Goodbyes, Anticipated and
© Copyright 2018 by Paul Dominic
“The haste with which we are abandoning our heritage alarms me. I shudder to think of the day, not far away, whenever the death of one’s parents fail to stir any feelings.” Can you believe the anxious warning of Shivani, a writer from the Indian Himalayas?i I chanced upon a positive response in what a Britisher wrote after his mother’s death: “I, who had for so long sympathized with others on the death of their mothers, now knew what that experience was really like. Written accounts have come to mean far more to me because of the experience I can now, alas, bring to such reading. I have been recalling some such accounts recently in my search of consolation.”ii
“Alive?” “No, but fully alive”
“Is your mother alive?” The question invariably came up when an individual or group interacted with me personally. For years it brought me certain pain. So I would answer simply yes, though with an obvious reluctance. As years passed I learnt to give another answer, more comfortably. I remember one occasion in the opening exchange with 30-odd retreatants at Shillong, India. A British Sister, the Principal of their College, asked me, “Are your parents alive?” I answered, “Yes, alive, fully alive.” I noticed that she looked puzzled, as also many others! So I repeated, “They’re alive… yes, fully alive in Heaven!” That was more than satisfactory, if surprising, to my audience; it elicited their spontaneous smile!
I believe the response would have been not surprising but pleasant to my parents fully alive. It was in tune with their faith they had nurtured in me. However, the maturation of my answer took many years after the unbelievable drama of life and death overtook my Mother and overwhelmed the home-bound survivors!
I have no way of knowing the impact of that initial experience on the later, unfolding experience of her nine bereaved children.
Certain responses to mothers’ death
That reminds me of Harriet Beecher Stowe whose name is less famous than her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Intimately influenced by her mother Roxanna she remembered her as “one of those strong, restful, yet widely sympathetic natures in whom all around seem to find comfort and peace.” Therefore, she wanted her son Charles to begin her biography with her mother’s death, which stayed with her “as the tenderest, saddest and most sacred memory” of her childhood though it happened when she was just five!
Not all children, even if adult, will be so articulate. Still I believe that they will share the same threefold sentiments surrounding their mother’s departure, especially if it happens to be unanticipated. Surely, the modality or intensity of the experience and expression is bound to be different according to the temperament and training of people.
For example, a newly professed English Benedictine (who years later headed Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India) “hardly felt any shock” when he heard the news of his mother dying in a car crash. For all his closeness to her as her favorite Bede Griffith revealed another conviction. He wrote to a friend: “The sense that the life of the body was over in all its trials and sufferings, and the life of the soul beginning to last forever, was overwhelming.”3
Another example is from Mohan Agashe (of Pune’s Theatre Academy famous for its professional excellence in India). His mother died on a summer day, at 4 pm, when that very day the play Begum Barve was scheduled for the evening performance at 9:30. His troupe naturally wanted him to cancel the play. But Agashe thought otherwise. He knew his mother believed in honoring commitments. “So, after participating in the rites of cremation in real life, the friends found themselves performing the ritual on the stage.” Certainly, Agashe did not betray “the tenderest, saddest and most sacred” tendrils of emotions at the demise of his mother. Only, he exhibited them in his manner according to his unusual situation! The reporter however concluded: “Few members of the audience were aware that the shadow of death hung over the actors.”4
Faith in the face of death, possible and factual
In our Christian home, for 28 years of my life death scarcely cast its shadow on us as life at home was in full swing! When outside home death struck our relatives we children saw our Mother weeping and even our Father mourning. But we weren’t affected; we believed, felicitously if facilely, the dead would fly to Heaven. With no near chance of death overtaking any in the family unawares, we swallowed our Christian faith. So, in a very detached way we prayed for the dead.
We would even sing about dying, strangely enough! On some Tuesday nights with permission of Mother or Father we would conclude the family prayer with a devotional song about death. A verse posed the question: “Death may come anytime, today or tomorrow. For you or me, who knows?” But, blessed with good health and sure faith, with no sign of death round the corner to trouble our minds, we all sang merrily.
Whatever was in the mind of our parents when allowing us such a merriment I do not know. What I do know is that their conduct is something that the researcher of the dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, would approve of.5 As they were human enough to sense the bad and the sad in the news of any death they were also godly enough not to be overly depressed without hope, as Paul instructed his converts. They had something of Job’s instinct to say, if occasion warranted, “The Lord gave them; the Lord took them away!”
