Ma faced cancer courageously for more than a year. Each time she’d visit hospital, see a doctor, or be given a prognosis, compliments and acceptance was sure to follow. She’d say, “I’m in my eighties, you know, an old woman,” and quips of that nature, offering little, tolerating only cursory comments about her predicament. She’d deftly change the direction of the conversation, usually first by roundly singing the praises of her handlers at the various medical facilities, elevating everyone involved in the process out of gratitude and appreciation.
Then, with pointed determination, she’d direct the conversation back towards whomever she was speaking with by asking about the progress of their lives and those of their children. Mostly, they were her grandchildren, sometimes great-grandchildren; but not necessarily, for she was welcoming of everyone. If you wanted to offer my mother your sympathies, you had better be skilled and succinct about it. Even then, your efforts were likely to be on shaky ground; apt to be sweetly cut off and diplomatically dismissed at any moment. A slight exception was if you used humour. Ma loved to laugh and gallows humour was invited, often initiated by herself. Once that punch line made its way around though, that was it.
Encouragingly, after a rather brutal round of chemotherapy and radiation last summer, procedures that would have left a lesser-being wasted, she emerged triumphant, aged and battered by the experience but temporarily free of cancer. The medical heroics had bought her some time. Though, she wasn’t fooled into thinking it was permanent, the cruelty of the disease more often than not offering little respite to the afflicted for long. As usual, she was intuitively correct.
Of Ma’s nine children in total – five boys and four girls – two sons and three daughters still live in Ottawa. Second son is also our clan’s Democratic Chieftain; youngest son is our Battle Chieftain. Dad is Patriarch and Chief. The family graciously named me Bard and Poet in Battle.
Democratic Chieftain is newly-wed last year. Battle Chieftain has been married for more than a quarter century. Both are men of action, capable leaders, frequent visitors and stalwart supporters of parents and clan.
Ma’s second, third and fourth daughters, have doted on mom and dad locally for many years—even before the time they were adults. Third daughter is Ma’s namesake and best friend. She moved into a suite in mom and dad’s basement a number of years ago to ensure they were cared for to her satisfaction.
Her other children visited often: Big sister (eldest) lives on the west coast in Burnaby, BC, the furthest away, and makes it in most years; eldest son and his long time wife live in North Carolina, arriving yearly or so for many of the big family functions; yours truly resides just three hours away with his gal, visiting every month or so; and fourth son and his bride live in Atlanta, dropping in at least twice a year, sometimes more.
Battle Chieftain’s longtime wife adopted Ma as her own upon joining the family—long after the passing of her own mother. She’s worked tirelessly over the years in support of her new clan. She and Ma are a lot alike. Like all of my sisters and sisters-in-law, she is my favourite.
Ma loved her son’s wives like they were her very own daughters, according them all the care and concern, love and admiration she could heap upon them. And they all attended to Ma in her final hours as if she were theirs; respectfully consoling my father by embrace and kind words, sharing in his sorrow. It was a special thing to be loved and accepted by Ma.
Eldest brother and his wife came up from North Carolina in the first week of November to stay at the house and nurture our folks—spelling namesake sister for a few days so she could take a break after five years of attending to our parents. It was then that metastasized cancer returned with a vengeance. First, as a tumour against her spine that took all feeling from her leg and foot. Ma, with her characteristic humour, began referring to it as “the stump”. In mid-December, cancer ravaged her liver, leaving her hospitalized. She’d hoped to make one last Christmas, Boxing Day being our traditional day to gather as a clan.
Locally, two brothers and three sisters mobilized their time and energies in support of Ma’s care and the continued care of Howard, whose connection to his wife was imperiled for the first time in more than six decades. Two sisters jumped into the fray to backstop their sister at the parents home, overnight becoming dutiful Nightingales in support of the cause. Ma’s namesake and best pal held them together, like a head nurse with new charges.
Largely due to the very helpful messages being sent out from Ottawa conveying regular updates about Ma’s medical condition and care to the other members of the family, I conferred with the Battle Chieftain and decided to visit now. Boxing Day was just too far off to hold much promise. On the 14th, I drove the three hours and spent most of my day at her bedside. It was a day to cherish long into the future.
