Today is the second anniversary of Father Michael’s death. And it is Easter Sunday- a great day to reflect on the reality of everlasting life and love.
This past week , I have revisited all the sad and poignant moments of the last few weeks of Father’s life. Funny how those things never get old….and really never will. For some reason, I’ve recalled how very often in the last few months of his life, Father M would tell me he didn’t take some of his meds. At first, I assumed that he’d just forgotten. (He’d mentioned a few times that he’d wakened at night in terrible pain- and would realize he’d forgotten to apply his pain patch.) So I thought he was absent- minded about it. So dutifully, I’d tell him to go over the pharmacy instructions and that maybe he could make up the doses on some pills.
But later on, I noticed that he’d tell me that he didn’t take the pills and then kind of look at me in a challenging way. I started to respond with “Well, that is your choice Father” or “It’s your life,Father M”.I never asked him for any explanation. I tried to respect his feelings and privacy. I think it was Father’s way of accepting his coming death and also to be truly present to those who loved him.Very often when I visited, he’d drift off to sleep in his chair. I ‘d think “At least he’s relaxed…. he must need the sleep”. But Father M would wake up and be so apologetic; he clearly felt he should be awake and alert. So I could see his reasoning -some of the pills knocked him out.
There was one time, when he’d told me that he hadn’t taken the meds. I responded in the usual way. Surprising me, he got angry and said “But I want to live! I need the pills to live!” I think he wanted a pep talk about complete healing and hope–and I didn’t come through for him. It was hard to know then how to be the best friend that I could.
But Father Michael was sacrificing his comfort and perhaps some of his remaining life-to “be with” me and so many others who came to spend time with him…. to have the pleasure of his company.
I pestered Father Michael for a long while with many questions I had about his life, his vocation, his faith. I received very few answers. Father would say, rather nonchalantly, “It is hard for me to talk about myself because I truly am ‘other-centered’ “. Well, I didn’t completely buy it because I observed many sides to Father Michael; he could be selfish -was not perfect. But this ‘no medication’ thing was again one of the ‘little things’ Father did-a small way which proved that he was more concerned about others than himself.
At one point, again in those last few months of Father Michael’s life, I started to notice a bit of distancing. He started to speak and make observations in a more hardened way. It was kind of chilling to see this behavior in such a kind, sensitive and holy person. I remember writing to him about it. I felt that he was showing the colder influence of his counselors and perhaps other confidants. I told him outright “Father M, whoever you are listening to, they DO NOTLOVE the way you do, they are not you. Please be yourself.”
Prior to those last months, though, Father Michael was the very best example of care, concern and love for others.The finest I’ve ever known. The man of the bottomless heart.
“Life’s for the living and death’s for the dead–and the depth of a heart is a fathom unknown”.—————Buffy Sainte-Marie
This picture of a beautiful bunch of grapes got me thinking about the Gardener and the True Vine. I am a gardener myself, one who enjoys pruning. I always make those biblical connections when I’m out working on the shrubs and trees. So much thought goes into what needs to be done to this particular shrub and yet with others, the work and thought is minor. It is a work of care and wanting beloved flora to grow and thrive. Find a way to make the plant do its best. Cut out those suckers! Some day I should plant a grape vine.
Here’s a story of Father Michael I’ve been remembering lately. Father M had been having stomach problems as usual. But then, he saw his doctor and received some new meds and had been delighted that they worked so well. I was so relieved ! Father kept telling me how great the pills were and that it had changed his health so much. At the same time, he received the new meds, the doctor had advised him to get a colonoscopy ASAP. I had talked to him by phone and urged him to make the appointment as there was a substantial wait time.Perhaps a month went by and I assumed all was well.
So one evening, I received an email from Father M. It read “Come see me in the sacristy tomorrow after Mass. I have something very important I want to talk about with you.” So naturally I was intrigued. I had been hoping for some spiritual direction from Father and I wondered if maybe this was what was so important.
The next day after Mass I went to see Father Michael. He was chatty and cheery . Many others, the sacristan and the lector and visitors were there in the sacristy-talking in another area. Father Michael got very quiet and nearly whispered. He stood there and kind of twirled his finger on his stomach and said “I’ve been having some bleeding.” I was so shocked. Of course, from all his stomach/bowel talk, I knew what kind of bleeding he meant. I said “Oh no, Father Michael !!!! You told me the pills were working, that you felt better.” He said, “Well at first I did, but then things went back to the usual and now I need to ask you to pray very hard for me.I have so much to do and Provincial meetings are coming up and now this is happening.” I said “Father Michael, I always pray for you and I will do more, I promise. But please tell me, what did your colonoscopy show ?” He looked at me, took a deep breath, and said “You know, I never made the appointment.” I was just dumbfounded. I really wanted to yell at him. I had all these questions I wanted to ask, but then just thought ‘He must not trust his doctor’. So I said “Father, I know the most wonderful doctor at Loyola. If I call him right now and ask him, he will take you as a patient. He will give you the very best care; I’ve known him since he was an intern.I promise you, you will be treated by the very best, I’ll call him.” But Father Michael was not buying it. He wanted things his way and that was to ask for healing prayer.
