In late December 2009, on a sunny Florida afternoon, my 81-year-old mother stepped across my sister’s kitchen, caught her foot on the hem of her pink bathrobe and fell onto the ceramic tile floor. She landed with sufficient force to break her right hip instantly, the hip opposite the one she had broken 10 years earlier and that had been successfully repaired.
This second break was much worse than the first. The intervening decade had weakened my mother’s body and, truth be told, her mind. A lifelong habit of smoking had led to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and a similarly long habit of excessive drinking had rendered her major organs vulnerable. (My mother was a functioning alcoholic for 40 years.) This accident, as well as the surgery that might have saved a healthier person, would prove catastrophic in her weak condition. So began the steady, inexorable disintegration of my mother’s living body that would conclude with her death exactly 48 days later on Feb. 1, 2010.
In the course of those 48 days, my four siblings and I were drawn repeatedly from the far-flung places we lived to my mother’s side, iron filings to her magnetic field. Each time our planes landed and we rushed to her bedside, we entered a new stage in what we would eventually understand to be her dying. And each time we arrived, we were newly clueless as to how to deal with the current round of medical complications and the increasingly volatile emotional firestorms at whose center we had been placed.
Looking back on those days, I am struck by the many moment-by-moment decisions we were forced to consider. While I believe that many of the choices we made were preceded by a process of careful thought and reasoning, I am also aware of the fact that many were made by heart, rather than by mind. We were wandering through strange terrain, and while there were occasional signposts suggesting the right direction to take, there were also signposts pointing in precisely the opposite direction.
We knew we were not in control of the large-scale medical events that were befalling our mother, so perhaps it seems natural that we found ourselves trying to exercise control in smaller ways. As the doctors and nurses made their regular rounds, introducing new pieces of alarming information, we went about the business of caring for our mother—activities that ranged from feeding, grooming and amusing her to simply sitting by her side—always trying to keep her mind off her pain and her terror. Quite unconsciously, we devised rituals, methods of dealing with disaster that were rooted in the sacramental practice we had learned as children in a working class, Italian-American Catholic family.
In his essay, “Sacraments,” the Catholic fiction writer Andre Dubus describes in loving detail the ordinary process of making sandwiches for his school-age daughters. Dubus was wheelchair bound—the result of a roadside accident—and his limited range of motion required him to develop elaborate methods for accomplishing simple tasks. These ordinary actions, performed slowly and deliberately, took on the quality of ritual, providing him the opportunity to ponder both the practical ends they accomplished and the greater meaning that lay beyond them.
It strikes us as both wonderful and true when we discover, along with Dubus, that this daily task of feeding his children is a kind of sacrament: “A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic Church there are seven. But, no, I say, for the Church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity.”
As an English professor and long-time admirer of Dubus’s writing, I had read and shared these words with my students for years. But during the course of those 48 days, engaged in the work of daily, ritual care for a dependent parent, I was able to feel the truth of what had been an intellectual understanding.
The Catholic Imagination
Most of us live our daily lives immersed in the ordinary. Beset by tasks and responsibilities, we accomplish what we can, often by rote and without much thought or deliberation. These habits of daily-ness enable us to function, practically speaking, but they can also blind us to the extraordinary nature of our own lives. In his book The Catholic Imagination, the Rev. Andrew Greeley reminds us that Catholic tradition offers human beings both a deeper and a more expansive vision of life:
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, 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. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.
The world in any given moment is, in fact, a sacrament—a revelation of the presence of God—made manifest in the humblest objects. What seems ordinary in our day-to-day living is not ordinary at all: everything is “enchanted.” Seen in the light of the sacramental imagination, the stories of our lives become invested with meaning and importance, from our first breath to our last.
The Latin word sacramentum is often translated as a sign of the sacred. In the church, sacraments are ceremonies that direct our attention toward the sacred by means of the mundane. During the consecration, bread and wine signify (and, through the mystery of transubstantiation, somehow become) the body and blood of Christ. Similarly, in baptism the pouring of water over the infant’s head signifies a ritual cleansing, bathing the child in the waters of life, and also the drowning of the old self and the emergence of the new, a process further signified by the new name the child receives. The words, the actions and the material substances are all signs of the invisible gift of grace. In addition, sacraments are communal in nature. They require participants and witnesses, effectively drawing us into communion with one another wherein all are sanctified.