I spent part of the afternoon with her while my dad was still there, finally shepherding him home to eat and rest – long after his appointed time under my sister Catherine’s well-intended directives.
We had a great conversation, time spent in the loving reconciliation of three lives: a shared past of remembrances from each’s perspective; a present day reality of frank talk without pretense; and finally, something of our futures. She was no less a participant in that part of our discussion for there was funeral matters to speak to, at least lightly, and offers to eulogize her wonderful legacy. But more importantly, we spoke of how her lessons of love and kindness gained through the shared experiences of those privileged enough to have known her would be brought forward into tomorrow and all the tomorrows that followed.
We spoke of her care, with an heretofore unseen honesty, a conversation imbued with the reality at hand. The Sunday before, I’d reached my 57th birthday, all years where I’d never heard a foul word cross her lips. Yet, here she was dropping F-bombs like we were old prison pals. I couldn’t have admired her more. The decorum of all that time, the good example, the kindness, the lofty politeness, even the repression, faded just a bit outside as cancer grew on the inside. She was pissed and she rightfully said so. Not a lot mind you, but she made it clear that getting old “fucking sucked. In fact, it was fucking bullshit.” I feigned horror but with a twinge of bittersweet joy at her liberation.
We talked about her life and times. However, typically, she wanted to know about every milestone and adventure I could tell her about my two toddlers. She was impressed with my first son, and his success at landing a job post newspaper sales. She didn’t recognize him in the full beard he’s taken to wearing this past year when we showed her his picture.
She wondered when I’d abandon newspaper sales too. I told her a bit about a book I was writing. Unfailingly, as was her life-long habit, she was encouraging to a fault. I ran my phone camera’s memory by her showing her dozens of pictures of my wife and kids, many providing the opportunity for an anecdote, a tiny glimpse into their lives. It seemed to me like she couldn’t get enough.
I finally ran my father home late in the afternoon to eat and rest. He hadn’t complained a bit and I had the feeling he could have sat there with us much longer had we let him. As he prepared to leave, she was still looking after her “little boy,” showing him a kind of tenderness and concern that was as poignant to watch as it was inspirational. Theirs was a love for the ages.
Later on I returned, joining a brother and others as they dropped in to tell her they loved her. Save for the night, she was never alone.
After a time, for a bit I had her all to myself. In those moments, we sometimes spoke again meaningfully of faith. I told her about my church attendance, of how I often thought of her while I was there. I mentioned how I appreciated the tradition, the architecture, the ritual and the community. We talked enthusiastically about the new Pope and the direction of the church as an institution.
Although I was born and raised a Catholic, I’d had an on-again, off-again record of attendance over the years. I suppose I felt the need to explain to her my good intentions with her venerable faith. Indeed, I told her that I have lived long enough to realize that miracles appear to occur in the realm of our everyday existence; that there are some things in this world that just cannot be explained using mere words alone; that it’s alright not to know for sure and that living without the wonder of mystery is living a lesser life.
Moreover, that for some people anti-theism can be just as much of a tyrant as can be belief. That it’s the journey that I was interested in. I would try to live at least in part as holy a life as she had. She told me she fully agreed. Though she may have harboured doubts about my ability to carry through, she never showed any. It was just her way, encouragement by way of unconditional acceptance.
I promised to baptize my children, that they would have a faith. She confirmed, “You’ve got to have a bit of faith,” as if we spoke of taking a daily vitamin. It reminded me of a motivational maxim, telling myself that it could be like bathing, something to practice each day lest my spirituality begin to sour. I shared this with her and with a nod to the simile, her eyes sparkled with intelligence as she answered, “That’s right,” clearly, with the voice of someone of unwavering conviction.
I told her that if I were born a hundred years ago, I may have been a priest. I meant it. She smiled. She kissed my hand. I kissed hers.
