Friday, November 26, 2021

November 26: In the Midst of This Conflict, Funeral, One of the Most Decent Men

Merton searches for an answer . . . 

The fight went on in my mind. 

By now, the problem had resolved itself into one practical issue: why don’t I consult somebody about the whole question? Why don’t I write to the abbot of Gethsemani, and tell him all about my case, and ask him his opinion? 

More practical still, here at St. Bonaventure’s there was one priest whom I had come to know well during this last year, a wise and good philosopher, Father Philotheus. We had been going over some texts of St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus together, and I knew I could trust him with the most involved spiritual problem. Why did I not ask him? 

There was one absurd, crazy thing that held me up: it was a kind of a blind impulse, confused, obscure, irrational. I can hardly identify it as it actually was, because its true nature escaped me: it was so blind, so elemental. But it amounted to a vague subconscious fear that I would once and for all be told that I definitely had no vocation. It was the fear of an ultimate refusal. Perhaps what I wanted was to maintain myself in an equivocal, indefinite position in which I would be free to dream about entering the monastery, without having the actual responsibility of doing so, and of embracing the real hardships of Cistercian life. If I asked advice, and was told I had no vocation, then the dream would be over: and if I was told I had a vocation, then I would have to walk right in to the reality. 

And all this was complicated by that other dream: that of the Carthusians. If there had been a Carthusian monastery in America, things would have been much simpler. But there is still no such place in the whole hemisphere. And there was no chance of crossing the Atlantic. France was full of Germans and the Charterhouse in Sussex had been bombed flat to the ground. And so I walked under the trees, full of indecision, praying for light. 

In the midst of this conflict, I suddenly got a notion which shows that I was not very far advanced in the spiritual life. I thought of praying God to let me know what I was going to do, or what I should do, or what the solution would be, by showing it to me in the Scriptures. It was the old business of opening the book and putting your finger down blindly on the page and taking the words thus designated as an answer to your question. Sometimes the saints have done this, and much more often a lot of superstitious old women have done it. I am not a saint, and I do not doubt that there may have been an element of superstition in my action. But anyway, I made my prayer, and opened the book, and put my finger down definitely on the page and said to myself “Whatever it is, this is it.”

I think everyone struggles with unanswerable questions.  In this passage, Merton wrestles with his call to monasticism.  For me, this last month, I've been dealing with grief and all of its accompanying sadness and anger and confusion.  The pain of loss is one of those imponderables.  No answers.  Just lots of questions.

This afternoon, I attended the funeral of one of the most decent men I have ever known in my life.  He died unexpectedly four days before Thanksgiving.  I've known him for over 15 years (closer to 20).  A devout Christian, devoted son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, and friend.  There's not many times I can say this about a person--I never heard anyone say anything bad about this man.

And now he's gone at the age of 65, and I don't understand it.

Many times this past year (and even more this past month), I've had this thought:  God seems pretty greedy for angels right now.  So many good people that I know have died in 2021.  Decent, honest, loving people.  Some had long, meaningful lives (my mother).  Others had short, meaningful lives (the man we said goodbye to today).  I thought 2020 was a pretty terrible year.  Lots of senseless loss and suffering.  Its sequel has been worse in many ways.

Trying to make sense of a life ended too soon is a pretty fruitless endeavor.  It's sort of like trying to understand racism or homophobia or Trump supporters.  Rationally, you can identify the root causes of all of these problems (poverty and white supremacy and fear and plain stupidity).  However, that doesn't help a young black man who's pulled over by police because of the color of his skin.  Or a gay middle schooler who's the target of cyberbullying.  And it certainly doesn't help a family grieving the sudden loss of a loved one.

We can get stuck on the question "why," as in "Why did [insert name here] have to die?" or "Why does [insert name here] have to suffer?"  It's one of the most basic questions humans ask, along with "how."  The sciences answer the "how" questions.  Religions attempt to answer the "why" questions.  Science can explain how photosynthesis works.  Religion, however, approaches plants a little differently, according to the gospel of Luke:

Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

God gives us lilies.  We can pull them apart, put them under a microscope, examine and label their parts.  Understand how they function.  Or we can admire them, write psalms about them, be happy they exist.  Have faith that they will return every spring, dressed in glory and beauty.  

