Death, like love, is one of those few, great mysteries about which it seems all but impossible to speak. Love seems to make words almost superfluous (though Plato and Augustine, Dante and Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis, have said some of the most marvelous things the human race has ever said under its influence). Death, however, leaves us relatively tongue-tied.
My mother passed on to the greater world on Monday, and is being buried today in my hometown, where she was born and lived her entire life, with my brother, a monsignor, officiating. To say anything about a mother’s death, you have to forget about most of what it means. But thinking about her ninety-one years has led me to realize how – from one angle – much of life seems random, yet from another, providential.
We talk a lot about the dignity and uniqueness of every human life these days, often – I suspect – because we don’t really believe it. If you don’t think about it, you might believe that it’s just talk – the kind of talk we use instead of the older Christian language to affirm some sort of value in public. There’s an old Jewish saying, though, a human life is a whole world. And if you look closely enough at someone’s life, it’s literally true.
In my mother’s case, starting with her name: Esther, Queen Esther, as some used to joke. When my mother was born, her mother – who immigrated from Italy – had just learned that a sister of hers, Pasquale, had died back in the old country. She wanted to name my mother Pasquale, but her friends argued that such a name would be a burden for a girl in America. But Pasqua means “Easter” in English, and there’s the perfectly acceptable name Esther – Jewish source notwithstanding.
And so, a woman whose family had been Catholic for centuries, living in the Papal States no less, now transplanted to the New World, was named after a Jewish noblewoman who lived 2500 years earlier in Persia.
My mother met my father by an equally curious circumstance. While he was in the South Pacific during World War II, his parents moved from a Slavic to a newer, mixed neighborhood. When he came home, my mother was living across the street.
A few years later, her parents built another house, directly behind the old one, on a parallel street. Had they moved a few years earlier, moved just a few hundred feet, my folks might never have met. I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be writing – and you wouldn’t be reading – this column. The Catholic Thing, very likely, would not exist.
They lived in another world. I wonder what world we’re in now. Both of them had large extended families – a half dozen brothers and sisters. When I look back, it astonishes me that even I can remember a time when relatives would show up, say at a family picnic, with spouses and children. You might have fifty or more close blood relatives getting together. At every holiday. Or even a random Sunday.
I also think of the differences between the two families, which you could see just looking at their yards. They both grew food in gardens. But the Slavs planted birch, weeping willow, apple, and pear trees. One block over, the Italians had pine, peach, fig – and of course a grape vine – New England winters notwithstanding.
And their “social network” wasn’t only the family. My mother and father had a “gang,” five or six married couples, who they knew in high school, and made a point of meeting with regularly, even after the kids were born. They played cards together, took trips (not too far) together, stayed in contact until the end. A few are still alive.
And that doesn’t even count the other friends accumulated along the way. My parents liked having people around. And there always were lots of them at the house.
Given all this closeness, it was the deepest stress in my mother’s life that my course took me and my own family away from that intimate circle. She never understood it or accepted it – and as she was getting near the end last week it haunted me, in some ways, too, even though it couldn’t have been different. Those family and friends, with few exceptions, still live, by my reckoning, within a fifteen-mile radius of one another.
She and my father made heroic efforts to visit often – in Providence, Princeton, Washington – especially to keep close to the grandchildren. Though my kids, too, by now, have lived all over the United States and even parts foreign, they remember their grandparents as living presences. Even the great-grandchildren have known them now.
And we drew them out. They visited us during my Fulbright year studying Dante in Florence, and went to my brother’s ordination in Rome, where they met and shook hands with St. John Paul II. Before she got ill, Mom told me several times she wanted to go to Italy just once more. Sadly, that never happened.
My mother had a massive stroke three years ago and would have died immediately had she not, providentially, been on the phone with one of my cousins, who called the EMS. They got her to the hospital quickly; still, it seemed all over at that point.
She was a tough bird, though, and hung on. She never spoke again, though she could write a little. But it was a long, slow descent from there. The past few weeks, the end was clearly at hand. It’s hard to see why God wanted her to go through this extended decline. Amidst all the other providential marks, there must have been some reason. At least we all had a chance to say our goodbyes – I even prayed the Hail Mary, in Italian, with her. And she seemed, finally, to die at peace.
I have a firm hope that she’s back where she liked to be, reunited with family and friends, part of an even bigger community now – of saints.