Finding the True Vine

Grapes-colors

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.

It Was Fascination…

stock_exchangeIn 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!”

Father Michael — as he would say- “What a hoot !”

Spring’s Subtle Memento

IMG_0045It’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 :

Me:

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.

My sis­ter:

You have some sort of bond. He sounds so sick.

Me:

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.

The Dark Days

images-3As 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.
                                   José Martí

It Takes a Great Heart

Entrance to Giverny under the Snow/MonetThis cold and snowy weath­er is rem­i­nis­cent of last year in Chica­go. I do think we had a lot more snow last year though. I vis­it­ed Father Michael and I got to be pret­ty good at par­al­lel park­ing in Pilsen, tak­ing my chances and cross­ing my fin­gers as I maneu­vered into the snow-banked spaces. I almost always parked two to three blocks away from St. Pius. There was always car­pool traf­fic for schools and many park­ing spaces being held by chairs or oth­er objects.

I’d call Father M (he want­ed to know when I’d arrived) and he’d say “Are you here? Where are you parked? I don’t see your car”. Often he’d say“I’m look­ing out on Ash­land and there is an open spot right across from me.Why don’t you just dri­ve over and grab it”. Now knew by the time I got over there, the space would be tak­en and I’d be out of luck. Father Michael didn’t under­stand my reluc­tance to try; he was a man of faith, after all. The Lord takes care of His spe­cial­ly beloved-His priests -and avail­able park­ing just might be a giv­en for them. But the rest of us.…no.

Father Michael liked to take short walks when he was feel­ing more ener­gized. I was priv­i­leged a few times to have him walk me to my car after my vis­its. Then I would dri­ve him back to St Pius and he would be so pleased that he had ‘exer­cised’. Such a sim­ple thing to do to make his day!

I remem­ber one icy ‚windy day when Father and I decid­ed to walk to my car. When we reached it, Father wait­ed on the side­walk as I pulled the car away from the piled snow to allow the pas­sen­ger door to open. It took a minute or two; some rock­ing, it was so slip­pery. I almost pan­icked as I looked over at the curb. Poor Father M stood there shak­ing so vis­i­bly as the wind whipped around his slight frame. He looked like he was going to cry. When he was final­ly able to get in the car, he went from not being able to talk because of his shiv­er­ing-to yelling at me for me being so slow. I felt so bad. I had under­es­ti­mat­ed the wind chill and the sun was going down, too. It was my bad judg­ment that Father Michael would be ok for the walk.

Father Michael was always cold. Even when he was well and tem­per­a­tures mild, Father M always wore a sweater! He used to joke about it. So often in his last year, he spoke of the cold. He dread­ed going out in it. In fight­ing his can­cer, his  body’s cold sen­si­tiv­i­ty was height­ened. Yet he was always keen­ly aware of the plight of the poor and the home­less. In one email he talked of being so chilled to the bone and anx­ious to get to the warmth of his bed, yet he told me-

I’m going to pray tonight for all the home­less out in this cold. There is so much suf­fer­ing.”

I was cer­tain­ly aware of the suf­fer­ing that extreme weath­er caused every­one. Effort­less­ly Father Michael could always put a face on that suf­fer­ing and elic­it a deep­er response. Father Michael’s sim­ple words were so powerful,so trans­par­ent­ly true, they went straight to the heart. How I miss him and his great heart.

The tragedy of the world is that so many are unloved. Ros­es always look beau­ti­ful and smell sweet, and hence they are a prize to be pos­sessed. Sweet­bri­ar, how­ev­er, has fra­grant leaves, and they are nev­er so fra­grant as when it rains. The com­mon peo­ple of the world are like these leaves; they have some­thing fra­grant about them, par­tic­u­lar­ly when the days are dark and cloud­ed and rain falls in their lives. Any­one can love a rose; but it takes a great heart to love a leaf.” — Arch­bish­op Ful­ton Sheen

Happy Memories in the Bleak Midwinter

Setting-the-TableSetting-the-TableIt’s the end of 2014 and I’ve been bat­tling the flu through Christ­mas and I’m still bat­tling. This is a hard one to kick. And I find myself think­ing of Father Michael dur­ing the hol­i­days last year. He had held up the idea of a spe­cial time com­ing in Decem­ber. He would men­tion it often;he hoped to have an extend­ed time of feel­ing more like him­self . This was post heal­ing ser­vice and in many ways, Father M felt that he was doing bet­ter after the ser­vice. He was so hope­ful.