I don't believe in coincidence.  The universe is not ruled by chaos.  There are reasons for everything, even if we, as humans, can't comprehend them.  That's what faith is all about.  Trusting.  Believing.  Even in the face of great loss and grief.

I celebrate the man whom we laid to rest this afternoon.  His life was full of love and purpose.  That doesn't make his absence any easier for his family and friends.  But faith tells us that God cares wonderfully for all his flowers--the ones still blooming today and the ones gone to seed, waiting for the return of the sun in due season.

Saint Marty finds solace in that.  Comfort.  Meaning.



Thursday, November 25, 2021

November 25: Wild Cherry Trees, Thanksgiving, "Pepper"

 Merton wrestles with God . . . 

Back in the world, I felt like a man that had come down from the rare atmosphere of a very high mountain. When I got to Louisville, I had already been up for four hours or so, and my day was getting on towards its noon, so to speak, but I found that everybody else was just getting up and having breakfast and going to work. And how strange it was to see people walking around as if they had something important to do, running after busses, reading the newspapers, lighting cigarettes. 

How futile all their haste and anxiety seemed. 

My heart sank within me. I thought: “What am I getting into? Is this the sort of a thing I myself have been living in all these years?” 

At a street corner, I happened to look up and caught sight of an electric sign, on top of a two-storey building. It read: “Clown Cigarettes.” 

I turned and fled from the alien and lunatic street, and found my way into the nearby cathedral, and knelt, and prayed, and did the Stations of the Cross. 

Afraid of the spiritual pressure in that monastery? Was that what I had said the other day? How I longed to be back there now: everything here, in the world outside, was insipid and slightly insane. There was only one place I knew of where there was any true order. 

Yet, how could I go back? Did I not know that I really had no vocation?... It was the same old story again. 

I got on the train for Cincinnati, and for New York. 

Back at St. Bonaventure’s, where the spring I had already met in Kentucky finally caught up with me again, several weeks later, I walked in the woods, in the sun, under the pale blossoms of the wild cherry trees. 

It's a familiar story.  When God comes knocking, many people don't want to answer.  Other people run out the back door, into the woods, and find God waiting for them there, too, in the blossoms of cherry and apple trees.  God doesn't give up on you, even when you want to give up on God.

It has been a difficult month since my mother's passing, and I knew the holidays were going to feel very different this year.  Today is Thanksgiving in the United States.  We give thanks for the blessings in our lives--family, friends, health, jobs, pets, health, food, home.  Of course, God is the source of all those things we hold dear.

And, sometimes, God does things that we don't understand.  Like taking away one of those blessings.  Mothers.  Fathers.  Uncles.  Daughters.  Brothers.  Yes, God knocks on the door, and it's impossible not to answer.  Today, as I shared Thanksgiving brunch and dinner with people I love, I felt absence and loss.  But I also felt God with me, in the laughter of my niece and nephew and son and daughter.  In the drinks I shared with my sister-in-law (who's been my little sister for over 30 years) and her husband.  In the food my sisters prepared for dinner.  

God knocked on the door a month ago, and my mother answered.  

Saint Marty is thankful every day for the love he's had in his life.  Does have.

And a new poem for Thanksgiving . . .

Pepper

by:  Martin Achatz

I blacken my baked potato,
split its skin, pry it open with fork,
spoon in butter, sprinkle salt, then
a hurricane of pepper, so much
that the flesh of the potato looks
like a Milky Way of black stars,
pepper that hangs in the air, a cloud
of Mayfly hatch, fills my nose
with that delightful near-sneeze
moment when I feel the force of it
build in my head, rolling in
from the Atlantic with winds
that tear roofs off bayou shacks,
wash gators down Bourbon Street.
A pepper plague that makes me
believe in the Nile turning
to blood, in the Virgin birth.
Pepper you taste from Thanksgiving
grace until horns blast in
New Year's Day with the sound
my mother made when she took
her last breath and blew open
the gates of heaven.



