My Father died a little over five years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those papers. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother, who died some seven years ago.
I must say that there are many moving things I discovered, as I read through their papers and I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that some others bear. I particular I was struck at the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (Picture of all of them at right)
My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word till she was well past two, and then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. By six years of age, the counselor at her elementary school spoke of her as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care.
Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share. But she was deeply troubled, by age 13 she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us, and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches where she was stable. But soon “the voices” returned, as did the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and suicidal attempts.
Through all of this my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she go the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated quite a correspondence with insurance companies and mental health officials of the State and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, in her life my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and wanted a sister, they went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl, filing papers and coming very close, but the plan fell through. The baby sister we never had.
Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire, and had often set fires before when the voices told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket. And I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died. A grief observed.
Of her, my father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file that I discovered:
Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage.
And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne I could not help but moved too by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three boys, from most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true their were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time, as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister. A grief observed.
After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse and it caused her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well, to the point that she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away only for a moment, gone to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol, and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods. A grief observed.
My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble. The searching on a dark frigid and stormy night, and the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He too was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died of a literal broken heart, and a figurative one as well in 2007. A grief observed.
All these thoughts sweep over me as I look through this file “Mary Anne.” I pray, dear reader, that I have not lingered too long for you on these personal matters. But the truth is, all of us carry grief, and perhaps this story will help you with your own, which I pray is not too heavy.
There is an old spiritual that says, Nobody knows the trouble I seen….Nobody but Jesus. And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our trouble. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation which refers to those who have died in the Lord and says of Jesus and them He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)
And for my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord, but who died with grief, I pray this text has already been fulfilled, and they enjoy now that everything is new. A grief observed no longer.
Requiescant in pace
This second video I made on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.