Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Our Mary

Our friend Mary died this week. “Our Mary.” Such a lovely way to refer to her. She is a woman who inspires others to want to claim her as their own, someone who has a wonderful knack for making others feel special, drawing us closer.

Our Mary. Our girls started to speak of her as, “Mary, who is not the mother of God,” distinguishing her from the other Mary they know. I love this, as somehow it reflects the closeness that those two Marys have with one another, that in my girls’ eyes they need that verbal delineation. That our Mary passed away on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe was important for many, undoubtedly significant to her, too.

When I met her, in 1997, she was in her 30s and had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She was on the Young Adult retreat committee with me, but was never at the meetings, too busily occupied with treatments, chemo, surviving. I remember when she popped her head into the room where we were planning, greeted everyone individually, looked at me where I was sitting at the corner of the table, feeling shy and uncomfortable because I didn’t really know anyone very well, and said, “Therese. I haven’t even gotten the chance to know you.” That she knew my name, that in the midst of her own crisis she wanted to know me was a memorable welcome, captured memorably in few words spoken from her generous heart.

We celebrated at the retreat; Mary had put together a lovely slideshow, the music to which reminds me of her every time I hear it. (Joan Osborne's "What if God is one of us?")  In the years that followed, we shared more experiences, friends, milestones. All the time my heart was warmed by her presence and I gained such admiration for so much about her, especially her storytelling abilities. I remember one night watching her in a corner of the Parish Hall tell a story to a group of enthralled listeners that was about someone who, as far as I could tell, none of the listeners even knew. And yet she had such a capacity for drawing people in, for engaging. I so admire that.

So many of my life’s most important moments have occurred over the last 14 years and so many of them have included Mary. The night I met Charles, she and Trish were there, dressed as liturgical dancers. A month or so later at a Toys for Tots party a comment by Mary sparked a response by Charles that revealed him to be far more intriguing than I expected. That was the first night I kissed him and the memory is tied not to a random occurrence, but to that spark of authentic interest that I felt when Mary drew him out. It wasn’t even a conversation I was part of, just one that I happened to overhear, and yet it likely changed my life.

We shared a wedding year. Her happy face at our ceremony is forever vivid. She was there when I revealed that I was pregnant the first time, for she was sharing a kitchen with Cristina, who was my NFP coach. Later, in the latter stages of a different pregnancy, she and Tom hiked with me as I puffed over the hills of the Miwok trail in Marin, significantly out of breath, my lung capacity limited by the daughter inside me. Less than a month later, she and Kathleen hiked with me on the same trail on a glorious Good Friday morning, taking fabulous pregnancy pictures. I felt enormously blessed to experience the gift of her talent in celebration of my daughter’s life and in the creation of such a lovely and enduring image of my happiness.

Storyteller. Artist. Friend.

Always late and always welcome, it was great to have a party and know that if Mary hadn’t yet arrived, she would. You could count on her to charm the “party-is-over” blues with her late arrival and extended visit. Parties that simply end will feel forever more dismal now.

I knew that she was sick, but also knew that she was so busy living that she rarely returned calls or email. So I started just stopping by when I passed through San Anselmo, usually finding her out and leaving notes instead. On a recent November day, I knocked on her door, again unannounced. After a long delay, the door slowly opened and a gaunt, yellow Mary greeted me. I had just seen her CarePages pictures from Washington, but she seemed to have changed much in just a day or so.

I started by saying, “I just stopped by to say hi; I don’t have much time…” I really didn’t, that day. I was still an hour’s drive from home and needed to be at work soon. I didn’t make it that day though, for she answered, saying, “I don’t have much time either, Therese.” My heart stopped and my brain froze, simultaneously knowing and refusing to comprehend. As my girls played with her cats, she and I sat down on the front porch and she said words so dreaded that I stupidly made her clarify. “I have about two months,” she said. “You have two what?” The concept wouldn’t register for a moment and she had to repeat the horrible words while my eyes met hers in sadness. Oh, oh! Sadness for our loss, knowing that our time with her was so agonizingly short, but grief and empathy too for what lay ahead for her, for in her face as she revealed her impending death I saw fear and despair, knowledge that she was in tangible ways losing everyone and facing a journey that is inherently unknowable.

And yet in that moment Mary’s gaze also held strength, love, resolve, and faith, together a powerful combination that informed the conversation that followed, one I feel deeply honored to have shared. There was something so deeply tender, so incomprehensible and yet so agonizingly and humanly real about sitting there with her, talking about her death. We want death to come with guarantees, but Mary is too honest, too authentic, to pretend to be sure, to offer false and petty assurances. Her faith is real and imbedded deeply in her humanity, the depths of which informed everything we love about her, so our conversation was equally authentic, drawing on both deep faith and the agonizing reality of human fear and suffering. Later, reflecting, I felt a whisper of Gethsemane.

