Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of my mother's death. She died on the vigil of the Feast of St. Joseph, patron of a happy death and, indeed, her death copuld not have been more peaceful when it came. What preceded it was far from peaceful: She had been battling Parkinson's for years and then, in August of 2006, she and my dad were in a horrific accident in which she broke both arms, her neck and one leg. She never really recovered, and never spoke again, although after the first few days, she re-gained consciousness. She was certainly aware that I was at her bedside each and every day and that my dad, once he recovered from his injuries, was there each and every day for the entire day.
Obviously, the readers of this blog did not know my mother. But, you have come to know me, and mindful of e.e. cummings words - I am first the son of my parents and whatever is happening to him - I share the eulogy I delivered at my mother's funeral with you:
Eulogy for Claire McDermott Winters
Our Lady of Lourdes Church
25 March 2007, Feast of the Annunciation
I thank all of you for being here today. Grief is more easily borne when the burden is shared. Even when you have a long time to prepare for this day, it is still very hard. I thank you even more for the love and prayers you extended to my mother in the past few years. I am especially grateful for the presence of so many of the clergy. At the hospital, there were so many priests visiting my Mom, the nurses thought she was a nun. I wish to extend a special thanks to Archbishop Roberto for coming all the way from Puerto Rico to be our principal celebrant today. Roberto lost his own dear mother a few years ago and he has been both a wonderful priest and a wonderful friend to me these past months. By coincidence, if you believe in coincidences, Roberto was ordained a priest and installed as archbishop on my Mother's birthday, May 8. I am told we have never had an archbishop here in Hampton and I think it speaks to why we love being Catholic so much that, in a culture that seems to value only wealth and fame, the first visit of an archbishop is to honor my mother who was neither rich nor famous. Bienvenidos Arzobispo Roberto y muchas gracias por su presencia aqui: nuestra iglesia es su iglesia.
I would also like to thank Bishop Hart, the bishop emeritus of Norwich, for his presence with us today, as well as the Very Rev. David O’Connell, President of the Catholic University of America, Msgr. Charles Antonicelli, of St. Joseph’s Church in Washington, Msgr. Archambeault from Sacred Heart in Taftville, Msgr. Brown, the chancellor of the Diocese of Norwich, Father Washabaugh, who grew up in Hampton and is now pastor of St. Mary, Star of the Sea in New London, and Father LaPointe, director of campus ministry and our homilist today.
In the common sense of the word, which is never the only correct sense of the word, my mother was not a saint. We associate saintliness with being non-judgmental, with a quickness to forgive, and with those blessed souls for whom doing good seems to come easily. My father, sitting here, epitomizes that kind of saintliness, but my mother’s was of a different variety. She could be very judgmental, but it must be said that her judgments were usually on the mark. And, if my Mom did not like you, you knew it. There was not a hypocritical bone in her body. She was not quick to forgive; she was Irish. You know the old joke about Irish Alzheimer’s: you forget everything except your grudges. But, my mother’s grudges were rarely the result of a personal slight against her, and more often the result of an injustice or a slight against someone for whom she cared. And, while my mother had to work at doing good, one of the threads of her life is that she did actually work at doing good. That thread has become a lesson of her life - how much good can be accomplished by someone who is committed to fulfilling her obligations, someone who is generous with her time and with her gifts, someone who is kind to those who are less fortunate. This was my mother’s brand of holiness.