I have seen my Mother cry spontaneously, hearing the news of death in our extended family. After all, even to God it is painful when one of his people dies (Ps 116:15, GNB). No wonder then that, after surviving a crisis at her last delivery, when Mother saw the eldest two, both young Jesuits, she murmured tearfully, “I was afraid I would die without seeing my children!” As she wept at the scenes of death she equally prayed—like Jesus at the sight of Martha and Mary weeping for their dead brother. My Mother owned the agony of death and its aftermath; she also believed in the unknown ecstasy that death led to. So, she could ask me for prayers for the good death of her aging mother, and later for the repose of her soul!
Her inarticulate theology behind her faith I may word thus: death with all its apparent denial of life is the ending mystery of life. In other words, death at one level is simply a part of the mystery of life, though its end-mystery, and as such must participate in life! If the experience of death is undeniably and palpably a rupture of life it is unbelievably and hopefully a rapture of life too! Somewhat like what happens with sowing in tears and reaping in joy (Ps 126:5)—something she had known as a farmer’s daughter! Like what happens more strikingly at the time of delivery—the truth with which Jesus cheered his disciples troubled about his oncoming death. Which mother would not say knowingly: “You can’t imagine the delivery pain; and yet once the baby is born you wonder if all that pain was only imaginary; you are so transported into joy!” How strange but true that the mother who bears us in rupture of herself knows her rapture soon after, almost simultaneously! As my Mother knew that human mystery of sorrow turning into joy no less than nine times in her life I like to think that correspondingly she grew also in grasping better what that human experience could signify as a metaphor: namely play of life, death, and once again life, one leading to the other! I mean that in the light of each delivery she came to view death not only as an end here and now, but a passage beyond here and now!
In the play of life, death and life
I wonder if such a faith-experience did not light up many occasions of her normal suffering as a mother. She could not escape watching her children’s early bickering and fighting and later fits of aggressiveness of the fitter against the feebler. Still later she could not dismiss the onset of estrangement between her children who were no longer small and innocent. More than all that she had indeed more than her share of mental suffering caused by the way some of her adolescent children behaved in their struggle towards maturity. Their growing pains from adolescence to adulthood gnawed at her, in some instances acutely. On certain occasions she would have sensed, I am afraid, even a sort of rejection—in most cases mild and in some not so mild. It was all in the shilling, perhaps or surely! But why was it to be? Ought it to have been so at all?
Anyway, in her heart would have certainly echoed the mixed sentiments of a mother’s prayer (voiced by Rowena Edlin-White):
Father, you give your daughters strength
A double portion to sustain us through
the loneliness of loss and leaving,
the child, the man, forced from our breast.
Help us to turn and trust you for the rest.
Praying in spiritual struggle
Going beyond such a prayer to cope with her natural suffering she would have learnt to pray typically as a woman of piety, given the peculiar spiritual bias of the struggle she underwent. With mixed feelings she sensed that three of her four eldest children would, unlike the rest, leave her and home for good in their teens. She realized that they were not inclined to marry and multiply but fascinated with Christ to follow him and share his lot. Happy as she certainly was in their uncommon vocation of religious priesthood partly because of a certain pride surrounding it,6 she was at the same time equally sad at their eventual loss.
At the Christmas I celebrated six months before leaving home she felt already overtaken by my departure. In a tone of pain, she told me quite unaware, “Next Christmas you too won’t be here!” It was, as I see it now, a momentary pearl of pain and bonding. She had lived it for the first time two years earlier when the eldest bade farewell to home. She would relive the loss six years later! She was not used to the experience at the third time any more than at the first or second! That is why about a month before the third departure in 1963, she said to my brother with a sad tone, “Why should you also join the Jesuits when two are already there?” It was all pain and yet all pleasure once again; it was like what happened at each of her delivery time!
As they labored in their growth she gave them her lasting love and, at the same time, shared her longing for realms of divine love only to see them follow suit and take wing on their own. She knew the cost and the consolation of her action. She sensed her loss of sons and their gain of great gladness. If she felt at times defeated in her maternal yearning to cling to her sons, equally at times she was delighted in her motherly offering of her sons to God. It was another kind of delivery for her, painful and yet delightful! She knew, then, in one and the same experience both agony and ecstasy, though more agony in the forefront with more ecstasy in the background. Like Mary losing and finding Jesus in the temple.
I believe most mothers of would-be priests and religious would go through it though the same cannot be generally said of their offspring. The latter would mostly find their leave-taking and embarking on their religious undertaking more of an adventure or thrill.7
A dark night of soul?
