When I visit Ireland every February, there are a few things that I can count on: the first “hit” of Irish air at 6 a.m. as I emerge from Arrivals at Shannon Airport; the first time I have to say “Mar-i Ca-hill-an” versus my usual flat American pronunciation; my first bag of Taytos; and my first really fresh pint of Guinness. Other things for which I yearn include driving on the wild Irish R and L roads (all on the “wrong side,” as Americans say), eating my first bowl of “vegetable soup and brown bread,” hearing the obituaries on Clare FM radio, and attending Mass spoken in a mixture of Latin phrases spoken in an Irish accent. Roman Catholic Mass in Ireland is truly a cultural experience, where occasionally one receives Communion at an altar rail and “Prayers of the Faithful” include pleas for things like “a reduction in the use of the Lord’s name in vain”. I have to chuckle at the latter since Ireland is a country where “Jaysus” is invoked at every turn and “Mother of God” punctuates many a sentence where the narrator conveys shock and dismay. But this time, church offered a very different and unexpected lesson.
As we walked to St. Brigid’s, just up the road from the inn where we were staying, the rain pelted us and we hustled to the churchyard. Clearly a popular Mass, parking was at a premium for those faithful who drove. But most interestingly, parked just outside of the door of the sanctuary was a flower-filled hearse. Momentarily deterred, we pressed on and walked in mid-church, the congregation assembled and a casket prominently displayed before the altar. With the pews full of mourners and townspeople, we made our way to the rear and mounted the stairs to the “Gallery” or as we Americans would say, “the balcony.” In the gallery, we gazed upon the full church from, arguably, the best seats in the house. As Mass proceeded, references to “Mary” and the “repose of her soul” were peppered in the priest’s comments and the church was heavy with sadness without visible emotion (the Irish don’t really do that).
As the priest mounted the pulpit to deliver his sermon, our voyeuristic urges to hear more about “Mary” and her life ignited. Mary, it seems, was a wonderful person. But aren’t we all after we die? However, in Mary’s case, she epitomized the image of a saint on this earthly plane. As the priest shared the details of Mary’s life, we learned that Mary’s mother passed away when Mary was only fifteen years of age and Mary assumed the role of “mother” in the home, leaving school and raising her siblings. Years later, she married “Jack,” and she and Jack had five children of their own, to whom she dedicated her life. Sadly, Jack died at the age of forty-two, leaving Mary to raise her children alone. The priest expounded on the virtues that Mary possessed and the life of service to others that clearly defined Mary. Her family, now expanded to twelve grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, all beneficiaries of Mary’s goodness, dabbed their eyes as they considered the virtuous soul now lost.
When the priest shifted his focus to her family, he acknowledged their dedication to their mother and grandmother and the fact that Mary remained at home, despite her declining health. Everyone pitched in and Mary’s care was delivered lovingly by those seated there. Hearing this approach to elder care, I felt a little sadness and some regret that I was not strong enough or had the time to deliver that same level of care to my own father.
As I sat there listening to the story of Mary, I wept. For Heaven’s sake, I didn’t know Mary, or even how she died, but Mary and her deep love and commitment struck a chord with me and I felt the loss. The story was one of a simpler, yet complex, life. Despite the amazing opportunities that our American way of life affords us, I fear that we have sacrificed a deep connection to our families and our roots. We often hear that we should “live our lives” and when family life becomes complicated and presents challenges, find the geographic remedy and move away. Now when things get difficult, we turn inward to ensure that we are “taking care of ourselves” and “making ourselves a priority”. Yoga and mindfulness to address the stress in our lives, and big cars and swish houses in desirable zip codes that cause the stress are the rewards and byproducts of our frenetic lives, motivating our view of success. But as I ponder the life of Mary, her selflessness was her success. It is her legacy. It is the lesson that she left behind, so well learned by those who so selflessly cared for her.
It has been two weeks since Mary’s funeral and I think of her often, and marvel that I cried for her, a total stranger who touched me in death because of the way she lived. Rest well, Mary…
And as they go, it was a hell of a funeral! As the Irish would say, “She got a great send-off though, didn’t she?”