The Last Pass
By Margaret Zacharias
Footfalls thunder on the second floor above my head. Doors slam, toilets flush, pipes rattle, and the occasional dull thud makes me wince. Next to me in the kitchen, Bobby bangs his cup on his high chair tray. I inhale sweet steam and continue to stir the oatmeal.
People tell me there’s a special place in heaven reserved for the mothers of four boys. I hope it’s true. That means my mom Bridget Kavanaugh arrived in a slam dunk. Just like her, though, no matter how crazy my boys might make me, I can’t imagine ever giving one of them away. They’re O’Malley’s. They know where they belong.
My own birth mother gave me away, and it still hurts.
But I got lucky. Sean and Bridget wanted me. They gave me six feisty older brothers, a brilliant Catholic school education, and all the love their generous hearts could provide. Tricks I use daily to deal with my own sons, I learned from them.
I shout up the stairs. “Joseph!” I pull the oatmeal off the heat and pour it into bowls to cool. “Make sure you have your chemistry text for that open book test!”
“No worries, Mom.” He sprints down, book in hand and looking dapper in his well-pressed uniform.
“Good job! Remember I’ll be at the Bishop Daley Home. No express delivery today.” I start to layer lettuce, tomatoes, meat and cheese between slices of bread.
David and Daniel scramble downstairs with uncombed hair, still wearing their pajamas. They slump over their oatmeal bowls, yawning.
“Get a move on, you two,” I say, “Don’t forget, soccer practice after school. Pack your cleats and t-shirts in your backpacks.”
As soon as they’ve finished breakfast, they grab two sandwiches, apples and chips from the countertop and jostle each other all the way back upstairs.
“Debate practice after school, too, Mom,” Joseph says.
I turn to the high chair but I’m too late. Bobby already holds his plastic bowl high above his head. He chortles and his breakfast flies. I scoop him out of the high chair just as the whole mess bounces from my chest to the floor. He snuggles his cereal-covered face into the shoulder of my formerly clean shirt, and I snuggle him right back.
Okay, wipe down toddler, high chair and floor. Load dishes. Toss all the oatmeal-coated clothing into the washer. Throw on a clean shirt and a clean diaper and—
“Mom, Mom, you have to sign these!” The twins race down the stairs to shove a dozen different pieces of paper in front of my eyes. “They have to go back today!”
Why didn’t they think of this last night when I asked if there were papers from school?
I scribble my name on curriculum notices, homework approvals and field trip permission slips. I barely scan what I’m signing. Their matching red shirts look reasonably clean and smooth, properly tucked into their uniform slacks. Their belts sit in place. Hallelujah!
But we’re still running late. David and Daniel leap out the door shouting “Front!” The wild October wind threatens to snatch all those important papers from their hands.
“Joseph rides in front because he’s the oldest and he gets out first.” I say it every-blessed-morning. I strap Bobby into his car seat between the twins. They fold their arms across their chests and stare out their windows from opposite sides of the backseat.
Halfway to Notre Dame High School I realize that I have left my purse in the kitchen. I stifle a shriek. This is not the correct adult example to set for teenage Joseph, who will soon be driving himself.
“Thanks, Mom,” Joseph says, under his breath, when he slides out of the car. He looks around before he saunters to the door. I know he’s hoping no one notices that his mom still has to drive him.
I stay five miles under the speed limit and stop at every intersection, all the way to St. Xavier. I already got a speeding ticket, the last time I shuttled a textbook for Joseph. I’m taking no chances. The terrible, I mean terrific, twins groan from the back seat.
“Green light, Mom. Green light!”
As soon as they depart from my annoying presence they close ranks, shoulder to shoulder, united buddies to reenter their middle school world. I swing back home for my driver’s license before dropping Bobby with Mrs. Graham, our neighborhood babysitter. I must look even more frazzled than usual. She plucks a wad of oatmeal from my hair, and gives me a hug.
“Some of them leave their babies with me so they can go to the spa and get a massage.”
“Yes, the smart ones!” I say. But I don’t mean it. I enjoy my work at the Daley Home.
Mrs. Graham laughs. “It’s not my place to judge. I do admire your generosity, spending your time with those poor old people.”
“They give me much more than I give them.” Mrs. Graham doesn’t know my secrets.
I hit the freeway. I’m brooding again. The need to justify my own existence, the worry that I’m somehow just unworthy, keep assaulting me right along with the grief about losing my mom just over a year ago.
I always knew I was adopted. I’m petite, with dark hair and a golden complexion. The Kavanaugh boys are all pink-cheeked blond Vikings. I have brown eyes. Theirs are all blue. The first time I asked my mother why I looked so different from the rest of the family, I was only three years old.