Later, namesake daughter arrived and things got very loving and lively. We closed out the evening after nine. Ma had become restless, increasingly in pain as the day went on but she wouldn’t complain. When we realized the extent of her forbearance, we insisted the nurse inject her in front of us. She fell asleep finally. I left tired and spent, reluctantly driving the hours to Cobourg in the darkness. Every remembered sentence, every look of serenity and loving acceptance, every nuance of my visit played out again and again before me in a scene on the windshield of my truck as I drove into the night.
I returned on Thursday, after first spending the previous days checking my phone for messages from home every few minutes. During that time, I found myself intolerant and distracted. I wanted to beat someone up for no good reason. I took to the basement gym and the heavy bag. It helped, a lot. My little girl has been punching everything in sight all week since. After putting my father’s namesake, to bed one evening, during our supper together I told my three year old of Grandma’s plight. She hugged me and told me not to worry: Santa would come and touch her and make her return to normal. If only it were so.
During the three days of my absence, the local team ferried Dad to hospital and back, attended to him at home, and also manned ma’s bedside most hours of the day. In fact, they’d been doing this for some time already as filial champions.
The team of doctors informed them Monday that there was nothing left to do. It was common to hear Ma say since we were little that she’d be “carried out feet first” from her house in the end. Siblings had a hospital bed installed in the living room of her home. Before she left, folks dropped in from our Gatineau Hills contingent to pay their respects while their spouses minded their children. Ma arrived at Falcon Avenue by special ambulance in the darkness of Wednesday evening. She was finally home.
Battle Chieftain worked for a time as an orderly in his younger years so has an insider’s view of medicine. I trusted his judgement when he told me Wednesday to return sooner, rather than later. I’ll be forever grateful for his wisdom.
My wonderful gal stifled her own need to come and say goodbye, unselfishly allowing me the space to go stand in vigil for my mother. Missus was pretty nervous when she first met the family at mom’s 80th birthday. It was Ma who took her aside and spent time with her as a fellow introvert. The two of them discovered they shared the same reserved humility. For my gal, Ma became a source of strength and confidence. She was proud to be one of Ma’s daughters. She and the others made her feel accepted, like she truly belonged.
Because of circumstances, I stepped up pressure on eldest sister on the west coast. It was the least I could do; I was close by, she was not. She took to my mild convincing and flew in Wednesday, allocating two weeks if necessary.
After arriving on Thursday and seeing my mother, I could tell she was fading. I reached out to my eldest brother by text in the afternoon. He indicated he would drive up Friday, plans I relayed to all. Without batting an eye, Battle Chieftain said to ask him about his fear of flying. It took a while for a reply but it finally came, “No fear of flying” it said; then an explanation about how much cheaper it was to drive. Matthew chuckled, deeply appreciating the Scotsman-like reply. And later, unprompted: “I arrive at 10:16 am; can you pick me up at the airport?” I was happy to oblige.
With any luck, all nine of ma’s children and her husband would be at her bedside within hours. I got back from the airport with my brother before noon. Mom was lucid, recognizing and acknowledging his presence right away. He was able to stroke her face and hold her hand, to have a moment with her, to thank her for being Ma.
Two brothers were staying at the cottage with their spouses. In addition to visits earlier in the week, they spent most of Thursday by Ma’s side and returned early on Friday. She’d respond to each new person’s arrival while she still could.
All during her final days and hours, each of us would take turns stroking her hand, caressing her face, cooing deep appreciation for all that she had done; for the great example of loving kindness she had been and for the inspiration of generosity she leaves behind in each of us. Her life had tremendous meaning: she meant the world to us.
She did the same when Big Bill came in to pay his respects. Ma and Bill go way back; indeed, there always remained a special place in her heart reserved for this gentle giant. No matter his gruff nature on the outside, her caring was returned in droves by way of his help over the years. She brought out his tender, softer, nurturing side. Ma loved him like a son.
Caroline Jr’s new husband had built a ramp from the back deck and across the lawn to the driveway in two days so Ma could be wheeled in comfortably by the ambulance attendants. When he arrived to pay his respects, Ma clutched at him and moaned enthusiastically in appreciation. Another big man with big feelings, he could stay only briefly. When he left, Dad remarked with a great deal of affection: “She loves big men.”