This was about a month or so before Father Michael went to Albuquerque and collapsed. I was on pins and needles worrying about his damn bleeding that whole time. He didn’t make it any easier. It was like pulling teeth to try to talk to him or get an email response. But he got the prayers.
I think this synod is making me think too much about marriage and the family! But I’ve wanted to write this stuff for a while and the synod has given me a context for my rambling thoughts about this subject. It’s also been a good kick to get me restarted on the blog!
Father Michael once wrote me an email saying that he’d love to talk to me about marriage sometime. Well, we had talked about it in our appointments…several times. I’d been surprised by what he said and even more by what he didn’t say. I think, from his lack of response to many of my statements, that I surprised him with my being somewhat conservative. At that point, he definitely wanted to avoid any disagreements with me. One thing that stood out for me from those talks was Father M’s stating “Well, you know they’re all living together”. Of course that was old news . But Father talked about how some of the engaged were grandchildren of ‘long-time’ parishioners, or devout parents, and talked about not wanting to their hurt the relative’s feelings, etc.In other words Father treated them with care and courtesy, no matter what their living arrangement. I asked “Do you say anything about cohabiting to them? I know they are with you to do the ‘right thing’, but do you say anything ?” Father Michael said ” Because they have already ‘shared intimacy’, I tell them that after they are married, God will now bless what they have.” I looked at him and said “That’s it?” And he nodded.
I’m not stupid. I know that scolding is not the way to go and that these engaged people are aware of their actions. But I have to say, even now, that I was so disappointed in what Father M said.It really kind of shut me up and our appointment ended. I was disturbed by our talk and afterward kept thinking about it. A few days later I sent Father an email. Here’s part of it:
“Off and on I have been thinking about our talk the other day. Remembering what you said about engaged couples, almost all living together , coming to you to prepare for marriage made me kind of sad.I know no one wants to alienate them, since they are at last doing “what they should do”. I’m sure that neither you, nor their parents, nor anyone involved with them wants to rock the boat by saying something to make them feel uncomfortable or chastised in any way. But what struck me was how saying “God will now bless what you are already doing” or ” already have” (I’m sure I’m misquoting you crudely, sorry) though absolutely true, seems so wanting.
I guess I think of the situation as a parent would, hoping that somehow all I hoped I’d taught my child and all the traditions and beliefs I’d tried to convey in rearing them Catholic would still be supported by the church. Almost like another type of seamless garment? Kind of like the trust you have in your spouse that he/she will project the same values to your child that you yourself do. It just seems to me that there should be reminders of these things even if the particular couple doesn’t reflect the ideal. Something should be said. Of course it should never be done in a nasty way and I don’t know how I would even attempt it. Easier said than done, for sure. But I feel like our traditional beliefs should still be held up as worthwhile and as what is really pleasing to God. And then, I think it seems in reality all we are offended about is premarital sex. But sex can be such a profound experience of God; it shouldn’t ever be minimized or overlooked. Glad YOU are the priest , Father Michael. I’d be freaking out.”
Father Michael’s email response was “You wouldn’t believe some of the things the engaged tell me”. I didn’t answer him, but thought ‘Oh yes I would’. He never elaborated or discussed this further with me. I have an added understanding now since Father’s cancer fight.I learned that he really abhorred and feared criticism – and I’m sure he saw criticism in my email. So he ignored it. I do wish he would have been willing to discuss it.
Father Michael often mentioned how he helped people with their annulments. He always had paperwork to do for them. Later in the two years I knew him, he would mention going out to a celebratory dinner with couples who had been waiting for an annulment to marry. It was very clear that he felt people should explore the annulment process -if they were divorced or separated. I think it was a great joy for him to deliver the news that the annulment had been granted. I remember that in the later months of his illness he always made the time to meet with these people. He admired their courage and their desire to make things right with the Church-and their love for each other.
Father Michael had difficulty in seeing the commitment of engaged couples. He also said that many people really just wanted the church building for their wedding, but not the Church, not the sacrament. He had a hard time officiating at most marriages for this reason. He often spoke in wonder of the sacrifice and evident love shown by older couples, particularly if one partner was ill and the other was a caretaker. He would always say he was awed by this. Father Michael felt that most of the couples he saw had no clue as to what ‘for better or worse, in sickness or in health’ might mean for them down the line.