“Well, sure, the angels brought you, Miss Megan,” she said. “They knew a tiny Pictish Princess would be just what I needed, to help me keep these rowdy boys in line.”
I believed her. I threw myself into my role as a beloved ornament, riding about the house like the queen of the fairies atop my brothers’ giant shoulders.
By the time I reached high school, though, I started to ask more questions. I went to Sister Margaret Mary, my favorite teacher. I asked if there was any way I could find out who my birth parents were, and why they didn’t keep me. That dedicated young Sister spent the next two years butting heads with her superiors, trying to break the seals on a closed adoption.
I’ll never forget the tears in her eyes when she called me into her office right before my graduation, to tell me she had learned nothing.
“But it’s my life,” I said. “I think I have a right to know!”
She just shook her head. “There are always good reasons why adoptions are sealed. In the end, we’re all God’s children. We make the choice to become the best He created us to be, or not, regardless of how we got here.”
“But, Sister –“
“Count your blessings, Megan. Cherish the precious family the good Lord gave you. You know they love you dearly.”
For a while, after I started college, I prayed to Our Lady every day, asking her to help me answer my questions about my birth, and where I really came from. Then I met a football player named Michael O’Malley. For a while, I forgot about those haunting questions, in the excitement of new love, creating our own family together while Michael built his investment business.
Maybe it’s just coming back to me now because Joseph has reached that same age, trying to figure out who he’s meant to be. He’s the only one of our children who shares my coloring. My gentle Irish mama is no longer here to reassure me. The brothers who once adored me have their own families now. We still get together, but it’s just not the same without Bridget.
I pull into the visitors’ parking lot at the Bishop Daley Residential Home. It’s time to get my mind off my pitiful self! Some of these quirky old souls have no one but me to visit them. Sadly,this parking lot is never more than half full. I comb out my curly hair. I spritz on a bit of L'Air de Temps. I’ll be sniffing the residents, and they’ll be sniffing me.
I catch the odor of disinfectant as soon as I open the door that leads to the sign-in desk. That’s the way this building is supposed to smell.
As a Resident Advocate, an independent volunteer for the State, my job is to inspect rooms and bathrooms for cleanliness; examine bodies for bruises or bed sores; and encourage the residents who still can talk to share any problems they might be experiencing. The time I spend singing, playing games, wheeling them to meals and Masses, praying with them – that’s my own choice. They’re certainly not state requirements.
I decide to start in Maddy’s room. I need her high spirits right away today, to settle my melancholy mood.
Maddy is even smaller than I am. She looks like a tiny doll, perched in her wheel chair to enjoy the morning sun streaming through her window. I peek into her bathroom as I come through the door, and find it sparkling. I take her hand, lean over to kiss her cheek, and quickly check her person. I see no bruises. Her sparse white hair has been combed, and she’s mildly fragrant with her favorite lavender cologne.
“How are you today, Maddalena Melone?”
Her brown eyes twinkle, but she sighs deeply. “That dreadful Sara Beth has stolen my
“Has she, now? Perhaps you've just misplaced them? Let’s take a look.” I make a great show as I look back into the bathroom, “Not here. I’ll check your closet.”
I search high and low. “I can’t imagine how Sara Beth could have put them up here.” I standon tiptoe to peer at the top shelf.
“You should be looking in Sara Beth’s room,” Maddy says. She tries to sound grumpy.
“I will,” I say, “If we don’t find them here.”
I look under her bed, under her pillow and mattress, in the space between the bed and the wall. I look in the nightstand drawer. I’ve found her precious magazines in all these places, at one time or another. Hide-the-Magazines is Maddy’s favorite game.
Maybe she really does forget where she put them. I worry about that. Some of the folks I visit here have forgotten their own names. But I don’t think so. I think she relies on this routine to reassure herself that we both know what we’re doing, that life goes on, as close to normal as possible for her at this stage of life.
I spot a bump under the blanket on her lap. Okay, this is a new one. “Perhaps you wanted to read them by the window.”
I lift the corner of the afghan and find only a big ball of yarn and a crochet hook. Right behind her, though, I notice that one curtain has been awkwardly pulled, to cover a portion of the deep window well.
“Let’s just let the rest of the sunlight in.” I push the curtain aside.
Here they are: St. Anthony Messenger, The Liguorian, The Magnificat, Catholic Digest,
Catholic World Report, National Catholic Reporter and the English edition of L’Osservatore
Romano. Maddy’s an equal-opportunity Catholic reader. She’s trembling with laughter as I hand
her the pile of magazines and newspapers.
“Naughty Maddy! You have to stop making these false accusations against poor Sara Beth. You know that’s a sin against the Eighth Commandment?”
