And It Was a Mercy
By Mary R. Finnegan - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA - 1 March 2017
The last vacation my parents took was to Donegal. It was meant to be a dream vacation, but things didn’t work out quite as planned. My father got sick shortly after their arrival and was hospitalized. For a week, his health, like Ireland’s weather, was capricious and unpredictable. Dad needed surgery, then didn’t. He had the operation and was doing well, then poorly. The priest came and around my father’s bed, prayers were said and candles lit (this was rural Ireland, where such mercies were still granted). He was dying, and then, on the last Friday of his life, he sat on the edge of his hospital bed, smiling and chatting with aunts and uncles and cousins, and his new friend, a priest from Africa. When I spoke with my father on the phone that evening, he sounded robust, healthy, delighted. When we said our I love you’s and goodbyes, I didn’t know that that would be it, that that would be the last time I’d hear his voice. I put the phone down and thought, He’ll come home and we’ll care for him. All will be well. But in those awful morning hours when no phone call brings good news, the phone rang. It was my brother Sean.
When that call came, I was alone in my parents’ house, sleeping in the bedroom of my childhood. “It doesn’t look good,” Sean said. “I don’t think Daddy’s going to make it.” Then he gave the phone to my mom. She and I, both nurses, spoke only briefly. What is there to say about so terrible a truth? After we hung up, I sat in bed, unsure of what to do. I’m normally a good woman to have around in a crisis, calm and competent, able to do what needs doing. But that morning, I couldn’t form a coherent thought, much less do anything. I wanted to pray, but my thoughts skittered like dropped marbles across a floor. Hail Mary, full of grace … should I start calling everyone? Is it too early for that? Should I get on my knees and say the prayers for the dying? What are the prayers for the dying?
I write this now and realize I was in shock, but at the time, I didn’t know what I was. It seemed that all the important action had taken place far away, out of sight and sense. It was like reading a newspaper account of bombs being dropped on your home. How do you comprehend such a thing without tasting the dust on your tongue or hearing the crunch of bricks under your feet? Without smelling the charred air? Without touching the ground where you once lived? My brain registered what was happening. My father was dying and the week ahead would be agonizing and frightening and exhausting. My family and I would have much to deal with -- how do you get a coffin, and a body, across the Atlantic Ocean? My heart even registered how I’d feel -- devastated, lost, forlorn. But those moments in bed, right after that phone call, well, just then I didn’t feel anything. I’d come undone.
I’d always thought to come undone meant to lose it, to fall apart and scream and yell, but that’s not always the case. To come undone requires no histrionics, no dramatics. It can instead be a quiet unraveling on a Saturday morning in July as life gives way to death.
Those words, Daddy’s dying, announced that an avalanche had rolled into our lives and that we would be buried under its merciless reality. The avalanche would rip the veil between that other world and this one, but at first, in the darkness before sunrise, the words seemed like small pebbles skittering down a hillside, just sounds, incomprehensible and meaningless. I said them to myself: Daddy’s dying. I stared at the ceiling and tried to make sense of them, to believe that they were true. I called my brothers and sisters. “Daddy isn’t doing well,” I said. “They don’t think he’ll make it.” Then I sat there for what seemed like a long time, feeling like a liar.
Late July in Philly is normally hot and miserable, but that year the weather had been slightly cooler, pleasant enough that the air conditioner was off and my windows were open. Birds chirped and flittered, going about the business of their day. Squirrels ran across the roof, leaping onto the tree in the front yard so that I heard the fluttering of leaves and the scrape of branches against the side of the house. It had rained more than usual that July and the wetness released all the earth’s smells. The air was warm and pungent and sweet, the trees and the flowers and all the world at their most alive.
And across the sea was my father, dying.
For a whole week until that Saturday morning, I didn’t believe my father would die, not in Ireland, in another country, away from us, the children he adored with the joy of a man who couldn’t believe his luck. I didn’t think God in his mercy would do that. But God would, and did, for before that day was done, my father was dead.
It’s strange what happens when someone dies; there’s a sense of unreality and detachment, as if you are loosed from earth and earth loosed from its orbit. Nothing seems concrete or absolute or fixed -- maybe it’s all a mistake, you think -- and with that nebulousness comes despair and then a craving for something solid and sure, and finally, an ache so strong, the first hurt you feel. Some families, like mine, do certain things when death arrives: we pray, tell stories, drink lots of tea. People come over with food. They clean the house. They put the kettle on and make sandwiches and say the Rosary. They stay. These are good things. They provide comfort and a sense of order to a world unhinged. The tea, and those who make it, are essential; the food, nourishing; the prayers, just words, but with a power unseen and felt. The stories, just words too, but also with a power unseen and felt. Somehow all of these things -- the prayers and the stories, the tea and the food, the people -- bring hope and that hope can carry you right up to whatever awful reality must be faced.
I don’t know how long I stayed in bed that morning, doing nothing, but I think it was time well spent. It was good for me to wait while this bad news spread across my heart’s horizon. It was good for me to wait while neighbors slept and birds sang, while the sun finished its rising. And it was good for me to rise with it and go into the kitchen and put the kettle on and make a cup of tea, something no day, good or bad, can start without. It was good for me to take things slowly, to sit at the kitchen table and make phone call after phone call, and to cry between calls, and during them. It was good for me to come undone. It was a mercy.
The house soon filled with friends and family. There was food on the table and a kettle on the boil. The day passed. Night came. The phone rang. Sean again, “Daddy’s gone to God,” he said. No histrionics, no dramatics, just a quiet unraveling on a Saturday night as earth was loosed from its orbit, as life gave way to death. Daddy’s gone to God. Powerful words. Words that stole one kind of hope -- Daddy’s gone -- only to bring another -- to God. I put the phone down and repeated the words. For a moment, there was only silence. The rain was coming down and through open windows I could smell the night air and hear the rustling of leaves in the wind. Squirrels settled for the night and birds curled into their nests with their young. Rosary beads clicked like heels against a floor as my aunts prayed. There was the hum of voices and laughter as my uncles told stories, the words drifting across oceans and time. Shirtsleeves and tissues and curled fists wiped away tears.
I went out onto the porch to be alone for a minute. I wanted to run away, back in time. But, instead, I stood spellbound there on a summer evening as the whole of the created world went about the important business of rising and falling, living and dying, rejoicing and grieving. The rain came down, the drops steady and clear as the truth. I felt them on my face. And it was a mercy.