Two women slid into the pew directly in front of me as the church service started. The younger led her mother by the hand. The tiny, elderly woman was a bit unsteady on her feet, but her eyes were bright and as inquisitive as a bird’s.
As soon as they sat down, Mom asked for a cough drop. She attempted a whisper, but her question boomed out for the entire congregation to hear. It seemed her hearing wasn’t so great.
Later in the service she sneezed. This mundane event seemed to catch her totally by surprise; she was delighted with herself. She laughed out loud with the glee of a little child, as if sneezing were a strange and wonderful event. I couldn’t help but smile. I also couldn’t help but feel sad that her mind, as well as her hearing, was slipping away.
The daughter had to remind her mother when to sit, stand or kneel. This woman, who had no doubt been the one to patiently teach her child these rituals many years ago, now merely copied the movements. The ritual no longer held meaning for her.
Or so I thought.
At one point during the mass, the congregation knelt in prayer. I could see the elderly woman’s profile clearly. She looked solemnly and intently at the altar, then made the sign of the cross without prompting, doing so deliberately and with reverence.
The last time I saw my brother, Pat, he was in a hospice. The cancer that had started in his brain would soon claim his life. He would leave behind a large, loving family including a wife and four very small children. Due to the cancer and the massive doses of morphine they had given him to dull the pain, he had slipped into a state that was mostly unconscious. He could no longer communicate.
My parents, several siblings and I were gathered around his bed. My Dad suggested the family pray together, and he began the Rosary. The rest of us joined in the familiar prayers, but emotion overwhelmed us. One by one, our voices faltered. Dad continued on, his voice low and steady, leading his family as he always had. He called to his son in the twilight world Pat now inhabited, and Pat answered.
Pat’s eyes were still closed, but his lips started to move. It was clear he knew what he struggled to whisper; the prayers he had learned as a child at this same father’s knee. They were words and meanings still remembered, still sacred, even at the end of life:
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
What will we treasure at the end, when most of what seemed important in this life is revealed to be extraneous?
What will I remember?
What will you hold tight to?
Happy Birthday, little brother, forever young. Be’s lovin’.