By Jim Schorch
At age 86 and just a few days shy of my 60th birthday, my mother passed away at a nursing facility in which she had resided for the last year. I felt a mixture of sadness and relief at her passing — relief that her faith had endured so much hardship and suffering. In that last year of her life, she lost her eyesight, hearing, and then the use of her legs. But, gratefully, she never lost her faith. Unless she was feeling intensely sick, not a day would pass without her going to Mass.
I understand that the loss of one’s mother is not unique to my family. Those who lose a parent grieve in their own special way. Even those estranged feel a yearning for what they missed, the need to be taken care of, and what it means to be valued, cherished and deeply loved.
My mother provided all those things, so I was blessed that she was everything one could hope for in a mother. She was kind, thoughtful and sensitive, almost never failing to thank you for doing the smallest of things and then apologizing when she felt she’d hurt you. She enjoyed the simplest things, talking to her grandchildren about their time in school, going for a drive with her family (although she never learned to drive). She enjoyed sitting outside on her swing where she could feel the warm breezes and hear the birds sing. I can still hear her singing in the kitchen as she worked preparing dinner. That always consoled me, because it was a sign that she was having a respite from the sad moods that sometimes overshadowed her.
She raised five children and worked continuously as a registered nurse for more than 50 years. She loved her work, and even after she was forced to retire, she continued to work as a volunteer. She saw her own self worth as something shaped by how much she did for others. She worried that she was being too selfish, and she often felt unworthy. This, despite the fact that “not a birthday, Valentine’s Day or Thanksgiving would pass without her sending a card”…“I loved her for her gentleness, thoughtfulness and humble faith,” her grandson Aaron said in a eulogy at her funeral. Her granddaughter Kristen added: “She always wanted the best for everyone. She was like an angel on earth.”
But angels don’t always feel angelic. Her faith was surely tested, given her health and the chronic depression she suffered with for much of her life. She had her moments and could be dark and sullen. She hated being placed in a nursing home and begged her family to take her out of there. Once we asked her to say Grace before one of our meals there. She obliged, beginning, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … Dear Lord, get me out of here!”, she said, as we busted into laughter.
I remember when the nursing home staff met with her and with my family to give her the news that it would not be a good idea to go home. She was bound and determined to return to her home of 58 years. Initially she was in good humor, and we exchanged some small talk. I and my siblings sat there in the conference room, nervously waiting for the meeting to start. I sat in the back of the room, and I almost felt like I was hiding, fearful of how my mother would respond once she understood the purpose of the meeting.
I wired her to a device that helped her hear better, and when the meeting’s purpose dawned on her, her expression changed. Her eyes became redder, the large circles beneath them swelled, and she reacted. I wanted to run out of the room, feeling like a bad child that had just misbehaved. She said: “Let me tell you something,” as she hushed others to silence. “I am going home.”
Her voice raised and quivered as she said: “As a child I had Rheumatic fever, and no one thought I would survive. I have been sick all my life, and here I am, 85 years oId. I made it through a lot, and no one is going to tell me I’m not going home.” She was angry, hurt and obstinate; you got the feeling, though, that she knew that reality was crashing in.
Slowly she accepted some of the inevitable. When her struggle or loss became too intense, she would plead with me and my siblings to “Please pray like you’ve never prayed before.” During the last year of her life, she lost virtually all her independence. She was slowly losing control over her body. On one day she asked, “Maybe I am not praying right.” “Why, Mother?” we asked.
“Because my prayers are not being answered,” she said.
Several nights a week, I would visit her, just before bedtime. I would get her favorite yogurt and soda, and we would talk, although she sometimes could recognize me by voice only. When we were children, she had us kneel before an image of Jesus and say a novena to the Sacred Heart for several consecutive days during the month of June, just prior to the feast day.
Down the hall from her room at the nursing facility stood a statue of the Sacred Heart, his hands outstretched, as if he was on the verge of embracing you. One of the things she enjoyed most was to be wheeled in front of that statue and then pray a devotion. Not being able to see, she would reach out to clasp one of his hands, and pray, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in you, Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in you.” Then, I would ask her about any other prayer she wanted to pray, and she would pray from her own words, usually prayers for her family and those she cared about.
Sometimes the prayer would be wrenching. If she had a bad day, she would break down in sobs. Then, she would recover, promising God to abide by ‘your will’, and ‘do what you think is best for me’. Then, she would ask God to forgive her for being ‘selfish’ and she would pray for members of her family. One day she prayed for a staff member who she said had been unduly rough in the way she had moved her around.
A few days later she caught pneumonia. I had my last conversation with her a couple of days before her illness made her unable to speak. We prayed together her favorite prayers, the Prayer of St. Francis, talked about how she rescued me as a baby when I swallowed a bottle cap and discussed what I might do to make sure everyone in the family is okay. She pleaded for me not to leave and was very scared. After struggling so hard to hang on, two days later, she took her last breath with her family around her. A lone tear streamed down her cheek as she expired, but she looked serene and at peace.
The next few months were hard on my family, particularly my brother and father. My 90-year-old father, her faithful husband of 63 years, became ill the week before Thanksgiving, but thankfully he was released the day before the holiday. We all went out to dinner, then over to his house to be with him. As we were huddled around the TV, he did something extraordinary.
He ordered us to turn off the TV, and then said, “I just want you to know that ever since your Mother died, I haven’t been myself, and I am sorry for how I have been treating all of you.”
He then recounted stories of the day each of us were born, how happy he and our mother were, as he remembered the early days of how our lives began. “I just want to say that I love each of you,” he said.
We heard his words in stunned silence, knowing how hard it has always been for him to put his feelings into words. And we knew how hard these words were to say, since he had been grieving the hardest loss of his life. His words were so welcome and touching. We responded in gratitude, but couldn’t help but think that perhaps, maybe, possibly, Mother was inspiring him from above.
Jim Schorch is a member of St. William Church.