On the other hand, I recall Father Michael talking about the stories of how some couples met and how God’s hand was so evident. He was very excited one time about a couple who both had children from previous marriages-and they had found each other. He said they had a wonderful story—and Father Michael loved those stories. He said “so they will be a blended family”. I said ” Oh like that old movie ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’.” Father Michael laughed and said “No ‘Ours’ yet!” He paused and thought a second and then said “well ….MAYBE!”
I did get a different perspective on Father M’s beliefs on marriage from other experiences and things he’d say. Once we were on Ashland Avenue by St Pius, waiting to cross. Father was well into his cancer treatment and was very weak. I was about to drive him to St Vincent’s. We were talking about Thomas Peters’ recovery (see ‘The Wonderment of God’). I mentioned that there was still so much online vitriol toward Thomas regarding his upholding the church’s teachings on marriage. Father Michael said “You mean the traditional church teaching on marriage?” I said “Yes, of course”. Father Michael got visibly agitated and said “Hey, he has it easy. Anyone who upholds the established position has it much easier than those who question it.” The light changed and Father rushed ahead into the street. I caught up with him. I said I disagreed– that it really depended on the circumstances and conditions— that ALL sides would find it difficult in some circumstances. He didn’t answer me. I decided that I would not pursue it as I seldom had an uninterrupted time with Father. I didn’t want to waste the nice ride in the car on an argument .
Once, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, Father Michael called me. Unusual for us, we had a real conversation as opposed to the typical talk about chemo, the weather and the lottery. Father was agog at the “Who am I to judge?” Francis quote. I remember being comfortable enough to disagree and expound on different situations where I felt ‘who am I to judge’ was not applicable. I had no sense that I was bothering Father Michael. I remember talking about some people expecting this would pave the way to same-sex marriage. At that point Father interrupted me and said forcefully ” I know something has to change……I’ve known too many people who suffer”. I started to respond,then he said “Oh, I’m here at the clinic, talk to you later”. That was kind of a pattern: Father would say something controversial, then cut off the conversation…..at least with me.
So my gut tells me that, despite Father Michael’s reverent and awe-filled view of the sacrament of Matrimony, he might have been open to other non-traditional views of it. I have so many moving impressions of how a truly holy priest perceived and admired the vocation of marriage.Yet I have additional memories of things that he said hinting at a very liberal and non-traditional perspective, at odds with church teaching. What was the truth ? I’ll always wonder.
I couldn’t let September get away without a post-so here it is at last. I know you all have been waiting with bated breath. (HaHa) It’s been a busy month for me and I think they will be that way for a while -from now on.
Pope Francis has just left the United States. I think I am fed up with priests, bishops and cardinals -and their cell phones. For me it was just so bizarre to see participating priests, even concelebrants, in Papal Masses, just shooting away. Other observers seem to feel it was charming sight – imperfect, but understandably human . I disagree, but I’ll leave it at that.
As usual, I don’t know what to say about Pope Francis. To me, he is a palpably good man and straightforward in many, many ways. I liked him so much at first- and still do. I even remember writing to Father Michael after Francis had been pope a few weeks. I ended my short note with “Father Michael, Pope Francis is like YOU !!! ” Certainly the open, loving, visible attitude toward all people was something they both shared. I know they both had that gift of being able to express and show delight in each person. You know they see the Image of God in all.
I wish I knew what else they might have had in common. Each one, in his own way, is still a mystery to me. It is amazing how one can feel the presence of God and His love in a person like Pope Francis or a Father Michael. There’s no denying something special is there-but you just know there is a ‘rest of the story’. I think for most people, none of that matters. For them it is more than enough that these gifts of God exist. But to others, like me, the ‘rest of the story’ is what truly matters: the whole truth. I want to understand how these special people became that way. It is not enough for me to just accept “through God’s grace, a mystery”. I want to have the privilege of understanding as much as I can of that mystery.
I suspect that we will see more and more details as to what makes up Pope Francis. He is certainly real right now . But upcoming church events will surely reveal more of him as time goes by.
Father Michael is a different story. I can’t ask him questions any more- or better said- I can’t expect any answers if I choose to bother him in his heavenly home. But he had so many loving friends with whom he shared his rich fulfilling life. More of Father Michael’s story is certainly out there.
