We were the bookends of the family: I the oldest by nine years, she the youngest, my sister Maureen.
As I stood by her bed in the hospice, stroking her arm and whispering what I hoped were comforting words, I looked into our family trademark-blue eyes and saw her as a child once again. I remembered the chubby 1-year-old rolling around in her playpen on the family front porch; the little girl with blonde finger curls asking Big Sister for help with spelling homework; the teenager, lively and laughing, the best dancer in a family of good dancers.
Marriage number one came at a too-young age, along with a new family member, another sweet little girl who loved baby Jesus and animals. Marriage number two brought sons—a light-hearted towhead like his mother and a second whose brown hair covered a head bursting with brains. All the while mom tried to hold her little family together with the cement of deep motherly love.
Darkness descended when Maureen’s sons were completing grade school. After the death of her former spouse, my sister retreated into the hazy world of addiction. Was it guilt, I wondered, since she had insisted that her first husband leave because of his drug addiction? Or was life simply too hard and heroin a too easy escape? Or was it the chronic depression and social anxiety she lived with throughout her adult life? Whatever the reasons, the results were catastrophic. Drugs rob a person of everything. Maureen lost her car, her house, her good job and, worst of all, her self-respect. Several stints in rehab raised the family’s hopes, but a relapse inevitably came.
Throughout it all, Maureen never lost her faith. Getting up for Mass while stoned was unthinkable, but she continued to pray and read the Bible. One passage in particular took on profound significance: “When an unclean spirit goes out of someone, it roams through arid regions searching for rest but, finding none, it says, ‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there” (Lk 11: 24-26).
Why this strange passage, I wondered at first. I would never have been drawn to it. Indeed, it struck me as perhaps the most hopeless thing Jesus ever said. What do these seven unclean spirits, these demons, mean to her? But it gradually became clear: addiction was her demon. She swept and tidied her house by going to 12-step meetings, entering rehab and finding sponsors. None of it worked for long. The seven demons, stronger than the first, always returned to dwell in the house of her soul.
I will always regret not exploring that Scripture passage with her more. Had I looked at its context, I would have seen that in the next verse Jesus says emphatically: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” There is no place for hopelessness in the kingdom of God—the invitation is listen, turn to God and do our best to live our lives in the light.
And there was light: the light of Maureen’s holding her first grandchild, an adorable little boy; the light of watching her children mature into adulthood; the light of spousal love with Bill, who understood her, protected her and, best of all, loved her unconditionally.
Now, as I reflect on my sister’s life and death, I realize that the demons were not confined to her. They reached out, as demons will, to harm others, especially those who loved Maureen. My first demon was despair as I watched her life fall apart, helpless to do much about it. Another was anger: anger that she was throwing her life away, anger about the effect on her children, anger that she ignored the wise counsel I thought I was imparting. A third demon was obsessive worry, the difficulty of falling asleep for most of my adult life as I pondered how to help her.
Then came the grace. A friend invited me to Al-Anon meetings. After a time, I grew to appreciate the wisdom of the 12 steps: I can control only my own life, not anyone else’s; addiction is a family disease; and it is utterly useless to worry about things I could not change.
Now this. She had lain in a coma for five weeks, not induced by drugs but by a rare virus that medical science knew nothing about, certainly not how to treat it.
As I stood by her deathbed, we had a few precious moments alone. “Maureen,” I whispered, “I understand now. I understand what the Scripture story about the seven demons means to you. You did try, probably harder than any of us realized. We just didn’t understand how strong the chains of addiction really are.” At that, a slight flicker of her eyelids told me that she heard.
I continued, “Maureen, it’s O.K. It’s O.K. to let go. Dad is there waiting for you.” I certainly did not mean at that precise moment, but my sister took me at my word. The hospice nurse looked at her and said quietly, “This is her time.” Her youngest son knelt by the bed, and she opened her eyes to hear him say, “I love you, Mom.” Then the rattle of death rumbled low in her throat as her soul returned to God.
Her husband, her children and I sobbed and held hands around her bed. As we prayed her favorite prayer, the Memorare, I looked down at her beautiful face, now serene. Was it my imagination, or were the demons leaving, defeated, as her soul slipped into the eternal light of God?