Remembering one of my worst days

I remember vividly almost every waking moment of this day last year. It was the day of my father’s wake.

Unlike the more common practice today, we decided to wake my dad at home. We wouldn’t take his body to a funeral parlor. We wouldn’t bring it to the church for an overnight stay. Instead, we would keep him at home with us in his own house for one last night.

So the house was open to all-comers. My dad’s body was laid out in a coffin in the middle of the sitting room. All the chairs were pressed back against the walls surrounding it, allowing for a free flow of mourners around the room as they offered sympathies.

In the kitchen off the hallway was all kinds of food, mostly donated by relatives and friends. The kettle was always on the boil. Neighbours, relatives and friends acted as hosts and hostesses. We did not have to worry about any of the catering or hospitality duties.

Our only task was to gather round my father’s coffin during the official wake period from 3pm to about 7.30 and receive those who came to mourn my father and to express sympathy. The circle of chairs was occupied mostly by the female members of the family, while the men – my dad’s sons, grandsons, and sons-in-law – stood by the wall in their black suits and ties. 

I did not stand with them because I was not able. I had come out of hospital just a few days before, after my third spinal surgery in six months, and was wearing a brace to support my back. Earlier that day, just before the wake started, I had sought and received a pain-killing injection from our local GP. I was also wearing two pain patches and had taken every medicine I was allowed in order to help me get through the evening.

But nothing made any difference. The pain was excruciating and unrelenting. People in their kindness shook my hand, but even the gentlest handshake felt as if my arm was being ripped from my shoulder. The combination of physical and emotional pain was almost too much to bear. Several times, I just had to go and lie down for a while.

The wake lasted for what seemed like an eternity. Though it was a dark, winter’s night, and our farmhouse is in the County Limerick countryside, people came in numbers touching a thousand from all over the country and beyond. It was testimony to my father’s popularity but also a demonstration of Irish culture and tradition at their best. People wanted the opportunity to express their condolences in person and to offer support and solidarity to our family in its grief. 

I knew only about 10 percent of them. Younger people came, flush with youth and life, friends and colleagues of my father’s grandchildren. The old came, now bent and creased by the passage of the years, friends and contemporaries of my father. And people of my generation came too, lots of them, now in mid life, friends and workmates of my brothers and sisters. From the well-dressed, well-spoken professional to the shaven-headed, tattoo-sporting construction worker, from my elderly priest colleagues in the Redemptorists to school mates of the younger grandchildren, they came – a true cross-section of that part of rural Ireland on that dark December night, 2015. 

It was wonderful that they came in such numbers, and my father would have been delighted, but in my grief and physical distress, I thought it would never end. I wanted people to come out in their droves to acknowledge my father and his goodness, but at the same time all I wanted was peace and quiet and the solace of my bed. My back was on fire, my arm hurt, and my emotions were in turmoil. I had been in hospital in Dublin when my father was taken to hospital in Limerick for what turned out to be the last time. I had never even got to visit him (we had no idea he was going to die) and how here he was being waked and I couldn’t even stand beside my brothers as a chief mourner to greet and thank those who had gone out of their way to stand with us in our loss. The only good thing I was conscious of was that if my father had died a week or ten days earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to attend his funeral at all.

Eventually, of course, the numbers tapered off as the clock approached 10pm, and the local priest led us in some prayers for his soul. We left my dad in the sitting room with a teddy bear his great granddaughter had put in his coffin to keep him company, and we struggled our way to bed, knowing that the next day, the day of the funeral, would be another test of endurance. I wouldn’t be celebrating the funeral liturgy but I was going to preach. I wanted to do that last thing for my father, no matter how difficult it would be, and I did. I’m glad about that.

Now a year has passed, and the shock and grief have passed too. We will gather for his anniversary celebration tomorrow with sadness but also in gratitude for the person he was and the impact he made on so many. While my emotional turmoil has eased, my health problems continue. Unfortunately, my back pain is one thing that has not changed since exactly a year ago.

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Words delivered at the funeral of my aunt, Mary Kelly (Oct 20, 2016)

As we know, a bitter presidential election campaign is slowing drawing to a close in the United States. It has had many low points, and few high points. But there is a statement Michelle Obama has made a couple of times now that has resonated with many people, and that I thought of too, as I looked back on the life of my aunt, Mary Kelly. Speaking of her opponents, Michelle Obama said: “When they go low, we go high.”

Go high…

That is what Aunty Mary did all her life, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense – go high. She went high. She always went high.

She was born and bred on high ground in the hill country of Croughmarka almost 93 years ago. She crossed those hills every day to go to school. She met and fell in love with and married a young man called Paddy, also born and bred on high ground in the same hill country. They spent most of their wedded lives together living on high ground, in a house nestled in the hills of Commonaline, rearing a family in often challenging conditions, when farming was tough, and frugality a necessity, and the weather not always hospitable. But being high up in the hills didn’t matter to Mary. She loved the mountains and she loved the outdoors.

Towns, cities, exotic foreign destinations, overseas travel – none of these held the slightest attraction for her. It was on the high ground – enjoying its grace-filled natural beauty, imbibing its unspoilt, invigorating fresh air, feeling the mountain dew beneath her feet, living in tune with the rhythm of the seasons – it was in Commonaline where she felt at home and happy and fully alive.

Go high. Aunty Mary went high.

But her going high wasn’t just a geographical thing, a matter of physical location. Aunty Mary went high in so many other ways too, the ways that define and describe one’s character, the essence of who a person truly is.

She had a high moral compass – a just woman who lived by the simple truth and did not tolerate wrongdoing; values she inculcated in her children and grandchildren.

She had a highly developed work ethic and sense of responsibility. Whether outside or inside the house, she worked long hours for long years for as long as she could, no cribbing about it. For her, it was simply doing her duty.

She had high standards of cleanliness – the yards and sheds always immaculate, her house spotless, too. One marvelled at how it could be done and how she did it.

She had a high sense of respect for others, was slow to speak ill of anyone, and was always warm in her welcome. She had a knack for making everyone feel special. Her constant smile reflected that. The way those in the nursing home loved her confirmed it.

She had an extraordinarily high capacity to love. She loved Paddy in a way that words cannot capture. A long, long love stretching back almost all their lives, broken only by his passing in 2005. His unexpected death was the beginning of her end. She loved her children and grandchildren in the same lavish, selfless way. The bond she had with them and they had with ‘granny’ was a thing of rare, high beauty. She was so proud of them. The way that Anne loved and cared for her deserves special mention.

It was easy especially to witness those love bonds these past few days as she grew smaller in her bed and her breathing grew shallow and the end drew near. The love, the togetherness, the unity, the sadness were all on display and yet also a profound sense of gratitude for having had this woman among us for so long, for being lucky enough to know her and be part of her family. I found my encounters with her to be almost sacramental – an audience with a gentle, simple, smiling woman who radiated something of the warmth and tenderness of God.

And, of course, that was no surprise, because she was a woman of faith. Her love of and trust in God was high. Her faith nourished her; strengthened her; it was what sustained her through the setbacks that came her way. Dying didn’t faze Aunty Mary. Just as in life she always went high, so also when she was faced with the prospect of death.

There are many today who believe that death is the end, period. That once you breathe your last, you’re gone forever, done and dusted. The best you can hope for is to leave behind some sort of positive legacy and happy memories, and a big gap in loved ones’ lives.

For us Christians, it is different. We know that death is a door, not a wall. Death isn’t an exit to oblivion, a sorrowful slide into nothingness. It is, rather, the threshold to a new, transformed life with God forever. On Monday morning, at 6.50am, Aunty Mary crossed that threshold from life to death, from life to life. Her earthly body is empty of life now; her strong heart is quiet; her big smile has given way; all we are left with are her mortal remains. But having crossed that threshold on Monday morning, she did not journey from life to death; from a breathing, smiling, pulsating, warm, wonderful human being, a granny to everyone, into some cold, dank abyss of darkness and destruction, she passed in that moment from this life to a completely new glorified life, life with God forever.

The second reading from St Paul, read to us by Noel, contains one of the most reassuring statements in all of scripture. Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love we share in Christ Jesus. “For I am sure of this,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Mary, our beloved one, knew and subscribed to that good news all her life. Now, reunited with Paddy and all she loved and lost, nothing separates her from the warm embrace of Jesus, her saviour. In our liturgy today, as in every liturgy, we are reminded that in Christ Jesus, we remain united with those who have died. Mary is gone from us but not forever. She is separated from us, but not for good. In this knowledge, we find our solace, our inspiration, our consolation, our hope.

And so we say our farewells. We are left with our tears and our sadness but, even more, we are comforted with countless happy memories and with a joyous sense of gratitude that we could not have asked for a more wonderful wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great granny, aunt, cousin, neighbour or friend – a woman was who a bastion of common sense, a beacon of light, a rock of faith, a fountain of love, a beautiful, caring, smiling woman who always, always, always went high.

What I said at my dad’s funeral six months ago

It is six months today since my father died. Though time does heal the pain, it is still so difficult to believe that he is gone for good. I will never forget the six am call from the hospital summoning us all to his bedside to say goodbye.

He had been in hospital for a week with a chest infection, but we had no idea that he was never going to come home again. That phone call left me dazed and confused. It had only been a few days since my third major back surgery and I hadn’t been able to visit him in hospital. Now I was struggling to put on my shoes and socks as I tried to process the contents of the phone call. He had clearly deteriorated overnight, and I had never even been to see him.

When I got to the high dependency unit, having been picked up by my brother, most of the immediate family was already there – my mother, herself seriously unwell, my sisters and their husbands, my brothers and their wives, and several of the grandchildren. My father was propped up on the bed, an ugly breathing mask obscuring most of his face, deeply unconscious.

I held his warm hand while others held other parts of him, and we told him how much we loved him and what a wonderful husband and father and grandfather he was, and that everyone was here with him now and that all would be well. And we prayed as he received the last rites.

He lived for just under half an hour after his breathing mask was removed. He shuddered a little at first and then gasped for air, his puckered lips trying desperately to suck in as much as he could. We watched and cried and spoke to him and prayed, hoping his last agony would pass quickly and yet not wanting him to go, hoping and pleading for some kind of miracle.

And then, at about 9.40am, he breathed his last. We watched, waiting, hoping he might pick up again, hoping he might breathe once more, but he had gone from us. His battle had ended, he had finished the race. He had just turned 84.

There’s not a day when we do not think and talk about him – but it’s mostly happy talk and happy memories. For he was a good and gentle and honest and upright man, and we are so glad to have had him for so long as husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. He enjoyed life and was a happy man who showed love and knew he was loved.

He adored sunshine and would be sitting outside these days soaking in as much sun as my mother would allow. We remember him in a special way on his sixth month anniversary and pray that he is now enjoying the fruits of a live well lived.

These are the words I spoke at his funeral on December 4, 2015.

My father always had a very specific criterion by which to measure the success or otherwise of a funeral. He did not measure it on the size of the congregation; he didn’t judge it on the length or depth or wisdom of the homily; he didn’t assess it on the number of mass cards or floral wreaths placed around the coffin; nor was he swayed by the beauty of the singing or the grandeur of the liturgy or the tears that were shed or even by how good the meal was afterwards – and he loved his food. The one criterion that mattered, the only criterion that counted, was the number of priests present. The bigger the number the more successful the funeral. I think he would have judged this to be a good funeral.

My father was no intellectual, and nor did he pretend to be. Like so many others of his generation, he didn’t finish secondary school. He had, however, a real wisdom, acquired not from the study of books, or from years in the classroom, or from an intellectual curiosity, but rather something innate, and richer still, rooted in the rugged turf of Croughmarka where he drew his first breath just over 84 years ago. He knew the important things, the things that mattered, the importance of family and faith and fidelity and principle. He didn’t even have to think about them. He was moral, upright, responsible, decent, humble, loving, simple and good. And these most important qualities came naturally to him.

He spent more than the first quarter of his life in the hill country of Croughmarka, on the family farm, but then in his late twenties he had one very, very lucky break – he met my mother. They were wed in 1960.

She was his fortress, his shield, his solid foundation, his rock of safety and support without whom he would not have lasted so long or so happily. He used to boast that they never had a row – and they didn’t. It helped, of course, that he knew my mother was the boss. They had a relationship that was the essence of mutuality, one of total interdependency. He loved her and she loved him; he would do anything for her and she would do anything for him. Unconditional love.

My father was sensitive. A big softie. He cried easily, and wasn’t ashamed to show it.

He was tactile. He liked to express affection, and wasn’t afraid to demonstrate it. He loved to reach out to touch people, and to hold long to your hand with his warm, calloused hands, and to give big, tender bear hugs. Every time my mother visited him in hospital this past week he tried to pull her as close to him as he could. He let those he loved know that he loved them.

He was hard-working. For as long as he was able, he put in long hours, from sunrise until nightfall. Industriousness never frightened him – he thrived on it.

He was of the land and loved it. Farming was his vocation. He lived in sync with the rhythm of the seasons, the rise and fall of nature. The soil was elemental to him.

He was progressive. He was one of the first farmers in our part of the country to remove ditches and dykes and install paddocks, to build a state of the art milking parlour, and to replace churns with a bulk tank. So forward-looking was he that in 1972 the Irish Farmers’ Journal devoted a two-page feature to him entitled ‘This young Limerick farmer has a bright future.’

He was an extrovert. He liked people and loved talking. A trip to the village always took longer than it should for he always met people he had to talk to. His severe deafness of recent years was a very big burden because it meant he could no longer interact with people the way he wanted.

He was clean living. He was a Pioneer for almost 60 years, and, fearing a very quick divorce early in his marriage, he gave up cigarettes. He didn’t gamble, and he didn’t waste money. He lived a good and simple life.

He was straight-talking. If you put on weight, he’d let you know. If you got a new spot on your face, he’d be sure to point it out. But always without malice. Forthright and honest were just the way he was.

He enjoyed sport, especially hurling. One of his biggest burdens was living in a house of Limerick supporters. He could never understand why we could not support Tipperary under any circumstances while he was generous and magnanimous enough to support Limerick, when they weren’t playing Tipp. Late in life, he developed a mild interest in the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club, because of my passion for the club. But hurling was always number one.

The highlight of his year for many years was going to the All-Ireland hurling final. It didn’t matter who was playing – it was his only day off in the year, and my poor mother was saddled with the milking and the cows in his absence.

He was an old-time Catholic. He wasn’t a traditional Catholic in an ideological sense or out of a nostalgia for the past, or fear of the future, but out of a simple faith. His religion was deep rooted, but it wasn’t unquestioning. Several times in recent years, when my mother would suggest the rosary, he would protest, thinking of the setbacks that had befallen the wider family and himself, and of the weariness of the world, and say ‘what’s the point.’ But he would take out his beads and pray. The next day he would be the one to suggest the rosary. He said his prayers every day of his life.

In recent years, he lost his hearing; then his walk, then his balance, then his independence. The one thing he didn’t lose was his appetite. And nor, thankfully, his head. He had a clear mind and a firm grasp of things right to the end.

And it was when he had lost those things that family and love took on even greater significance for him. For it was my mother who fed him and looked after his medication and helped him go to the bathroom; and it was his grandchildren who tenderly helped him get ready for bed every night; the man who had become like a child; the children caring for the man. We are comforted that he never had to go to a nursing home; that he was able to stay at home with his loved ones, almost to his last, laboured breath.

To sum him up, my father was:

Essence of decency

Paragon of virtue

Exemplar of faith

Model of love

He loved us and we loved him. He – and we – were lucky. The world was enhanced by his presence, and it – and we – are diminished by his passing.

We are sustained by our memories, but, even more, we are sustained by our hope in the resurrection. That is our Advent hope. That is our steadfast belief. We know we will meet him again one bright, shiny, day, unhandicapped by age or pain or disability or the wear of the years.