I recent­ly found his text thank­ing me for my Christ­mas gift to him. Father M was so delight­ed he’d be able to buy a work of art. He men­tioned the paint­ing he loved of the row­boat ‘that will one day take me to meet God’.

Father Michael nev­er got me any presents, but would share things that were incred­i­bly spe­cial with me. Dur­ing the hol­i­days last year he painstak­ing­ly made me tea and called me over to look at his com­put­er mon­i­tor. There he had a video clip from youtube all set up to show me. It had been filmed by a neigh­bor who was host­ing the Kyte fam­i­ly for din­ner in Novem­ber 1970, with­in a few short weeks of the death of their moth­er. You can access this clip by click­ing on the pic­ture of Father Michael at 17 in the side pan­el on this site. In the clip, Father M is the gor­geous and viva­cious red­head on the left. What a young-look­ing 17! I think he looks more like 14 ! Father Michael told me that his best friend at the time, Bernie, is the young man next to him. Bernie’s mom is the hostess.Father’s dad, Arthur, sits across from him. Father Michael remarked as I watched this “there we are , like a bunch of ban­shees!”  Have no idea what he meant by that-they all seemed so sedate, well-behaved and hun­gry. And I do sense their cohe­sive­ness and con­cern for each oth­er. Their moth­er real­ly must have been the crown­ing glo­ry of that beau­ti­ful family…and she was now gone.

In the same vis­it, Father brought out a col­lage of fam­i­ly pic­tures his broth­er had com­posed . He was so hap­py to point out all the babies in those pic­tures! I want­ed to real­ly look at this col­lage, kind of study it. But Father had more sur­pris­es. He brought out an album, pic­tures of the art work which he had col­lect­ed. Long before -I’d actu­al­ly sug­gest­ed he do this ; I was so sur­prised he had tak­en my advice!! His friend in Col­orado had helped him put it togeth­er-such a kind ges­ture. He loved going through the pic­tures and explain­ing why each was so spe­cial to him.

And then Father brought out a Water­ford crys­tal chal­ice set that had been giv­en to him by one of his Domini­can broth­ers. What a treat to share and admire!

So here I am, think­ing of all these lit­tle things, shar­ing them was such a gift to me. And of course, there was the gift and kind­ness of Father Michael. God is so good.

Hap­py New Year!

 

As Gold in the Furnace

Screen Shot 2014-10-24 at 7.41.10 PMFather Michael had ups and downs through­out his jour­ney with his can­cer. The most obvi­ous of them were phys­i­cal. He’d have some encour­ag­ing days where he’d feel very well and then over­do and stretch him­self. Then there would be those days where he was tired, full of pain, nau­seous or all of the above. He suf­fered ter­ri­bly with neu­ropa­thy both in his hands and his feet.Yet Father Michael was patient, resigned and deter­mined to get bet­ter, to be healed . He sent me this com­ment :

The pain is hard but I want to devel­op a bet­ter attitude.It real­ly is noth­ing com­pared to what He did for us. And I have pills for the pain! I also want to pray for an appetite.The pie was deli­cious. That is about the only thing I ate today.I will go to the kitchen soon and see if there is some­thing that seems good. Thanks again. I will now take some time and scratch my tick­ets!!!”

I can remem­ber when he was prepar­ing to vis­it his fam­i­ly in Cana­da in August, 2013. The week before, he con­fid­ed to me “I have nev­er felt pain like this in my life!” I urged him to talk to Father Louie and his doc­tor and get his pain meds adjusted.I saw him the Sun­day before he was to leave and it was evi­dent that Father M. was still in a lot of pain. Of course, when he returned from the vis­it, he was com­plete­ly wiped out. He loved his fam­i­ly and friends so much.He didn’t want to miss what would be his last vis­it home. But when he came back to Chica­go, he wrote me:

Had a won­der­ful trip home. I do feel tired from all the con­ver­sa­tions and con­stant­ly being with peo­ple. Now I long for a more con­tem­pla­tive time or at least some alone time. I see the grace that our life provides.Shall call you in the next few days after I get all set­tled in with ‘the boys’.”

