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

Lasting Faithfulness

4th

I think this synod is making me think too much about marriage and the family! But I’ve wanted to write this stuff for a while and the synod has given me a  context for my rambling thoughts about this subject. It’s also been a good kick to get me restarted on the blog!

Father Michael once wrote me an email saying that he’d love to talk to me about marriage sometime. Well, we had talked about it in our appointments…several times. I’d been surprised by what he said and even more by what he didn’t say. I think, from his lack of response to many of my statements, that I surprised him with my being somewhat conservative. At that point, he definitely wanted to avoid any disagreements with me. One thing that stood out for me from those talks was Father M’s stating “Well, you know they’re all living together”. Of course that was old news . But Father talked about how some of the engaged were grandchildren of ‘long-time’ parishioners, or devout parents, and talked about not wanting to their hurt the relative’s feelings, etc.In other words Father treated them with care  and courtesy, no matter what their living arrangement. I asked “Do you say anything about cohabiting to them? I know they are with you to do the ‘right thing’, but do you say anything ?”  Father Michael said ” Because they have already ‘shared intimacy’, I tell them that after they are married, God will now bless what they have.” I looked at him and said “That’s it?”  And he nodded.

I’m not stupid. I know that scolding is not the way to go and that these engaged people are aware of their actions. But I have to say, even now, that I was so disappointed in what Father M said.It really kind of shut me up and our appointment ended. I was disturbed by our talk and afterward kept thinking about it. A few days later I sent Father an email. Here’s part of it:

“Off and on I have been thinking about our talk the other day. Remembering what you said about engaged couples, almost all living together , coming to you to prepare for marriage made me kind of sad.I know no one wants to alienate them, since they are at last doing “what they should do”. I’m sure that neither you, nor their parents, nor anyone involved with them wants to rock the boat by saying something to make them feel uncomfortable or chastised in any way. But what struck me was how saying “God will now bless what you are already doing” or ” already have” (I’m sure I’m misquoting you crudely, sorry) though absolutely true, seems so wanting.

I guess I think of the situation as a parent would, hoping that somehow all I hoped I’d taught my child and all the traditions and beliefs I’d tried to convey in rearing them Catholic would still be supported by the church. Almost like another type of seamless garment? Kind of like the trust you have in your spouse that he/she will project the same values to your child that you yourself do. It just seems to me that there should be reminders of these things even if the particular couple doesn’t reflect the ideal. Something should be said. Of course it should never be done in a nasty way and I don’t know how I would even attempt it. Easier said than done, for sure. But I feel like our traditional beliefs should still be held up as worthwhile and as what is really pleasing to God. And then, I think it seems in reality all we are offended about is premarital sex. But sex can be such a profound experience of God; it shouldn’t ever be minimized or overlooked. Glad YOU  are the priest , Father Michael. I’d be freaking out.”

Father Michael’s email response was “You wouldn’t believe some of the things the engaged tell me”. I  didn’t answer him, but thought ‘Oh yes I would’. He never elaborated or discussed this further with me. I have an added understanding now since Father’s cancer fight.I learned that he really abhorred and feared criticism – and I’m sure he saw criticism in my email. So he ignored it. I do wish he would have been willing to discuss it.

  Father Michael often mentioned how he helped people with their annulments. He always had paperwork to do for them. Later in the two years I knew him, he would mention going out to a celebratory dinner with couples who had been waiting for an annulment to marry. It was very clear that he felt people should explore the annulment process -if they were divorced or separated. I think it was a great joy for him to deliver the news that the annulment had been granted. I remember that in the later months of his illness he always made the time to meet with these people. He admired their courage and their desire to make things right with the Church-and their love for each other.

Father Michael  had difficulty in seeing the commitment of engaged couples. He also said that many people really just wanted the church building for their wedding, but not the Church, not the sacrament. He had a hard time officiating at most marriages for this reason. He often spoke in wonder of the sacrifice and evident love shown by older couples, particularly if one partner was ill and the other was a caretaker. He would always say he was awed by this. Father Michael felt that most of the couples he saw had no clue as to what ‘for better or worse, in sickness or in health’ might mean for them down the line.

On the other hand, I recall Father Michael talking about the stories of how some couples met and how God’s hand was so evident. He was very excited one time about a couple who both had children from previous marriages-and they had found each other. He said they had a wonderful story—and Father Michael loved those stories.  He said “so they will be a blended family”. I said ” Oh like that old movie ‘Yours, Mine and Ours’.” Father Michael  laughed and said “No ‘Ours’ yet!”  He paused and thought a second and then said “well ….MAYBE!”

