A Fathom Unknown

shutterstock_380150137Today 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 NOT LOVE  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

Longing and Not Letting Go

2009+Ordination+(279)-1It’s April Fool’s Day, a year to the day that we buried our Father Michael. It’s also the good and kind Father Louie’s birth­day. I’ll always remem­ber what a fit­ting homi­ly he gave to hon­or his best friend a year ago.

 The recent memo­r­i­al Mass for Father Michael  seemed in some ways to cel­e­brate a per­son that I had nev­er known. I only got to know Father Michael right before his can­cer diag­no­sis, when he was suf­fer­ing from unknown stom­ach ail­ments. Although I had heard about his priest­ly par­ty­ing, he was tak­ing meds and being cau­tious at this time. At Mass there were point­ed acknowl­edg­ments giv­en to cer­tain peo­ple and of favors help­ful to Father Michael. It was a very, very exclu­sive group. I think the recog­ni­tion could have been ren­dered to those fifteen(or so)people pri­vate­ly. The rest of us thou­sands of friends couldn’t expect to be men­tioned , but it seemed so incred­i­bly nar­row for the full scope of Father’s friend­ships to be delib­er­ate­ly and point­ed­ly ignored.The Father Michael I knew, who ‘talked the talk’ and ‘walked the walk’ about exclu­sion, would sure­ly have been put off by this.

So if you were one of the thou­sands of oth­er friends, like me, there was a feel­ing of empti­ness, of being exclud­ed, of not being appre­ci­at­ed. All those in atten­dance loved Father Michael. Most like­ly all prayed for him devot­ed­ly through­out his ill­ness. We wept at his death. There was no lack of acknowl­edg­ment of his sig­nif­i­cance on our part. Our pas­tor waxed on about our hav­ing grat­i­tude-one of his old themes regard­ing Father M. He was sin­cere and well-mean­ing and right, as usu­al. And the priest preach­ing the homi­ly empha­sized what a good, good priest Father Michael had been. He spec­i­fied how Father Michael had served us so well in the most impor­tant moments of our lives. He talked about Father shar­ing our joy, ill­ness, suf­fer­ing, loss. But both priests lacked the warmth and con­vic­tion that comes with express­ing the whole truth. What they said was all def­i­nite­ly true, I can’t fault them. But I know some­thing was miss­ing. I think the homilist touched upon it slight­ly when he said “We think of Father Michael with long­ing”.

I think they rec­og­nize our need to remem­ber Father Michael. We’re going to build the hall in Father’s name-a good thing. We can con­tin­ue to have memo­r­i­al Mass­es-great. We have a schol­ar­ship fund and a preach­ing fund. But how do we address the long­ing for Father Michael?  How do our priests assist us in this?  They are the Order of Preach­ers; it is their charism to tell and instruct us.

I know the long­ing for Father Michael is the long­ing for God as embod­ied so beau­ti­ful­ly in Father Michael. It is so strong that we can­not let it go-even after a year. I’m anx­ious­ly wait­ing for our good Domini­cans to start talk­ing.

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

At Home with the Lord

Flowers at my mother's grave My moth­er died last Wednes­day, the 19th; we buried her ash­es on Sat­ur­day. So I’m digress­ing from Father Michael for today. This is a pic­ture of my mother’s grave topped by the flower arrange­ment from her funer­al Mass. I had thought the arrange­ment would stay in the church to be enjoyed there, but there it was when we vis­it­ed the grave lat­er in the day. Such beau­ti­ful flow­ers!

