Ashes mean something different to me this Lent. As I am marked with this sacred symbol, my heart connects to a two-chamber urn sitting on my mother’s old dresser. One chamber is now filled with her ashes.
After a two-and-a-half-year struggle with breast cancer and then leukemia, my mother Maryhelen (nicknamed Mother Mary when she gave birth to my youngest sister on Christmas) died on the feast of the Assumption 2008. How appropriate this day of death was for a woman born and raised in the Parish of St. Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin), who then spent most of her adult life in two Marian parishes: Mother of Perpetual Help and St. Mary.
My mother was a woman of faith. She regularly sang in our church choirs and was active in Christian women’s groups. Our family was devoted to Mary and rarely missed the weekly devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Help or Mass on the five first Saturdays. Like many choir members who were active when the church shifted to the use of the vernacular after the Second Vatican Council, she struggled at first and missed the beauty and awe of Latin hymns. But as liturgical renewal progressed, she gradually adapted and came to love the sacred hymns of John Rutter as well as the folksy musical style of the St. Louis Jesuits and Marty Haugen.
St. Ignatius Loyola invites us to reflect on our experience to see how God’s hand has been with us not only in consolation and joy but in desolation. A large portion of his Spiritual Exercises invites the retreatant (and each of us, at any time) to delve more deeply into the life of Christ and engage in Christ’s interaction with the world of his time by using our senses and imagination to place ourselves in the stories. We can imagine ourselves as characters mentioned in the stories and even as characters who may have been left out. As we move toward Holy Week, exercising our imagination on the stories from Christ’s passion and death can bring unexpected insights.
The Lenten readings are rich: the temptation in the desert; the transfiguration; the parable of the fig tree; the parable of the lost sheep; and the woman caught in adultery. As we enter each story we deepen our understanding of Jesus. Retelling the stories helps us to keep Christ alive in our own life.
As I begin another Lent, reflecting on my mother’s dying process has been a profound spiritual preparation for the season. The family was “blessed” by having six weeks with her after a first serious death scare on July 4. During these weeks she said goodbyes from her bed or, on the days when she could manage it, from the living room recliner. The hospice workers who visited each day noted that she was one of the few people who gave away their wardrobe before they died. My sisters, nieces and I had helped her sort through her simple clothing while she specified where each piece was to go: relatives, friends, St. Vincent de Paul Society or Goodwill Industries. She told stories about many of the pieces: what she wore at special events like Knights of Columbus parties, family weddings and baptisms and first Communions, which she never missed.
She agonized about what to wear in the casket. I thought she had resolved the issue when she decided on the outfit she wore for my oldest son’s December wedding several years ago. But now we were in July. One hot steamy night as we sat up talking—because the nights provided the most anxiety and fear for her as she approached death—she told me she had been reconsidering the choice. “It might be too warm,” she said. “Mom, I don’t think it will matter,” I replied, wondering if she would remember this conversation in the morning. She was worried about the appropriateness of a winter-weight garment, as if knowing she would die in summer.
But what overwhelmed me, my dad and my siblings was the constant daily parade of people into the house, people whose lives she touched: her sisters, our cousins, in-laws, neighbors, hospice volunteers (she herself had been one), lionesses (she was a member of the Lions Club), bridge partners, food bank volunteers (she was one), choir members and others. On an average day we received more than 40 phone calls from people checking in on her. Sometimes I wished the phone would stop ringing.
Culling through boxes of photos and recounting the great stories associated with them reminded me of how we as a faith community cull through the images and words about the life of Jesus, the key moments and relationships we will always remember because they have become something of who we are as a Christian family.
In the last six weeks of her life, Mom received daily Communion at home during a visit from the young pastor or pastoral associate. No matter what had happened in the preceding day or anxiety-producing night or what pain she was in when Father Brian came, her reply to his question, “How are you today, Mary?” was always: “Oh, I’m a little bit better.” Yet more than 10 times in those six weeks, near-death experiences brought Father Brian and his sacred oils to anoint her for the journey that seemed so long in coming. I commented in her eulogy that she was anointed so many times she likely slid right into heaven.
The last week was by far the most difficult. On the day she died, she entered into a state that hospice caregivers know well—the body’s oxygen supply diminishes. She was unable to communicate with us from about noon that day until about 3. Then, to our amazement, she called for my dad and reached over to hold his hands. She became quite anxious and thrashed about (another expected pattern in the death process).
But what happened next will be etched in my heart and soul forever. About an hour before her death she reached out her arms and began distinctly saying, “push me, pull me, push me, pull me.” Mom was not speaking to any of us in the room. I had no doubt that she was being greeted by angels and her deceased sisters and brother, whom she missed so much (she was the oldest of eight children born in close succession, and they were very close).
Those were her last words. “Push me, pull me.” Then she became quiet. I felt her soul slipping from her body. We gathered my siblings and dad around the bed and began to pray: Our Father; Hail Mary. We all touched her. I put one arm around dad’s shoulder as he sat on his walker next to the bed, and had one hand on mom’s foot. I instinctively began praying the Memorare, a prayer that had been renewed as a deep part of my own spiritual journey when I struggled with some issues years earlier. Then from the deepest recesses of my memory I prayed aloud the novena prayer to the Mother of Perpetual Help. Mom took five or six deep breaths and died.
If there is such a thing as a peaceful death, we were blessed with one for mom. Now, less than four feet from the side of that bed, my mother’s ashes sit, awaiting the day she will be joined by my dad and then interred in their plot in the parish cemetery.
I remember and relive day after day the journey to my mother’s death because it brought all of us closer to our own destiny and to God. So it is with the Lenten journey. This is a time to remember the life, suffering and death of Jesus Christ because it brings all of us closer to the Resurrection.