On the morning of Monday Aug. 4, 1998, I awoke in the Jesuit residence of Cheverus High School in Portland, Me., with an energy that I have rarely felt. I knew that our mother was terminally ill, but she had insisted that I go to the dedication of the new facility for the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, which is directed by Rick Curry, S.J., in Belfast, Me. So there I was, in Maine, at the most traveled weekend of the summer as she was dying in Philadelphia. I called home about 7 a.m., and my brother told me that Mom had died peacefully during the night.
Against all expectations, I was able to get a flight from Portland to New York, come back to America House, and then go to Philadelphia, where my family met me at the 30th Street station. We went to the funeral director to make the arrangements. The number of times that my brother, sister or sister-in-law has had to collect me from the 30th Street station in family emergencies is beyond counting. And the funeral director was a family friend, a pillar of the parish and, with us, a most empathetic mourner.
Our mother was a strong-minded Irish-American lady, who had laid down the law about her funeral. No open casket: "I don’t want people looking at me when I’m dead." As to the venue of the funeral, she expressed only negatives, so it was left to us, and the only realistic choice was "the Alley."
"The Alley" is Old Saint Joseph’s Jesuit Church at Willing’s Alley in Philadelphia. She had been taken there by her own grandmother during World War I to pray for her uncles who were in the service. I officiated at my brother’s wedding there. Two of my closest Jesuit friends and classmates celebrated their first Masses there after ordination, and one pronounced final vows there. Mother was, of course, in attendance at all of those celebrations.
Mother did not enjoy good health at any time in her life, and her last years were punctuated with crises. After an especially acute episode, when she was again able to get around, we went to Mass at "the Alley."
"How do they get a coffin in here?" We assured her that it was easy enough and showed her the process. We were a little taken aback at how reassured she was at the demonstration.
Well, of course, the time came. Our Jesuit pastor, Father William Rickle, and the administrator of the Jesuit residence, Father David Barry, both close and caring friends, were up to the event. I said later to our Father James Martin of America House, who was deacon of the funeral Mass, "This is never easy, but it is a lot easier when you have your own church."
We broke some rules. Two readings were delivered by two Jewish doctors, Elizabeth and Bradley Sevin, close family friends, who had been with mother during her last day. Who better than two believing, practicing Jews to read from the Book of Ruth and the Psalms? The New Testament reading was given by our cousin, Anne, in her wonderful, educated, Kerry Irish accent.
My Jesuit brothers were there in force, in the same numbers as had truly astonished our family when our father died. And they were the usual suspects. All the editors of America, my teaching colleagues and former students, and my own teachers and mentors, to the number of 50. It was quite a sight in the sanctuary, both times, and never forgotten. I said that "if a bomb had gone off in the church, it would have set back Catholic publishing a hundred years."
One man was late, so I nailed him. I identified him at the post-Communion as "the best teacher I ever had," and exposed him as someone on whom mother had a major crush. She and dad used to kid about it. Father James Henry Donohue never failed to captivate people with words, with his personality, with his pervasive holiness. After the funeral he said, modestly, to Father Francis Burch, "I always had a way with the older woman." And "older" she had been. I had admitted in the funeral homily that, as bereft as we were, we could not fail to admit that "mother was not exactly snatched from us untimely in the full flower of youth at age 87.
The funeral cortege to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery moved in bright sunlight along Philadelphia’s magnificent East River Drive, past the church where we had all been baptized--along the same route taken by her parents, her sister, her husband and her brother.
At the grave site, our little cousins stayed in the car. "Was that box her or her stuff?" With motherly wisdom our Anne answered: "That was her body. She is already in heaven." And Father James Torrens, our most poetic editor, found a leaf, which he has kept. He could not have known then that it was something mother often did.
Nine years have passed. Then little boys, Michael and Liam are growing, and Michael is enjoying the summer at Fordham Prep in the Bronx. Regina, Michael and Miriam and I still miss our mother, but with no regrets and an awareness of the flow of life. We know that not everyone has had the same good experiences, and we pray for those who have not, but most of all we are thankful for what God has given us, in our memories of a life, and of a funeral.