Endings as Beginnings

There is a certain freedom in the finality of the last scene in Thelma and Louise.  The motor guns and the ’66 Thunderbird soars almost triumphantly above the cliff to Thelma and Louise’s inevitable deaths.  It is surprisingly fitting and peaceful.

When my friend Tina and I heard the news of Ann’s mother’s death, we agreed to make the 8-hour drive from Chicago to Toronto to attend the wake and funeral.  Instead of that ’66 Thunderbird, Tina pulled up in a large black Infinity SUV with Ann’s personal assistant Tracy riding shotgun and her trusty beagle Riley next to me in the back seat.   We had never done a road trip together, weren’t sure of the route but were ready for whatever lie ahead.

Ann had been at her mother’s bedside for weeks as she lay dying and we knew how important it was to her to see and feel our support in person.   Women have a special way of supporting each other and we couldn’t let Ann down.  Although Ann’s mother was in her 80s, the death came as a surprise after a very brief illness.  For anyone who has had a mother pass one, you know.  No matter when or how your mother passes on to the great beyond, it is one of the most challenging events a daughter ever faces.  We weren’t quite sure how best to support Ann and so we hoped for a sign as we picked up coffee at Starbucks and headed east through Illinois on to Interstate-94.

It wasn’t long before the hearse appeared alongside us on a flat-bed truck.  “U R Next,” read the license plate.  We locked eyes and let out giggles.  Were we?  Aren’t we all?  Yes, we’d asked for a sign but what exactly did this one mean?

We drove on, making pit stops for gas and food, all the while trying to drive fast enough to make the wake.  We’d left late and desperately needed to make up time.  The wake ended at 9 p.m. and we were nowhere near the Canadian border.  Just then, traffic slowed down to a grinding halt.  In Chicago, this would be expected, but we were on Highway 69 in Michigan and there seemed no logical explanation for the big-city traffic jam on a relatively untraveled highway.  And then we saw the police cars, the overturned truck and the small boy covered in a blanket on the side of the road, nestled in grass.  A policeman stood near him, holding him, rubbing his shoulders.   It was obvious he was the sole survivor of a terrible crash, the entire top of the truck having been cut off as clean as if a knife had sliced it.

The mood turned somber.  Death had made its not-so-subtle entrance.

We drove quietly and then in unison turned our heads to see a large, white truck lumber up next to our overly large SUV.  Written on the back of the truck in blue lettering was the word, “Eternity,” with pictures of three crosses and a biblical verse.

Now, there are signs and then there are signs.  The rule of thumb is that when they come in three’s, it’s time to sit up and listen.  We sat up.  We were traveling to a funeral after all.

With 15 minutes to spare and by some quick changing and partial nudity in the car, witnessed by only one passing motorist in the parking lot, we made it to the wake.  Ann greeted us gratefully, half surprised we had made it under the deadline.  “So, you showed up?” she chided us with a smile.  Her mother lay peacefully in the casket across the room.  “It’s sinking in,” she shared and we felt her sorrow.  Deeply.

We were slap-happy after our long road trip.  But Ann’s pain filled the room.  We watched as she and her family said goodbye to their mother.  We walked out of the funeral home together with them, meeting up later at a pub.

When the funeral began the next morning at St. Anthony Catholic Church, Tracy, Tina and I appeared right behind the procession, having mixed up the Torontonians’ directions, arriving in the nick of time.  Ann looked at us as she walked in to the church behind the coffin, her eyebrow raised in the “seriously?” gaze at us.  It was all happening so fast.  How could it seem like a week had passed when we’d been in Canada less than 24-hours?

“Funerals are the window to eternity,” Father John Mullins said as he opened his eulogy.  Remembering the message on the white truck, Tina, Tracy and I turned to each other.  Eternity had just called out to us.  “With God, the fulfillment is greater than the expectation.  The struggles in life as we heard in the beatitudes* are the coin of the realm.”

Just then, Tina gasped.  As we looked over to her in our pew, she help up a shiny Canadian penny.  Tracy and I gasped.  “What does it mean,” I asked, even though I was well aware of the phenomenon of finding pennies.

