Don’t worry, I’m “fiiiiine,” as me mother would say. (Several have inquired. As I mentioned in the Comments to my last post, she died peacefully on Thursday: Requiescat in pace et in amore.)
My particular gratitude for the surprising number who have paid hard cash to have my mama remembered in a Mass. I do not present myself as a priest or an expert on these cosmic things, but I would think if it were possible to get someone into Heaven by main force, mama is there. Knowing her as I do, I’d guess she is likely to be embarrassed by all the attention. (As she once observed, “guilt” is for acculturated Catholics & Jews. Whereas, “embarrassment” is the Protestant thing.)
(Any word italicized in this post, is to be pronounced in an exaggerated Scottish manner.)
Please note her name, as entered on her birth certificate back in 1920, is “Florrie,” which is Scotch. She would correct anyone who called her “Florence,” which is a Limey name. As she was for many years a nursing matron, of the old starched-apron school, she had to make this correction often. The other name to avoid, if you want to stay on mama’s good side, would be “Flora,” which is Scottish enough (her grandmother carried it), but in an Anglicizing way (Fionnghal would be more correct). My paternal grandpa tried that, as a kind of Lowland compromise. He was no match for her will, however.
My sense is that what could be done was done, in the human way, & God knows that’s not good enough, but hey.
Death is anyway for our benefit. As lessons go in spiritual biology, it is the great teacher. And as a great teacher, it commands one’s attention.
I am naturally opposed to the glib school, among our modern behavioural hygienists. Guilt, regret, & mourning: all good. Even an occasional round of embarrassment. There’s a lot of crap out there on “closure” & the like: pop psychology from the moral & intellectual goons, embedded now in our statist, institutional psychology. Death is a great teacher, & should not be shut up.
It makes a rich field for humour, because it eliminates the “happyface” attitude, or better, reveals it as an exceptionally idiotic form of psychosis. For what the devil & the “happyface” have in common, is the inability to find anything funny, especially the ridiculous in their own behaviour. Laughter is their scourge; it stings them like holy water. And it is deepened in the presence of death, when the apprehension of the comic stands, often strangely reverent, just where it finds the intersection with the “tragic view of life.”
There are no eulogies at Catholic funerals, or at least, none were tolerated before the “happyface” reforms were made to the liturgy in the wake of Vatican II. The “uncertainty principle” is also a part of the “all good” in this case. We cannot know, except through miracle (recognized by the Church in the beatification of saints), that any one of our dead has been translated to Heaven. Not one of us, however intimately we knew the deceased, can speak with authority on such matters. “Thy will be done” is, to my mind, the hardest part of the Lord’s Prayer, harder than the forgiveness of transgressors. For it is His will, not mine. The theological virtue of Hope is not so easy for us humans as may first appear; & like Faith, & Love, may require more stoicism than the Stoics ever offered to dispense. It cannot be a theological virtue, except by proximity to the divine mystery, which is bottomless. It is not even thinkable, without Grace.
Notwithstanding, our Lord was given to paradox: “For my yoke is easy, & my burden is light.”
And this is certainly true of death, which, conversely, may look hard, but is actually quite easy. It requires, indeed, no effort whatever on our part. It is breathing that requires some effort. My poor mama feared death terribly, but was also the kind of guardian spirit who could keep up a front. For as she said herself, in a moment of shaking from Parkinson’s symptoms, & an internal disorientation that must be worse than pain:
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
Knowing my mother’s mind, I replied, “You will perish from it, in which case, you are well out of this ghastly nursing home.”
“I suppose you are right, dear.”
She was nevertheless irritated when I began to recite, from schoolboy memory, the reflective sonnet of Musidorus from the fifth act of the Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia:
“Since nature’s workes be good, & death doth serve / As nature’s worke: why should we feare to dye? / Since feare is vain, but when it may preserve, / Why should we feare that which we cannot flye? / Feare is more paine than is the paine it fears,” … &c, &c. For there is something about even Sir Philip Sidney’s rationalism that misses the whole point.
It is a paradox of Love that, like God, those who truly know another character must necessarily know them at their weakest. Yet only by knowing a person at her weakest, can we see & appreciate her at her strongest, too, as high mountain above low valley.