She stops laughing and hangs her head. Now I feel badly that I’ve hurt her feelings. Then she peers back up at me from under her eyelashes. She doesn’t look chastised at all. She’s grinning.
“Mortal sin,” she says.
“Yes.” I’m trying to keep a straight face.
“Well, then,” with another deep sigh, “I guess I’ll just have to go to Confession, maybe, to that nice Fr. Frank. I like him. He listens to me. He always gives me a big penance. He says it’ll keep me busy, so I won’t get into any more trouble.”
“Good,” I say. “You deserve it! Would you like me to come back and wheel you there, before Mass?”
Maddy nods. She holds up her rosary, her signal our game is finished and she wants to pray. I sit down in the chair next to her. We pray the Joyful Mysteries together. Then I stand up to go.
“I have a new Jesuit Joke,” Maddy says. Her eyes plead with me to stay.
I’m tempted. But I’ve already spent too much time here. I really need to move on, to the other folks who are waiting for me. It’s almost time for the Sing-Along in the Alzheimer’s unit.
“Why don’t you save it,” I say. “You can tell me when I come back, on our way to Confession. That way, you’ll get immediate absolution.”
The twinkle comes back, and she lifts her gnarly old hand to wave me good bye.
My heart breaks as I hurry through the halls. Voices call out from almost every room I pass.
“Come in, come in and visit me.”
“Please, come pray with me.”
If I stopped to chat with every lonely soul here, I’d never finish my official inspections for the residents on my list. These folks do have their own Resident Advocates assigned to them.
I always acknowledge their invitations, though.
“Good morning,” I say with a smile. I wave as I pass by. I use their names if I can see them on the door. I know what it’s like to feel that you’re nobody.
At the corner of the hall, a dedicated power-walker collides with me. She wears a cute pinktrack suit, sports a fashionable blond bob and lipstick. Without a word of apology, she pulls away from me and strides as fast as she can toward the outside door.
Oh, no! I recognize her. That’s Penny McGee, up to her tricks again. She’s still accustomed to having the run of the place, but she doesn’t have it any more. Penny recently had to be moved into the Alzheimer’s Unit.
The opposite scenario to Maddy, her body remains young and strong, but her mind is deterio-rating rapidly. If I let her get through that door to the parking lot, she’ll get lost – or run over.
I dash after her and catch up just in time. “Hi, Penny. It’s me, Megan. We’re just about to start the Sing-Along and I know you don’t want to miss that! Let’s go together.”
I grab her arm as gently as I can and haul her away from the door. She looks at me as if she’s never seen me before. Just six months ago we could enjoy a competitive game of Scrabble. She’s still alert enough to take care of her personal grooming. She’s cunning enough that she somehow manages to observe the passcode for the Locked Unit, when people like me go in and out. They’ve already had to change the numerical keypad three times.
I just hope the passcode I used last week still works. I slip my right arm through Penny’s elbow and hold on tight. I make a fist and pump my left hand up and down while she pumps her right. We power-walk our way back into the main hallway and turn left.
They’ve discovered that Penny went missing again. We meet two nurses running as we makeour way down the corridor. A young male nurse, Brian, I think, smiles at me and nods with satisfaction.
“There’s our Penny!” He punches in the code and holds the door open for us.
Penny sees everyone sitting in their circle on sofas and chairs in the residents’ lounge. She pulls away from me and takes her usual seat.
I’m constantly amazed that no matter what else these dear people might forget, they never lose the words or tunes for You Are My Sunshine and Take Me Out to the Ball Game. They each clutch a printed song sheet on their laps like tethers. But they never look at them. They just sing with gusto from the memories they still have left.
I’m belting it out myself and don’t notice when Harold Evans, who is sitting next to me, snatches my stack of index cards. I carry them to make notes about each client, things to remember from each visit, and things to look for next time. As special as each of them remains in my heart, I just can’t remember every detail from one visit to the next.
“You stole my cards!” Harold bellows between songs.
“No, Harold, those are mine.”
I reach over him to take them back. He’s too fast for me. His hands fly away quicker than hummingbirds. I don’t want to get too aggressive, but I’ll be lost without my cards.
“My cards,” Harold says again, this time with great dignity. He holds them over his head to his left, keeping them away from me. He shoots me an indulgent glance of fatherly reproach, as if I were a toddler.
Harold is one of the residents I visit, and he’s never pulled something like this before. I don’t know what to do. We’re starting to draw attention from the rest of the crowd. Like adolescent boys, they think nothing’s better than a good fight.
Mary Ann, the director of the unit, catches my eye and shakes her head slightly. Okay, she doesn’t want me to disrupt the Sing-Along. I know it’s everyone’s favorite part of the day.
