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.

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.