My mother and I were waiting for my sister Deborah in the backseat of a mortuary limousine in front of my parents’ condo when a manifestly bow-legged man walked passed us. My mother started to cry.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Every time, that man walked past our building, your father would say, “Oh what manner of man is this who wears his balls in parenthesis.”
The limousine driver chortled, accidentally hit the accelerator, and, for a moment, it looked like we were going to rear end the parked car in front of us.
My mother’s crying became sobbing. “I’ll never hear your father say that again,” she gulped between sobs, “I miss him so. What am I going to do?”
Deborah got into the backseat and asked, “What’s the matter?”
I shook my head and mouthed, “Don’t ask.”
“Are we all here and ready to go?” the driver asked solemnly, his composure restored and his professional mourner’s mask back in place.
My parents’ marriage was not just a marriage; it was a life-long love affair.
When my father was a young man, he was rail thin and dressed impeccably, insofar as his budget allowed, after the manner of Fred Astaire and William Powell in the Astaire-Rogers musicals and Thin Man comedies, which my parents watched while they were dating. My Mother often told the story about how she and Dad were imitating Astaire’s and Rogers’ moves in the parlor of her parents’ home when her father stormed out of his bedroom, the back flap of his Union Suit, unbuttoned, and demanded to know whether either one of them had a job to go to in the morning.
My parents remained crazy about each other and delighted in each other’s company which was readily apparent to anyone who knew them and was, in fact, occasionally commented upon. “Your parents,” their friends would say and smile at us.
My Dad’s work kept him on the road, sometimes for as long as three weeks at a time. My mother frequently traveled to meet him for the last few days of the longer trips so they could have time together. Other times, they would draft one of my mother’s sisters to baby-sit and they would take off for a long weekend, just the two of them. I found out later that they usually went to the Broadmoor, a beautiful and romantic resort hotel in Colorado Springs about an hour and a half south of our home in Denver.
My father loved to tease my mother by introducing her affectionately as “his beloved first wife.” Mother would invariably turn bright red and say, “Tom, how many times do I have to tell you, that’s not funny.”
A few years after my father died, my mother called to inform me that she was joining some church friends for a pilgrimage to Ireland and Rome.
I was surprised by this news because my mother had a paralyzing fear of flying. She couldn’t get on a plane without at least one stiff drink to relax her. She flew with her rosary in one hand while her other hand kept a death-grip on the armrest. She had no interest in being distracted by conversation.
“How are you going to get there? Are you taking the QE2” I teased.
“Don’t be silly, we’re flying,” she said.
“You’re terrified of flying!”
“Well, now that your father is dead and I have no reason to live, I’m not afraid to fly anymore.”
“I’m sure your three daughters and five grandchildren will be pleased to hear that you have no reason to live,” I said.
“You know what I mean,” she replied. And, of course, I did.
My father had a cerebral hemorrhage a few days before his seventy-first birthday. He was fixing my mother and himself a pre-dinner highball. This was their custom each evening when they stayed at home for dinner, except, of course, during Lent.
My mother was in their bedroom when she heard the glasses shatter and my father’s body drop to the floor.
She called 911; the EMTs arrived almost immediately, hooked my father up to life support, and rushed him to the hospital.
Both my sister Deborah and I were living in Los Angeles at the time. My sister Judie called us to tell us the news. My father had been declared brain dead and was being kept alive by machines. Deborah and I caught the first flight out.
We went directly from the airport to the hospital. When we arrived at the hospital, Mary and Judie were seated in the hall outside the ICU. My mother was sitting beside my father, holding his hand, occasionally rising from her chair to stroke and kiss his forehead.
There was absolutely no hope of recovery, my sisters told us. Dad’s brain was no longer functioning. They had been waiting for our arrival so we could say goodbye before they took him off life-support.
Mom was conflicted about taking Dad off of life support. “What if there’s the slightest chance?” she asked each of us repeatedly as if she was in a daze. The doctors assured her there was no chance.
We gathered around his bed together and prayed then my sisters returned to the hall. I sat with my mother for a few minutes, then she squeezed my hand very tight and gave the doctors permission to turn off the life-support. For the rest of her life, as often as we reassured her that she made the right and necessary choice, she would question her decision.
My parents loved music; it was not unusual, when I got in late on a Friday or Saturday night, to find them holding hands and sitting by the fire in the family room listening to the romantic music of Jackie Gleason or Nat “King” Cole (my mother’s favorite). Other times, I would come home to find them dancing to other records. After my sisters had gone upstairs to bed, my parents would have their date night.
