I was introduced to death at the age of five in the home of my great aunts, Elizabeth and Gertrude, who lived across the street from my family. My mother dressed me up one day and walked me over to visit the two single sisters in their eighties, who had opened their home to my mother and me for endless afternoons of tea. I remember walking into their home that day and noticing how dark and solemn it was. As my mother and I turned the corner from the entranceway into the living room, I saw Gertrude’s fragile body lying peacefully in a large, cushioned box just inside the bay window. All I remember after that is sitting on a dark velvet sofa and turning to a woman sitting beside me, whom I mistook for my mother, and saying, “It looks just like church!” My mother overheard me from across the room and gently shushed me.
The next year, when I was six, my younger sister, Kathleen, died not long after her birth. I remember my mother’s convulsive grief following her stay in the hospital, which was at the end of our street. The connection between a baby’s death and my mother’s sadness was too abstract for me to understand at the time, but my mother experienced it as an unspeakably painful rupture. The quick trip from crib to coffin was too much for her to bear.
Two years later my mother had another baby girl, her fifth daughter and eighth child. My parents named her Kathleen, too. It was as if I always had two sisters named Kathleen: the one who lived as a shadow of grief and the one who flourished as a gift of grace. One sister brought my mother inconsolable sadness, and the other periods of great joy. The darkness of my sister’s death hovered over my family like a shadow reminding us of our mortality. I could never escape the fierce reality that we live but we also die. As Jesus said, we “know neither the day nor the hour.” We just know it is coming.
As a class officer at my Catholic high school, one of my responsibilities was to represent my class at any wakes and funerals associated with anyone at the school. My father, a public-school principal in the City of Worcester, held the same responsibility for his school. Together, my father and I attended countless wakes and funerals over the years. Without knowing it, my father taught me how to comport myself in an environment where grief is the order of the day and a dead body is near. One of the blessings of this experience is that I learned the great landmarks of a person’s life are the people they loved.
In April 2014, my eldest brother, Brian, who lived with quadriplegia for twenty years, received the sacrament of the sick at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This was the signal that he was on the runway to death. The progressive effects of muscular dystrophy, a disease that has ravaged so many lives—including those of a younger sister and brother—were too great to stave off any longer. With my family surrounding my brother, the hospital chaplain, a Catholic priest, blessed Brian with oil, prayed over him, and, at my request, absolved all of us for any sufferings we may have caused my brother. My request stemmed mostly from my father’s inability over many years to accept my brother for who he was and had always been: a beloved child of a merciful God. Indoctrinated in the old church, my father was raised to associate a sickness of this magnitude with some kind of moral failing. To my father, a ravaged body manifests a lack of right relationship with God. Someone must be to blame. The roster of the accused is long and devastating: self, spouse, parent, grandparent, child, God himself. Who is responsible for this calamity?