I’ll end this with a ‘vignette’ from a short dream I happened to remember. I usually don’t remember dreams at all.Even with this one-I don’t know if there was anything more to it. This is what I recall:
I was in a large room, with many people around me. Across the room I saw another group of people , milling about lengths of tables. Nothing was distinctive; everything and everyone everywhere was BEIGE. I wondered where I was and it came to me that it was like U.S. customs at the airport. Now, I’ve only been through a few times;and I’m not well-traveled at all. And it’s been 40 years since I’ve traveled out of the country. I’m sure that customs is not like this now. So in my dream I gazed away at the other group. Suddenly a colorful figure caught my attention, moving through the crowd,right up to the table. He was smiling right at me and looked so happy. Yes, it was Father Michael . But he was different, very different-not dressed in his habit. He was wearing a black and jewel-colored getup. I could only see to his hip level-the table obstructed full view. The weirdest thing was that he was wearing a black beret. At least that’s what I thought at first, but then it seemed like the kind of hat that St Thomas More wore. I concluded that it was actually like academic attire worn for formal meetings at universities. I also saw that the flash of color, a bright burgundy, was like a triangular lapel or sash across his chest. Father Michael just continued to beam at me. I asked him “Why are you so far away?” No answer, just the continued smile and a little wave. That was it.
Adventures in Paradise? Paying a visit to his alma mater? My brain working overtime? Gotta say, whatever it was, it was nice to see Father Michael.
In my second appointment with Father Michael, he surprised me by talking about the stock market. A long time before, I had told him that I’d inherited some money from my very special aunt. I explained that my intention had been to stop working at my very stressful job. I thought I’d take a break for a while and then try to find something ‘fulfilling’, non-stressful-and without a three to four hour round-trip commute.
Well, the economy and the stock market tanked. I felt uncomfortable considering taking a modest-salaried job from someone who needed the money way more than I did. So I busied myself with a few trips, some family wedding preparations and lots of genealogical research. I was amazed at times how quickly the days passed as I worked on the family tree. And so I explained all this to Father Michael.
We talked about my aunt, who was a true individual for her era. I explained how she sometimes had worked three part time jobs, was frugal and saved. I told Father M how my aunt loved to swim in Lake Michigan and spent all her spare time on the beach in the summer. She was able to convince one of her bosses that she could do a full day’s work in four to five hours. She’d get to work at 6 AM and be at the lakefront by 11AM…..with her boss’s blessing. In the winter, she just went home early. This same boss was extremely generous with my aunt and gave her huge Christmas bonuses. I remember one for $6000 one year and $10,000 a few years later. And this was in the early 60’s! My aunt invested in the market, with guidance from her boss. Father Michael remarked “the brothers and I often marvel at these amazing women and the amount of money they amass.” He was quite impressed. Interesting to me that rich women were the subject of priory discussion.
Father M was also completely intrigued by the stock market. He asked me some surprisingly blunt and,to be honest, nosy questions. I answered most, but was taken aback by quite a few of them. One was about the approximate percentage and dollar amount of profit I had earned the past year. There were more that were similar to that; Father M was quite bold.He stared at me with those big eyes, looking completely guileless. I just stared back at him and didn’t answer. I very much had the feeling that he was trying to gauge exactly how much money I had in investments. Perhaps I was wrong…..
Father Michael changed the subject a bit and talked about his older brother’s losses in the market. He asked me what my broker’s new strategy was. I told him “Well, he’s always telling me ‘stay the course'”. Father Michael said that was what his brother was doing, but he hadn’t recovered all his losses. But he assured me that his brother’s business had continued to do very well. This conversation just amazed me. I had never expected to discuss this with Father.
Father M then admitted to being a little embarrassed by his interest in finances. He relayed how he had been “prayer partners” with a lady in the parish,who had recently passed away. He told me “You know I’d go over to her house and she would go over all her stocks and investments and how they were doing. She knew I was fascinated with them. But then it would be time for our prayer and I would find it difficult to NOT think about those stocks!” I admired his honesty in admitting that.
Funny, now I remember how I purchased some $20 instant tickets as a special treat for Father after the cancer diagnosis. Father Michael was so excited, but he put off scratching the tickets till late in the evening. Later he texted me that all he could think about during evening prayer was what he would do if he won a million dollars. So I’m thinking “well, of course he’ll be helping the poor”. I was NOT expecting “Hey, I’ll be calling you from Hawaii”. Another time he told me “You know what happens if I win, right?” I said “No-what happens?” Father Michael: “I’m outta here!”
I’ve remembered more from my first appointment with Father Michael. I know some subjects carried over to the second and subsequent appointments. I suppose it really doesn’t matter- except from my perspective. That first appointment was an introduction to a stranger- a very holy man – who was full of surprises. One of the amusing things that happened was that Father Michael kept trying to find out my age.Several times he mentioned the year he graduated from high school and other significant events of the ’70s and asked me where I was when they occurred . I finally realized that he wanted to know my age, so I just told him. I don’t know why it was so important to him, but he seemed calmer once he knew.