I was spooked, on Friday morning, when my telephone went off very early. “It must be my mother,” I thought, without thinking, while leaping out of bed. (At the time, she had been dead for less than eighteen hours.) We had a kind of ritual, early many a Friday morning. She would call me to announce, “I’m dying, I’m dying.”
This was less melodramatic than might seem. My sister often went up to her cottage Thursday night, & this was mama’s way of informing that I was now on call. As week followed week, it became more Gaelic. I was expected to reply:
“Oh poor mama, please don’t die today. For if you do, I will have to make arrangements.”
At which we’d laugh. For she had taught me to say that, by example. (“You must never take death lightly, my dear. There is a lot of paperwork, & you must make arrangements.”)
She taught other people much different things, for she looked upon each as a unique sensibility, requiring almost a new vocabulary. But me she took as the direct inheritor of that droll line, which passes back to North Uist in the Western Isles, from where (via the harbour at Stornoway, of course) our people floated to the New World. (Had they come from Benbecula, the next island south, across an easily swum channel, if the tide is out, they’d have arrived as Catholic refugees from the Highland Clearances, not Presbyterian refugees from the same.)
Each character a new challenge, to be dealt with in a different way.
This included a bottle to the head of a man who was violently assaulting his mistress, on one occasion; & on another, talking down a prospective rapist by persuading him she had an incurable disease. At age about six, I witnessed one of her more brilliant bluffs, that got us both out of serious danger at a remote location in Pakistan.
Likewise, during the Halifax riots on V.E. Day, back in ‘forty-five, she helped save the virginity of several young nursing students by getting responsible sailors from the Royal Canadian Navy to throw them — quite against their will — into the back of a truck. (There was no time for explanation, & they had to be driven immediately to safety, ten miles out of town.)
Alternatively, she could be very sweet, with very sweet people.
It is worth perhaps mentioning how she became an Atheist, as a nurse in training at the age of nineteen. Prior to that she had been a hard-praying, God-fearing, zealous though perhaps over-literal Calvinist girl. There was a boy in her ward, in great pain from a horrible spinal injury. She prayed & prayed for him every night. His condition got worse. So she prayed & prayed again, harder. Finally the boy died.
And to that she responded not by praying more, but by becoming very angry with God. She accused Him of conning her, of setting her up, of having lied to her throughout her childhood; of just ignoring her prayers because maybe He had better things to do. She was so angry, she told Him that He did not exist. Seventy years later I could still detect the outrage; even as I reflected that so many acquired their Atheism from some event in adolescence, which they had never outgrown.
She was taken aback when I argued, that anger with God at that level of intensity might itself be taken as sincere prayer. (One thinks of St Teresa of Ávila who said, to Jesus, that she didn’t wonder at how few friends He had, when she saw how He treated them.)
It is a mistake, a huge mistake, an unforgivable mistake, a millstone mistake, to the uttermost depths of the sea, to teach a “happyface” religion that seeks to avoid all the horrors of this world. And in this sense, I could argue that my mother was a victim of “happyface” religion, even in 1939.
To nearly the end, mama was arguing that religion is good, if it gives anyone some comfort, & makes them behave a little better than they might otherwise do. But she said it didn’t give any comfort to her, & that the only thing she knew that would make her behave any better was will, pure will. For she thought one ought to be a good person, God or no God; & that that involved refusing to do bad things, even when tempted. Moreover, that being good is not “a tight-assed proposition” — that it requires a bit of creative imagination, & that sometimes, just sometimes, doing the right thing means lie, cheat, & steal.
“Be bwave, mama.” This is what she wanted to hear from her son. She said I’d said it to her when I was a wee thing, & my father was apparently dying of a tropical disease in a very foreign country, leaving us penniless, or rather, anna-less & starving. So I pronounced it always in the small childish way. (And without mama praying, papa survived.)
She was bwave, because she was told that was the right thing to do. Sometimes one takes orders from little children, hearing no orders from above. And mama, as I said, adjusted words & behaviour alike to her interlocutor.
So here is some ground for a sneaking confidence, to put some green on the hillside of Hope. What, I have wondered, would my mama do if she suddenly found herself, not in some duet with the undertaker, but to her inordinate surprise, in the presence of Christ Crucified & Resurrected?
I daresay she would adapt her conversation, accordingly, & rather quickly acknowledge her error, as she had taught both her children to do.
For there is one teacher who is greater than Death.