Hail Mary, full of grace” The rhythm of the prayer offered its own comfort and surprise, like an old conversation whose words one was hearing for the first time.
At 2:30 am the hospital was hushed and empty. On the entire floor one or two nurses were present at that hour, busy elsewhere. We were left alone.
“The Lord is with thee.” One hour earlier, we had received a call from the hospital that Dad had died. The light in my bedroom blinked on, and I heard my sister’s voice telling me that dad had unexpectedly passed away a half hour earlier. I had flown down from Medford to Ontario California the previous day, not certain whether my aging father would be alive by the time I reached the hospital. Calling my sister, a Daughter of Mary Help of Christian nun, from the airport, I asked if he had come out of his procedure. “He’s right here with me,” she replied chirpily. In the following hours, Dad and I had spent much of the day talking.
At 98 years of age, he still had no shortage of stories. An elderly lady had asked about a neighbor on the street where he had lived in 1940. We walked through the names, using my cell phone and the census addresses. Some he recognized, others he did not. Past and present merged.
Prayer brought us into deeper mystery.
“Blessed art thou among women.” The words evoked memories of childhood. In our family of seven children, the rosary was the May prayer, the time of flowers at the statue, and of the older children leading the recitation. Through the 1950s my dad continued to quietly pray the beads during Sunday Mass. Every funeral event began with a viewing of the deceased and prayer to the Virgin. Death and rosary went together, verse and refrain.
In the hospital room, we watched, waiting for the undertaker to come to remove the body, my sister emitting a quiet sob from time to time. Saying the rosary came naturally. Naturally as breath. Naturally as death.
“Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” We are creatures of happenstance. The Knights of Columbus insistence of carrying the rosary became the prompt that brought us into deeper mystery.
Earlier that evening I had told dad that some problems had been found from which he would not recover, that the doctor recommended he begin hospice care. We talked for a while more and I had kissed him goodnight. Dad was looking forward to coming home. At 1 a.m., the nurse had visited his room to check his vital signs. He was having difficulty sleeping and he joked with her as she took his temperature.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God.” There seemed to be three of us sitting at the my father’s bedside: myself, my sister who sat holding my father’s hand, and the Virgin, our mother, our friend, our partner in the moment.
At 1:15 the nurse passed the door and noticed that dad was waving having difficulty breathing. He gasped and died. “Pulmonary/cardiac causes,” the doctor determined. With death, the apparatus of medicine, with its charts, prescriptions, and constant interruptions suddenly ceased. “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Through the window of the room, a few distant lights blinked across the Moreno Valley. The world was stillness and rest.
Ahead would be the business of burial: telephone calls to family members, the arrangements, and the liturgies. The chatter of life would renew and intensify. But for an hour, my sister and I were graced with the calm that comes from the ending of this vale of tears, united across space and time with our father Pierce James Mullaly, and our comforting Mother, embraced together in God’s eternal “Amen.”
October 30, 2012