Sisters and sisters-in-law brought their children, my nieces and nephews, to pay their respects. Mary was there too. For decades an adopted sister, she has stood in for my sisters in support of my parents on many occasions—staying overnight if necessary when Ma was out of town visiting her sister in London. Grand kids visited Thursday, some even played hooky from school to see her grandma in the hospital.
Local nieces spent some time with Ma in the early evening of Thursday and made it back again on Friday. Bringing grandchildren along for the visit. More arrived and were soon clambering and scampering around the house with, ensuring that Ma would hear the sound of laughter and children playing in her final hours. Those were sounds familiar to her; indeed, they were sounds which largely defined her existence. Laughter and the din of children playing: the stuff that lives are built upon.
Ma’s personal care attendant, herself a Jamaican princess with long braided hair, urged us to pray while she was there. She cried her tears alongside our own. Looking over the gathering in those tiny rooms from an outsider’s perspective, seeing the devotion from each of the participants, watching their final goodbyes said with such wretched emotion, witnessing the nakedness of our deep feelings of inspired love for this frail form laying there under the sheets, she too was overcome with pain. These were tears for a woman much loved.
I had written out a very basic prayer we could use and which Ma would appreciate having recited to her:
You promised us Dear Lord in Mark 18:20 that whenever two or more of us gather in your name that You shall also be present. (Lord’s Prayer). In Your name and Presence Dear Lord, we ask that you assist our mother as she journeys to the Kingdom of Heaven. She has been your faithful servant for more than 86 years and leaves a legacy of love and kindness in your name. We ask that you comfort her in her time of need; that you ease her pain; that you calm her fears and that you welcome her into the Everlasting Glory of Your Love. In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, Amen
I’d wanted the prayer recited often; this prayer, or any other prayer of anyone else’s choosing. Mine was just meant to get the ball rolling.
Before first saying the prayer, I rather awkwardly asked Ma’s permission. She who followed the dictates of Rome and had ten children in twelve years; who had attended church faithfully the whole of her life; whose name was in Holy Cross’s church bulletin every week for months asking the congregation for extra prayers on her behalf. Looking at her blank expression as I asked the question, I was struck, wondering to myself, “How I had strayed this far?” Ma responded with her usual tolerance. In fact, offering her prayer was like a child being given candy; “More,” she said, “more lovely prayers.”
It was with some relief then that Democratic Chieftain showed up on Friday morning and when prayers were again suggested, with a clap of his hands said “Yes, it’s time, let’s pray.” What may have seemed feebler attempts before now turned into religious fervor. The whole of the assembled threw aside personal views about faith, religion, or even the afterlife. None of it mattered much now: it wasn’t worth considering. The Wallace Matriarch, our matriarch, was dying; it was time for the salve of psalms, the rhythm of hymns, and simple solace found in the power of prayer.
And, so we said that prayer; a prayer soon deemed entirely insufficient. Eldest sister rooted through Ma’s prayer collection and found a couple of books of psalms and daily readers. From these she began to recite prayers for the Stations of the Cross. We must have said a hundred Hail Mary, a salute to women and the intercession of The Blessed Virgin Mary.
If my basic catechism was lost over the years, and if learning my prayers in French a long time ago was now an obstacle, this was a refresher course. I’d long left the Hail Mary when I learned an English ditty that began with Hail Mary, Mother of Grace, forty chickens in a race… and so on. I couldn’t get that damn wording to un-etch itself from the bit of gray matter left in this skull of mine. I blame the public school kids from the neighbourhood.
Eldest sister solved this for me Friday while providing Ma with much needed comfort and veneration as a woman. Two brothers from the US with their partners were divine influences, proving that the south is a bastion of the spirit. It’s the group ritual, you see, repeatedly said by rote, that carries with it all the power.
Ma’s friend from church visited for a while and read her some scriptures. She wished she had come sooner. The two of them had sat in the same pew for many years. They had shared their lives in their talks and in their prayers. Ma muttered recognition as her friend leaned in close to speak with her of courage and faith. “I know you’re not afraid Caroline,” she said to her. We were inspired to pray more.