In and through all such moments of pain and loss my Mother had no unusual intervention of God in her life. So, I cannot proudly relate what a greater son of a devout mother has shared from her confidences. Not long before her death she confided to him that one night as she was praying, “almost at the end of her tether with exhaustion, she caught sight of herself in a mirror surrounded by a light which did not seem to come from any natural source.”8 Her son, Bede Griffith, was convinced that it was a phenomenon of God’s blessing on her hard, unselfish life.
In the case of my Mother I believe that the Lord of life carried and comforted her through life itself. Life itself thus taught her invisibly as well as visibly, and she learnt willy-nilly the life-art: namely, the art of living by way of letting go. Not harboring but letting go the harm or hurt (by not resisting it nor revisiting it but rising above it), she let in the good contrived by the all-knowing God. If with every passing suffering she passed through a sort of dark night, and suffered a minor shock of death, she did not succumb to it but, providentially strengthened by it, sought to live happily, pondering in hope like Mary.
In this way she reflected the sort of Christian living described by Bonhoeffer. Abandoning herself to this-worldliness of living with its multi-tasks of joys and pains, she knew to throw herself completely into God’s arms, “taking seriously, not her own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”9
With her own Gethsemane hidden from her, she cherished her foremost hope on this side of Heaven: to see her three sons as priests. The first such sighting of her Heaven on earth was to be the ordination of her first-born to priesthood in March 1969. It was the be-all and end-all of her life on earth before her final surprise, the surprise of the very final end, endless life in Heaven.
Preparation, conscious and unconscious
Months before that March she began preparing for the celebration, the first of its kind in the family circle. With my Father she spent some months, making a new house out of the old. Pulling down part of the old house that they had bought some years earlier, they set about renovating it. When the major work was almost over, there remained an endless list of minor works. One day she was engaged in giving the finishing touch to the flooring. She was polishing the newly laid scarlet-colored cement floor, when her arm slipped to cause a minor fracture in her hand. It was quite a small slip and still, strangely enough, the problem with her hand lingered and would not go for weeks. She had difficulty in using her hand and found to her annoyance that she could not lift things comfortably enough. She went to the doctor only to be told that it would take time for the hand to heal completely and function normally.
That was the last I came to know from her in her very last letter—the passing labor of love with her aching wrist.
In the face of urgency
The next thing that happened to her I heard only through the local Jesuit superior, who couldn’t care less about any human predicament and corresponding sentiment. I rushed to see her; I was halfway to the hospital, when I met a man who recognized me and whom I recognized as an old school-mate. I had never seen him after we left college. He accosted me but I was reluctant to engage him in conversation; I pretended not to know him. I wanted to reach my Mother first and fast; and so even when he asked me knowingly if I was not so and so, I answered yes demurely and kept up a stranger’s face, walking away to his great surprise and shock. I felt it was not the time for me to exchange ordinary greetings even with an old, familiar man whom I was meeting some nine years after our college days. That day I understood Christ’s strange instruction to his apostles not to greet anyone on their way to proclaim the gospel! It is so urgent.
When I reached her I found her lying unconscious. Was she conscious to the sounds around her in a way most of us were not aware of? The possibility was there as I came to know later but at that time I had not imagined it. I could see her, watch her breathing, touch her, feel her, all the while waiting to see if her eyes would open. One day when she opened her eyes she found a Jesuit standing near her bed and threw her hands round his neck calling Geedham, mistaking him for her eldest son! Another day with eyes closed she called out Benji, her youngest, “Close the tap; the water is running out!”
Such incidents gave us flickering hope that she would come round. How we waited for such small signs as we wanted to call her and hear her word of recognition. Not long after I started my vigil by her side she did satisfy my longing to see her look at me. It was no more than a fleeting moment. It was however long enough for my Father to ask her, “Who is this?” and for her to say, “Paalu!” She then closed her eyes. It was a flickering consolation. Though a product of two-syllabled sound no one can reproduce it. She said it as only she could—from her heart whose sound I had felt and heard in her womb and whose lilt I had loved from the start and whose silence I missed at the end when it was hushed. Surely, “when a mother speaks the name of her children, something very special happens,” as we all know (though I have quoted the words from the warm-hearted Pope John XXIII10 when speaking to Jacqueline Kennedy and asking her the names of her children). Did she succeed in offering it to satisfy us knowingly, overcoming a struggle that we could not sense?
