Insomnia, Memory and Letters

A Flood-Millais
A Flood-Mil­lais

I’ve had a long stretch of insom­nia these last few weeks. I go to bed around 11-sleep till 2 am and then I am awake-for the day! Strange­ly, it doesn’t seem to make me fatigued(yet), so I feel like there is some under­ly­ing spir­i­tu­al pur­pose to it. I get up and read a bit and then check out my com­put­er- some­times even play games on it. But I also pray…a lot. It seems I get antsy and anx­ious and the pray­ing calms me down. Luck­i­ly I have plen­ty to pray for and it is Lent-so I know it’s worth­while for me and those for whom I pray.

In those wee hours, I also con­tem­plate a lot of what I expe­ri­enced in my friend­ship with Father Michael. In a month, he will have been dead for a year. Yet so much about him is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly fresh in my mem­o­ry. My mem­o­ry is pret­ty decent for a 65 year old. And that brings me to some­thing that I became aware of a while back: Father Michael’s mem­o­ry. Well, he had trou­bles. I noticed it the very first time I had a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion with Father Michael. I wrote it off to nerves . But it soon became clear to me that Father Michael had great dif­fi­cul­ty remem­ber­ing a lot. He couldn’t remem­ber some things from one day to the next. He con­fused my con­ver­sa­tions with oth­er people’s, recount­ing this or that anecdote.…or men­tion­ing a fun­ny rel­a­tive of mine I’d nev­er heard of. Some­times he’d tell me of receiv­ing a gift from some­one -and I’d been the per­son who’d giv­en it to him! It was very dis­con­cert­ing. Yes, Father Michael was incred­i­bly busy and dealt with count­less peo­ple con­stant­ly and unselfish­ly, one could expect and under­stand some con­fu­sion. But this was clear­ly some­thing on a dif­fer­ent plane.

I’m no expert on the Mass, but I will men­tion here that I nev­er noticed Father Michael hav­ing any dif­fi­cul­ty in church. God took good care of him there. But Father Michael did allude to his mem­o­ry prob­lem in one of his first email respons­es to me:

That was the kind­est note. Some­times I am hes­i­tant to say things but I do know that Mrs Ryan’s words had a big impact on me. Can you imag­ine that I remem­ber her words all these years lat­er!! I’m get­ting old and my dear mem­o­ry is going!!!!”

At the time, my objec­tive was to become Father’s friend and also be able to dis­cuss spir­i­tu­al things with him. I tried to think of how I could get Father Michael to know and remem­ber me as a per­son, not just some anony­mous con­ver­sa­tion. I decid­ed to write to him. First I wrote emails.
Lat­er, after his can­cer diag­no­sis, I switched to hand­writ­ten or typed paper let­ters. He was delight­ed with them always; he said so. Near­ly every Sun­day, as I greet­ed him after Mass he would say “Keep writ­ing those love­ly emails -don’t stop!” After a few months I’d ask hes­i­tant­ly “Are you sure?” He’d always say “Yes. Keep it up!”

And so I won­dered then what did he expect me to write about ? In a few months I had pret­ty much exhaust­ed my cur­rent “spir­i­tu­al state” and recent expe­ri­ences. Well, the experts say “Write about what you know”. For me it was my fam­i­ly, past expe­ri­ences, church, every­day rou­tine. So I did that. Mun­dane stuff-but I tried to be light­heart­ed about it and fun­ny when I could be. For some­one as edu­cat­ed, adven­ture­some and world-trav­eled as Father Michael, I’m sure it was an exer­cise of patience to read my let­ters. But I do think that Father Michael got to know me as a per­son because of those ordi­nary letters.I’ll always be grate­ful I was dri­ven to write them.