Sunday, November 21, 2021

November 21: If It Were Pleasing to God, Moment of Grace, "Thanksgivings"

Merton tries to avoid God's call . . .

And yet, what a strange admission! To say that men were admirable, worthy of honor, perfect, in proportion as they disappeared into a crowd and made themselves unnoticed, by even ceasing to be aware of their own existence and their own acts. Excellence, here, was in proportion to obscurity: the one who was best was the one who was least observed, least distinguished. Only faults and mistakes drew attention to the individual. 

The logic of the Cistercian life was, then, the complete opposite to the logic of the world, in which men put themselves forward, so that the most excellent is the one who stands out, the one who is eminent above the rest, who attracts attention. 

But what was the answer to this paradox? Simply that the monk in hiding himself from the world becomes not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God, the principle of all perfection. Omnis gloria ejus filiae regis ab intus. 

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real! 

With all these things before me, day and night, for two days, I finally came to the afternoon of Good Friday. 

After a tremendous morning of ten hours of practically uninterrupted chanting and psalmody, the monks, exhausted, had disappeared from the scene of their gutted church, with its stripped altars and its empty Tabernacle wide open to the four winds. The monastery was silent, inert. I could not pray, I could not read any more. 

I got Brother Matthew to let me out the front gate on the pretext that I wanted to take a picture of the monastery, and then I went for a walk along the enclosure wall, down the road past the mill, and around the back of the buildings, across a creek and down a narrow valley, with a barn and some woods on one side, and the monastery on a bluff on the other. 

The sun was warm, the air quiet. Somewhere a bird sang. In a sense, it was a relief to be out of the atmosphere of intense prayer that had pervaded those buildings for the last two days. The pressure was too heavy for me. My mind was too full. 

Now my feet took me slowly along a rocky road, under the stunted cedar trees, with violets growing up everywhere between the cracks in the rock. 

Out here I could think: and yet I could not get to any conclusions. But there was one thought running around and around in my mind: “To be a monk ... to be a monk...” 

I gazed at the brick building which I took to be the novitiate. It stood on top of a high rampart of a retaining wall that made it look like a prison or a citadel. I saw the enclosure wall, the locked gates. I thought of the hundreds of pounds of spiritual pressure compressed and concentrated within those buildings and weighing down on the heads of the monks, and I thought, “It would kill me.” 

I turned my eyes to the trees, to the woods. I looked up the valley, back in the direction from which I had come, at the high wooded hill that closed off the prospect. I thought: “I am a Franciscan. That is my kind of spirituality, to be out in the woods, under the trees...” 

I walked back across the trestle over the sunny, narrow creek, embracing my fine new error. After all I had seen of the Franciscans, where did I get the idea that they spent their time under the trees? They often lived in schools in towns and in cities: and these monks, on the contrary, did go out every day and work in the very fields and woods that I was looking at. 

Human nature has a way of making very specious arguments to suit its own cowardice and lack of generosity. And so now I was trying to persuade myself that the contemplative, cloistered life was not for me, because there was not enough fresh air.... 

Nevertheless, back in the monastery I read St. Bernard’s De Diligendo Deo and I read the life of a Trappist monk who had died in a monastery in France, ironically enough in my own part of France, near Toulouse: Father Joseph Cassant. 

The Retreat Master, in one of his conferences, told us a long story of a man who had once come to Gethsemani, and who had not been able to make up his mind to become a monk, and had fought and prayed about it for days. Finally, went the story, he had made the Stations of the Cross, and at the final station had prayed fervently to be allowed the grace of dying in the Order. 

“You know,” said the Retreat Master, “they say that no petition you ask at the fourteenth station is ever refused.” 

