Death is part of life, and as a Catholic, I understand that it is the doorway to a different level of existence. Yet I fear all that may come before, and the grieving that will come after. I do not know how heavy the cross will be, only that God will be there in the pain and suffering.
It is from that perspective that I read Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell (Ave Maria Press, 2014) by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, a record of the last forty-eight days of her mother’s life and the grieving process that came after.
O’Donnell’s memoir moves from the particular to the universal. She shares the unique aspects of her own relationship with her mother, the imperfections of their lives. She writes of the circumstances of her mother’s final illness and the way that her family coped with this transitional time.
Yet, despite those individual details, the story is one that many will relate to. How many of us women have challenging relationships with our mothers? How many have had to become the caregiver to the one who once cared for us?
O’Donnell reflects on the sacramental elements of this season of life. Inspired by Andre Dubus’ quote that “this daily task of feeding his children is a kind of sacrament,” she explores the elements of the divine found in the ordinary moments of life caring for an ailing parent. She offers us the sacraments of speech, distance, beauty, humor, cell phone and wheelchair (the ability to have contact with the world outside her hospital room), witness, and honor. The epilogue offers an eighth – the sacrament of memory.
In many ways in these moments, it was the small things that mattered: the kindness of a nurse who treated her mother with respect; trying to communicate for someone who couldn’t speak for themselves; her sister doing her mother’s hair and nails to help her feel beautiful; finding moments to laugh; being able to reach out to people on the phone; and simply being present in her mother’s hour of need.
Mortal Blessings offers much to think about. While the writing of this book was part of the healing process for O’Donnell, she has done the rest of us a service in allowing us into these dark, yet grace-filled, days of her life.