Her hard work at doing good in this life expressed itself in many ways. In her professional life as a teacher, she became a fourth grade specialist as she liked to say. Many of you may not know that her teaching career got off to a rocky start. She was a student teacher in Columbia, and she did a presentation on Soviet Russia. One of her students unhelpfully went home and told her parents that my Mom was teaching communism. This was in 1951, when McCarthyism was casting its most full and most pernicious shadow upon our nation, so such charges landed her in front of the president of her college. She was almost thrown out. Thankfully, a World War II veteran was student teaching with her, and he was able to assure the authorities that my mother was teaching about communism, not advocating for it. She went on to teach at both the North Windham and Natchaug schools. Her interest in her students extended beyond the standard curriculum. Paul Cishon, who is with us today, claims not to be embarrassed by the picture we have of him from long ago dressed up as a fourth-grade Nanki-Poo. But, her favorite students were those from Puerto Rico. My Mom and Dad had lived in Puerto Rico when they were first married, when he was stationed there in the Army. Her love of that island, of its people and its culture, made her school room in the states a place where Puerto Rican children felt welcome, even favored, a pleasant change from the hostility and prejudice they often experienced elsewhere. Her classroom mainstreamed more children from bilingual education than any other in the entire school system, but never at the expense of the students’ identity as Puerto Ricans, a thing they could never relinquish and a thing she would never want them to relinquish, which was the key to her success. If the Puerto Rican children were her favorites, one of them, Alberto Ramos, was her most favorite, and today he is here as a pall-bearer, standing by her side still, as he did so often in the past few months.
Our town, too, profited from her commitment to hard work. She was a lifelong member of the Democratic Town Committee, and many of you have enjoyed their grinders on Super Bowl Sunday. That was her idea. And it was a typical idea for my mother in that it served two purposes, providing an occasion for neighbors to interact while raising much-needed funds for the committee. As the Registrar of Voters, she welcomed many newcomers to town, and she was thrilled when the Democrats overtook the Republicans in voter registration. When she had become a voter, there were only 52 Democrats in this town. She and my Dad took a great interest in Jim Sullivan’s campaign in 2004, and every morning I came to the breakfast table, she had already scoured the Hartford Courant for news about our campaign. She was a founding member of the Hampton Players. At first, she worked behind the scenes, arranging the props, painting the scenery or printing the programs, permitting her actor-brother the spotlight and the applause. But, in time, we were treated to watching my mother on stage. None of us can forget her and Janet Robertson as the charming aunts in “Arsenic and Old Lace” offering poisoned elderberry wine to the elderly gentlemen who came to call. I admit my bias, and I also admit that I am no theater critic, but I thought they were great. After her retirement, our town’s library became a special interest of hers. Her organizational skills, which were formidable, and her love of reading, which was infectious, made her a perfect fit with the needs of a small-town library. This past year, as her faculties declined, her co-workers at the library, especially Sonja, continued to make her feel needed and important. I cannot tell you how much that meant to her. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me.
My mother’s gracefulness enlivened our town in less structured ways as well. She was an enormously likeable person, always with an opinion to share, a story to tell, a memory to relish. I remember last summer, when I took her in her wheelchair down to the General Store and Mr. Ayotte and she joked about her going for a ride on his Harley-Davidson. Kay Ring, her college roommate, became a lifelong friend. My parents rented an apartment in Puerto Rico from Bubo and Fina Gomez, and they and their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have remained stellar friends. Her friendship with Ruth Grant and Eleni Yanouzas, born of the coincidence of having children of the same age, was a friendship that epitomized loyalty and devotion. She had a special place in her heart for her cousins, and she in theirs; Paul and Debby, Kathleen, Barbara and Albert were religious in visiting her in her last months. In Mom's later years, Clyde Washburne and Jimmy Charon became special friends, and they, too, were frequent visitors to the hospital and St. Joseph's. And she would always call and report the festivities at the party barn where she and my father joined Gloria and Kathleen and Gale and Florence and all the Burelle clan for Thanksgivings and Mother’s Days and other celebrations. I cannot name all the people whose lives were enlivened by her friendship. Momumentem petivitis circumspecti. If it is a monument you seek, look around you. These words are found on the otherwise unadorned tomb of Christopher Wren in the middle of St. Paul’s Cathedral which he had designed. Today, our little church here in Hampton is a cathedral of friendship every bit as magnificent as Wren’s masterpiece in London.