“Someone is watching over us, someone is here for us,” Tina said and we knew it felt true.  Ann watched over her mom and now we were watching over her.

“It’s really the end now, isn’t it?” Tracy asked.  “I mean, the funeral really signals the end.”

“I think it might be the beginning,” I said.

The signs had prepared us, had brought us this far.  The longer I live, the more signs I see.  When you open the door to a little guidance, it comes in droves.  It never fails.

I took the Canadian penny and replaced it with two American pennies.  Someone else could find a little bit of hope.

It was time to begin the journey home.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

*The eight beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12 during the Sermon on the Mount are stated as Blessed/Happy/Fortunate are:[2][3]

  • the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3)
  • those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4)
  • the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (5:5)
  • they who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be satisfied. (5:6)
  • the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)
  • the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (5:8)
  • the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. (5:9)
  • those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:10)
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August 5th: When Memories Remember You

Driving across the Indiana border into the country today, the Queen Anne’s lace and yellow coreopsis ran wild in the fields along the road.  The sun beamed into the car and a soft warm breeze blew in the window, opened just a crack to bring some summer air in.  When I wiped my face, I felt warm tears and wondered if the breeze made my eyes water.  With a tap to the automatic control, I closed the car window but the wetness still puddled in the corner of my eye.   Now that I’d noticed it, the tears seemed to slightly increase their pace.  The drive was pleasant and I had no reason to cry.

I’ve had enough mystical experiences to know that when the body overrides the mind, there is something I’ve missed that set off a physical reminder.  And then it hit me.  Of all the days of the year, August 5th is the one that started my journey into Anne on Fire, though I didn’t know it at the time.  On August 5th, 1996, my mother died after a six-month battle with liver cancer.

I glanced at the car clock and it showed 12:30, within an hour of the time my mother died on that August 5th morning, a morning much like today with the sun streaming in to the windows of her bedroom and the flowers blowing softly in the breeze outside.  Can the body really remember what the mind choses not to?

That morning I sat with the hospice worker and held my mother’s hand.  It had grown frail and bony like the rest of her body as the cancer withered her athletic frame.  Her breath rattled and I gave the morphine pump another squeeze to ease her pain.  When the hospice worker told me we were close to the end, she suggested I make a couple of telephone calls to let the family know.  I slipped out of the room and into the kitchen, dialing my aunt Mary — my mother’s only sibling.  I had begun to tell Aunt Mary the news when the hospice worker hurriedly appeared before me and whispered, “It’s time.”  I told Aunt Mary I’d call her back shortly and strided into the bedroom, grasping for my mother’s hand.  One breath.  Then another.  Then silence.  Her grip faded slowly from mine but I grasped even more tightly.

And then the most amazing thing happened  Her spirit seemed to separate from her body.  A transparent mirror image floated upward in excruciating slow motion.  I gasped loud enough to startled myself.  Then I realized my hands were hot, feeling intense heat in each one so much so that they began to tremble.  I watched immobile as the transparent image of my mother floated up out of the room.

She was gone and at the same time I knew she was with me.

Awe-struck I turned to the hospice worker, who quietly told me, “You have been given a gift from your mother.  Treasure it.”

“But what just happened.  Tell me?”

“Death is as precious a gift as life.  Not all of us are allowed to witness it.  Your mother gave you the gift of being with her for her journey.  We all choose when to die and who will be with us,” she said and I knew then this woman had witnessed many deaths and was a very special person to share this with me.

The rest of the day dissolved in a blur of activity.   Aunt Mary arrived as did my brother Jim and sisters, Kathleen and Susie.  Funeral people were called; arrangements began to be made.

Something unique had happened and I watched the activities unfold as if in a trance.  Something had changed in me as well.  I couldn’t put my finger on it but everything was different.  In the days and months and years that followed, I began to receive signs from my mother.  These were the signs that set me on the Anne on Fire journey.

More to come.

Eileen Gertrude Stark Gallagher.   1930-1996.  Rest in peace.

The Mass on the 14th for the Virgin Mary

Our Mother of Perpetual Help, a 15th Century M...