We talked of her funeral site (Saint Dominic’s, she told me, with a memorial service later in Lodi. “Do you think people will travel to Lodi for it?” And later, “I guess I should call Father Xavier...”) We talked of her call that morning to hospice, of being unable to speak the words. (“Did I call? Now I can’t remember. Maybe Tom called.”) We talked of her concern about Tom. She was so lovingly practical, wanting Charles to teach Tom to barbeque so that after she was no longer there, Tom could respond to friends’ suggestions about getting together, “sure, let’s barbeque!” with friends bringing the food. She wanted to organize her photos, landscape the backyard to make it drought resistant, give her clothes and baking supplies to her sister and girlfriends. To neatly wrap up her life in a way that lifted burdens from Tom.

As she spoke, we wept and held each other while I told her how sorry I was that this was happening. Later, I was told that I should have laughed, told her stories, distracted her. But I can’t imagine wanting someone to change the subject or tell a joke if I revealed my own imminent mortality. And Mary isn’t one to duck the messy but authentic realities of life, with “bring it on!” as a more “authentically Mary” approach to embracing the vulnerability and sorrow that can be the cost of deep, unhesitating, and unconditional love.

Most memorably, she shared the limitations of her own imagination about heaven, explaining that she did not find most images either interesting or comforting. She rejected both the “universal energy” concept (“I don’t want to be a drop of water in the ocean. I want to be me!”) and the more childish “floating on a cloud” image (“too boring!”)

I couldn’t help but agree, so when she asked what I thought heaven was like, I tried to describe C.S. Lewis’ images as an anecdote to such unsatisfying pictures. I read the last book in the Narnia series earlier this year and it absolutely knocked my socks off. I did not expect in a children’s book that all of the main characters, including much-loved Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, would be killed. Killed! The book is even more remarkable in that their deaths are both joyful and reassuring, for the story follows their journey through death, which is described as a sudden arrival in “Aslan’s country,” a familiar and yet infinitely better version of beloved Narnia. In Lewis’ description, heaven was created with love by the same Creator who sang more familiar worlds into creation, yet differs in that it will last for eternity. Marvelously, it includes familiar loves – family, friends, and others – living joyfully and without the need to be concerned that this wonderful adventure will end. Fiction, yes, but a fiction created by one who was familiar with God’s promises and thus informed by an imagination that suggests possibility.

I do not know if I was able to effectively communicate the images that had been so comforting to me. Still, I do now love the thought of Mary in “Aslan’s country,” a more perfect version of our own world where she is happily surrounded by loved ones and able to merge that infinite world with the essence of this one, perhaps unbounded by time and thus without any real distance between us. The limitations of this world keep us temporarily from experiencing her in the way that we are used to, yet these are inherently time bound whereas Mary is but a momentary step ahead of us on a more eternal, joyful, lovely, and familiar journey.

Go in peace, our lovely Mary, and hold us close to your heart. You have always expressed confidence in prayer and told me even on this day full of the emotions of this newly revealed grief that you would continue to pray for us. We too will continue to hold you in prayers of deep love, warm affection, and eternal appreciation. Until we join you, we will continue to hear your laughter, the inflections of your voice, and your loving presence both when we recognize their reflections in others whom you have touched and in our hearts, for you have left us with graceful lessons about life, love, friendship, and beauty that are living blessings, far too vivid to fade.

We love you.


John Z. said...

WOW!! Therese, you are exquisite in your writing and expression of what "Our Mary" meant to us and to the world...a life we should all try and emulate. I, too, will treasure the friendship I had with her and hope some day to enjoy her company once again in "Aslan's country." Thank you so much for posting!!

Anonymous said...

A lovely piece about Mary. Thanks for sharing.

Andrea Kanelopoulos - Anam Nostos House said...

I just now saw this...quite beautiful friend. SO lovely to read everyone's memories and to then cherish my own of her like a warm blanket around me. She left a mark in my heart forever. Peace to you! Andrea

Ginny said...

So beautiful ... I loved hearing your many memories of Mary, both in the good times and the bad. She was "Our Mary," indeed, and she was there for us every step of the way. I love thinking that she is still praying for us, as she always did, but from a different perch this time. That thought helps mitigate some of the pain of losing her. Thanks for the lovely tribute.