Another discussion was about my family, my ethnicity, my siblings, my parents. I mentioned that my dad had died in 1986. Father asked what my dad had died of and his age. I replied “He died of leukemia at sixty-one”. Well, as soon as I said that Father said loudly and incredulously. “Sixty-one? sixty-one? Why, I’m fifty-nine myself!!!” And as he spoke, he reacted- he put both hands to his face, holding them there for a second , then ran them up over his head a couple of times. And he paced as he did this. He seemed truly distressed. And I was touched again by his visible emotion. Then Father asked how long my dad had lived with the disease. “Two months,” I replied, ” he died in remission.” Again Father repeated my words “Two months?????” and again he got very upset .
Now you know Father had memory troubles; I’ve mentioned that before. The scene above about my dad’s death was repeated no less than four times in the two years I knew Father Michael. Each time, Father reacted exactly the same way. It was like he took it personally, as though it were a message for him. It was this experience and several others that bolstered my belief that Father was intuitive and ‘knew things’.
Before he was even diagnosed with cancer, Father would talk about things having to do with his death. Once I visited him in the sacristy and the first thing out of his mouth was that he had decided that when he died, he was going to have Instant Lottery tickets spread all over the inside of his casket. And then he said “but of course, I wouldn’t have them buried with me and waste them. I’d have them distributed to all the mourners before they closed the casket”. I was amused, but said , “Father M, why on earth are you even thinking about stuff like that??!!” That time he answered that he’d been to quite a few wakes recently where this had been done–and he liked the idea. He brought this up a second time also, freaking me out a little.
Back to the appointment…..Father talked about his family, his older brother, in particular. Father was very proud of all his siblings. But there seemed to be a special bond between him and his older brother. I believe his older brother protected Father Michael as a child; he’d often spoken of being picked on. Father told of his brother’s education, accomplishments and wealth (yes, a little bragging). Then said “he is a wonderful, devout, progressive Catholic”. Then a moment later “and I am a progressive priest”.
I kind of expected that as I surmised it was part of the reason for Father Michael’s popularity. But I am not progressive, and I’d rather not label anybody or be labeled. When Father said this, he sounded so confiding and secretive, I immediately wanted to let him know that I thought differently. So I asked to tell him a story.It was about the parish I’d belonged to before St Vincent. It was a pretty wild place. My two older kids went to CCD there. Two sisters and a deacon prepared them for Reconciliation and First Communion. I attended the parent education meetings and in the ones for First Communion, I was taken aback by the lack of understanding of the sacrament. People talked about, bread, wine, symbols; no one seemed to have any kind of grasp of the Real Presence. The two sisters said nothing to enlighten or correct anyone. Nothing. I was shaken.
The sister in charge of the Communion catechesis began to preach at Mass on Sunday. It was nearly every Sunday. She was quite gifted,an excellent preacher, no denying that. The parish was integrated with many African-Americans coming to Mass because their kids attended the school. Sister, also African-American, really spoke to them and their lives. And her perspective was certainly enriching to the rest of us.But I realized she should not have been preaching and it bothered me.This continued for a year and then the sister began to wear priestly vestments for Mass. I tried to rationalize that one out; I couldn’t. My gut feeling was that sister was trying to enhance her authority by wearing the vestments. And though there were people like me who would think “who are you kidding?”, there were others who would not be aware of the falseness. I just thought it was wrong.
I contacted the Office of Divine Worship to talk to someone about it. (Father Michael nearly had a conniption when I told him this. He sat there listening, but steaming.) I had to document my observances by letter, so I did. I had to describe the vestments she wore. The priest in that office made sure I knew that a pastor could give permission for someone else to do the homily. He didn’t know what to say when I said ” But Father, it’s nearly every week!” Well, nothing happened. I left the parish and found St Vincent’s-a calm place. About ten years later, a conservative bishop had the sister reassigned. She became head of her order-no surprise there!
I made the point to Father Michael that the sister who was so driven to preach was the same one who didn’t bother to educate at all in the First Communion classes. He got that, but was irritated with me for my contacting the Archdiocese. He yelled at me, so angry that I would question a Dominican’s preaching charism. I yelled back “No, she was NOT a Dominican, Father Michael!” He was also chagrinned that I would not automatically and unquestioningly support another woman. Father M must have been exposed to a lot of really testy feminists- that’s all I can figure. He acted like he was completely in their corner, but I feel he was trying to show sensitivity.
Anyway, Father Michael understood me better after that. Part of me didn’t want to ever hear that he might be at odds with church teaching. But now I often wonder what interesting scenarios he might have been part of, being progressive “and proud of it” and also open to “trumping the law”. Our appointment ended pleasantly and we continued to meet a few times more, before the cancer.