Every so often Dad would rise to sit at her side, take her hand in his and with breaking voice, colour her with praise, thanking her through his tears for all the wonder of their years, telling her what she meant to him, and to everyone. It was during these times there was not a dry eye in the house. In these precious moments their love stood as the fine example it was, the kind of love that makes the world turn; the kind that lives and breathes at the very crucible of our existence together. Mom and Dad had a love for each other that was like no other.
In between our embrocation to her soul, our concentrated balm of prayerful intentions, we sat with our mother and told her we loved her again. We counted her breaths and heart beats, noticing as they declined. We urged her to let go, to ascend into her heaven, to sit among her ancestors and dearly departed. The cold compresses kept at the ready were changed frequently until Ma was feverish no more.
As we watched our loving mother slowly find her way towards moving beyond, we took turns finding passages and psalms to read to her out loud. Though motion had largely abandoned her, I’m convinced she could hear us still, right to the end. She seemed to reach a place of repose that was absent before. It has to do with the congregation of voices, you see.
We found a few prayers in her books we liked a lot, each of us making discoveries in those of things we had largely left behind. We even found a Christopher’s Prayer that eldest brother read aloud to everyone. It seemed to give it authority coming from my father’s first son.
Sitting to Ma’s left side, up near her head so I could speak to her directly, so she should hear my voice and feel its intended comfort, with my father directly opposite me to her right, again it was my turn at the prayer book. I read Christopher’s Prayer once more. I didn’t think she’d mind because it sounded to me first time as if the prayer could apply to me. In all these years this prayer had existed in her book at the head of her bed. She’d seen it before, of that I was sure.
If I had tried to write a prayer for myself through Ma’s eyes, this was the prayer that could have been made. I was simply, innocently, confirming a coincidence—but perhaps also in an uncanny or mysterious way—when I heard myself read it aloud, the clan hearing it for the second time. A little dumbfounded, I found in these simple words incentive, a part of me daring myself to take it as a sign from my mother, mentally jousting with it as a possible final gift from her to me. I may have been uttering the words and phrases but in the back of my mind, somehow I heard my mother’s voice. How could I not?
Father, grant that I may be a bearer of Christ Jesus, your Son. Allow me to to warn the often cold, impersonal scene of modern life with your burning love. Strengthen me by your Holy Spirit to carry out my mission of changing the world or some definite part of it for the better. Despite my lamentable failures, bring home to me that my advantages are your blessings to be shared with others. Make me more energetic in setting right what I find wrong with the world instead of complaining about it. Nourish me in a practical desire to build up rather than tear down, to reconcile instead of polarize, to go out on a limb rather than crave security. Never let me forget that it is far better to light one candle that to curse the darkness, and to join my light, one day, with yours.
As if I was not sufficiently enthralled, I immediately found the Prayer for Mary Stuart, deciding to read it directly to Ma, again from where I sat so close to her. I was then struck by how it seemed to just as equally suit her. From all the ones available, it was as if I had somehow randomly chosen to bookend the most fitting of prayers for each of us: the contrast of the Christopher prayer for me; the Mary Stuart Prayer for her.
MARY STUART’S PRAYER
Keep me, Oh God, from all pettiness;
let me be large
in thought, in word, in deed.
Let me be done with fault-finding
and leave off all self-seeking.
May I put away all pretense
and meet others face to face
without self pity and without prejudice.
May I never be hasty in judgment
and always be generous.
Let me take time for all things, and
make me grow calm, serene, and gentle.
Teach me to put into action
my better impulses,
straightforward and unafraid.
Grant that I may realize that
it is the little things in life
that create big differences,
that in the big things in life
we are one.
And, Oh Lord God,
let me not forget to be kind.
Mine was a modern call to serve in the future, to share whatever gifts I had to offer; to change the world for the better and despite my faults, my advantages belonged to everyone. It was asking me to build people up rather than to tear them down; to reconcile instead of polarize and to take risks rather than play small. It counselled that it was far better to light one candle than to curse the darkness; that my light would one day join with the light of the Lord.
Hers was a 16th century prayer coincidentally describing best how she had lived: it was an exhortation to not be self-seeking; to be without self-pity or prejudice; to not be hasty in judgement; to be straightforward and unafraid; to grow calm, serene, and gentle. It uses words like generous, without pretense, that it is the little things in life that create the big differences and that in the big things in life, we are one.