My mother was determined to have just the right music for my father’s funeral. Among hers and Dad’s favorite musicians was New Orleans clarinetist, Pete Fountain. They particularly loved his rendition of the Protestant hymn, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The fact that the song was not on the list of liturgical music approved by the Catholic Church did not give my mother a moment’s pause. I was sent out in search of the sheet music. I tracked down the music in a hymnal I bought at a “Pray and Praise” protestant church goods store. For safe measure I also brought home a cassette recording of Joan Baez’s version of the hymn which gives me shivers to this day.
My mother and I drove to the rectory with cassette and sheet music in hand to lobby my parents’ long time pastor who would be celebrating my father’s burial mass. When my mother had finished making her case, the pastor sighed and asked, “Do you want organ accompaniment or do you want the folk group that sings at the Saturday night youth mass?” Mother opted for the folk group. She wanted it to be lively and celebratory—like Pete Fountain.
My father’s funeral took place on a school day so only two members of the folk group were available—a pale, thin girl who played flute and a long-haired, floral-shirted young man who played the guitar and sang.
When the musicians began to play, it sounded like a dirge. My mother, who was seated in the front pew of the church, stood up, turned to face the musicians in the choir loft and began clapping her hands to give them the beat. “Pick it up,” she whispered in a voice that could be heard throughout the church, “Pick it up.” They did their best.
As we followed the pallbearers and my father’s coffin out the back door of the church, the pastor took my mother’s hands, smiled and said, “Well, Eleanor, you did it your way.” Indeed.
Along with several mourners, family and friends, we processed headlights on, all the way across Denver to Mount Olivet, the Catholic cemetery.
We gathered around the graveside. The pastor prayed, sprinkled the coffin with holy water and gave the signal to lower the coffin into the ground. Suddenly, one of my parents’ oldest friends, a barely five-foot-tall, sentimental Irishman (he drank and had probably been drinking the morning of the funeral) threw himself on my father’s coffin and cried out, “You were the best of us, Tom, the very best of us! What will we do without you?” His even more diminutive wife, butter-blonde hair stacked high upon her head, pulled her husband off the coffin and said, “Pull yourself together, you horse’s ass. It’s too bad we’re not burying you instead of Tom.” Then she embraced her husband and held him tenderly as he wept on her shoulder. Hand to God!
There may have been a reception following the burial. It’s a standard practice but I simply don’t recall.
Late that evening after Mary and Judie had left to go home to their husbands and children, Mom, Deb and I sat alone in my parents’ condo. It felt strange and empty without my father.
“Would you fix me a nightcap?” my mother asked. “Not too strong,” she continued, “you always make them too strong.”
I brought her the drink. She sipped it. “It’s too strong. Put some more ice in it and let it melt.” I did.
“It’s been a long day,” she sighed. “I’m going to say my rosary and novena and then go to bed, not that I expect to sleep.”
Mom took her rosary and novena book out of the drawer next to her chair.
Deb excused herself to get ready for bed.
“Do you mind if I fix myself a drink? “I’d like to sit with you for a while.”
“Don’t make it too strong,” she cautioned. “You always make drinks too strong.”
In our entire lives neither my sisters nor I can recall a single day that my mother didn’t say her rosary and novena prayers. She simply never missed.
A novena is a series of prayers that are said for nine straight days, usually as a prayer of petition but sometimes as a prayer of thanksgiving. The prayers are often derived from devotional prayer books, or consist of the recitation of the rosary (a “rosary” novena). Novena prayers are customarily printed in small booklets, and the novena is often dedicated to a specific angel, saint, a specific Marian title of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or it invokes one of the personages of the Holy Trinity.
My mother’s life-long devotion was to the Novena to Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. My mother used the same booklet every day until the cover wore off or the booklet fell to pieces and then—in those pre-internet days, we were sent to find her a new one.
My mother was never without petitions—for the safe birth of a healthy grandchild, for the acceptance of one of her children into the school of their choice, for a perfect new job for any relative in need of it, for a safe and successful surgery for a friend, and on and on.
My mother sat, as she always did, with the novena book in her lap, her rosary in her right hand and a glass of water on the table next to her chair. This particular evening she had added Scotch and ice to her glass of water.
I watched my mother as she prayed. Her lips moved silently as she read each prayer in the booklet. I can’t imagine that it was possible that these prayers had not become rote after so many years; but they had not and she was lost in prayer.
When she had finished, she put the rosary and the novena book back into the drawer.
She looked at me, acknowledging my presence for the first time since she had begun our prayers.
“There is something I want you to know about your father and me.”
A thousand thoughts raced through my head. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the revelation.
She looked me in the eye, smiled, and said wistfully, “Your father and I were romantic until the end.”
“I know,” I replied sympathetically.
“No, you don’t!” she said almost ferociously, “We were romantic the night before he died.”
She took a last sip of her drink, put the glass in the kitchen sink and turned to me, her eyes moist with tears, and said, “Help me turn out the lights.”