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…