In any case, this man finished his prayer, and went back to his room and in an hour or so he collapsed, and they just had time to receive his request for admission to the Order when he died. 

He lies buried in the monks’ cemetery, in the oblate’s habit. 

And so, about the last thing I did before leaving Gethsemani, was to do the Stations of the Cross, and to ask, with my heart in my throat, at the fourteenth station, for the grace of a vocation to the Trappists, if it were pleasing to God. 

You can never escape God.  God sort of chases you.  Doesn't give up on you.  Ever.  That's what Merton learns at the end of this passage.  

Sometimes, God puts things into your head that terrify or amaze you.  Ideas or urges.  For instance, tonight, I led a poetry workshop.  I'd been trying to put it together for days--the poems and writing prompts.  It finally came together this afternoon.  In a matter of about 15 or 20 minutes.  Now, some disciples of this blog will say that all of my struggle helped me to that moment of inspiration.  I prefer to believe that it was a moment of grace.  God reaching down and giving me a gift.

At the end of the workshop, God gave me another gift.  A new poem.  I haven't written a new poem in ages.  

God doesn't give up on anybody.  Even tired, grief-stricken saints like Marty.

Here's the new poem . . . 

Thanksgivings

by:  Martin Achatz

This is a poem of last suppers
that I didn't know were last suppers.
The day my brother came to my parents'
house to have pumpkin pie
after Thanksgiving because his wife
was Seventh Day Adventist, refused
to make the whole turkey smorgasbord.
And pumpkin pie was his favorite.
He ate it with Cool Whip, went home, 
was gone five months later.  
Or my sister in the hospital, how I fed
her strawberry frozen custard.  She smiled
at me like a guilty child.  Four months
later, she took her last bite of air.
For my father, it was a McDonald's 
cheeseburger, large fries, vanilla
milkshake.  The following day, 
my mother held his hand, told him
he'd been a good husband,
and he slipped out the door.  Now,
my mother.  I remember the last
Thanksgiving, how she ate a piece
of pecan pie, forgot she had eaten,
ate another because why not?
Gone four weeks before turkey,
stuffing, mashed potatoes, pecan
pie.  All these last suppers, as holy
as any bread or wine.  I gospel
them here, make them into psalm,
lamentation.  Because, really, 
aren't all family dinners like that?



Friday, November 19, 2021

November 19: Lost, Ignored, Overlooked, Big Ups and Big Downs, Hibernation

Merton and the loss of self . . .

It was a tremendous thing to hear the terrible cries of Jeremias resounding along the walls of that dark church buried in the country. “...Attend and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow ... From above He hath sent fire into my bones, and hath chastised me: He hath spread a net for my feet, He hath turned me back, He hath made me desolate, wasted with sorrow all the day long.” 

It was not hard to realize Whose words these were, not difficult to detect the voice of Christ, in the liturgy of His Church, crying out in the sorrows of His Passion, which was now beginning to be relived, as it is relived each year, in the churches of Christendom. 

At the end of the office, one of the monks came solemnly out and extinguished the sanctuary light, and the sudden impression froze all hearts with darkness and foreboding. The day went on solemnly, the Little Hours being chanted in a strange, mighty, and tremendously sorrowful tone, plain as its three monotonously recurring notes could possibly make it be, a lament that was as rough and clean as stone. After the Gloria in Excelsis of the Conventual Mass, the organ was at last altogether silent: and the silence only served to bring out the simplicity and strength of the music chanted by the choir. After the general Communion, distributed to the long slow line of all the priests and monks and brothers and guests, and the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose—slow and sad, with lights and the Range Lingua—came the Maundy, the Mandatum, when, in the cloister, the monks washed the feet of some seventy or eighty poor men, and kissed their feet, and pressed money into their hands. 