So my mother’s earth­ly jour­ney end­ed -two days short of her eighty-sev­enth birth­day . She’d spent each day since July 23 in the hos­pi­tal or in a rehab facil­i­ty. She nev­er got the chance to come home, even tem­porar­i­ly. Her con­di­tion seemed to improve at first,and I thought she just might have turned things around in her first vis­it to rehab. But then com­pli­ca­tions arose- she had breath­ing trou­ble, with severe cough­ing and need­ed oxy­gen all the time.Then there was ane­mia and a trip back to the hos­pi­tal for trans­fu­sions. My moth­er could bare­ly swallow,would start chok­ing, so she then had a feed­ing tube insert­ed. She didn’t want to leave this life and refused until last week to even con­sid­er a ‘do not resus­ci­tate’ direc­tive .It took a while for her to com­pre­hend that she was going down­hill. She too, stayed hope­ful about return­ing to health, but then even­tu­al­ly saw the real­i­ty. My moth­er remained alert and ‘with it’ till the end. A week ago Mon­day, I relayed the excite­ment of shop­ping for a wed­ding dress with my future daugh­ter-in-law. My moth­er was hap­pi­ly look­ing for­ward to the wed­ding.

The hos­pi­tal records show my mother’s vital signs were nor­mal at 6am Wednes­day. But by 7am, nurs­ing staff saw my moth­er wasn’t breath­ing. She had died peace­ful­ly in her sleep.

We had the Mass at a parish that was close to the ceme­tery and near the north­west Chica­go homes of most fam­i­ly. The priest gave a nice, per­son­al­ized homi­ly. What was espe­cial­ly mean­ing­ful to hear about and imag­ine was the reunion of my moth­er and the rest of her fam­i­ly. She’d be with my dad, her parents,all her sib­lings. But the priest focused on my moth­er see­ing, meet­ing again, my sis­ter, Karen, who died after liv­ing only six days. I was about four when Karen died and remem­ber see­ing my par­ents’ grief at the loss of their new­born. All the more joy­ous-that fam­i­ly reunion in heav­en! God is so good.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthi­ans 5 :6–8

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.

 

Serendipity and “Solsbury Hill”

Solsbury Hill
Sols­bury Hill

Grow­ing up with the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I wasn’t too famil­iar with Peter Gabriel’s work. But I lis­ten to the oldies radio sta­tion and, alas, now 80’s and 90’s music is old. So I was pleased one day last sum­mer when I heard Gabriel’s song “Sols­bury Hill”. I was enchant­ed by the beat and the cheery melody. And the words…well noth­ing stuck out until I heard “Grab your things , I’m going to take you home”. Those cer­tain­ly struck a chord with me. I thought of Father Michael and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of his ‘going home’. I found myself lis­ten­ing atten­tive­ly each time the song played.

Those oldies sta­tions seem to group these songs in bunch­es and some then get played more fre­quent­ly. I was hear­ing “Sols­bury Hill” prob­a­bly every oth­er day. It was a trig­ger for some kind of med­i­ta­tion . First I enjoyed it and just thought it was beau­ti­ful. Then I’d some­times focus more on the words and I would find it omi­nous . Peter Gabriel would belt out “my heart going boom, boom, boom,” and I would loud­ly sing over it, yelling “no, no, no!”. The song became a kind of anthem of Father Michael’s can­cer jour­ney for me. Even­tu­al­ly I reached a point where I’d hear the open­ing bars and a mel­low­ness would come to me, a peace­ful­ness. Instead of yelling “no, no, no”, I found myself smil­ing, join­ing in enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly at “you can keep my things , they’ve come to take me home!”

So, in Jan­u­ary this year, I wrote my week­ly note to Father M. I wrote about how my expe­ri­ence had ‘evolved ‘ with this song — and how it always made me think about and pray for him. We nev­er dis­cussed it in per­son, though. Our time vis­it­ing was very lim­it­ed and was con­stant­ly being inter­rupt­ed. Play time of “Sols­bury Hill” seemed to be wan­ing on the radio.But it picked up again in Feb­ru­ary and March. As Father Michael’s jour­ney began to wind down, the song was play­ing quite a bit once again.