So there was the phys­i­cal bur­den of Father Michael’s ‘mal­a­dy’. There was also the spir­i­tu­al aspect of deal­ing with the can­cer. I can’t pre­tend that I have any train­ing or tal­ent or insight for this part. I just had decid­ed with­in a week of Father’s diag­no­sis, that I would always pray for his ‘com­plete heal­ing’.  I could not bring myself to ask God just for ‘more time’ or ‘a com­fort­able and hap­py death’ .…not for Father Michael!!! He deserved my hope. How could one not ask for the ‘whole enchi­la­da’? Com­plete heal­ing. Father M. often joked that I meant phys­i­cal, spir­i­tu­al and men­tal. I’d say “Sure, why not? Let’s go for it!”

I prayed often for Father Michael’s spir­i­tu­al sta­mi­na, especially,when lat­er on in the ill­ness, he faced some big set­backs . He always tried to inter­pret these as  just a twist  in the road, some­thing that would have to be over­come in a dif­fer­ent way. But there were times when he’d speak with  such dread about his upcom­ing chemo, antic­i­pat­ing the mis­ery of its side-effects.He’d get very down. On oth­er occa­sions, Father M. was enthu­si­as­tic and want­i­ng to ‘get on with it’! So many times, he’d email or text me, “I think the worst is now over” or ” I need to rest so I will be fit for the onslaught !” Such hope­ful words. Yes, he cer­tain­ly lived with hope.

But I began to notice a change, begin­ning with Father Michael’s speech at his heal­ing ser­vice last Novem­ber. This was where he had said “no mat­ter what hap­pens, there will be a heal­ing”. I felt there was a bit of glib­ness in that state­ment. Personally,I found it dis­turb­ing. I thought about the atmos­phere of the pri­o­ry, the con­stant influ­ence and pres­ence of many lov­ing broth­ers. So many intel­lec­tu­al broth­ers, Dominicans,…men of faith and wis­dom, but also of sci­ence and log­ic. So many had known Father Michael from the begin­ning of his reli­gious life.This was the fam­i­ly that had sur­round­ed him for most of his adult life. They loved him. I found myself won­der­ing if some­times the broth­ers’ intel­li­gence and their liv­ing with the real­i­ty of his can­cer might unin­ten­tion­al­ly over­shad­ow their faith in a cure for Father Michael. So in one of my notes, I brought this up to Father Michael.

At our next vis­it , this was all that Father M. want­ed to talk about. He was very emo­tion­al about it, often on the brink of tears. He told me he knew that no one meant to be dis­cour­ag­ing or unhope­ful, but many things had been said. Father also spoke sad­ly of sev­er­al friends who would talk to him about his ‘enter­ing the pearly gates’ . And he men­tioned too, those who had lost some­one they loved, who asked him to relay mes­sages when he ‘got up there’. I know he took it all in good humor and was kind, but he real­ized that many peo­ple real­ly did not have hope or faith that he could ever be cured. We spoke of this every time we met after that, four or five times, in the weeks before Father Michael died. He found it so very dif­fi­cult to accept peo­ples’ res­ig­na­tion to his death and real­ly need­ed to express his sad­ness. I found it hard to accept,too. Yet in my con­ver­sa­tions with oth­er parish­ioners, I’d picked up on the neg­a­tiv­i­ty more and more .

Once, after a vis­it, I had the impres­sion that Father Michael had giv­en up.His mood had been so resigned. I texted him when I got home and flat-out asked him. He sent this back:“That is the far­thest thing from the truth !!! unless I am in ‘la-la’ land!! I live with hope !!!!”

Father Michael once took a break from St Pius and flew to vis­it his broth­er in Den­ver. I had no idea he’d gone there, but hadn’t heard from him via phone or text for a while. I was con­cerned. He had been kind of down at my most recent vis­it. I real­ly want­ed to call, but often felt intru­sive doing that, so I resist­ed. But some­thing kept urg­ing me to use my phone. Look­ing at it, I saw there was an option to record a mes­sage and just have the mes­sage go into the person’s voice­mail. Per­fect ! That way, Father M. doesn’t have to talk or even acknowl­edge me if he’s not up to it, I thought. So I record­ed a one minute mes­sage. I tried to say the most encour­ag­ing, hope­ful things I could think of. I just felt he real­ly need­ed it. I sent the mes­sage and then in the late evening, Father Michael called back. He was so grate­ful! He said “You know it was God who made you send that mes­sage to me. I need­ed it so bad­ly today. I have been so down here at my brother’s. Thank you!” Father Michael wept as he spoke to me and yet he was so hap­py, full of joy. I told him how I’d been want­i­ng to con­tact him, but had hes­i­tat­ed. He said “It was the Spir­it telling you to do this. Thank you so much for lis­ten­ing to Him and doing it.” I’ll nev­er for­get his joy …and his grate­ful tears.