Many of the unit’s residents are no longer able to attend Mass. They wander away, or start speaking inappropriately. The Sing-Along serves as their “community time.” Those who can and wish to, still receive Communion from Mary Ann or one of the other extraordinary ministers, before they eat their lunch.
When the Sing-Along is finished, Mary Ann comes over and sweet-talks Harold into giving her the cards. She promptly hands them back to me. He glares at us both. I know he’s not happy. I make a note on Harold's card to bring him his own index packet next week.
Fortunately the lunch carts have arrived, plates ready, and everyone moves to the little round tables. Residents in the Alzheimer’s unit eat early, so their food can arrive hot and appealing, before the main dining room fills up. It smells good; but it’s also a sign for me that Confession will begin in about forty minutes.
I still have three more people to check on here. I pull a chair over to the table where Bessieand Helen always sit together, asking if I can join them.
“Of course,” Bessie says. She flips her hand across the table at Helen. “I don’t like her.”
“Well, I don’t like you,” Helen says. She turns a smile on me. “You’re very welcome to eat with me, my dear. Do I know you? How long have you been here?”
“Not very long,” I say. That’s my standard answer. “What are we eating today?”
“Pork chop,” Bessie says. “Green beans, applesauce.” She points them out on her plate. “They taste good.”
“I’m glad,” I say. “Do you like your food, Helen?”
“Oh, yes. But I don’t like her,” she says, nodding at Bessie.
“You don’t? I thought you two were best friends.”
“Oh, we are. But she gossips.”
“So does she!”
“Okay,” I say, “All of us girls love a good gossip, don’t we?”
We laugh together, and I rise from my chair. Helen and Bessie appear status quo, physically healthy with no signs of injury or further mental deterioration. Best friends and dedicated rivals from early childhood, the two sisters maintain their routine. It serves them well.
I still have to check in on Wilma. She’s my toughest customer. I take a deep breath and pray for the Holy Spirit. I go to confront the lioness in her sanctuary, the Unit staff lounge.
Wilma experiences screaming terror of the other residents, but only at lunchtime. Perhaps she was bullied in school as a child? Whatever the reason, when she first came to the Unit, she would ask to “Take my tea in my own home, please.”
She soon developed the notion that the enclosed staff lounge is her “living room.” After managing lunch-time hysterics that disrupted everyone’s meal and upset the other residents, pragmatic Mary Anne kindly decided to just put Wilma into the staff lounge alone at this hour.
Mary Ann meets me at the closed door and knocks. I hear Wilma’s voice, “Who is it?”
“It’s Mary Ann.” She opens the door, walks in and closes it behind her. “You have a visitor today. She’s come to take tea with you.”
“Who is it?”
“It’s your friend Megan.”
“Megan? I don’t know any Megan.”
“Yes, you do. She’s your special friend, Wilma, and she comes to seeyou every week. Shall I bring her in?”
“All right. If she’s my special friend, she can come in.”
Mary Ann opens the door and I cross the threshold. Wilma smiles at me and gestures to the chair next to the sofa she occupies. A fresh stargazer lily in a small vase sits with pots, cups, sandwiches and cookies on the tea tray. Its intoxicating fragrance perfumes the whole room.
“How are you today, Wilma?”
“I’m fine.” She takes a sandwich. “I’m glad I can stay in my own home. I don’t like to eat with those mean old people.”
“You have a lovely home.” I sweep my eyes around to take in the pictures on the walls. “Did you decorate it yourself?”
“Yes, of course. It’s all mine.” She neatly sips her tea.
“How is your tea today?”
“It’s good.” She stares at me. “Don’t you know it’s good? Who are you?”
“I’m Megan, remember? I come to see you every week, and –"
“You’re not my friend.” Wilma slaps her cup into its saucer. “I don’t know you! Get out of my house!”
I’ve had enough time to make my observations. Wilma’s fine motor control remains excellent. Recall and social skills have deteriorated. I respect the lady’s wishes and scuttle out the door as fast as I can. Though Wilma has occasionally refused to see me, and she's seldom been particularly pleasant, this is the first time she’s actually thrown me out. I make a note on my index card.
Mary Ann puts her hand on my arm. She looks unspeakably sad.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’ll talk to her doctor. I know she’s getting worse. I do everything I can for her, but . . .”
“I know you do! I can’t believe you’ve given over the staff lounge at lunchtime just to help her feel safer!”
“But it’s not enough.”
“I feel like a complete failure today myself. I’ve always been able to reach her before. I just thought maybe the best thing to do was to honor her wishes?”
“Exactly right. At least she did let you in. Let’s try again next week.”
I look around to make sure Penny’s not lurking, before I punch the security code to depart. I hustle down the hallway, because Reconciliation begins in ten minutes. At least I know I can count on Maddy to be ready when I arrive at her room.