And through all this, especially in the Mandatum, when I saw them at close range, I was amazed at the way these monks, who were evidently just plain young Americans from the factories and colleges and farms and high-schools of the various states, were nevertheless absorbed and transformed in the liturgy. The thing that was most impressive was their absolute simplicity. They were concerned with one thing only: doing the things they had to do, singing what they had to sing, bowing and kneeling and so on when it was prescribed, and doing it as well as they could, without fuss or flourish or display. It was all utterly simple and unvarnished and straightforward, and I don’t think I had ever seen anything, anywhere, so unaffected, so unself-conscious as these monks. There was not a shadow of anything that could be called parade or display. They did not seem to realize that they were being watched—and, as a matter of fact, I can say from experience that they did not know it at all. In choir, it is very rare that you even realize that there are any, or many, or few seculars in the house: and if you do realize it, it makes no difference. The presence of other people becomes something that has absolutely no significance to the monk when he is at prayer. It is something null, neutral, like the air, like the atmosphere, like the weather. All these external things recede into the distance. Remotely, you are aware of it all, but you do not advert to it, you are not conscious of it, any more than the eye registers, with awareness, the things on which it is not focused, although they may be within its range of vision. 

Certainly one thing the monk does not, or cannot, realize is the effect which these liturgical functions, performed by a group as such, have upon those who see them. The lessons, the truths, the incidents and values portrayed are simply overwhelming. 

For this effect to be achieved, it is necessary that each monk as an individual performer be absolutely lost, ignored, overlooked. 

Lost, ignored, overlooked.  I think everyone feels like this at some time in their lives.  A person doesn't seek out isolation or anonymity, unless you're a monastic, I guess.  But I sort of hate people who seek out the limelight.  Who have to be constantly affirmed with praise or attention.  They exhaust me.

Perhaps I was a monk in a former life, because I'm very comfortable being ignored and overlooked.  It might be the way I was brought up.  You just do what is right, and don't stop for applause or thanks.  My mom was like that.  Worked hard her whole life, and did it because "that's just what you do" she said to me once.  

It has been a long week full of big ups (speaking with Joy Harjo) and big downs (a school suspension for my son--not going to get into it), among other things.  When I get home at night, after all of my work is put to bed, I find that all I want to do is sleep.  Perhaps it's the loss of sunlight as we tilt toward the winter solstice.  Perhaps it's a little depression from the loss of my mother.  Or perhaps it's just exhaustion after a couple months of toil.  Good toil, but toil nonetheless.

I sort of understand why animals go into hibernation around this time of year.  A four- or five-month snooze sounds pretty good to me.  But, of course, the holidays are fast approaching.  Thanksgiving is next week.  Then the gallop toward Christmas.

I have lots to accomplish prior to December 25th.  In fact, I have a lot to accomplish by Sunday.  Church services and a poetry workshop and grading.  I'm not complaining.  I'm just trying to organize the weekend in my mind.  That's just what I do, as my mother used to say.

If you see me tomorrow or the next day, ignore or overlook me if I growl at you.

Saint Marty just needs a glass of wine and a long winter's nap.



Tuesday, November 16, 2021

November 16: Strangled Cry, Joy Harjo, Friend of Mine

Merton shares in the story of Holy Week . . . 

There was one thing the Cistercians had in their favor. The Carthusians had a kind of recreation in which they went out for walks together and conversed with one another, to prevent the possibilities of strain that might go with too uncompromising a solitude, too much of that sola beatitudo. Could there be too much of it, I wondered? But the Trappist with his unbroken silence—at least as far as conversations were concerned—had one advantage! 

And yet what did it matter which one was the most perfect Order? Neither one of them was for me! Had I not been told definitely enough a year ago that I had no vocation to any religious Order? All these comparisons were nothing but fuel for the fire of that interior anguish, that hopeless desire for what I could not have, for what was out of reach. 

The only question was not which Order attracted me more, but which one tortured me the more with a solitude and silence and contemplation that could never be mine. 

Far from wondering whether I had a vocation to either one, or from instituting a comparison between them, I was not even allowed the luxury of speculation on such a subject. It was all out of the question. 