March 27 was the day Father Michael died. It hap­pened close to 9 am, but was nev­er spec­i­fied. I had attend­ed Mass and for the very first time prayed for Father Michael’s “hap­py death”. Up till then I‘d held true to my promise of always pray­ing for his com­plete heal­ing. The pre­sid­ing priest was quite frank about Father M’s state, so I knew it was time to change my prayer. I stayed after for a bit then went to my car and did my usu­al text to Father Michael. It was about 8:35. I drove home and pulled in front of my house. I was about to turn the car off, when “Sols­bury Hill” start­ed to play. I wait­ed and lis­tened and won­dered “have they come to take him home?”

I got in the house, straight­ened up, made cof­fee and then looked at my com­put­er. There was an email from the parish  :“Father Michael goes home to the Father”. I wept , but also prayed in thanks­giv­ing. Lat­er I won­dered if “Sols­bury Hill” had been play­ing short­ly before 9.….a bit of serendip­i­ty? The oldies sta­tion has a web­site that pub­lish­es their playlists, past and future. I found March 27, scanned the time from 7am to 11am. The song was not list­ed! I sup­pose it was an omis­sion or cler­i­cal error, but I also won­der if my hear­ing it that day wasn’t a spe­cial sign. It cer­tain­ly felt that way and I believe in those things.

Father Michael always said he was a ter­ri­ble dancer, but that his moth­er liked to dance with him,as songs played on the radio. She’d told him “You’re the only one with rhythm”. I used to say to him “ I bet you were a good dancer, Father M. I’m sure, because your own moth­er saw it”. He’d say “Oh,no, no”, but as his con­di­tion wors­ened, he loos­ened up and final­ly told me, “ You know, I real­ly was a great dancer “. I ‘ll bet he’s danc­ing now…maybe to “Sols­bury Hill” !

 

 

”I long for that”

I wrote this as a mem­o­ry of Father Michael for my parish bul­letin.  Edit­ing there changed its mean­ing, so this is the real thing!

I cor­re­spond­ed with Father Michael by email begin­ning in May, 2012. I had some per­son­al issues I need­ed to dis­cuss with some­one holy-and Father Michael sure­ly was the man. In order to lay the ground­work for some of these, I first wrote sev­er­al long emails to Father Michael.One of the long emails was about an NDE-like expe­ri­ence I had dur­ing the birth of my old­est son. Father Michael wrote back to me :

That is an absolute­ly beau­ti­ful sto­ry. I can only imag­ine the joy of being in such per­fect peace and bliss. I long for that. For me these are sim­ple affir­ma­tions of the cer­tain­ty of heav­en and the good­ness of God. To meet three peo­ple of such sig­nif­i­cance in your life, a grand­moth­er, a nun, and a sis­ter whom you didn’t ever know. Whow!!

You have been blessed beyond mea­sure. That is why my hope is that your son will come back ‘home’. I think our only joy is when we are peace­ful in the Lord. Then every­thing else is man­age­able.

Do come to the sac­risty. Tomor­row, I will be there but only for a few min­utes. I am hav­ing b’fast with one of the elder­ly ladies.

Father Michael

Upon receiv­ing Father’s note, I was imme­di­ate­ly struck by his words “I long for that”. Through­out his ‘mal­a­dy’, and even before, when his sick­ness seemed just like stom­ach trou­ble, I often thought about what Father Michael real­ly want­ed. I often felt-and dread­ed- that Father Michael was sooooo good, (though not per­fect!) that the Lord would sure­ly give him what he longed for.

For me, this aware­ness of Father Michael’s yearn­ing, gave the suf­fer­ing, for­bear­ance, courage and faith of his can­cer jour­ney such mean­ing. Pray­ing for him, I strug­gled often in try­ing to bal­ance my self­ish desire for his ‘com­plete heal­ing’ with the knowl­edge that Heav­en was what he tru­ly want­ed and so deserved. So often in these past months I have remem­bered Father Michael’s ”I long for that”. And now it is his…