(St. Patrick’s Day, 2012)
I was watching Going My Way on TCM for the first time in ages a couple nights ago. It’s about as Irish as it gets…Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. It so reminds me of my mom’s side, my grandfather, the whole bit. We were raised on that side. My pop was German, raised fiercely Lutheran and German speaking. Kein englisch in diesem Haus. Immer deutsch. Even though that house was in Flint, Michigan. Catholics were verboten, too. The Thirty Years War was still being fought in those days in some places. Every German Lutheran Church was a battlefield, a besieged city. As if the America all around it didn’t exist.
My Dad, though, met my Mom. It was at a party at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey; he had a new blue Buick. She had blue eyes, a hint of a brogue and was lovely and Irish Catholic to her very bones. The laugh, the temper, the father who drank a wee bit. Old Germans had listened to Hitler on the shortwave, while the old Irish boys hung out in bars and sang. Can’t you meet a nice Irish boy? her father grumbled. But he didn’t mean it. They never did. Didn’t even mind that Dad wasn’t Catholic. The kids were going to be going to Mass, don’t you worry Pop. They’d all be confirmed by a priest. He drank port to that and sang and a little bit of heaven fell out the sky that day. So my folks were married. In Ankara, Turkey. And then Istanbul. It’s complicated. NATO and all that. But they found a priest somewhere over there and the neighbors threw them a big wedding party. Dad had a zillion photos of it, racked up in slides. A local Roman Catholic priest pronounced them man and wife. Martin Luther spun in his grave. A black lamb was slaughtered, as if it were still ancient Greece. The blood was vivid red in the photo. Dad said some of the kids got the eyeballs. It’s a delicacy. All us kids went ewwww. Mom just winced. That poor thing, she said. The poor little lamb. The party went on for days, everyone in the village was there, plus some. Hundreds of people. Those were the days. They thought they’d never end.
Fifty some years later Dad was long dead (and died Catholic, and got a wake), and all of us were hanging out with Mom. We’d driven out to Arizona to see her. The nuns had said if we want to see her one last time we’d better get there as fast as possible. We left at four or five in the morning, driving across the Mojave as the sun was rising over it. Desert dawns are the most beautiful things you can ever see. Pastels and shadows. Birds. A zillion butterflies. Rocks in crazy piles and jagged mountains promising no water at all. Buzzards smell sweet death in the air.
The party began as soon as we got there. Five of the six siblings, a couple wives, an energetic swarm of grandsons. Plus dogs, birds, turtles, fish and a cat. The piano was played, some guitars, a saxophone, whatever made or tried to make music. We talked and talked and talked. The food was endless. We joked and talked and ate and Mom, riddled with bone cancer, talked and joke and even ate. Her imminent death was just a given, something to be discussed, even kidded about. It was normal. Sad but normal. The order of things. Not much you can do about it she told me. And laughed. Her kids were there, their kids were there, there could not be a better way to go. At one point the priest came by and all became solemn as he delivered Last Rites. We all stood around her bed. The ceremony was ancient and beautiful. Two thousand years of beauty. You could see the worry released in her face. Afterword he switched to his civvies and joined the party. Everyone talking, looking in on Mom, letting her sleep. Eventually it broke up. Mom was awake. I said so long, we’ll see you tomorrow, and kissed her on the forehead. She smiled.
She died the next morning. My brother Jon was in the room with her, playing Mozart on the piano. She slept uneasily. Mumbled about home. Home, home, home. Then she let out a little gasp, breathed hard for a minute, and was gone.
The wake began immediately, just a small wake, her kids, her brother, the wives and grandsons and nephews. It was sad, but it was nice. We had the bigger, boozy wake later, after the interment. This was just the family hanging out. The priest came by. The sisters. She just decided it was the time to go, one of the sisters told me. She worked in a hospice. We thought your mother would hang on for weeks, she said, a slow horrible bone cancer death. But she decided it was time, with all of you out here. She smiled at the thought. That’s the way it should be. I nodded.
So now it’s a couple years later and I’m watching Going My Way. At one point Bing, the young priest, is trying to get Barry Fitzgerald, the ornery old priest, to fall asleep for chrissakes. So he sings the old Irish lullaby “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral.” Some of my earliest memories are of my mother singing me off to sleep with it. The melody sways in the breeze, the words loll, and sometimes it sounds like the most beautiful tune you ever heard.
And it took me back to the morning Mom had died. She was still in the bed, looking peacefully asleep. We had each of us slipped in alone throughout the morning to bid her farewell. No one made a big deal about it, we’d sort of break off from the chatter and walk in for a few minutes. At some time that morning I entered and there she was sleeping, looking beautiful. Just like you want the dead to look, just how we want ourselves to look. I gazed at her a minute, and began singing “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” in a hushed voice, so as not to wake her. Just a couple choruses. Then I said Goodbye, Mom, kissed her forehead one last time and stepped out again to join the living.