My mother rested in bed at the Brockton, Massachusetts home of my youngest sister, Rose. Mom was tired but wanted to talk with me about coming to America 50 years before. She knew she didn’t have much time or breath left in this world. It was a Tuesday evening in January, and I’d driven here after working at the bank all day. My three sisters -- Rose, Barbara, and Mary -- were here too, and had also come after work to be with our mom.
I should tell you that my mother had recently been diagnosed with kidney cancer, “renal carcinoma” as the doctors described it. I can still recall the shock my three sisters and I felt two months before, after being shown her kidney x-ray in a small conference room at Massachusetts General Hospital. One kidney was completely covered with cancer and the other was mostly covered in it. The young doctor shook her head and spoke carefully to all four of us: “she has stage 4 cancer and no real treatment options left.” My mother was 71 and we sat there in shock as a ticking wall clock was the only sound in the room.
My sister Barbara, the oldest, finally asked what we were all thinking, “how long might she have to live?” Again, the doctor spoke carefully, taking a scalpel to our hearts: “she has about 6 months, in a best case scenario.”
We walked together to my mother’s hospital room, too shocked to say a word. Barbara asked mom if she wanted to get a second opinion, and she said no. Sitting up in bed, my mother told us that she had accepted what was happening and was ready to face whatever God had chosen. We were angry, confused, filled with tears, ready for war, and tried to talk her into fighting, but mom had decided. She told us that she wanted to die with as much dignity as possible, surrounded by her family. And we couldn’t tell her that she didn’t have the right to do that, however devastated we were.
What did we do next? We came together as a family and took care of her. We brought her into our homes. My mother spent the last few months of her life at my youngest sister Rose’s apartment in Brockton. My mother rested, she got weaker, she laughed, she told stories -- and we were there almost every day with her, listening, laughing, and crying.
We have always been a family that laughed hardest when life was at its worst. It seemed that we spent the last few months of my mother’s life laughing non-stop, telling stories, becoming as close as a family as we’d ever been before, and giving my mother (and each other) permission to let go.
My mother wanted to talk, and so did we all. Often, we sat around her bedside in chairs and talked as a family. At other times, we talked to her one-on-one. Of course, my three sisters and I spoke to each other constantly -- about our mother’s failing strength, about the morphine she was taking as she died, about what she meant to us and the legacy she was leaving behind. We decided not to break but to build.
When she and I spoke alone, my mother told me about her childhood in the rural west of Ireland, and her dream (that came true) of coming to America for a better life. She met a wonderful, kind man in New York City, where my mother cleaned houses and took care of other people’s kids, as so many immigrants did then and now. My father worked in the newspaper business and he liked to dance, as did she. They fell in love, married, and started a family. The American Dream.
“Then he changed,” she told me quietly, sadly. “He became another person,” and suffered from a mental illness called paranoid schizophrenia. He’d been a soldier in the U.S. Army, and we often wondered if his mental illness was related to the trauma he’d seen during wartime. One day, when I was a baby, in what would be my first real memory, three men came and took my father out of our house. He never returned to us again.
Years later, I still can’t imagine what something like that might do to a young immigrant wife with children. I know it shaped me as a child, left me lost and confused and angry with the world. I know my mother turned as never before to the solace of her Catholic faith. The absence of my father was the elephant in the room of all our childhoods. My mother didn’t know how to talk about the loss, and (as kids) we didn’t know how to understand or cope with it. We were Irish-American, after all, and suffering in silence seemed to be part of our cultural legacy.
My mother was always a strong person, renowned for her sharp wit and wry sense of humor. She had a way of laughing at herself and others, and did it gently. I suppose it was a way of coping with the pain around her. She gave that gift and that grace to all of us. I remember something the great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote: “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.” That was my mother, enduring and sardonic to the end.
As my mother died, we all told stories, each of us adding our own embroidery, and laughed and prayed and cried. Stories were a refuge, a way of making meaning in times of confusion and loss. For example, we recalled the many cats and parakeets that my mom had taken into our home like members of our family. We remembered coming home from school on more than one occasion to see feathers all over the kitchen floor and the cat hiding behind the fridge. We decided that we’d lost track of the number of devoured parakeets, but we kept hoping for better outcomes between cats and parakeets. We were a family that tried to focus on what was there, not on what was lost – even when what was lost was everywhere around us and in our bones too, defining who we were.
As she lay dying, my mother talked into the wee hours of the night about her heartaches, especially the loss of our father, and we listened with coffee cups sitting on saucers on our laps. She said how exhausting it had been as a single mother working 2 or 3 jobs at a time to support a family in a strange land so far from the green, sheep-filled hills of County Galway. And my sisters and I talked too -- about growing up in the most crime-riddled white neighborhoods in the whole country, the Old Colony Housing projects of South Boston. Unemployment, alcoholism, drugs, and violence were rampant. So was mental illness and PTSD, and we could all relate. Inside our home was bad enough, but outside wasn't exactly the west of Ireland.
We lived near a huge courtyard crowded by dumpsters and incinerators. We also lived within shells, with the drug dealer next door and blocks from serial killer Whitey Bulger, who terrorized South Boston for decades, leaving a couple dozen victims dead (and dismembered). I spent much of my childhood crossing to the other side of the street, staying away from trouble.
After my dad’s illness, my mother never married again, but kept her faith and her sense of humor. It’s ironic that, as an Irish immigrant, she died the day before St. Patrick’s Day. She had mixed feelings about being Irish in South Boston, a bastion of Irish identity. She never liked the color green and had left the country of her birth behind, while second and third generation Irish-Americans in “Southie” told her what it meant to be Irish. In their minds, it was a mixture of fear, resentment, tribalism, and white supremacy. But that wasn’t my mother’s way. She was more Irish than any of them -- in the way she coped, in the way she prayed, in the way she laughed, and in the way she endured the unendurable with good humor and grace.
It seems strange to call those last six months of my mother’s life a gift to our family, but that’s just how it felt to me then (and now). She brought each of us closer to each other, and to her, in those last days. She died the way she wanted to, and with her trademark grace. She shared her stories and we shared ours, in a sort of communal sacrament of farewell.
And then one evening in March she quietly left us, as we stood around her bed and wept and said the “Hail Mary.” I miss her still, especially when I feel the laughter rising up from my belly and feel the urge to keep fighting for others (and myself) because that is what she would have done, what she always did. May she find peace and laughter wherever she's traveling.