Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Both Sides Now

My foster mother’s death was ugly – months of loneliness, anger, frustration. Sickness and death filled the house. The children existed to be shushed, to fetch and carry and participate in the most intrusive aspects of caring for her declining body, to be pummeled with helplessness and torn down whenever we reached for something that was not illness, something that was happy and joyous and full of life. We were not important. Neither was she. Impotence, my foster father’s impotence, was what really mattered. And anything any of us did trumpeted that one fact, he was powerless before death.

She shouted repeatedly, “The devil is a liar!” – a mantra he had insisted she use to fight demonic possession, to fight the disease, to fight off death. And as she became sicker, he heaped much blame on her: she didn’t fight hard enough, she should have insisted that she was really, really sick, she hadn’t somehow prevented this terrible disease from taking hold of her. A great deal of money was spent on ambulances and private nurses and attendants who accompanied every member of the house when we were bundled into sundry vehicles and transported to faith healers and miracle workers; their requests for donations continued to come for years after her death. Ultimately, my foster father began to be convinced that he too could work miracles. When she died, he took me and one of his daughters to the funeral home to show us how beautifully he had arranged for her to be prepared for burial and the two of us held our breaths in terror as he commanded my foster mother to “come forth!” What if she did?

Years later, after Mass one Sunday, a friend who often gave me a ride home asked if I’d accompany him to the hospital to visit his cousin. For me it was one of those overwhelming, tingly experiences of God telling me this was very, very important. On the way, my friend explained that his cousin had lived a prodigal life: gambling, prostitutes, alcohol. No one in the family had heard from this wayward child until his mother had received a telephone call about a week earlier that he was very ill and in hospital. My friend, the only family member in the area, had been visiting him and doing what he could but now, feeling helpless, sought the comfort of a friend; his cousin had AIDS and was very close to death.

An emaciated, severely jaundiced young man lay in the bed. He was being well cared for, my friend had seen to that, and was very happy to see both of us. He kept repeating something over and over but my friend’s queries began immediately we entered the room, in a hollow, almost booming voice and prevented us from hearing what he was saying. I walked closer, finally told my friend to hush, and finally we heard the young man’s breathless amazement: “I’m going home. I’m finally going home.” “Yes you are,” I said. And then turned to my friend and said, “Sometimes questions aren’t important. Sometimes all you need to know is that you’re going home.” And I took the cousin’s small, wasted hand and put it in my friend’s large, strong one. We prayed together, thanked God for making him, thanked God for making home. About a week later, my friend’s cousin died.

I had hated hospitals, remembered them as places where I was left to sit in the waiting room or hallway because I was too young to see my foster mother stuck full of needles. It was an experience of awful smells, of loneliness, of despair. Without God telling me it was important, I would have refused to go with my friend. And I would have missed something. Because the awfulness was not the smells, the being left alone, the illness, or even my foster mother’s death. The awfulness was despair, was impotence before death, impotence before life. The awfulness was that in the midst of the agony, we could not thank God for her, we could not thank God that she was finally going home.


forget me not said...

(((Speechless, Drusilla)))

TheMerovingian said...

I am speechless, too, Drusilla. All I can manage is a banal "Wow..."

Anonymous said...

If I hadn't grown up poor, then dashed away from the Cross and then back again (a million times), and had I not been in RCIA for so long as sponsor, prayer partner, team member and heard things that boggle the mind.., I'd have to wonder if you're writing fiction, albeit very good fiction..
But no.. I know you are telling the truth. Your clarity is frightening, like that moment in the Garden when Mary of Magdala heard her name from a seeming Gardener.

Keep talking.. keep talking.. even if the rest of us are speechless! If this were Bowling for Atheists, you'd have a strike in each frame. Damn me, but I hope some are watching!


Anonymous said...

ps.. there are a few people I have asked to write their Catholic journey in book form. I was about to ask you to do so, but.. perhaps it is the crowning touch, as in thorns. I don't want to bring about that trauma, but if ever you publish, please let us know.