Once, on the phone, with Father Louie nearby, Father Michael stated that Louie was one of a select group who’d ever seen him get angry. I refreshed his memory about the experience I’ve just relayed. He was surprised and then remembered.
Yesterday I was looking at a video of a Dominican event that took place in March, 2013. At the end of the video the camera panned the group of people in attendance. Then it focused on some Dominican friars standing in the back of the room. And there he was, Father Michael, holding court just like he used to do at St Vincent, hugging and kissing up a storm. There was audio, too, and I could faintly hear Father’s voice. Gosh, it brought tears to my eyes to see, as real again, a common scene I have remembered and cherished. Sad to say, they were still tears of sadness, not joy. I watched the clip twice and and then decided to just leave it alone. It’s not surprising to me that these ‘little things’ still hold a very deep meaning. Later I remembered that I had actually called Father M that day, wanting to know if he was ready to eat some pies after completing his chemo. Well, he was out of state, he said, but he was anxious for pie upon his return to St Pius. It was exactly a year and a day before he died.
I want to focus on the positive. So I’ve decided that I will share some early memories of Father Michael-before his cancer diagnosis. I know that I have mentioned that I came back to my parish to discuss some spiritual issues with a priest. It was not a matter of confession; there was more to it. After a long delay, I approached Father M and he was very welcoming. First I emailed Father, then I visited him in the sacristy, then set up an appointment. This is about my first appointment.
I made the appointment about a week before and was a little nervous, yet felt I had found the right person. I was so impressed with Father Michael, I thought “I just know he’s going to talk about the grace of Reconciliation”. I was sure he would suggest that to me. I thought if I made my confession to Father Michael, I’d be so emotionally spent that I wouldn’t be able to talk about all the other stuff. So that morning,after Mass at St Vincent, I went to a close-by parish for Confession. I knew the priests were available right after Mass. So funny, because I think I felt like I had to cleanse my soul before I dared face the very holy Father Michael. And yes, he did bring up Reconciliation that day!
Well, I was on time for the appointment, Father Michael was a few minutes late. I knew he had been with a prominent member of our parish who had passed away. The receptionist had been on the phone “getting the word out”. When Father arrived, we went into his office and sat down. Even though I had eaten, my stomach had been rumbling away-probably nerves. I decided to just be open about it and apologize for the noise ahead of time. Well, Father M laughed and said “Oh you don’t know about me and my stomach issues. Girl, you and I will just sit here and gurgle at each other!” So that broke the awkwardness for me! Father Michael then started to give me a history of his stomach issues,the current ones (which many ladies of the parish knew well-and discussed freely) . He then told of the bleeding ulcer he had in Denver. He was Dominican Novice Master at the time. He said the doctors had told him he had “24 hours to live”. He claimed he told them “Good, no drama, don’t worry about notifying my family”. He never said how long it took him to recuperate or if his family were ever notified. I asked what he thought caused the ulcer and he said “I kind of let everything get away from me”. I didn’t feel comfortable asking him to elaborate, though now I wish I had. In later conversations, he did say that whenever his stomach would give him trouble, he’d just stop eating,sometimes for a few days. He talked about possibly having lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and multiple bowel obstructions. Father M was very frank about this stuff- though he never mentioned a doctor’s diagnosis. And– he also alluded to some regret about not being stricter as a Novice Master-“when I hear how some of them are now.”
So after the stomach discussion Father asked me about myself. He was so careful in how he asked about education. It was clear to me that he was leery of offending someone (especially a woman) by assuming her level of education was lower than she had achieved. I’ll bet he’d made that faux pas a few times! The caution was actually very charming. But I only have a B.A. from Loyola-so he had nothing to fear. That’s pretty average. Then Father asked more questions about possibly stressful situations in my life. I recognized all the queries as being pretty standard about death, divorce, moving, job, abuse, addiction. Father was very gentle and kind and tentative in his questioning. I think he just assumed I was having marital problems. He mentioned annulments and remarriage a few times. Well, my issue was none of these, but it took me three or four appointments before I felt comfortable telling him. I didn’t want to be discourteous and shut down all his kind effort, so I went along with it.