However, since the Carthusians were, after all, far away, it was what I had before my eyes that tortured me the most. The Carthusians were more perfect, perhaps, and therefore more to be desired: but they were doubly out of reach because of the war and because of what I thought was my lack of a vocation. 

If I had had any supernatural common sense I would have realized that a retreat like this would be the best time to take that problem by the horns and overcome it, not by my own efforts and meditations but by prayer and by the advice of an experienced priest. And where would I find anyone more experienced in such matters than in a monastery of contemplatives? 

But what was the matter with me? I suppose I had taken such a beating from the misunderstandings and misapprehensions that had arisen in my mind by the time that Capuchin got through with me, in his confessional, the year before, that I literally feared to reopen the subject at all. There was something in my bones that told me that I ought to find out whether my intense desire to lead this kind of a life in some monastery were an illusion: but the old scars were not yet healed, and my whole being shrank from another scourging. 

That was my Holy Week, that mute, hopeless, interior struggle. It was my share in the Passion of Christ which began, that year, in the middle of the night with the first strangled cry of the Vigils of Holy Thursday.

Sharing in the Passion of Christ.  Through great suffering comes salvation and joy.  

That's what I want to talk about.  Joy.

Last night, I had the privilege of being in a Zoom meeting with U. S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.  Around 6:45 p.m., I was sitting in front of a computer in my office, waiting.  I'd spent the entire day preparing for the moment.  Practicing with the technology.  Writing and rewriting my introduction for Joy.  Answering dozens of texts and emails.  It was chaotic.  Exciting.  Exhausting.

At 6:50 p.m., Joy Harjo's name appeared on my screen.  A few seconds later, I was having a conversation with the Poet Laureate of the United States.  The first Native American to hold the position.  Only the second person in history to hold the title for three consecutive terms.  Joy.

It was one of the greatest moments of my life.  In a time of personal struggle and loss.  

Here's the thing--it's easy to lose sight of joy when faced with darkness.  Last night, there was music and celebration in the library where I work.  People coming together to celebrate.  For an hour, I sat in in the presence of Joy.  Basked in joy.  Drove home in joy.  Drank a glass of wine with joy.

Tonight, I am thinking about a friend of mine who has taught me a great deal about what joy is all about.  Spreading joy has been her life's work.  She's seen me through some very difficult times in my life.  She's taken my hand in darkness and led me back to light.  Made me laugh in the middle of sorrow.  Given me poetry in moments of profound silence.

The saying goes that the price of love is grief.  I'm not sure what the price of joy is.  Tears, maybe.  Despair, perhaps.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for his joy mentor.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

November 14: With God Alone, Left this World, "Jim Rummy"

Merton and Holy Week . . . 

As the week went on, the house began to fill, and the evening before Holy Thursday there must have been some twenty-five or thirty retreatants in the monastery, men young and old, from all quarters of the country. Half a dozen students had hitch-hiked down from Notre Dame, with glasses and earnest talk about the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. There was a psychiatrist from Chicago who said he came down every Easter, and there were three or four pious men who turned out to be friends and benefactors of the monastery—quiet, rather solemn personages; they assumed a sort of command over the other guests. They had a right to. They practically lived here in this guest house. In fact, they had a kind of quasi-vocation all their own. They belonged to that special class of men raised up by God to support orphanages and convents and monasteries and build hospitals and feed the poor. On the whole it is a way to sanctity that is sometimes too much despised. It sometimes implies a more than ordinary humility in men who come to think that the monks and nuns they assist are creatures of another world. God will show us at the latter day that many of them were better men than the monks they supported!

But the man I most talked to was a Carmelite priest who had wandered about the face of the earth even more than I had. If I wanted to hear something about monasteries, he could tell me about hundreds of them that he had seen. 

We walked in the guest house garden, in the sun, watching the bees fighting in the rich yellow tulips, and he told me about the Carthusians in England, at Parkminster. 

There were no longer any pure hermits or anchorites in the world: but the Carthusians were the ones who had gone the farthest, climbed the highest on the mountain of isolation that lifted them above the world and concealed them in God. 