My mother was also a great mother. She used to clean the house every morning, before heading out to teach school all day, and every night, we sat down as a family and enjoyed a meal that was always good, always nutritious, and always interesting. And when she entertained company, there was never a kiddy-table: we were invited to sit with the grown-ups and encouraged to join in their conversation. You see, even at home, she was a teacher. She had never learned to swim. Indeed, she was scared of water, so she made sure that we had swimming lessons and a pool all of our lives. Our first vacations were to Valley Forge and Washington, Williamsburg and Philadelphia, so that our young minds could see first-hand the historical landscape of our national heritage. She introduced us to Puerto Rico when we were toddlers, taught us about the history and natural beauty of that island, and to this day, whenever I drive into San Juan from the airport, I feel like I am coming home. I mentioned that she loved to read, and I suspect the fact that both of her children have taken to writing is rooted in that love of literature she first shared with us. Mom was the disciplinarian in our home. As we learned, and as her grandchildren learned, she was the one to say "No" and my Dad was the soft-touch, but she never said "No" without good reason - she packed a lot of love and concern into her "No's". Most importantly, I have never once in my life felt unloved. That is a great blessing.
I come now to the greatest fact of her life, her relationship with my father. They were college sweethearts fifty-four years ago. They were still college sweethearts last week. My mother was not an overtly emotional person, but the times I saw her most genuinely moved was when she would talk about how much she loved him. Eleni called them the twins “joined at the hip.” Here, I must say a word about my Dad. In the nursing home, there were plenty of patients in better shape than my mother was the last year or two. Parkinson’s was her cross, and she carried her cross with great dignity, never adopting the facile, and dreadful, posture of victimhood. But like Jesus himself, who was helped in carrying His cross by Simon the Cyrene, my mother was able to carry her cross because of the help she received from my Dad. The only reason she was able to stay in her own home for so long, and to enjoy as rich a life as she did, was because of his devotion. My Dad apologizes for the fact that he cries easily since his stroke, but Dad, you need not offer anyone apologies for the size and depth of your heart. The day he got out of the hospital, we went to visit Mom who was still at Backus. He leaned over her and said, “I am going to steal a kiss from you. I am going to steal fifty-four kisses, one for every one of our wonderful years together.” It was a moment so touching, so beautiful, so holy, I wish the whole world could have been there to witness it. In a life of blessings, my Dad was her greatest blessing.
My mother was a lifelong member of this church. Five years ago, at my Uncle Bob’s funeral, Father LaPointe gave the sermon, as he will do today. And he said then that for us Catholics, death is not a wall but a door. I would like to borrow that metaphor and expand it, with his permission. We believe that door leads to heaven, to the Kingdom, call it what you will, that reality that is so far removed from this earthly reality with its suffering and loss and ennui that we can only speak of it in metaphor. We believe, also, that in this life, that great door is preceded by a series of other doors that give us a glimpse of heaven, a foretaste of the celestial banquet, and we call those prior doors the sacraments. In my mother’s life, those metaphorical doors corresponded to two very actual doors, those doors back there, through which we all entered the church today, and through which we shall soon carry my mother’s body for the last time. She first entered those doors before she was even born, in my grandmother’s womb. Indeed, because my grandmother was a loyal daughter of the Church, who grasped the honor and privilege of bringing her child into the faith, we might say that then my mother was in the catechumenate of the womb. Once born, she came through those doors again, this time in my grandmother’s arms, when she was only a few days old, to be baptized in that font. There and then she became a member of the Church, she put on Christ. In a little while, Archbishop Roberto will say in the words of the Eucharistic prayer “In baptism she died with Christ, may she also share in His resurrection.” We believe that. We must believe that. Christ’s death is, as we have just sung, the death of death and hell’s destruction. That is why we gather today not only in grief, but in hope, in the sure hope in the resurrection.