Of course we talked about other things, most notably family, Reconciliation and the Eucharist. But most interestingly, Father Michael gave me a little lecture on the power of the sense of touch. He explained that when he was a freshman at Dalhousie University, he and his older brother had attended a seminar or lecture by a very famous scientist. The lecture was all about the sense of touch and how important and meaningful it was. I found myself thinking “I am a wife and mother of three, why is he telling me this? If nothing else, I am fully aware of how important this is for bonding mother and baby.” Well, Father talked for over ten minutes on this subject. I was fascinated at his great emotion in relaying his thoughts with such conviction. Father ended his talk telling me of the new widow he had just left. He described poignantly how she had stroked her dead husband’s arm over and over. And he showed me just how she did this. He choked up and teared up as he described his awe being in the presence of such a great love.Quite an unexpected turn in our talk, but as I grew to know Father better, I learned that using touch was a hallmark of Father Michael’s being.
Then we spoke of the Eucharist. I’ve written about this awhile back. For some reason Father Michael was impressed by my words that day. I still wish I could remember what I’d said. In any case, Father M started talking about the way people received the Eucharist , people who would just grab IT from him, those who approached disrespectfully, those who would receive and just walk out the door. He lamented that poor catechesis had resulted in people ‘who didn’t have a clue’. He was truly sad about this. Then Father shared the experience of celebrating Mass in Canada with those very close to him. He quickly gave a rundown of those who were no longer practicing Catholics and those extended family who belonged to different denominations. With big tears rolling down his cheeks, he said “I feel so bad about their receiving Communion, but I don’t know what to say.” Wow, was I surprised about that!!!! After all he was a priest-and a good and holy one- who wouldn’t listen to him? I was concerned and empathetic, seeing again this great emotion show so quickly. I said “Father Michael, I can understand that you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or start a war, but maybe one of your brothers could explain this in a non-hurtful way”. Father just shook his head, he felt truly helpless about the situation. Father was unique in openly showing his vulnerability and I was privileged to see this in significant matters of faith. When he visited Canada, I prayed that he might have peace about this.
In my earliest posts, I’ve written about other aspects of this meeting. I won’t repeat them here.The meeting ended most pleasantly. And I felt that God had given me a great gift in leading me to Father Michael. It is so nice to reminisce. So much was so meaningful.
It’s the first of May and a sunny day here in the Chicago area. Spring is slowly coming around. New life and all that….always a great reminder of everlasting life. I was hoping to be inspired to write hopeful, encouraging words today. Maybe that will come later.
I was looking back through old emails and came across some correspondence between my sister and me. It’s from November, 2013. I hadn’t heard from Father Michael, was getting worried and finally decided to call him. This was the point when he was receiving magnesium infusions all the time. It’s sad to read about and remember those days. Here is the email I found :
Father Michael answered!! He was just leaving for the clinic. He said he has gone every day this week. He has not needed the infusion each day, yet has to wait 3 hours until the test comes back. I asked him if he gets to lie down while waiting. He said he did yesterday in the waiting room.
He has been praying to that Fr. Mazzuchelli , said he asked him for a break last night. “And he gave it to me”, he said. He was able to get some sleep. He said all he did was throw up yesterday. Last night was really bad. He says he just gets really dehydrated and weak.
His voice sounded crackly today again. He said he has been sleeping on the bathroom floor and Fr. Louie told him “that’s okay, sleep in the tub if you want”.
I said to him “Father Michael, you have been fighting so hard, you do whatever you want. I’ll be praying”. And I said “I know that this is so hard for you and that you might really be full of doubts and that is so difficult”. So he repeated “Yes, I have been fighting so hard, so very hard”. And “Yes, I am full of doubts”. He kind of sounded like a little boy, easily influenced.
Then he told me “I promise we will talk” and said Louie was waiting for him and then again he repeated that we’d talk.
I’m glad I called him even though it was disruptive.
Last evening I had such a bad feeling about things, then calmed down. I swear I am attuned to him somehow.
You have some sort of bond. He sounds so sick.
He does — and he sounds drugged and groggy, but was still chuckling a few times. It is so touching. Around 3, I sent a text saying I hoped that he didn’t need the infusion. Nothing back yet, but I feel complimented that he even picked up the phone to talk this morning.
So it was nothing out of the ordinary for those times. I was witness to an exceptional person’s suffering. Father Michael had a very accepting attitude toward his suffering.During a particularly difficult time he wrote me:
“I have been quite sick all week. I feel a bit weary from all the vomiting and nausea. Hopefully, tomorrow they will be able to arrange better nausea medicine. But I always realize there are so many others at the clinic who are much worse off than I am and their journey is precarious at best.”
What an example! Unforgettable.
My life is simpler these days, though there have been other trials this past year. In retrospect I realize I was so privileged to even accompany Father Michael however distantly on his journey. I’ll always be grateful.
As I have mentioned before, toward the end of Father’s life, there was no news or updates or communication. It was so painful to be kept in the dark, after sharing so much. If it helped him to be away from us at the end (and we’ll never really know), I am glad. But Father wrote me once “You know, I never want to be estranged from anyone.” So it is hard to believe that it was his choice to distance himself.