I remem­ber one of my last vis­its where Father Michael talked of hav­ing read through all his cor­re­spon­dence. He pulled a let­ter from his desk and read me some of its con­tents. I don’t know his name, but the writer had been Father Michael’s novice mas­ter. Father Michael was so delight­ed, loud­ly read­ing the words “I am one who will pray for your com­plete heal­ing”. And this priest expressed his faith that mir­a­cles do hap­pen. Father Michael seemed so con­tent and at peace, read­ing those words aloud.

Suf­fer­ing and hope, dis­ap­point­ment and joy, hurt and faith- above all great love -all were part of Father Michael’s jour­ney. Some­day I will under­stand how it was a heal­ing. For now, I eas­i­ly see how the journey,with all its ups and downs, read­ied Father Michael to meet his God.

Chas­tised a little,they shall be great­ly blessed,because God tried them and found them wor­thy of him­self. As gold in the fur­nace, he proved them…”

Journey’s Beginning

HeadstoneI vis­it­ed Father Michael’s grave again on Sun­day. I made a small pot of zin­nias- see­ing as there is a lot of sun there-they should be ok. Hope the rain keeps com­ing reg­u­lar­ly. I  placed the pot on the head­stone per ceme­tery pol­i­cy. It seems the peachy rose bush is gone, but anoth­er large one has been added at the foot of the grave. There are at least four mini ros­es plant­ed across the mid­dle. And sur­prise!  The lit­tle rock on the head­stone has been super-glued there!! No com­ment.

It was a somber vis­it for me. I think there is some­thing defin­i­tive and very final about see­ing that head­stone-sum­ming up a person’s time on this earth. Defin­i­tive and yet so inad­e­quate, true for every­one, yet most mea­ger for some , espe­cial­ly a man like Father Michael. But I know he would say “I’m just a sim­ple priest”.

Pray­ing at the ceme­tery got me rem­i­nisc­ing about ear­ly Decem­ber in 2012. Father Michael was get­ting ready for provin­cial meet­ings. They would be held in Albu­querque. Father Michael was talk­ing a lot about his upcom­ing meet­ing and a ‘regift­ing par­ty’ for staff that the fathers were going to throw at St Pius . I remem­bered I’d received a gift of  two Tiffany crys­tal glass­es , which I had nev­er used-for two years! They were still in the box; I offered them to Father Michael. He was so hap­py; said he knew just the lady he want­ed to sur­prise with them.

So I brought the glass­es to church one week­day. After he said Mass,Father Michael came out to the park­ing lot to accept them. He was so amazed that they were all wrapped and still in the blue Tiffany box with its white rib­bon. I’d also brought some fan­cy tea for him. He was very pleased and thanked me over and over. Then I asked when he’d be return­ing from Albu­querque. He turned very somber and said “I don’t want to go . I real­ly don’t want to go”.

This was so unusu­al -the way Father said this and the way he looked. I imme­di­ate­ly had this chill­ing thought ( in Span­ish ! ): “Cór­do­ba. Lejana y sola.….la muerte me está miran­do …”. It’s from García-Lorca’s “Song of the Rid­er”. A lit­tle shak­en, I asked Father Michael why he was think­ing this way. He said he didn’t know why, but just had this dread of going. I told him I would pray more than usu­al that all would be well. I was scared for him , because I knew that Father Michael was intu­itive about so much, so often. And I’d just had those fright­en­ing words come to me also. So we said good­bye and Father Michael left for Albu­querque the next day.

Father Michael received his can­cer diag­no­sis in Albu­querque. The doc­tors revealed the colon can­cer on the Feast of the Immac­u­late Conception.A few days lat­er, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, they told him of the liv­er can­cer. On the Feast of the Annunciation,2014, Father Michael received the news that doc­tors could do no more for him. He’d always told me “Our Lady has been with me from the begin­ning with this ‘mal­a­dy’.” And she stayed with him till the end.