Once he became ill, in 2012 and 2013, there was very lit­tle socializing.Father M would call me every week -or I’d call him. But those calls were real­ly not his forte-at least not with me. They were always 15–20 min­utes and he spoke of his ill­ness, the weath­er, pol­i­tics or cur­rent events-pret­ty clipped. A bom­bard­ment of chatter.I had the feel­ing I was on the ‘to call’ list. But Father was pret­ty fun­ny; I sus­pect­ed that 95% of the time he had anoth­er per­son with him and the clever jokes were for that person’s amuse­ment as much as mine. I guess I would say that the calls sel­dom felt like pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions. I was hap­py to receive them, but kind of felt like I was talk­ing so aim­less­ly-about things that didn’t real­ly mat­ter. Maybe two or three times, I felt that Father Michael was relaxed and tru­ly him­self on the phone. Those few were extra­or­di­nary con­ver­sa­tions I felt priv­i­leged to have.

Then Father Michael began invit­ing me to vis­it him at St Pius in fall 2013. Except for lots of inter­rup­tions, we had the nicest vis­its. I still wrote him the let­ters as I only vis­it­ed him every few weeks. Toward the mid­dle of Feb­ru­ary, Father M was vis­i­bly weak­er, thin­ner, moody and again in pain. He talked to me calm­ly about dying and meet­ing God . Try­ing to be sup­port­ive, I tact­ful­ly (I thought)commented- indi­cat­ing my accep­tance of his death. Then, he sud­den­ly yelled at me, angry and tear­ful at the same time BUT I WANT TO LIVE!!  I WANT TO LIVE!!” Can you imag­ine dear Father Michael act­ing that way ? His emo­tions were all over the place. Can­cer is sure­ly a beast….or  per­haps can­cer is THE beast.

Father was in that volatile, can­cer­ous kind of mood when he asked me to stop writ­ing, remark­ing that he’d rather get just a signed , print­ed card than any­thing I wrote. He was incred­i­bly unkind and cat­ty to me about it. If I recount­ed here every mean thing Father said to me, no one would believe it! It was as though he were a stranger.…as though I’d nev­er known him. He actu­al­ly scared me; he was so dif­fer­ent. Father M also expressed his anger that I didn’t fit the mold of all his friends “who nev­er had to write to me”. I thought —but didn’t dare say “There’s a first time for every­thing, Father M- and besides, you your­self told me to keep it up.” Any­way, I stopped the writ­ing. We con­tin­ued to text until the week before Father Michael’s death. I received a text from Father Michael the day after this blow-up. Father wrote ” For what it’s worth, I think I owe you about a thou­sand apolo­gies.”

All that effort to stay in a spe­cial, holy person’s mem­o­ry! I sure­ly would do it all over again.

At Father Michael’s wake I met his broth­ers and sis­ters. Every­one was so kind, charm­ing even. I intro­duced myself to Father’s sis­ters who stood all togeth­er. His sis­ter Coreen looked at me point­ed­ly when I said my name. She exclaimed “So you’re the lady who wrote my broth­er all those let­ters! You know, he real­ly loved them.” I looked at her ques­tion­ing­ly. She said “Yes, he real­ly did”.

God is so good.

If this insom­nia keeps up, I may get more and more pro­duc­tive on this blog!

Dominican Dog

Priory Saint?

I was work­ing on adding the lit­tle graph­ic of St Dominic last night and remem­bered how Father Michael was always ask­ing about my dogs. I think he secret­ly would have loved to have had a dog. He’d nev­er had any pets grow­ing up oth­er than a very Catholic gold­fish-( he once described how, as a child, he’d cel­e­brat­ed the funer­al Mass for this fish).

I recalled email­ing Father  Michael this pic­ture to cheer him up last Decem­ber. I wrote the sub­ject as “I think you and the St. Pius broth­ers need a dog like this!” The next day I saw a return email , writ­ten at 4 am :

You sure do know how to make an insom­ni­ac laugh! I am sit­ting here hoot­ing as I look at that dog on the cup­board and real­ize what it would be like if we real­ly had one. It would be con­stant bed­lam!”

Father Michael had the most won­der­ful sense of humor about every­thing; I’m miss­ing that today.