She’s wearing a lovely chapel veil that she crocheted herself, and she looks perkier than when I last saw her. She’s excited to tell me her joke. “I know you have all those brothers and all those boys, so you’ll love this one.”
“A man has three sons who entered three different religious orders: the oldest became a Dominican, the second a Franciscan, and the youngest a Jesuit. On his deathbed, the father tells his sons, ‘I know you all have vows of poverty, but as a sign of your love for me, I want each of you to place one thousand dollars into my casket to be buried with me.’ On the day of the funeral, the Dominican son steps up, places $1000 in the casket, and says, ‘This seems like a waste of money, since you can’t take it with you, Dad. But with the special permission of my superiors, I'm doing as you requested, as a sign of my love.’ Next, the Franciscan son approaches the casket and says, ‘You know I love you, Dad, but the needs of the poor are so great, I just can't let $1000 be buried with you. I hope you understand, now that you are in heaven. Please forgive me.’ Finally, the Jesuit son comes forward and says to his brother, ‘Don’t worry, Frank. I'll pay your share.’ Then he reaches into the casket, takes the cash left by his eldest brother, and puts in a check for $3000.” (http://catholic-resources.org/JesuitJokes.htm, compiled by Felix Just, S.J.)
Both Maddy and I are laughing like loons. The staff and residents stare at us as we wheel back down the hall. We certainly don’t look like people on their way to Mass, never mind Confession. But we’re enjoying ourselves.
I wait for Maddy outside the Reconciliation room while she visits with Fr. Frank. I watch other volunteers bringing residents into the Chapel. Unlike most churches, this chapel contains only two banks of three-deep pews with kneelers, one bank on either side. The vast wide-open space in the middle, facing the altar, remains empty, waiting to be filled with wheelchairs. It overflows into the hallway for every daily Mass.
I wonder if I should go stand in a spot, to save it for Maddy. She “really, really” likes to be up front. I don’t want her to be disappointed. But then I hear her knock on the Reconciliation room door. I wheel her out, and there’s still plenty of room to place her right where she wants to go.
I move over to the rear pew on the right side of the altar, and kneel. I thank God for my own blessings, including the fact that I can still kneel. I pray for my husband, my sons, my parents, and my brothers. I pray for the souls of my mother, my grandmother, and the whole bloodline of a family I come from, but never knew. I pray for these people at the Bishop Daley Residential Home to receive consolation in their suffering, and peaceful release when their times come.
My prayer always feels more meaningful here than it does in any other church. I think that’s because I’m in the midst of such overwhelming pain. It’s offered up actively, intentionally, every day by people who have so much pain to offer. These residents have become master-craftsmen in the art of intercession. During the Mass, I can feel the waves of energy, rolling from the wheelchair section towards the altar, surging to a crescendo at the moment of consecration.
When the Mass has ended, I leave Maddy in the dining room with a hug. She promises me an even better joke next week. I tell her with a wink that I’m counting on it.
As usual, I find Yvonne in bed and napping. I quietly inspect her room. Her bathroom smells a bit funky. I examine her face and neck on the pillow, gently lift the covers to look at arms and hands. No body odor or dirty hair smell.
I stop at the nurses’ station to mention the bathroom, and inquire about any changes in Yvonne’s health or behavior. Yes, Yvonne’s doctor made a note to watch her hydration levels. They’ll check her again. One of them picks up the phone to call Housekeeping about her bathroom.
Sister Jane is sleeping, too, slumped in her wheelchair under a blanket, in front of the TV in the private Sisters’ wing. How can she sleep through all that noise and flashing light?
Two other elderly nuns who also live in this wing perch on the lounge sofa. They’re dressed in their usual pastel shirts with matching slacks, aqua and lilac today. They share a bowl of popcorn, set on the coffee table in the spot just between them. The salt-and-butter aroma reminds that me I didn’t eat lunch. They have their eyes glued to a Travel Channel program about Italy. I hate to interrupt them, but I have to ask.
“How is Sister Jane? Has she encountered any problems?”
“Oh, hello, Megan dear.” Sister Frances turns to me. “No, none that I’m aware. She’s ninety-two, you know. Sleeping the afternoon away comes naturally. We’re keeping an eye on her.” She smiles.
“And you, Sister Frances? Sister Clare?”
“No complaints whatsoever,” Sister Clare says firmly. “God is good!”
My last visit takes me to see Patricia McBride, another octogenarian, and one of the founders of the Bishop Daley Residential Home. A larger than usual woman who occupies a larger than ordinary room, she served for many years as President of the health care complex that sponsors this facility. She recognized her responsibility to plan a future for everyone, not just for herself. The Bishop Daley Residential Home only exists due to her foresight.
