On Friday,my friend's husband died. Pat's death came as a shock to my husband and myself. Just last week, I'd carefully copied out the Scripture reading from Elijah, the one where he prayed hard on Mount Carmel for rain to end a 3 year drought. Elijah sent his servant seven times to the top of the mountain to look for a rain cloud. Finally the servant sees a tiny cloud the size of a human fist. That is enough of a sigh for Elijah- "the rain is coming," he said.
I told my friend in an email to have hope. "Keep looking for those tiny fist size rain clouds," I wrote. "The entire church is praying so hard for your husband."
I promised to pray a rosary every day for a year for Pat, to sustain him during a long and difficult recovery process. Instead, I got to pray that prayer for only seven weeks.
What happened to our prayers? "Is death somehow different?" as my husband Jon suggested? Can we ask St. Joseph to find our lost car keys, or Mother Mary to heal our quick tempers, but asking for a death to be delayed is somehow too closely tied to God's elaborate plan?
My entire parish was rattled by Pat's accident. Pat fell down the stairs in the middle of the night on his way to the bathroom at 3 AM. He suffered a severe spinal injury as a result. As fellow choir member, Yomi, said, "Pat was just being considerate. He didn't turn on the light because he didn't want to wake his sleeping wife. Who turns on the light on the way to bathroom in the middle of the night? I don't." As my priest said at Pat's funeral, "we've all tripped in the night. We've all misstepped in our homes. No one else has fallen and suffered a spinal injury that meant death. No one, but Pat."
Friday night, my husband and I felt humbled and depressed. By Saturday night we felt completely rattled. Death comes like a thief in the night. Were we ready? We clutched at the catecism and spent hours studying it with the intensity of preparing for a final.
On Sunday, I felt so emotional at the 8:30 AM Mass. I hated hearing Pat's name moved from the "sick list" to the "recently deceased list" during the prayers of the faithful. I hated thinking about singing in an hour next to a new widow. My poor friend, who loved her husband so much.
As is always the case whenever I'm having a rough time, my three kids were beyond awful at church. This past Sunday was one of our priest's, Father John, last Sunday service before getting transfered next week to a new Parish. We went down to the reception in the parish hall to say goodbye.
Jon had flubbed and put most of the money we had intended to "buy donuts" after Mass into the collection plate. This left money for only one post-Mass donut. Ideally, Hannah and Alex, as two Christian siblings should be able to share donut peacefully between themselves. That "share" message is the main bulletin point on our home-education program so far. But that would require that they first compromise and select a donut flavor which they both like. Despite my maternal presence at the Boy Scout donut table, this didn't happen. Hannah chose "chocolate sprinkles" and paid for the purchase herself. Meanwhile, Alex had not budged from wanting a "pink icing" donut. This denial of a "pink donut", while not covered in the Geneva Anti-Torture Statute, nevertheless, brought out massive amounts of hysterical crying from Alex. He would not stop.
So several minutes later, we we finally reached our time to say a personal goodbye to one my favorite, favorite priests- Jon and I were only able to mutter incoherent "Thank you SOOOO much" over a loudly sniffling boy who kept muttering "I want my donut." Things were so bad, Father Jon made a special inquiry into the reason behind Alex's sadness and said "I hope you get your donut Buddy".
Meanwhile, after such an exhausting venture to get a hysterical three year old into his car seat, I turn to Jon and said "I feel miserable." He came over to give me a huge hug outside of our car. I started to cry. "I can't imagine how I'm going to sit next to Theresa in a few minutes. I'm so spent already. I can't believe Pat's dead and we're Here--at church, a place of such peace yet we feel miserable."
At this exact moment, this joyful voice rings out. "That's what I like to see. A husband and wife hugging each other! You never know how much time you have together, so hug each other often."
We turn and there is my friend Theresa. The New Widow. The one who's husband died after a horrible struggle in a Baltimore hospital room not 48 hours before.
AND SHE LOOKS INCREDIBLE! You will think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. She looked beautiful! Happy. Radiant. She wore a beautiful floral print suit. She had a full tooth smile. She radiated joy and happiness.
She says "Can I join you." And suddenly there is my friend, joining my husband and I in a grand three person hug. I looked at her. "I love you!", I said.
"I know," she said. "I got your emails. I loved that one about Elijah and the little black rain cloud."
My husband took off with the kids, while I turned back with Theresa to head into the 10 AM Mass to sing in the choir.
That brief 5 minute walk from the parking lot into the church building was incredible. I can only tell you that I thought "This is what the friends of Mary Magdelene thought after she came home from Jesus's empty tomb."
There I was drenched in mourning and sadness. I thought God had said a firm "no" to our prayers for healing. I was shocked and sad about it, but also okay that at the very least a "no" keeps us humble and in our place as "servants of God" --firmly not in charge of his master plan.
Then my friend shows up radiant in grace. She tells me that Pat had a beautiful death, surrounded by her and all three of his adult children. "It felt like we were moved along on waves of prayer," she said. "All of your prayers got redirected. And it was amazing. It was beautiful. Pat had no idea that God would love him this much. Pat saw God as he died."
Pat saw God? What?
I don't know, I'm just reporting the facts. I know that my friend looked radiant on Sunday. She looked radiant at the funeral home on Monday. She looked happy and radiant at Pat's funeral yesterday.
I know that I got to sign glorious hymns of invitation to the Eucharist and "The Wonders of the Promises" of Heaven to many, many depressed bankers at the funeral. I know now that this quiet man who sat in the section row on the right hand side each Sunday, quietly saved my parish. A former priest came back to speech in the memorial part of the Mass. He said when he came to St. Martin's in 1991 the parish had a debt of 1.2 million dollars. The priest who founded our church in the 1920s, would go to bed so nervous about the building cost of 106,000 dollars that his bed would actually shake at night. This priest said, he didn't worry so much about a 1.2 million dollar debt. And Pat, this quiet man who happened to be one of the best bankers in D.C., showed him how to pay it off! We, this humble parish of recent immigrants, paid off our debt! Pat handled the budgets for our parish school. He was chairmen of our church finance committee until the day he died. He showed my parish how to afford to build our convent! The first new convent in D.C. in a decade.
The most amazing part, is that because I know Theresa, I know another part. Pat lived a life of simplicity. They just bought their first house two years ago. All of the family's money went into affording Catholic school for their three children. They bought their first home at age 60. And Pat was a real estate banker!
The funeral mass was incredible. Such a moving experience. It was incredible to sing the Mass with the body of my friend's husband beside the choir. It was incredible to sing about the Eucharist to a group of Pat's co-workers who were not Catholic. And at the end, it was incredible to realize how diverse the talents contained in the body of Christ.
I am an artist. Bankers have to be about as far removed from my creative, non-practical, math-impaired mind. Yet here were the priests in such high praise for the work of this humble banker. And I realized how important the work of a banker is for a church. The priests and the nuns have to be about as impaired with money as my husband and I. Yet they didn't need to worry. God gave them a "Patrick" in the midst of a financially troubled parish. Three priests, listened carefully to what he said, and our tiny parish can support ministry for 2,000 active families!
I gave a lot thanks to Catholic bankers yesterday. And I gave such thanks for my own humble ability to sing. It is such a beautiful gift to give some one in mourning. My husband has started saying that "song is ornament for the air." And that's what happened. The air inside that church changed with all the beautiful hymns selected by my friend and fellow choir member, Theresa.
My prayers are for Patrick Burke to rest in peace with our Lord Jesus. I pray for Theresa and for their three children. I pray for all of us to become worthy servants of God, to bear our cross well and hear "Welcome my faithful servant" at the end of our lives.