by John Gillman
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Mortal Blessings. A Sacramental Farewell. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2014.
The author credits Andre Dubus, a Catholic fiction writer, for opening her eyes to the sacramental nature of ordinary actions. Yes, there are seven sacraments as taught by the Church, but Dubus believes that when the Catholic imagination is applied to ordinary, everyday life, there are “seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity.”
In this brief, moving narrative, O’Donnell tells the story of the last 48 days of her mother’s life, from a fateful hip fracture to the final vigil by the bedside under the care of hospice. The author’s relationship with her mother, who endured a lifelong struggle with alcohol, was “strained and distant and difficult” (p. 104). Sadly, O’Donnell recounts, her mother developed a distaste toward her, although at the same time her mother could be her fiercest advocate. Yet, in the final weeks of her mother’s life, the author found ways to honor her mother through prayer, poetry, and affirmations of reconciliation and appreciation.
The seven chapters in this narrative of grace and surprises reflect how the divine presence is mediated through the sacraments of speech, distance, beauty, humor, the cell phone and wheelchair, witness, and honor. The epilogue, devoted to burial ritual and post-death bereavement, is called the sacrament of memory. O’Donnell is most proud of her mother’s beauty; her many ways of pursuing beauty recalls for the author the line from St. Augustine’s famous poem, “Late have I loved you, Beauty so old and so new.”
I pondered the sacrament of beauty during a recent visit to my own mother, who has been on hospice for over a year and now, mainly nonverbal, is reaching the end of her earthly pilgrimage. Family members and aides keep her hair fixed, her nails painted. Though busy with raising a large family, my mother delighted in tending her roses outside and the African violets within. The latter are now in a raised planter within her gaze just beyond the foot of her bed in the living room of our family home. What most touches me is her Mona Lisa smile that appears from time to time.
Returning to Mortal Blessings, I was touched by O’Donnell’s description of a farewell scene of her with two sisters and a brother-in-law who celebrated the sacrament of beauty in their mother’s room by offering a toast, lifting glasses of wine in her honor. The only quibble I have with the author’s poetic point of view through her sacramental lens is naming grief as the “anti-sacrament.” I would suggest that their grief was a sacrament of farewell to their mother, in a similar way that Jesus’ grief at the death of his friend Lazarus was a sacrament of love to their close fraternal relationship.
The invitation for chaplains is to pay attention to the multitude of sacraments, external signs of the divine presence, in the diverse settings of those we serve.
John Gillman, BCC, is an NACC and ACPE supervisor at VITAS Innovative Hospice Care in San Diego, CA.