Father M missed the ‘regift­ing’. He was still in the hos­pi­tal.  Lat­er he had no mem­o­ry of where he’d got­ten the Tiffany glass­es. He end­ed up giv­ing them to a dif­fer­ent lady. I men­tioned them once in con­ver­sa­tion and he was so sur­prised I knew about them and even more sur­prised that I’d been their donor! Those were trau­mat­ic days for him in Albu­querque.

Our feel­ings of dread turned out to be on the mark. I thought of them in All Saints Ceme­tery that morn­ing in the light of Father Michael’s  trav­el­ing the long road home.  What a dig­ni­fied and holy trav­el­er! He jour­neyed with suf­fer­ing, with hope and ulti­mate­ly-sur­ren­der.

Here is a trans­la­tion of Lorca’s poem:

SONG OF THE RIDER

Cór­do­ba.

Far away and alone

Black pony, full moon

and olives in my sad­dle­bag.

Although I know the roads

I’ll nev­er reach Cór­do­ba.

Through the plain, through the wind,

black pony ‚red moon.

Death is look­ing at me

from the tow­ers of Cór­do­ba.

Ay! How long the road!

Ay! My valiant pony!

Ay! That death should await me

Before I reach Cór­do­ba.

Cór­do­ba.

Far away and alone.

Out of the Depths…

De ProfundisIt was easy to see Father Michael’s great empa­thy for peo­ple. He was very open, very respon­sive , very vul­ner­a­ble. All his emo­tions were right there on his face, an open book.

I was intro­duced to Father Michael’s man­ner of han­dling things long before I ever spoke to him. I had been back at St. Vincent’s for a month or two. I didn’t know Father Michael’s name, nor had I attend­ed any of his Mass­es. But I had seen him greet­ing peo­ple after Mass -and I’d noticed how there were always lines to talk to him or he’d be sur­round­ed by peo­ple.

So one day I was going to vis­it my moth­er, dri­ving past a local school. There are two stop signs about a block apart by this school. I stopped at the first sign and glanced in my rear view mir­ror. I saw a famil­iar face. It was Father Michael, dressed in a black suit with the Roman col­lar . I thought “Oh , it’s that pop­u­lar priest from St Vincent’s”. In the few sec­onds I watched, Father Michael began to gri­mace, and shake his head from side to side, he grasped the steer­ing wheel and then pound­ed it. He looked com­plete­ly exas­per­at­ed, almost about to cry, mov­ing sharply, lit­er­al­ly ‘beside him­self’. I’d nev­er seen any­thing like it. It was obvi­ous that Father Michael was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly upset and com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous of my atten­tion. I thought I’d bet­ter stop star­ing at him and get mov­ing. I drove to the next stop sign and Father quick­ly came up right behind me. I looked again in the mir­ror and Father Michael con­tin­ued all the agi­tat­ed move­ments and anguished faces. My gut feel­ing was that Father M had heard bad news about his health or that of a loved one. I felt so shak­en see­ing him like that. What on earth was wrong? Some­thing had to be wrong. I had to turn off that street to head to my mother’s and as I drove on I prayed for Father Michael. I looked for him that fol­low­ing Sun­day and he wasn’t at church. I feared the worst (this was two years before his can­cer diag­no­sis). The fol­low­ing Sun­day, Father Michael was back, hold­ing court after Mass. All was well, it seemed. I was so relieved.

Lat­er, when I got to know Father Michael, I wrote him about what I had seen a few years before. I didn’t ask him to explain it, but in this email, he did:

Isn’t it fun­ny that we see peo­ple in cars and won­der what is hap­pen­ing. I have a ten­den­cy to real­ly pon­der the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers. One broth­er says that I have to ‘fil­ter’ all the pain I encounter from God’s peo­ple. You cer­tain­ly are intu­itive.

Keep me in your prayers that I can be more faith­ful to the qui­et and prayer. There is always so much to do that seems ‘urgent’. But one African Amer­i­can lady used to say to me ‘God is able’. So I have to trust that all will be well.

Bless­ings
Fr. Michael

After I under­stood how he processed people’s trou­bles in true pain of his own, I saw Father Michael’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty as his way of seek­ing to suf­fer with oth­ers. Anoth­er of his graces.