We are free now- all who suffered with Father Michael -and of course Father Michael himself. Beautiful days like today remind me of the days before Father M got so ill. Those were the days when he’d speak before beginning Mass, just beaming, and say “What a glorious, glorious day! Isn’t God good?”
Different experiences in life’s spectrum-perhaps that’s why I needed to go back and reread about the sadness and suffering. Grand, grand lessons…….. how well Father Michael taught them, all of them.
As it gets closer to the first anniversary of Father Michael’s death, I find myself thinking of the events of last year in these last days of March. I was so in the dark, so worried, so separated. I prayed constantly. I had last received a text from Father Michael on March 19. He talked about being slated for three days of chemo, then wrote “my car is great!” He’d been watching some tv program on which cars were rated safest. He ended the text with “Just ignore me!” So more confusion was setting in.
Between the 19th and the 22nd, there was no communication. On Sunday the 23rd,in church, they read Father Michael’s name in the intentions for the sick. At Mass on the 24th our pastor said that Father Michael was in the hospital, very confused, with blood irregularities. Then on the 25th, the parish communicated via email that Father M had been discharged and was going back to St Pius for hospice care.
I texted Father Louie at once that I wanted to help in any way I could. No response. In retrospect, I don’t understand why I was not asked to come for a final visit and at least pray at Father’s bedside. According to the obits, Father Michael had family , “a few close friends” and his Dominican brothers present at his death. In my opinion, there were more than a ‘few’ close friends present. Just a feeling.That day, I saw one lady’s post of Father’s status on Facebook; it was recorded at 8:40 am, just minutes before Father Michael’s death. She urged everyone to pray, that Father could still make it, that miracles happen. I don’t doubt the sincerity and love that prompted the post; I understand completely. But I still marvel that someone, privileged to be at Father Michael’s deathbed, would do this. But maybe my mistake was hoping to be invited. I should have just shown up. I will always, always regret that I did not.
I’ve been present at a few deaths-all of them peaceful. Recently, I’ve seen an interview with Beatle George Harrison’s widow where she describes the moment of his death. She wouldn’t be specific but states “Let’s just say you wouldn’t need to light the room”. With Father Michael’s light so bright in life, I can’t help wondering if those present at his death were gifted with seeing a similar phenomenon.But just to be there with Father Michael at the end of such an inspiring, touching, painful journey-had to have been the greatest honor. Father Michael himself was the phenomenon-a life full of service, love and joy!
Men are like stars; some generate their own light while others reflect the brilliance they receive.
Today is my son’s birthday and as I mentioned in a previous post, a year ago today, I visited Father Michael at St Pius. Father Michael talked about 1981, the year of my son’s birth,as being the beginning of his own Dominican life. He was so serene talking about that earlier time of his life.What a difference from his current suffering!
As it happened, this visit was the first since Father Michael had gotten so angry with me. I was still quite shaken and ill at ease. Father Michael was calm and talked about Lent and my bringing ‘the boys’ paczki the next Tuesday. He told me he felt so useful as he was doing clerical work for the Province at their office across the street.Yet, he compared his productivity to others and felt he didn’t measure up. He talked and talked,it was almost like a phone call, but he could barely make eye contact with me. And when he did, Father would quickly look away. All was not normal, but it sure was civil.
Before leaving,I decided to address the elephant in the room. I told Father M “I’ve had a couple of really bad weeks in the time since we talked.” Father Michael sat across from me, we were knee to knee-he nodded and pursed his mouth. He kept his head down and eyes averted. I told him I’d found a poem that had helped me and I’d like to read it to him. He nodded, still looking down. Here is the poem I read:
Blessing in the Chaos
To all that is chaotic
let there come silence.
Let there be
of the clamoring,
of the voices that
have laid their claim
that have made their
home in you,
that go with you
even to the
but will not
let you rest,
will not let you
hear your life
or feel the grace
that fashioned you.
Let what distracts you
Let what divides you
Let there come an end
to what diminishes
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.
Father Michael liked the poem very much, but he didn’t want to accept the copy I’d brought, which was odd of him. Father told me he knew after hearing me read the poem and seeing how I was with him, that I would be “all right”. Perhaps he expected some kind of ‘collapse’?? If so, that saddens me , as it shows how much he did NOT know about me.
But I sure did have the chaos, still have it somewhat. I’m always looking for the blessing in it- that was so much easier to do with Father Michael in this world. But I have my faith, too.
Ironically, as we said goodbye that day, still not able to meet my eyes, Father Michael told me “I have had SO MUCH CHAOS in my own life, so much, so much. I do understand”.