But she’s not in the mood to play grande dame today. She’s sitting in her bed, propped up on pillows, still wearing cotton pajamas and sketching something in her notebook.
“Come in,” she says, and indicates the chair beside her bed.
I lean in to look at what she’s drawn. It’s a farm scene: a two-story house, a barn, a white picket fence enclosing four horses in different poses, and rolling fields stretching toward an infinite sky. I’m astonished that she can create so much perspective on a flat piece of paper with a simple lead pencil.
“That’s magnificent!” I say. “How on earth do you do that?”
“It’s home,” she says, shrugging. “The indelible childhood memory. I’m missing it today.”
“So you decided to draw it?”
“Can you imagine me as a foolish sixteen-year-old girl who couldn’t wait to get away?”
I shake my head.
“Well, I was. When the Sisters of Mercy offered me the opportunity to train as a nurse, I jumped for it. The blood and the bedpans didn't scare me! I was accustomed to shoveling out stables, herding cows, birthing sheep, mind you. To care for actual human beings in a big city hospital? It sounded like a major promotion. I couldn’t wait to be catapulted into my new life of glamor and excitement.” She rolls her eyes.
“Did it live up to your expectations?”
“In some ways. My years as a labor and delivery nurse . . . Nothing can match the excite-ment of helping a new child enter the world. But also, no tragedy is more overwhelming than a poor outcome. It certainly satisfied my adolescent craving for drama.” She twirls her pencil and stares out a large picture window into late-blooming gardens.
“And you created this wonderful Residential Home,” I say, patting her arm.
She tosses back her covers and scoots to the side of her bed, swinging her legs over the edge. Her bare feet twitch with restlessness.
“But it’s so confining. Living in this sluggish old body, this one room, with all those skyscrapers hulking their shadows over my rose bushes.”
Bright red toenails flash as she curls and uncurls her toes. They tell me that at least she’s treated herself to a pedicure in the beauty salon on the first floor. Pat reaches into her bedside table drawer and pulls out a rosary. I take the cue.
“Thursday, Luminous Mysteries. But let’s pray the Glorious instead today to cheer you up?”
“You know me far too well, Megan O’Malley! Glorious it is, and we’ll crown Mary today. October has been here for almost a week. I waited for you.”
Pat’s accommodations include a small stone sculpture on a shelf in the corner. It’s another example of her remarkable artistic talents. The matching piece, a tiny golden crown, lives wrapped up in her nightstand drawer – except during October and May.
After we pray, Pat carefully unwraps the crown and slowly shuffles her ungainly body across the room. She places the crown gently on Mary’s brow. I help her back onto her bed.
When I leave, she’s phoning the florist to “Send up a rose, please. Red.”
Since I’m back in possession of my driver’s license, I push the speed limit just a little, after I pull out of the parking lot. I arrive right on time to pick up David and Daniel from the soccer field, and Joseph from debate.
Mrs. Graham says, “Bobby's been a perfect angel,” when she hands him over.
“That will be the day! Thank you so much.”
By the following Wednesday evening, we know that Joseph has placed second in the debate semi-finals. He can still advance to the finals. But he’s missed first place in this round. His golden complexion turns sallow and his mouth threatens to freeze in a scowl. He refuses to be consoled. He's convinced that second is the mark of doom.
The twins, however, manage to surface their critical documents on the same day they bring them home. They reveal the mystery color for tomorrow – green. They bring down their own shirts to the laundry room and start the washer by themselves. Bobby achieves one actual use of his portable potty. High fives all around!
As I set the table, I wonder about Maddy’s next joke. What will it be tomorrow?
I’m back at the stove, stirring my rich picante sauce for spaghetti, when the phone rings. I answer and learn that for once I’m the person wanted by the caller. I’m surprised to hear Fr. Frank. I don’t know him well, but his usually resonant basso profundo voice sounds a bit subdued.
“Is something wrong, Father?”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of sad news,” he says. “But I’m sure you’ll want to know before you come in tomorrow. Maddalena Melone passed away in her sleep, late this afternoon.”
“No!” It’s out before I can stop myself. I drop the spoon onto the stove. I have to sit down. “Not Maddy!”
I’m embarrassed to hear the whine in my voice. I take a deep breath. “Do you need me to come in tonight?”
“Not at all,” Father Frank says. “Everyone in her family predeceased her, as you know. But she left clear instructions. Visitation tomorrow evening, I could use your help with the residents then. And we’ll celebrate the Mass of Resurrection at our usual time on Friday. Is that possible for you?”
“Of course. I’ll make arrangements for the children.”
“Ron Clancy was the one who found her,” Father Frank says. “I think she would like that. He was her favorite, wasn’t he?”
I choke back a laugh that’s more of a sob.