After I finished reading the Mary Stuart Prayer, my father looked up with a wonderful expression of delight in his eyes, saying to us all and to me, “That’s about her.” He had recognized her life clearly in the words. If we were to judge by this prayer alone, it appeared to me that our Irish mother was more Scot than any of us.
I may have been guided by an unseen hand through all this, I’m not sure.
And we were not finished. I waited while another round of Hail Mary and other prayers of the ritual were recited by my siblings. It fell again to me to choose another salve to send her off with – and so I picked an ancient prayer I’d never seen by St Francis of Assisi. It was rather long but its short sentences looked simple to read. It also had very direct messages of salvation contained in its verses.
Off I went by the dim light, its concise prose allowing me to pause and emphasize the words for effect, to even ponder their pithy truths. I spoke them to ma, but also to the assembled, to comfort, to reassure, to enlighten and to unburden us all. They had simplicity, and in their uncomplicated manner, they had strength.
The St Francis of Assisi prayer is a seven or eight centuries old prayer which asks that we be instruments of God’s peace. It makes a series of contrasts and entreaties such as “where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” It further appeals that we “not seek so much to be consoled, as to console; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we awaken to eternal life.” It’s a prayer that sums up Ma’s best efforts at living a pious existence in service of her family and her God. There were murmurs of approval from those listening. This one spoke to all us.
PRAYER OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace;
That where there is hatred, I may bring peace;
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
That where there is error, I may bring truth;
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
That where there is despair, I may bring hope;
That where there are shadows, I may bring thy light;
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy;
Lord, grand that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
To understand than to be understood;
To love than be loved;
For it is by giving that one receives;
It is by self-forgetting that one finds;
It is by forgiving that one is forgiving;
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
That afternoon, the rhythm of voices reading aloud followed by strong chorus of “amen,” made the room breathe with peace and devotion. We were in this together; moreover, a great love had arisen amongst us that transcended all the earthly lives accumulated there. In its way, this place, this tiny living room in the south of Ottawa, had become holy.
Namesake sister mentioned Ma’s favourite spiritual hymn, Take Me to the River, often sung on Sundays by talented members of her congregation, times she very much appreciated. We hummed along as she gave it a decent rendition.
That was followed later by “Amazing Grace,”and those who didn’t know the words again hummed this deeply spiritual classic. I was proud to sing along for part of this one: I’d often felt like a saved wretch in my time.
Then eldest sister surprised us with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. It was beautifully done, very moving, everyone singing chorus on the Hallelujahs, allowing the song’s spirit to slowly resound in the room by way of the descending notes and the unity of my brothers’ collective baritone lingering in the air.
These were all powerfully trans-formative, fitting for a grand matriarch such as ours. All nine of her children gathered around her deathbed; husband Howard seated to her right, her hand held in his; wives, friends and grandchildren huddled around the room; the atmosphere and sounds were our very best purgatory to the eternal life she would soon receive in heaven.
In the end, a deeply empathetic palliative care doctor made a house call. She removed Ma’s medical apparatus and interviewed us as to her progression. Finally, she left my mother’s side, declaring that she thought Ma was about to change.
We made sure Dad was at her side, her hand again in his, while each of us gathered around her bed, many with an outstretched hand touching her somehow. We sang her one final slow and soulful chorus of Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot. Many shouted out encouragement, telling the Good Lord to come and scoop her up. At about 4:30 pm, she breathed her last.
The dog keened from behind us at that very moment. The wise doctor telling us after it was quite common to see animals sensing death. There was sadness but there was also great relief Ma’s suffering was no more. Her mouth agape in rapturous wonder: she was in a better place.
