November 2nd, 2015

Of Saints and Sinners

MIIG95AF1WI was a teenager when he died. We went to visit him one last time when I was about 14 years old. Nobody said it was “one last time” – not to me, anyway. They said we would be taking some short trips to Canada – just a few of us kids at a time – to see our grandfather.

It was their eyes, their tone, and their hushed late-night conversations that said “one last time.”

And it was the last time. I can’t remember the circumstances under which I learned that Grandpapa had finally lost his battle with cancer, but I do remember that my parents, eight siblings, and I packed some suitcases, a giant blue cooler, and ourselves into our Chevy Celebrity station wagon for an impromptu road trip to Quebec to attend his funeral.

One of my earliest memories of Grandpapa was when, on one of his visits to us at our home in New Hampshire, he brought me a gift. He always brought us gifts, but this one was particularly memorable. It was a bright red leather purse.

Despite the colorful image of Donald Duck on the front flap, I recognized immediately that this purse was no plaything. This was a lady’s purse. That very afternoon, I carried it, lady-like, on a walk around the block with my Grandpapa. My bobby-socked feet in buckle shoes pounded the pavement and my lady purse swung at my side as I kept up with Grandpapa’s longer strides.

I thought of that walk three days ago as I wrote my grandfather’s name in the Book of Remembrance at the start of my parish’s All Souls Day Mass.

When I first learned about the communion of saints in grade school CCD classes, I envisioned the souls in purgatory and heaven as largely nameless, faceless folks with whom I was somehow, inexplicably, spiritually connected. But now that I count Grandpapa and other real-life friends and family members among them, our communion has become more tangible and real.

In the communion of saints, we discover that God, like any good parent, encourages His children to work hard and to help one another. My prayers and my sacrifices on behalf of those in purgatory can bring them closer to God. Likewise, the intercessions of those in heaven can be a real help to me as I aim toward heaven. These aren’t nameless faces. These are real souls with whom we share memories, history, and DNA.

Years ago, when I became a mother for the first time, I realized that my children are concretely connected to all souls, too.

My first child was a colicky infant, and the months after she was born were like a parental boot camp for my husband and me. Each night, I spent the hours between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. pacing the floors of our tiny apartment with a purple-faced, screeching infant in my arms.

On one of those nights, after I had paced enough floors, run the vacuum enough times, and sung enough lullabies, she finally fell asleep. Gingerly, I placed her in her crib, tiptoed away, and collapsed with exhaustion on my own bed. Before the kinks had even begun to work their way out of my back, however, I heard her cry again.

It was just a whimper really, but it was the kind of whimper a colicky baby makes when she’s about to cause a royal fuss. A mom knows these things. In my desperation and exhaustion, I could manage only a simple prayer. “God, no.”

And then I fell into sleep. Sound sleep. Drooling sleep. Dreaming sleep.

In my dream, the baby was still crying. Bleary-eyed and plodding, I made my way to her, but found her crib empty and silent. I looked up and saw someone seated in a rocking chair in a dimly lit corner of the room.

It was Grandpapa, with Baby Kateri in his arms. Her pink bundled body was perched on his sturdy forearm and her tiny head rested on his shoulder. At last, she slept.

Grandpapa rocked her gently without noticing me at first, but when I drew close, he turned toward me. His eyes smiled at me with such gentle love and understanding that I felt bathed in warmth and light. I watched the two of them rock in that glowing corner of the room and basked in the peace my grandfather had brought to me in my motherhood.

My oldest daughter never knew my Grandpapa, but he surely knows her. I am confident that he knows her and loves her well.

(This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic.)

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