The three Clancy brothers are the Daley Home’s answer to Jane Austen. Tall, handsome, and strong well into their seventies, Don, Ron and Jon have mastered the art of dancing with wheelchairs. They do spins, patterns and wheelies that leave a girl’s head as dizzy as a glass of champagne. When one of the Clancy brothers wheels you in to the dining room – for breakfast, lunch or dinner – you feel like a debutante at a ball.
I know, because I made Ron take me!
The Clancy’s volunteer at the Daley Home every day. The competition for their attention is fierce. They organize themselves so that at least one of them is always available, even on weekends. They don’t want anyone to feel left out.
Someone complained once about this foolish Clancy business, said it was too dangerous altogether. In came the state inspectors with their legal requirements, the hospital inspectors with their patient safety checklists, and the medical inspectors with their age-appropriate guidelines.
But the ladies refused to give up their dancing companions or their wild rides. In the end, the Daley Home legal department insisted that every resident would have to sign a release. They all signed.
Yes, Maddy is surely delighted that Ron kept his date with her, even after she was gone.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Father Frank and I say at the same time.
I wait through a pause. Then Father Frank says, “Megan, I do need to speak with you privately. Will you please come see me in my office tomorrow before Mass?”
“I’ll be there, Father.” I phone Mrs. Graham to make arrangements for Bobby. I call the Notre Dame and St. Xavier car pools. I manage to feed the boys their dinner and put them to bed.
Michael holds me while I cry, all night long. I can’t believe Maddy has left me! What will I do without her? How will I survive without Find-the-Magazines, without her Jesuit Jokes?
Thursday morning, Bobby hits the potty target again, though his aim still needs work. Gloomy Joseph has finally turned back into his usual mellow self. Daniel and David eat breakfast, pack and dress on time. Even though I’m trying to protect them all from my mournful mood, they seem to know their mom feels sad. They’re doing what they can to help.
When I get to the Unit, Harold appears delighted to receive his own pack of index cards. He carefully pulls off the cellophane wrapper and walks around the locked ward lounge handing a card to anyone who will take one. He’s grinning like a small boy giving out birthday party favors.
Wilma allows me to enter her sanctuary and actually offers me my own cup of tea. She pours, and hands it to me on its saucer, without spilling a drop.
Helen and Bessie are even getting along today, co-conspirators because they have an especially juicy story to share. The tale emerges a bit garbled, but I say, “Really?” “I don’t believe it!” and “What next?” They’re satisfied, beaming at each other and holding hands as I depart.
Then it’s time to go see Fr. Frank. As I approach his office, I start trembling. He’s a kind priest, and Maddy certainly adored him, but he sounded so serious when he asked me for this appointment. I wonder what he didn’t want to ask me or tell me last night. I’ve already agreed to help with the wake and the funeral Mass.
He’s on the phone when I arrive at the door, so I hover outside until I hear that he’s finished.
“Thank you, Megan. I know your first commitment is to the residents, and that you spend considerably more time with them than is required.” He gestures me into a chair and takes his own. “I also know you're a busy mother. But this is a matter best discussed in person.”
Now I’m really worried! Have I taken my friendliness too far? I fold my hands and they clench in my lap.
“I have a particular duty to fulfill, at the request of Maddalena Melone. You’re aware she was not a wealthy woman?”
“Yes, Father. If she left any bills unpaid, I’m sure my husband and I could help; some, anyway.”
“Thank you, but no, not at all. Her funds had indeed been depleted, just recently. At that point she became one of a few select residents, Pat McBride’s, um, ‘scholarship students.’ Now I’ve shared with you a well-kept secret.”
“I didn’t know about that,” I say. “But I’m hardly surprised.”
“I mention it only so you will understand and appreciate the legacy which Maddalena did leave with me, in Reconciliation last week. She asked me to pass it along to you when the time came. Sadly, it has, far sooner than I suspected.”
Father Frank pulls from his desk drawer a large padded legal envelope. He holds it out to me.
I start to reach for it, but pull my hand back. “Do you know what’s inside?”
“In general terms, yes. I’m not certain Maddalena told me everything, and I can’t share what she did say. Would you like to open it here, or wait until you go home?” He offers me the envelope again.
Tears spring to my eyes. I finally take it. The envelope feels heavy. What would Maddy give me? Her stack of magazines? Her crocheted chapel veils? Her lavender cologne?
“Here, I think, Father, if you have the time? With four active boys . . .”
“I understand.” He hands me a letter opener.
I slit the envelope and reach inside. I pull from the top a letter addressed, in Maddy’s tremulous handwriting, to Megan Angelina O’Malley Melone.