These elements of ritual, mundane matter and communion were all present in the sacraments we shared with our mother. The rites we devised as we cared for her served a practical function, but they also served a transcendent one. They were, indeed, outward signs of invisible grace, as well as mute testaments to the love we shared with one another—a human, familial love that is, ultimately, an expression of divine love. I was struck by this, even as we were performing these rituals in the intensive care unit at the hospital, in the nursing home and, finally, in her hospice room. At the same time, I was touched by the humble nature of the materials we employed—not bread and wine, but pie and milk—not chrism oil, but make-up and nail polish. Even so, the ordinariness of these substances seemed to intensify the deep significance of the actions in which we were engaged.
The Sacrament of Pie
A few weeks after her fall, my mother had rallied enough to undergo surgery and was moved to a nursing facility. This was a brief reprieve, days of kairos rather than chronos time, during which we hoped for her recovery. Each day and hour had its attendant rituals, but the one she enjoyed most was the evening visit. Nightfall occasioned the bringing of an offering, most often in the form of a store-bought key lime pie.
We would process into the room, announce the flavor of the pie, ceremoniously remove the clear plastic cover, cut a generous slice and feed it to my mother. She, in turn, would savor each bite, chewing the crust with some difficulty (as her dentures had been removed), uttering small, childish cries of delight, and then pronouncing how “Dee-LISH-ous” it was. She would wash it down with a sip from the pint-sized carton of Ensure, the fortified milk she was given to drink. We would repeat the feeding, receiving exactly the same response from her, and repeat the sip, until the first piece was consumed. Then we would cut another slice.
I was astonished, both then and now, by the force with which it hit me: this ritual was Eucharist by another name. Here I was, a child feeding my mother, our role reversal reminding me of the innumerable meals she had fed me, beginning with my hidden life in utero and continuing into my adulthood. We had come full circle in the round of life we had led, and this ritual served to circumscribe the sacred relationship between mother and child, embracing our shared past even as it unfolded in the present moment. It also pointed to the future, as I realized that I would likely be in her position one day, having my own children feed me. This simple meal was rooted in time, but it also transcended time, enabling me to see it—and us—in the context of eternity.
It was all this and more. This action indicated our common humanity (we all need to eat to live), but it also gestured toward a greater, spiritual hunger that needs filling in the here-and-now. Our ordinary communion seemed a version of the divine communion we celebrate at Mass, food for the body and the soul that originates in the infinite generosity of a God who came to live among us and who continually gives himself to us in order that we might have life.
There is something about the nearness of death that offers unexpected glimpses into the nature of existence. Actions seen as rote, repetitive and numbingly boring can suddenly become charged with mystery, freighted with history and full of meaning we feel but lack the language to express. These epiphanies redeem the actions themselves, but, more important, they redeem the often fraught and fractured relationships between the people enacting these ordinary sacraments.
Here, through the agency of pie, I was offering my mother everything I had unconsciously withheld from her for years: understanding, compassion, forgiveness and, yes, even love. In response to my offerings, her mantra of “Delicious” served as her “Amen” and sounded to me like a series of acknowledgments: I know; thank you; I forgive you; and, most moving of all, I’ve always loved you.
Our spontaneous Eucharist served another sacramental function—an enacting of confession, bestowing on us both forgiveness and mutual absolution. My forgiveness of my mother (she had not been the best) entailed my forgiveness of myself for my own short-comings as a daughter (I had not been the best). As for my mother, in her new-found simplicity of mind and heart, enjoying pie received at the hands of her child, she was mercifully relieved of guilt, resentment or anger. In the face of extremity, all was forgiven. As it turned out, these sacramental meals were among the last she would eat—a series of last suppers. And so I’ve come to think of them as “mortal blessings”: mortal in the sense that they do not—cannot—last; blessings in the sense that they impart benediction on giver and receiver.
As Andre Dubus points out in another essay, “On Charon’s Wharf,” “we are all terminally ill.” All of us are engaged in the inevitable march towards our own mortality. But these sacramental moments enable us to pause in that march, to offer a gesture wherein we give ourselves away and thereby acquiesce to our common fragility and humanity. These are the sacraments of love, not seven in number, but 70 times seven. And each is cause for both sadness and joy.