The beginning of the end
It had all begun sometime during the early morning Mass in St Joseph’s Church, Dindigul, on December 5, 1969. It was the First Friday. She asked her school-going teenage daughters to look after the morning cooking, and went for a respite, spiritual and physical. While attending Mass she had a stroke, fell down, and was carried in a jatka (horse-cart) to St. Joseph’s Hospital, unconscious. There she lay in bed comatose for long, endless hours, and even seemingly endless days. All those days her condition far from improving continued to be the same. A thought came to me if she would come round with better treatment by better specialists. The thought perished even as it surfaced; for there was no way of spending those specialists’ bills. Though my Mother, like my Father, earned a monthly salary of a primary school teacher all her life they were definitely on the poorer side. Though not altogether without help from those interested in us, there is a limit both for the benefactor and beneficiary in the matter of giving or getting help. Confronted by such poverty in a life-and-death situation she had to experience its blessedness in her unconsciousness! And we in our consciousness!
Sharing in Christ’s dark night
As I kept watching her by her bedside for hours on end, the sight of her labored breath and closed eyes and pale countenance revived in my memory the many searing tears that she had shed (in hope) and the several living deaths she had died (to her motherly desires). The coma she was in was, I believe, the last of the many teasing, teary deaths she tasted before the very last one. She did not choose the First Friday Mass as the beginning of her end. It happened to her; it was given to her by the One without whom nothing happens. And so, I would like to imagine that her conscious act at her last Mass was not unlike what Jesus enacted at his first, namely the Last Supper, before and in view of his sacrificial death. Further, the fact that she was enveloped in apparent darkness for fourteen lingering days and nights—cut off from the outside world that knew not whatever was happening in her—could not be without meaning. And the meaning is that it was in its own way a sharing, even though very small, in the dark night of soul that Jesus himself went through with this difference that hers was unconscious. Was such unconscious dark night less painful than the conscious one?11 Who knows? What if the former is the result of the latter!
Around 9 am on 19 December 1968 my Father and I were with my Mother without any pre-planning. We were fortunate for one of the medical staff intimated us of her condition. At once anxious and alert, we were watching the oncoming and the unknown; it was a moment of privileged pain and thwarted intimacy. I saw the movement of her head inclining slightly downwards to her right. And she breathed her last. Crying I bent down and kissed her. Her lips were cold, had become so cold in the fraction of a moment. In that coldness I felt all the warmth of my Mother that I had experienced invariably always, and now lost forever.
Lost forever—there is no other way of putting it though it was only seemingly in the long perspective. Anyway, that is what I felt then and indeed long afterwards. Almost echoing my feeling were the words that sounded in between my Father’s sobbing, “Now who is there for the children? Now whom can they call Amma?” They were not his first words though. “God gave and God took away,” he had said first! Those unforgettable words bear his love for God, his children and their mother. He was saying briefly at a tragic moment what a father nearing death wrote to his young son of his mother:
She has watched every moment of your life, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones…. You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us… I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor he has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me your sweetly ordinary face.12
A new understanding of God
After many, many years I realize that, if God took away my Mother, it was only to himself. And so there began—had to begin—a new relationship: she could not but relate to us in the way God does! God is love and yet—this is important to realize—does not love us as people do. They love others whether people or animals or things, while not being love! God does not love us as humans know and are used to. Or, in other words, God loves differently, immensely, and infinitely differently. As a little girl told an adult:
You see, Fynn, people can only love outside and can only kiss outside, but Mister God can love you right inside, and Mister God can kiss you right inside, so it’s different. Mister God ain’t like us; we are a little bit like Mister God, but not much yet.”13
Or as the mystic Ruysbroek put it, the true God “comes at us from the inside to the outside.”14
A new understanding of Mother
With God taking away my Mother to himself she became like the angels in Heaven (Mk 12:24-25) and, indeed, more like God, indeed far more like God, than she was on earth! If now I surely and sadly missed her former love glowing in her face, searching in her eyes, and floating in her breath, and flowing in her words, and inviting in her smile, now too I had as surely her greater love; only I had to learn it and breathe it! Like God she loved me differently, only far more in every respect! She kept loving me and kissing me inside! Perhaps, undemonstrated love, like unheard music, is sweeter. As a Canadian chief clarified: “They say we do not show our feelings. This is not so. Everything is within, where the heart pounds out the richness of our emotions.”15
Promise for the bereaved
“Happy are those who die in the Lord! Happy indeed, the Spirit says; now they can rest for ever after their work, since their good deeds go with them” (Rev 14:13). This is a gracious promise for the bereaved to rest assured that their beloved deceased have entered the abode of joyous rest.
