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!