In what now seems a moment of serendipity, I received the request to review Mortal Blessings, by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell (an America columnist), just as I finished reading and discussing William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying with a handful of fellow book club members. Faulkner’s agonizing yet powerful account of the death of Addie Bundren, as told by Bundren, her family members and neighbors, left me feeling devastated for days. I suppose it was the way he rendered human vulnerability, our efforts to retain some kind of dignity and integrity, no matter how far-fetched or grotesque our actions may be, in a world that often seems hell-bent to crush every last shred of our humanity, that left such a deep impression. O’Donnell’s book, a meditation on the final illness and death of her mother, likewise left a deep impression of grief and sadness but also a way, through her own reading of holy ritual and Catholic sacraments, to bear witness faithfully both to the death of a beloved yet all-too-human one and to death itself.
Much as in the narrative of the Bundren family, there is no sugar coating of the deceased or of the sometimes strained relationship among family members in O’Donnell’s book. The book’s opening image of an alcoholic (as the reader soon learns) 82-year-old mother, clad in a pink bathrobe, tripping and breaking her hip in the ensuing fall on a ceramic tile floor is one that, upon first read, I wanted to turn from and not look back. When O’Donnell later describes encountering her toothless mother donning a big black wig in an assisted care home, she, too, shares her revulsion at the sight of her mother and her desire not to look. And yet, and yet. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., reminds us that a Catholic reading of the world says that death does not have the final say, that there is a slight edge on the side of life. Thus, for as much as O’Donnell wishes to look and perhaps even walk away, there she is, along with her sisters, happily clothes-shopping for her fashion conscious mother, tearfully captivated while watching the film “Dirty Dancing” with her mother and chuckling at the sight of her mother flirting with a handsome young orderly.
O’Donnell’s tales of shopping and flirting, as well as her daily log of the countless other pedestrian tasks associated with care for the sick and dying, soar to new heights when she views this work through the lens of ritual and the sacraments. I was especially taken by her good use of the Rev. Andrew Greeley’s writings in this regard: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the holy lurking in creation.” When O’Donnell, having no holy water on hand, uses her own saliva to trace the cross on her mother’s forehead, she powerfully and lovingly puts into practice her understanding of Greeley’s words and of her Catholic faith: “Everything is, to use Greeley’s term, ‘enchanted,’ charged with significance, and available to us as a manifestation of divine presence in our daily lives.”
The chapters of her fine book, with titles like “The Sacrament of Speech” and “The Sacraments of the Cell Phone and the Wheelchair,” offer the reader a rich blend of O’Donnell’s experience of the sickness and death of her mother, her original insight, sonnets and rendering of ritual and sacrament and well chosen passages from some of the finest literary and Catholic minds. Through O’Donnell’s work, the reader learns how we are to stay rooted, pay attention, be present and live that most Catholic of commands, to love one another. Toward the end of her book, when her mother takes her final few breaths and the finality of death is at hand, O’Donnell writes of “being undone by the wildness of grief” but then of finding strength in her practice of ritual, sacrament and faith.
In one of the most beautiful accounts in the book, the ability to stay present at this harrowing moment of death allowed O’Donnell and her sisters to remain at their mother’s bedside and carefully watch the subtle physical transformation, from the supple to the stone-like quality of the flesh, rendered by death upon her mother’s body. “She looks like a saint,” says O’Donnell’s sister, to which O’Donnell adds, “And Rose was right—even in death she shone.” Though humble and tattered, our lives are suffused with the radiant light of the divine; how we might better see and savor that light in our daily lives is the gift of Angela O’Donnell’s book.