Last Novem­ber Father Michael ‚very ill, wrote me:

It is now 12:30 am and I can’t sleep. I have had sig­nif­i­cant anx­i­ety today. I think it was brought on by feel­ing rot­ten all day and being wor­ried that the pain lev­el doesn’t seem to go away nor is my appetite good. I think some days are just dif­fi­cult and filled with fear. I try to recite the Apos­tles Creed to calm me down. It is the one prayer that I was able to say since this jour­ney began last Decem­ber 8th when those three med­ical peo­ple came into my room and changed the direc­tion of my life.….…I thank you for your prayer ‘com­plete cure’. Again it may be the day and the fact that I am not so well that I real­ly need­ed that pos­i­tive ener­gy today.Hopefully ‚tomor­row will be bet­ter. Sur­ren­der­ing to the will of God is so much more dif­fi­cult than words or say­ing we will do so. I think you may know that I have always loved the Agony in the Gar­den because that is where Jesus says an absolute yes and expe­ri­ences a mar­velous sur­ren­der to what God the Father wants of Him.”

We all prayed so much for Father Michael. Read­ing his account of his own suf­fer­ing above, I could only hope that our prayers had helped. I remem­ber Father Michael call­ing me, talk­ing about being fear­ful in the night and men­tion­ing again the Apos­tles’ Creed-how he said it over and over. And then he prayed it with me on the phone- with so much emo­tion and strength in his voice.…out of the depths.

 

The Rowboat, the Shore and the Bramble Arch

"Michael, row the boat ashore,Hallelujah.."

I’m putting the video of Father Michael’s funer­al homi­ly below. It is an absolute­ly fit­ting trib­ute from his close friend Father Louis Mor­rone O.P.  Lots of humor, lots of joy, lots of love in that talk.

Father Louie recounts how Father Michael spoke of his vision of going to Heav­en. Father Michael told me the sto­ry, too. Some of the details in mine are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. For one thing, Father Michael relayed this to me as a ‘one- time’ expe­ri­ence. Though I have no doubt , that it was an expe­ri­ence to which he con­tem­pla­tive­ly returned quite often. He’d been relax­ing in his room at St Pius V Pri­o­ry, eyes half closed, feel­ing like he was drift­ing off, sort of in and out of sleep. He saw the water and the far-off shore and a  row­boat (or “it could have been a canoe,” he said). He then was in the row­boat and knew he must pad­dle to the shore. Father Michael then inter­ject­ed , that he had known and worked with a Domini­can sis­ter, who spoke of the jour­ney to Heav­en as trav­el­ing across water to Heaven’s shores. Father M said the sis­ter had been quite con­vinc­ing in her talk  and years ago he began to pic­ture the jour­ney to eter­nal life the same way. So there he was, on the water , approach­ing the shore and there was a hill there. As he gets the boat on land, he looks up and sees an arch made of bram­bles at the top of the hill. Sud­den­ly a woman is there at the arch . He doesn’t rec­og­nize her, but as she runs down, he sees her clear­ly. It is his moth­er. She runs into his arms and embraces him and says “Oh Michael, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you!”

Hear­ing this sto­ry, I became quite excit­ed and exu­ber­ant -and talk­a­tive- with Father Michael. I spoke of how peace­ful and secure this expe­ri­ence must have made him feel. I remem­ber stat­ing how blessed he was to have this vision, some­thing to rec­og­nize, some­thing to help him-when the time came . But I now won­der if there was more to the sto­ry that I didn’t hear, that maybe he hadn’t fin­ished it . Per­haps his moth­er had had more words for Father Michael. Per­haps this was the key to his feel­ing the immi­nence of his death. This was my fault for inter­rupt­ing Father M.…maybe some­one else can fill me in- if there was more to it.

Much ear­li­er in his can­cer jour­ney, Father Michael told me that he had envi­sioned his liv­er going from black to a healthy pink. And he was sure that he was get­ting bet­ter. He said he had pic­tured the cells of his liv­er and he saw the can­cer cells in a bunch and they became stiff and dead-look­ing. He saw this as a sign that they were par­a­lyzed. In these same imag­in­ings, Father Michael felt his moth­er was present. He recount­ed that he couldn’t see her clear­ly at all except for her smile and her teeth. “My moth­er had the most per­fect teeth!”-so he’d rec­og­nized her in them and was sure she was keep­ing his can­cer at bay.

After  I heard the sto­ry about the per­fect teeth , I began to pray that Father Michael would con­tin­ue to feel the help of his moth­er in his ill­ness. I nev­er heard about any oth­er inci­dents, but was quite heart­ened by Father M’s beau­ti­ful vision. I know it could only have helped him in those last days on earth.