My mother came through those doors again as a young girl, dressed in white, to make her first Holy Communion. She continued to come to this altar, week in and week out, to eat the bread of life. In fact, because we believe that the Eucharist unites all Christians, living and dead, it is only at Communion that we can ever again really be with my mother. We can visit the cemetery, and we can hold her in memory, but here, at the altar, we can be truly united with her. It is another commonplace of our age to say that our Christian belief in eternal life is mere psychological projection, a fantasy designed to fit our desire to live forever. But, the joke is on the skeptics. If I am lonely, there is companionship that satisfies my need. There is drink to satisfy my thirst. Why then should this one desire of the human heart, this most profound desire of the human heart, the desire to live forever with those we love, why should that desire have no corresponding satisfaction? Faith is always challenging, but it is wrong to think it unreasonable. My mother always found it reasonable. “Our yearnings anticipate landfall,” wrote Saint Augustine. Today, as we approach this altar, and pass by my mother’s casket to do so, our theology has lost all abstraction. If we truly believe that Christ still comes into the world, that he is coming even now into our world, into our grief at this moment, than we must believe that my mother is as present in this Eucharistic as if she were in the pew right behind us. To those of you who have fallen away from the practice of the church, come to the altar today and be with my mother there.
My mother came in through those doors to go to confession. There she experienced the little miracle that is confession, and the great miracle that is God’s mercy. She came through those doors as a young woman, again dressed in white, to receive the sacrament of holy matrimony with my father. In that ceremony, they were told that the two persons must become one flesh, and never have those words been so faithfully expressed to our very eyes as in my parents’ marriage. My mother came through those doors to bury her father and her mother and her brother, each time celebrating the Mass of Christian Burial that we celebrate today. It is an odd word, a jarring word, to “celebrate” a funeral, not to be confused with the modern innovation of avoiding the word “funeral” altogether by calling these ceremonies a celebration of my mother’s life. That phrase contains too much in the way of denial, and a certain brutality even, for the wound of her loss is too fresh to focus only on the full life she lived. Today, all this week, all this month, for a very long time, our sense of loss will trump our sense of gratitude until God’s grace heals that wound. No, when we celebrate a Mass of Christian burial we look not only to the life she lived but also to the life to come. If there is no life to come, then the memories of my mother are not consoling but confounding, not healing but hurtful. If there is no life to come, her life, and our lives, would be seen to be, in the end, lives devoid of that ultimate meaning without which all of our concern for human dignity is a fantasy. As is so often the case, the Church’s wisdom is greater than our own at such a moment. The Church does not ask us to avert our gaze from human suffering, but to see the saving, redemptive face of God in that suffering and just so, the Church can proclaim in this Mass that no child of God so filled with love and good works can simply cease to exist.
In the hospital and at St. Joseph's Living Center, my Dad would lean over and whisper to my Mom, “I want you to come home, to sleep in the bed with me and Bernie.” Bernie is one of my dogs, and he took an especial sense of manly pride in protecting my Mom by sleeping in the bed with her, often forcing my dad into the most uncomfortable positions. My Dad’s wish was granted, though not in the way he intended. She has come home. Not to Old Route Six, but to her true home, the home prepared for her before the foundation of the world. A home without Parkinson’s. A home without painful loss and the abysmal loneliness of death. A home with no more sorrow and weeping. A home where my father is always leaning over the love of his life and stealing a kiss. That is why we say that we celebrate this Mass of Christian burial.
My mother has no more need of the sacraments. Now, she has only to steal away to Jesus. When we would walk the beach at Luquillo in Puerto Rico, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth, my mother would say that it was as close to heaven as she was ever going to get. Mom, I think you were wrong about that, and I suspect that right now, you are realizing that great, happy fact. The trumpet shall sound. The dead shall be raised.
In the Gospels, we read that from the Cross, the Master looked at his Mother and at the disciple whom he loved and said, “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” Today, we gather under that same cross and Jesus speaks the same words to us. And so, it is only natural, or better to say supernatural, that we also turn our eyes to Mary, the Mother of God. I would like to conclude my remarks with a prayer. It is a prayer my mother taught me when I was very young. It is a prayer that I prayed with her at her bedside each day and on the day she died. It seems altogether fitting that we should begin this Mass by commending my mother’s soul, and our grief, to the protection and care of our eternal Mother, and I invite you all to join me in praying:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.