I was alone with my mother just after she died.
I drove an hour and seventeen minutes through careful desperation to be with her.
To pray her beloved rosary over her body.
In a moment I’ll never comprehend but am as sure as my babies came from my womb — I felt my mother’s death — a sensation akin my water breaking, from the core of my pelvis. I called my husband. It took him minutes to discover what my body had already made known to me.
She died in her sleep with a large, silver rosary from her days in the convent, clutched in her fingers.
More than once in the week leading up to her death, she’d said, “just hand me my roasary, Meg.” Prayers for others. Prayers for herself.
Finally standing over where her life had lain itself down, I asked my husband to find me another rosary. Within minutes he returned with multiple strands of plastic beads looped over his forearm, resting in the crook of his elbow. A two-person Mardi Gras.
A child of religious instruction from a now defrocked priest, with a sing-song voice that flipped my stomach long before his pedophilia terrorist tendencies were forced into the light by the Boston Globe, I’d dropped the church scaffolding around my connection to spirit long before this untenable moment.
Honoring my mother in the way she would have wanted. The way she would have honored her people.
But only remnants of the ritual of the rosary remained in my memory.
My phone shaking in my left hand, Google gifted me with a familiar image of a small instructional card I’d seen before. The rosary road map had been part of a white patent leather bible carrying case/purse my grandmother presented me in the side parking lot of Saint John the Baptist, on the occasion of my First Communion. My grandmother, Mary, had embossed my name in gold letters on the small Bible with the fine onion skin pages, assuring me it would withstand the inevitable and expected hours of study and underling to come.
I knew as she pressed her precious gift into my eight-year-old, sinner hands that I would do no such thing. Like the holy water, in travel bottles she had brought before this, the carrying case and its sacred contents would soon be hurled into the furthest recesses of my bedroom closet. In a farm-house built in 1899, my “closet” was an oddly shaped space under the attic stairs — haunted by my fears, imagination, and soon the unbroken spine of the book of the Holy Spirit.
I spent years side-eying the trauma of my church upbringing and my longing for spiritual connection. I tried going slightly astray, to the Anglicans when I lived in England and their away game team the Espicopals here in DC. I loved those people, but not their Jesus. Like a child who’s outgrown Santa, but hedges her bets, I prayed and disparaged prayer. My kids and I attended church and I made sure to lecture on the dangers of organized religion over donuts after service.
When I miscarried my first pregnancy, I stood in the parking lot of the hospital, looked to the sky and said inwardly at God without irony, “I don’t believe in you anymore.”
But in times of need or sorrow, I called on my true believer mother and asked her to activate her “church ladies” prayer chain. And so did my company in confusion, best friend. I’d call my mom, and she’d say, “okay, Meg, tell her we’re on it.” She’d set the prayer tree in motion. The grace of her faith extended to all of us.
I rolled the bead through my thumb and first two fingers. I felt her imprint of hours of worry and love pressed through into the cut plastic. I held it with reverence possibly for the first time in my life. The crossroad of trauma, and healing at the feet of a woman of unwavering faith.
And I was failing her.
I clicked from the rosary instructional photo — ten beads of ‘Our Fathers’ and the one ‘Hail Mary’ which I recalled easily despite being jacked up on terror and adrenaline. The ‘Glory Be’ was short but utterly forgotten and I’d never seen the ‘Hail Holy Queen’ or the ‘Mysteries’ in my life. Hand to God.
Like so many grade school holiday concerts she attended, I gave an overly enthusiastic amateur performance. Awkwardly switching my weight from knee to knee, stopping and starting. I was desperate to anoint her body with the prayers and loved she deserved.
And I almost missed it.
In my moment of deepest, howling sorrow, it was I, not she, on my knees in prayer.
And that was the gift.
When the prayer wrapped and I rose, my hands opened themselves stiff and flat. I pressed. As you’d test a burner for heat, I softly pressed my palms on her tiny, still body. I pressed my payers into her.
The last laying on of hands.
I moved slowly through her room, pressing. Honoring. Touching her stuff. This time drawing the remnants of her into me from things that she loved, though I’d already been given a lifetime of enough.
I stayed this way until I heard the crunch of my brother’s car on the gravel.