I’d written these words long ago for no purpose, thinking of them again as she ascended into heaven:
If by chance, to hold one dear,
To know not how, so far but near,
Returning beyond, by fortune above,
All that matters is she’s loved
We respectfully closed her eyes and supported each other, talking softly about our experiences. Each was moved deeply by the vigil. No one could witness such a time and not contemplate living as exemplary a life as she did. Her discomfort became motivation perhaps. I wanted to allow her spirit full rein, to let it live on within me, to manifest itself in all of us with her brand of tolerance. Among the redeemed of this earthly world, to us she was a giant. If I could learn to live mine with a tenth of her goodness, I would have lived a goodly life, I thought to myself.
After making arrangements, soon the funeral home arrived to take her away. The service professionals were highly sensitive to our situation. It’s not every day that they have the privilege of attending to a grand matriarch in front of her full complement of loving family. She was treated with the great respect she deserved.
We were invited to say a final prayer for her before they took her body away. My siblings asked me to recite the St Francis of Assisi prayer they had all earlier appreciated so much. By then it had become familiar, and as we gathered around in a semi-circle, I vocalized this prayer a final time to the very best of my ability. It was another compelling moment of emotional unity between us, one of many we had shared during this most special vigil.
Afterwards, each of us went and kissed my mother’s forehead to say one final goodbye, starting with ma’s namesake daughter, followed by me and then the others. My father stood by waiting, making sure everyone had their turn before he bid her a last, sad farewell.
We stood by solemnly as she was prepared for removal. We played the piper’s lament, “Flowers of the Forest” for added clan decorum, extra esteemed honour to the observance. When all was ready, she was taken out feet first.
We followed her silently in the dark, shuffling down the newly built ramp, attending to her in an admiring procession of quiet respect. We watched her being gently loaded into the hearse under a starry sky. As she was being driven away, three cheers snapped like gunfire into the cold of the evening, a grand salute from her loving clan. We shouted our motto, “True and Free,” after her into the night.
We returned inside to my father, where we went about reminiscing on a life well lived. Dad filled us in on details of her history: especially of their courtship; of the famous punch in the gut she gave him the first time he tried to steal a kiss; of the time they were physically wrestling about the Admiralty until an old officer finally told them pointedly to go out and get married. They hadn’t realized they were in love before then. Just look at all of what that has brought. These tales are part of our family lore, stories we never get tired of hearing. He truly was like a moth to flame around her. It’s been an inspiration to watch their devotion to each other over their many years.
Here and there, we discussed when to have the funeral and my sisters called her church. Two sisters, both now running circumstantial apothecaries, disposed of a junkie’s ransom worth of morphine into the garbage. Then, they had the hospital bed dismantled and taken away, restoring my father’s living room to a semblance of what it was. Only, we left the couch in the spare bedroom and used comfortable chairs in its place. We thought it was important to make it look the same, but different.
The ordeal of the vigil finally wore on its participants and some left to get sleep. It had been a long few weeks and those who lived nearby had borne the larger burden of care. They did so with great compassion and without complaint, traits instilled in them by my mother. It had been a potent demonstration of our love and attachment to each other. The Matriarchal Vigil was an eloquent and noble act of clan: we had been true to Ma, she had been set free. True and Free.
Others visited her room, where I could smell her presence still. What before was taken for granted, now became precious. This is an effect that will wear off but for just then, everywhere she had touched was a place to revisit her somehow; every scribble of hers on a notepad or letter became a treasured memento.
Soon, youngest sister was downstairs in ma’s sewing room putting something or other away. There, she noticed the only picture of a prayer on any wall in the house. She called to me and I went down to see. Done in calligraphy, its fancy script had hidden its meaning. I’d once lived in this room on a cot as a child but that was long ago. This was newer—the room had no decorations at all when I was last there.
Standing amongst her things with my baby sister, once again it hit me. This was exactly the kind of thing which I had recently discussed with my mother: a life without some mystery is a lesser life. Also, there will always be things—like a keening dog at the time of change—for which words alone cannot do justice and will usually fail.
The prayers we offered in respect and support of our mother also affected those who gathered in her honour. Not only had we prayed for Ma as she ascended into heaven, she had sent prayers in return. Laminated in blue and gold, and hanging on the wall above her sewing table where she would see it every day, were the very words we uttered in her honour, the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi.
It was a prayer from Ma.
True and Free
Caroline Mary Wallace (French) 1928-2014
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