April 3, 2021 1:05 PM
The sky is a bright blue, and the midmorning sun is hazy. The wind whips around us as the sound of waves crashes in the near distance. I rest my head on her shoulder and look down at her long black braid and the pale yellow of the sand below. My first memory is of my mother holding me at the beach and I can still feel the warmth of her cheek on my own. The peace she created for me in her presence. The safe space between us.
Gentleness, affection, love and humor guided our mother’s life. And these gifts live on. Born in 1950’s Long Island, she grew up in a big family of six siblings near the ocean. She recalled her big brother Walter’s ability to devise games and fun for them all including a paper planetarium meticulously cut out to scale by hand and he recalls her resilience and sense of fun. From an early age, she knew how to set others at ease and make them laugh. Her sister Peggy recalls reading poems of Robert Lewis Stevenson to her and their little sister Kathy, and their rapt attention to the lilting adventures on the page. Her sisters remember her collection of dear friends throughout the neighborhood and how she would lower her voice in telling a story and the sound of whooping and delighted laughter that would follow. She was indefatigable and never gave up, even when it was hard.
In her early twenties, she was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a narrow prognosis for recovery. She lived upstairs from her sister Patty, who, while they both worked at Massachusetts General Hospital, connected her with Dr. Hermes Grillo, a thoracic surgeon dedicated to his patients and who saved her life. I remember her clearly describing the tree outside her window after she recovered from surgery and the bright green color. Green, the color of life, would be her favorite throughout her life. Matthew recalls that, maybe because of this early brush with death, she had a zest for life rivalled by few. She appreciated the beauty of every day and shared that with my siblings and I, whether she was planting a butterfly bush, hunting for a great antique find or singing along to her favorite James Taylor song.
She put other people first. She was always there for us, no matter what. When you would least expect it, she would surprise you and bring exactly what you needed. I remember her delight when Patrick, as a young boy would open the curtains early in the morning with the announcement, “It’s a beautiful day!” She cherished the same delight in her beloved grandson Wally. She recounted a story about one of his first days in daycare and how when another child, who did not speak English, was scared and did not want to join in with the class activities, Wally rushed over and held her hand. That was what she valued: kindness. And that was her strength. Her siblings recall the gentleness with which she held us as children. And which we still feel today. That love that we felt and knew gives us strength today, and every day of our lives. Megan felt that wherever she was, felt like home. Even when it was hard.
On a vast and nearly empty air force base on a desert in Madrid, Spain, far away from everyone and the family she knew, in a tiny, box-like shop the cashier shyly approached my mother and I as another customer headed out the door. “I just want you to know, that, a lot of us heard what you spoke up about and that must have been really hard. But its happening all the time, to lots of us and you’re not alone.” My mother thanked her and said, “No one has the right to hurt you.” I remember feeling proud of her for standing up for herself and now her strength was helping give strength to someone that she did not even know. Her behavior was an example to me. That if you can, you should stand up for what is right. For you or for another person. Even if you are alone, even if it is hard. Because everyone deserves to feel safe, protected and loved. Maybe no presiding institution or group will listen to you, believe you, or support you. But when you know your truth and you speak it, that has something of the divine in it. She was the author of her own story and she fought everyday to live a beautiful life.
Many people have shared with me the excitement she had for showing her family and friends around the countryside of Virginia, England, Ireland and many other locales. And I recall her zest for driving to the remotest hillside vineyard or art museum gem. She welcomed us, her friends and family, wherever we were, she did not judge other people and accepted them as they are. She welcomed us into the gift of her beautiful life. And I know that she will be just as excited to welcome us into the continuation of that life.
The Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, wrote a poem about Saint Kevin of Glendalough. It is based on an 800-year-old oral history of Saint Kevin, believed to have raised a family of blackbirds in his hand. The poet describes the piece in terms of doing what is right, not for praise, or superficial renown, but for its own sake. It is about self-belief, chosen values and the living out of those chosen values. The poem is called, “Saint Kevin and the Blackbird.”
Saint Kevin and The Blackbird
(from The Spirit Level, 1996)
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
- I love you, Mom. Erin