So I fondly believe that my Mother, having fallen asleep in Christ and after Christ, found herself raised and resting with Christ. She had exercised herself in simple works of faith, and thus made a religion of labor and love, and ever remained in hope. It was then time for her to rest in the fulfilment of her lifelong hope.
Not because she had established a meritorious or heroic record of theological virtues or works. Far from it! She was no dragon of virtue, to use a French expression. On the contrary she lived and worked with faith, hope, and love as the grass grows or the sun shines or the birds of heaven get their feed. And so, having lived with Christ simply and died with Christ equally simply, she also got to be with Christ in Heaven thanks to the relationship Christ has with a Christian soul like hers.
All is well for all
Someone’s recounting of St Bernard’s mother’s death awakens my own sentiments regarding my Mother: “(She) did not die; she simply went to God. That was the last lesson she taught me in life; she showed me as I never saw it before that death is going to God.”16 Yes, “in Christ the whole of our life story, from birth to death, is taken up into God’s life. This brief human life in all its particularity is embraced by God and opened to the infinite. All that we have done and been will be gathered up into God. Julian of Norwich assures us that ‘none of what happens in time and none of the toil and suffering that we have to endure in this world will be wasted; it will all be turned to God’s worship and our endless joy. All shall be well.’”17
That is not the end of the whole experience of my Mother. With the little or much that I have shared I come to understand the unsuspected truth about her as about all mothers. The children will always need their mother (and father), even after they are no more.18 An uneducated aunt put it thus knowingly: “Amma has gone to prepare a place for us!”
From the beginning
John Masefield (1878-1967) wrote rightly of every child and its mother:
In the dark womb where I began
My mother’s life made me a man.
Through all the months of human birth
Her beauty fed my common earth.
I cannot see, nor breathe, nor stir,
But through the death of some of her.
If such is the logic of a mother’s living the end has necessarily to be death and it cannot be otherwise. That is precisely the paradox of the law of life as Jesus saw it, shared it, and lived it. Those who lose their life will gain it. And so likewise my Father wrote to me in his letter after the Mother was no more on earth.
Till the end
Yet it was a pleasant surprise for me when I came across what Patricia Heaton wrote: “My mom died when I was 12. Yet in so many ways she was still with me. She influenced me on a daily basis.”19 Here is a universal experience whose dynamics has been described by W. H. Hudson with a marvelous instinct:
A mother’s love for the child of her body differs essentially from all other affections, and burns with so steady and clear a flame that it looks like the one unchangeable thing in this mutable life, so that when she is no longer present it is still a light to our steps and a consolation.20
spirit I dream of continuing the unfinished symphony of my Mother. It
cannot be otherwise. For even the brother who wrote to me, “I
have outlived her!” corrected himself to conclude, “As
I write this, I have tears in my eyes. She was just a rare, beautiful
2 Donal McMahon, “Watching my mother depart for eternal life,” The Catholic Herald, 27 June, 2008, p. 9.
3 See Shirley du Boulay, Beyond the Darkness (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 78.
4 The Hindu, June 17, 2001.
5 See John Catoir and Joseph Thomas, Family Matters (New York: The Christophers, 1984), p. 170.
6 After all, as Erasmus said, “God, in his economy, has a plan for pride, if it is not inordinate.” See Roland H. Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom (London: Collins, 1970), p. 36.
7 I have heard such a remark from a Belgian Jesuit recalling his coming to India. For a similar remark of a Benedictine see du Boulay, Beyond the Darkness, p. 78.
8 See du Boulay, Beyond the Darkness, p. 6.
9 See The Way 35/4 (October 1995), p. 277.
10 See Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1984), p. 482.
11 I was much moved by this sort of interpretation that some priests gave to the last experiences surrounding their mothers’ death. See Jean Sulivan, Devance tout adieu (Paris: Gallimard, 1966); Henri J. M. Nouwen, In Memoriam (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1980).
12 See Timothy Radcliffe, What is the Point of Being a Christian? (London: Burns and Oates, 2006), p. 60.
13 Fynn, Mister God, this is Anna (London: Collins Paperbacks, 1974), p. 41.
14 See Andre Louf, Tuning in to Grace: the Quest of God (London: DLT, 1992), p. 100.
15 Dan George, My Heart Soars (Saanichton, British Columbia: Hancock House Pub., 1974), p. 42.
16 See Raymond, The Family that Overtook Christ (New York: IVE Press, 2008), p. 76.
17 Radcliffe, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, p. 87.
18 Carlo Carretto, Love is for Living (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1982), pp. 94-95.
19 “My Mom’s Best Advice,” Guidepost, May 2003, p. 27.