman who might be described as “poor white trash.” This woman seemed to confine her “cleaning” to sitting with my mother in law while they drank a few high balls and shared a fast food meal. One time when my wife visited, she found her mother living in filth, with a hole in the living room ceiling and standing water in the basement.
One summer morning she was found helpless – she had had a mild stroke. We put her in a nursing home, and though the home tried to rehabilitate her (paid for by Medicare) it was pointless. She spent her last six weeks alone, without and visitors. She even refused to take our phone calls. It was, I guess, her last assertion of will.
This musing on four deaths was prompted by hearing a story (on BBC radio) about two different deaths, one a long slow painful one, and the second, medically assisted. The storyteller was the son of the two deceaseds. What we call assisted suicide the storyteller named medically assisted.
I don’t see that either of my parents needed such an end. But for my aunt and mother in law, I am sure that such a possibility would have helped. Especially with my mother in law, who was, I believe, not happy at all. My aunt would have clawed her way to have even one more hour.
This essay doesn’t come with a conclusion. Each of us will age differently. I can see in myself the beginnings of the same infirmities that killed my mother (even so, I may have 27 years to go). On the other hand, I see the same stubbornness in my wife that isolated her mother so. Of course, I don’t see any of the rest. My wife was and is a far better parent to my son than her mother was to her.
But what about medically assisted deaths?
With my mother in law, she could no longer swallow water after her stroke. And at age 90, she was far too infirm to rehabilitate – that is, she had no little physical reserve. So a medically assisted might have saved her the last 6 weeks or so of pure hell. A hell for which her mind, though impaired, was fully capable of comprehending.