“But I’m not Angelina!” I say, showing him the words. “Angela Melone was Maddy’s daughter. She was killed in the 1995 bombing at the Oklahoma City Federal Building.”
Father Frank nods. “But you are Megan O’Malley. And Maddalena Melone gave me specific instructions, in person and under sacramental seal, to deliver this envelope to you.”
My hands no longer clench. They shake. I slit the letter and begin to read.
I call you by the name you know, but in my heart your name is Angelina. I hope I’ll live long enough to discuss this with you in person, but none of us know the day or the hour. So I’m leaving my letter with Father Frank because I trust him to deliver it in case I can’t.
We’ve talked about my daughter’s death. I’ve told you how difficult that was for me. We’ve never really discussed her life.
In May of 1972, my beautiful daughter became engaged to marry a young man she knew well. Angela and Patrick McCarthy grew up together in St. Anthony parish. Neither one of them ever had eyes for anyone else, after the second grade.
Patrick had drawn number seven in the draft lottery, but they were both quite stubborn. They were determined to continue with their plans and to marry as soon as he finished his military service.
The last time Angela saw Patrick was at the end of July in 1973. He had been granted compassionate leave from duty in Viet Nam, to attend his father’s funeral. Martin McCarthy died of a heart attack at the age of 55. The uniformed officers from the Department of the Army arrived on our doorstep at the beginning of September, 1973, before I even realized that my daughter was expecting.
Margaret McCarthy was also my close friend. To lose her son in that terrible war, so soon after losing her husband — and both of them so young. It nearly killed her. By Thanksgiving,however, Margaret had started to marshal her strength and her faith. I turned to her, then, in my own need.
Angela had not even begun to recover from her loss of Patrick. She was nearly catatonic with grief. Only her commitment to finish her law degree could get her out of bed in the morning. She refused to even discuss her condition.
As the months went by, Margaret and I implored her to let us keep our grandchild.
Angela told us she wanted Patrick’s baby to have two parents and a normal family. Her heart was shattered by his death. She didn’t feel capable of providing proper care for his child. She wanted to do the most loving thing she could. Angela was a legal adult. She chose to make arrangements through Catholic Charities for an adoption.
On April 28, 1974, the same day you were born, Angela gave birth to a daughter. (Now you know why I pestered so much to learn your birthday). Neither of us was allowed to hold the baby.
Because the adoption papers were sealed, I could never retrieve them.
Believe me, I tried. For years after Angela died, I begged Our Blessed Mother to help me find Angela’s daughter, my granddaughter. But I never did.
Then one day in a residential facility for the elderly, where I certainly never expected to find myself, a sunny young mother named Megan O’Malley walked in. You've made my life these last three years far happier than I ever expected them to be. No child of my blood could have done more.
I can’t prove legally that you are my granddaughter, Megan. I don’t really have much left to leave you, anyway. But you look at that picture!
Thank you for everything, from the bottom of my heart.
P. S. I also left you the Jesuit Joke Book, so you can keep the rest of the old folks laughing while they wait. Don’t forget, now! It’s a family tradition.”
Father Frank passes me the jumbo box of Kleenex that every good priest keeps handy. “Do you want to look at the picture?”
“Not yet. It’s too much. She left me the Jesuit Jokes.” I pull a tattered pamphlet out of the envelope to show him.
He laughs, and then sneaks a peek at his watch. I know it’s time for him to get ready for Mass. I need to pull myself together. He gives me a solid hug before I leave and says, “Come back to talk anytime. I’d like to see that picture, when you’re ready to share it.”
I manage a nod and run for the Ladies Room.
Late on Friday night, after Maddy’s funeral, I sit before my dressing table mirror with her envelope in front of me. Michael is getting ready for bed. I wait until he comes over to stand behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders.
I slowly pull a framed black-and-white portrait out of Maddy’s envelope.
A mother about my own age sits holding a small girl on her lap. They wear matching plain dark dresses with crocheted white collars, and small gold cross necklaces. The mother’s skirt falls to the floor. The child wears white socks with crochet lace cuffs and black patent leather Maryjane shoes. Her ankles are crossed just above her mother’s knees. She snuggles into her mother’s arms.
Little Angela looks exactly like that enchanted ‘Pictish’ Princess I once used to be.
But she’s Italian!
I hold up the portrait and look into the mirror. There, they reflect together: my eyes, my face, my hair; their eyes, their faces, their hair. Angela. And Maddy.
Michael comes around to take my hands. He pulls me to my feet. He takes his football stance, and mimes a desperation pass. We watch together for a few seconds.
His arms fly –- straight and high –- Touchdown!
We stamp on the floor and whoop like college students, until we look at each other and realize we do not want to wake the boys. Then Michael sweeps me up in his quarterback arms, and carries me off to bed.