I did get a different perspective on Father M’s beliefs on marriage from other experiences and things he’d say. Once we were on Ashland Avenue by St Pius, waiting to cross. Father was well into his cancer treatment and was very weak. I was about to drive him to St Vincent’s. We were talking about Thomas Peters’ recovery (see ‘The Wonderment of God’).  I mentioned that there was still so much online vitriol toward Thomas regarding his upholding the church’s teachings on marriage. Father Michael said “You mean the traditional church teaching on marriage?” I said “Yes, of course”.  Father Michael got visibly agitated and said “Hey, he has it easy. Anyone who upholds the established position has it much easier than those who question it.”  The light changed and Father rushed ahead into the street. I caught up with him. I said I disagreed– that it really depended on the circumstances and conditions— that ALL  sides would find it difficult in some circumstances. He didn’t answer me. I decided that I would not pursue it as I seldom had an uninterrupted time with Father. I didn’t want to waste the nice ride in the car on an argument .

Once, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, Father Michael called me. Unusual for us, we had a real conversation as opposed to the typical talk about chemo, the weather and the lottery. Father was agog at the “Who am I to judge?” Francis quote.  I remember being comfortable enough to disagree and expound on different situations where I felt ‘who am I to judge’ was not applicable. I had no sense that I was bothering Father Michael. I remember talking about some people expecting this would pave the way to same-sex marriage. At that point Father interrupted me and said forcefully ” I know something has to change……I’ve known too many people who suffer”. I started to respond,then he said “Oh, I’m here at the clinic, talk to you later”.  That was kind of a pattern: Father would say something controversial, then cut off the conversation…..at least with me.

So my gut tells me that, despite Father Michael’s reverent and awe-filled view of the sacrament of Matrimony, he might have been open to other non-traditional views of it. I have so many moving impressions of how a truly holy priest perceived and admired the vocation of marriage.Yet I have additional memories of things that he said hinting at a very liberal and non-traditional perspective, at odds with church teaching.  What was the truth ?  I’ll always wonder.

All this from that darn synod !

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.

The Sigh of the Weary

Well, it’s been quite a month. Here’s another weird post….all my issues,with just a tiny bit of Father Michael. Late one night in July my brother called to tell me that he was taking my mother to the hospital ER.  I knew that likely we wouldn’t know my mother’s status for a while. I tried to sleep that night , but my head was spinning and I couldn’t stop thinking and worrying. So I lay awake and then I felt I ‘heard’ Father Michael’s voice telling me to relax and pray . And he said “I want you to just keep praying ‘Into Your hands I commend my Spirit’. I questioned this as I associated those words with the sad moment of Christ’s death. “Oh no,” Father M said,” they are words of trust and hope! Keep saying them!”  I did fall asleep then and when I woke in the morning those words were the first I thought. And they kept coming back to me and calming me, all through the craziness in these last six or so weeks: ultrasounds, CTs, angiograms, arteriograms, stents, amputations, debridements, EKGs, echoes, more amputations and debridements, mild heart attack, paralyzed vocal cords, mental confusion and perhaps a ‘little cancer’ i.e., a spot on the lung, etc, etc. But my little prayer has kept me going, despite it all. Thanks so much Father Michael,my helpful friend!  Thanks too, to my sister and brother, who have shared in the medical excitement. And our hospital saga with my mother continues…

And the craziness spilled over ! My niece with the MS  fell down the stairs, necessitating stitches in her chin, three inside, three outside! My husband’s car was stolen , involved in a hit and run, and totaled.

On the bright side, we now have a ‘new’ used car. And, I may have experienced a healing-I’ve had very painful Achilles’ injury for several months, but in these last few days, it seems to be gone!! Being cautiously hopeful on that.  And then last weekend, my youngest son got engaged to a lovely young woman! God is so good!

You’ve probably heard the saying “It’s not the mountain ahead that wears you out -it’s the grain of sand in your shoe”. I’ve always known that I was more of the ‘grain of sand in your shoe’ ilk. The little things! They bug me! It’s been a sandy journey lately. But of course, I try to keep aware of others’ great  pain. So much unbelievable suffering is happening all over the world. People are dying and cultures are being systematically  destroyed . Their suffering puts my complaint in perspective and dwarfs it. Besides, I know I need to stop complaining if I ever expect to become a saint (per St Catherine of Siena, according to my pastor).

American composer Stephen Foster expresses our sense of compassion for our brothers everywhere in this song. It is almost a prayer. I place it here to remember the suffering: