My wife died at 5:30 a.m. on an October day more than eight years ago. At her wake, I told her many colleagues from the school where she had taught for over 30 years that the time of her death was fitting, because this was the time she would get up to get ready for school. And after all, dying can be easier than facing students.
For the Irish, making jokes is one of the things you think you should do at wakes, perhaps because laughing together is one of the more direct foreshadowings of heaven. But the line got no laughs. That too is okay, as a failed joke might be a direct foreshadowing of purgatory. The non-joke turned out to be an omen.
Mary Lou died before her time: before 60, before retirement, before Social Security, before our son finished college, before I told her everything I wanted to say. She died of breast cancer, so we couldn’t think of ourselves as being singled out; we were part of a huge statistic (and with health insurance, a less unfortunate part of that statistic). Still, given her utterly responsible habits, she should have been among those many who, at least in the ads, are smilingly, confidently and glamorously not only still alive but—how American—racing for the cure. She always took the recommended yearly Pap test and mammogram. When her cancer was first diagnosed in mid-1990, her doctor congratulated herself on how well Mary Lou’s mastectomy had gone. Still, Mary Lou did the maximum: radiation treatment, chemotherapy, drugs like Tamoxifen and Fosamax.
I thought we had left it behind us, and life went on as before: Mary Lou and I teaching, our son growing into adolescence, Grandpa visiting every Sunday, family events, the Mets losing. It was a shock that day in 1997 when Mary’s oncologist told us the annual scan showed some cancer, just a trace, in the lung area. I believed his tone and his message just as I had the first time: “We’re here early. Just some radiation and chemo and we’ll be fine.” But one day a year and a half later Mary awoke to find she couldn’t raise her right arm. Twelve hours later in the emergency room, we learned that the cancer had spread to her brain.
Praying Apart and Together
More radiation could only stave off the inevitable, but it made it possible for her to attend our son’s high school graduation. Home hospice care followed. During this time a friend asked whether we were planning a trip to Lourdes. This had never occurred to either of us. An attenuated sense of Mary’s place in the Catholic understanding of the mystery of providence was not the reason for our inattention. After Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Angels, Mary Lou would always go to the statue of Our Lady to the left of the main altar and pray. Our son Jim and I would remain in the pew until she finished. From time to time I now go to the same spot and I say, “My prayer is whatever Mary Lou was praying.” It wasn’t that I doubted miracles might happen at Lourdes, but it seemed to me as likely to happen in Brooklyn as in France.
Mary Lou and I both prayed daily but not together, save for one succinct practice. I do not recall how it began—though it was when she was in Stage 4 cancer—but it was simple, and we did it right after breakfast and right before she would soon have to return wearily to bed. It was a couplet from Psalm 95, which often appeared as the response to the psalm on Sunday: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” It appealed to us for two reasons. The reminder not to harden your heart was always timely, though more necessary for me than for her. But also, and this especially appealed to Mary, it felt right each day to remind ourselves that no matter what our feeble powers of body and mind and spirit, we must listen to what God is asking at that moment. Illnesses, even final ones, do not change the essentials. This snippet of psalm became so important to us that I had it placed on the memorial cards for the wake.
That wake was a long time coming. We fell into a rhythm that I thought would never end. Mary Lou wore a wig and could not eat whole foods; and Häagen-Dazs and Carvel ice cream, formerly weekend treats, were now her daily sustenance. I had a reduced teaching schedule with no departmental obligations, and the two days a week when I was not home, a longtime family friend would stay with her. She was there the morning Mary Lou died.
Implausibility of Faith
One would think that after many months death’s arrival would be no surprise, but even expected deaths bring unexpected reactions. I was shocked by the onrush of cold grief and the abyss of loneliness that followed the blur of the wake, the funeral liturgy, the burial, the gathering back at the house and the task of responding to hundreds of condolences. I was most surprised by what happened to my faith. For a standard Catholic of my generation (and probably a standard Jew and a standard Muslim), faith is so thoroughly intermeshed with daily life—liturgies, Sunday family Mass, holidays, baptisms, prayers—that even the shock and long siege of cancer is not daunting. But when the quotidian itself is smashed, one’s faith can change dramatically. My faith didn’t go away, but it shrank, making the safely mysterious now seem wildly implausible—not unbelievable, but implausible. Details that had been part of a grand, sweeping and essentially joyous narrative suddenly required minute inspection, and things that were background suddenly become foreground. I started reading the catechism for things I thought I knew but no longer remembered as specifics. All of a sudden, the specifics mattered. Was Mary judged immediately and sent to heaven (or to purgatory)? What is the relationship between the cosmic last judgment and our particular judgment? If Catholics join their bodies in heaven only after the final judgment, does that mean no heaven—or at least no complete heaven—after the particular judgment? And (though its contribution to hell seemed more obvious) what would the addition of a body bring to heaven, since, as Jesus told the Sadducees, “at the resurrection men and women do not marry; they are like angels in heaven”?
A Note From the Past
Some dreary years later I found a note that Mary Lou had placed in my suitcase before I went off to an annual convention. It was always a trip involving some anxiety about a paper that I was to give; silly now, but a big deal then. The note was short and simple and commonsensical and magical: “Hi sweetheart! Relax! See you soon. Love, Mary.” It soon became the focus of my daily prayer and the start of the end of my depression. Unlike the mental health drugs which cannot cure death and can bring only numbness, Mary’s words, which sacramentally had now become a prayer, pushed to the very back of my consciousness all those specific theological implausibilities that arise from a faith unmoored from the anchor of the quotidian. What the catechism says about death now made perfect sense to me: that our afterlife is “beyond all understanding and description” and can only be captured by images, like “wedding feast” or “heavenly Jerusalem.” Or now in a note, found years after a death, saying, “See you soon.” It seemed inharmonious with the universe, a betrayal of creation, that Mary’s words could not be true.
And so, I told myself, I should listen to her and relax. Try to teach. Try to be a friend. Go back to losing at tennis. Watch the Mets lose. Believe in her words: “See you soon.” I realize that this is a faith born of hope and a hope born of faith rather than anything strictly evidentiary. But making Mary’s note a prayer allows me to say once again, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” Without a prayer like this, there could be no worthy life. Death makes a numbed heart inevitable; but numbness must not let itself become a hardened heart, which may be the core definition of death. We are reminded in the catechism that “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him,” with a citation of 1 Jn 3:14-15: “He who does not love remains in death.”
A year after finding Mary’s note I had the cemetery add to the family gravestone that line from Psalm 95: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” In lieu of a miracle, I had found a sacramental sign.