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The sky at 4 a.m. was nothing short of swimming-pool blue and I wondered if I should both to wake up my son Mack, who was only 13.  Since we had met Sister Mary Pastry last month at the European Market in Chesterton, IN, he insisted he wanted to attend the mass of the apparition.  After a few moments of thinking about it, I knocked on his bedroom door and whispered, “Do you really want to go to the Mass?” half-thinking he would roll over and go back to sleep.  But he woke up and dressed and we were in the car by 4:40 driving to the Austin neighborhood in Chicago.  It was eerily silent as we drove, increasingly moving into what I would call the ghetto area of Chicago, blighted and scary, black men standing on corners with no specific purpose.  As we pulled into the parking lot, it was just as Sister Mary said — police officers patrolled the lot and we slid into a parking spot, escorted into the church for the Mass of the Apparition. 

As we entered, a nun in full habit handed up a head set and I asked her what it was for.  She looked quizzically at me and I realized she spoke only French.  “Pour quoi?” I asked her and she only pointed us toward the pew.  My friend Gloria was already waiting for us in the pew and Mack and I silently slid in toward her.  We gave each other the “eye”.  What were we in for?

St. Mary de Frechou is the mother house of Fraternite Notre Dame in a dicey area of Chicago.  Across the street from a hospital, it seemed imposing with an iron gate enclosing the parking lot.  As Mack and I sat with Gloria, we took in the church.  The ceilings were low but dressed with religious murals and a massive set of organ pipes.  Soon, no less than 18 men in religious vestments entered the church in a processional.  Jean-Marie, the bishop, entered last with an elaborate peaked hat. 

The mass began in Latin and I gasped.  This was the traditional Latin mass.  I made a mental note — I had grown up and been married at St. Michael’s Church in DePere, Wisconsin via Father Hector Bolduc.   My children were baptized there as well, as much for convenience as the fact that a family member had started the church amid a great deal of Vatican II controversy.  I was not prepared for this.

It soon became apparent that the headphones were for simultaneous translation of the Latin and French mass into Spanish and English.  As I looked around, the predominant attendees were Hispanic with a high proportion of Filipino’s. This was one organized Church.

Personally, I like to think that I come to religion from a wide variety of spiritual traditions.  Raised as a Catholic, I have studied Buddhism, Judiasm, spiritualism and a wide variety of approaches.  I’ve come to believe that we are a conglomeration of experiences and that there is no right and wrong in belief, which would probably excommunicate me from the Catholic Church, particularly the Tridentine Mass I was currently experiencing.

As I looked in front of me, I saw at least 20 nuns in full garb — white for a high mass and the black habit.  It was something of a culture shock to witness and as much as I searched for Sister Mary Pastry, I could not differentiate her from the others lined up in front of me. 

Mostly what I thought about as the Mass progressed was the Bishop.  If he had truly seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary and been guided by her, what did it take to do a Mass of this magnitude every month? To commemorate the apparition?   It was impressive. 

As Mass concluded, two nuns appeared with hundreds of white and yellow roses — roses being the sign of Mary.  Bishop Jean Marie gave a rose to every one in attendance, including Mack and me.  I kissed his ring as he offered me a yellow rose, so schooled in Catholic tradition was I.  We looked up and it was already 7 a.m., two hours since the start of the mass.  Mack nudged me and asked if we could leave as the Bishop began the rosary.  We had already been there 2 hours and we were ready to go.

It was not at all as I expected in that the Mass was a high ritual, the kind of service where you get lost in ritual.  It was a meditation on a grand level, but maybe Mack and Gloria weren’t there as I was.  For me, it was a place to lose self and commune with a larger purpose.  I had to pull my awareness back to the church, if that makes any sense at all.  “Yes Mack, let’s get going I said as I came out of the trance.”  

For one of the first times in my life, I understood the rapture.  It could have been a yogi meditation as well.  It was a moment of leaving time and space, and spending time with a higher power.  Sister Mary Pastry told me that the Virgin Mary is there for these masses and I felt the presence in the quiet space of meditation.  If there is a power beyond us, it was here. 

I thought of fruit tartes and the Chesterton European Market where this all began.  Maybe there is magic to their pastry.  I’m okay with that.