We could see the Cistercians here going out to work in a long line with shovels tucked under their arms with a most quaint formality. But the Carthusian worked alone, in his cell, in his own garden or workshop, isolated. These monks slept in a common dormitory, the Carthusian slept in a hidden cell. These men ate together while someone read aloud to them in their refectory. The Carthusian ate alone, sitting in the window-alcove of his cell, with no one to speak to him but God. All day long and all night long the Cistercian was with his brothers. All day long and all night long, except for the offices in choir and other intervals, the Carthusian was with God alone. O beata solitudo!... 

The words were written on the walls of this Trappist guest house, too. O beata solitudo, o sola beatitudo! 

Greetings, loyal disciples.  I am still alive, in a time when I have been struggling with feelings of deep isolation and darkness.  Like the Carthusians, alone in their cells.  It has been over a month since the last time I've written any kind of epistle on this blog.  Much has happened.  I'm going to try to put a few words down here tonight, to touch the face of what I have been staring at this last 30 days.

A little over two weeks ago, on October 28th, at 8:47 p.m., my mother left this world after 90 years of labor.  I was in the room with her for her last breaths.  

But I don't want to talk about that.  What I want to talk about happened that afternoon, when I was alone with her, holding her hand.  Pressing my thumb into its skin and bone.  As I did this, I whispered to her that I loved her.  That she had been a good mother, and her work was done.  All her children were going to be fine.  We would take care of Rose, her extra-chromosomed daughter.  Dad was waiting for her.  And her mother, Bessie.  And those two kids she had to let go of--my sister, Sally, and brother, Kevin.  They were all there at the dock, watching for her boat to drift to shore.

I told her all these things before my siblings arrived and the great communal vigil began.  And I was grateful for those alone moments with her, when I could tell her how much I loved her.  By myself.  Like writing a prayer on a slip of paper, folding it into a tiny square, and slipping it into her palm so she could carry it to wherever she was headed.

A week later, we celebrated her life in church.  With a rosary.  Schubert's Ave MariaPiĆ© Jesu by Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Meatballs and mostaccioli.  Everyone deals with loss in their own ways.  Grief is a private affair, and we are all, in some ways, monks in this solitary endeavor.  Saying our goodbyes.  Nursing our regrets and broken hearts.  

This cold November night, I'm staring at the Christmas tree my family just decorated, full of colored lights, crowned with a Victorian-looking Father Christmas.  I see the ghost of my mother sitting in a chair beside it, staring at all the ornaments.  Each ornament has its own story.  The branches contain the history of my marriage and family,  Nearly 30 years.

In 2018, my mom came to my house for Christmas dinner.  The house was full to bursting with people.  Every inch of chair and sofa and floor space was full.  It was almost chaos with plates of food and cookies.  Mugs of spiked hot chocolate.  And my mother loved every minute of it.  I remember her laughter and smiles that night.

That is what I'm holding onto right now.  That memory.

At my mother's funeral, my son read a poem he'd written for her.

Saint Marty is going to let his son have the last word.  

O beata solitudo!  O happy solitude!

Jim Rummy

by:  Gideon Achatz

Jim rummy with her was one of the best
parts of both of our days. She was polite,
understood that I was a child.
She didn't always know who I was,
but I loved watching her
wrinkled hand take a card.
She had mahogany eyes,
glasses that rested on her
shell ears. Her hair was
white poplar, her face smooth
as butterfly wings.

I would pick up the deck, shuffle cards.
I crave that noise to this day.
I placed the cards on the table,
let her pick first.  I picked my card
after her.  We didn't ever care about runs
or pairs.  Sometimes she forgot
how to play, and I helped her.  That warmed me,
could warm me even if I was in the arctic.
It didn't matter who won.
It was just for fun.  For love.

I imagine her up in heaven now,
shuffling the deck.  Dealing the cards.
Playing jim rummy with grandpa.
Of course, grandma always wins.