My sister Mary Anne in San Jose, California, is very sick. She has been sick for a while, and now they just found 13 brain tumors. I am going to visit her, along with my other sisters Barbara and Nancy. I arrive
Thursday, January 29. I do not know how long I will stay. If I find myself also in St. Louis, where Mary Anne wants to be buried, this may be my only trip to the States this year....
Mary Anne just turned 64 on January 11. Please bless her.
2. SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2009
ESTA ES SU CASA--FEBRUARY 2009
FROM MORGAN HILL, CALIFORNIA
The Hastings Cutoff
I just got a Go-Phone! while I am in the U.S.
To update you, in case you did not get my emergency e-mail a week ago, Mary Anne, 64, has been fighting
various cancers for the past three years, and the last battle broke out most recently in the form of 13 brain
tumors. This is the end, then, six weeks at the most, say the doctors. So I came to California, to be with her, joined by our sisters Barb and Nancy, coming from St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri, and by Bec (Rebecca), Nancy’s daughter, currently living in Sacramento--oh, and Bec’s chihuahua Chiquita, a little secret we didn’t exactly mention at the hotels....
But you all DID get that e-mail (except folks who are daily joining “my friends” on that wacky Facebook). And the response just poured in. I showed Mary Anne the pages and pages of e-mails on my computer and she asked about each one of you, her curiosity still active despite her crowded cranium.
Mary Anne is a bit of a curiosity herself, as she freely admits! The cats, for example. I wouldn’t mind if every cat on the planet disappeared tomorrow, but Mary Anne would take them all in. At one point some years ago, in Morgan Hill, there were over 50, in and outside her house--”feral” cats, mind you, that came prowling down from the hills and through the brush. Mary Anne spayed them and neutered them and tamed them into kitties. In San Jose, she ended up with just four, and a little dog, all of which we deposited at the San Jose Humane Society, a difficult departure, as you can imagine, on the way down south to the hospice.
With all the activity of the day, we worried that we arrived too late for supper, but five minutes after Mary Anne checked in, they brought her the most gorgeous chicken-salad sandwich any of us had ever seen. After weeks of hospital food, she ate like a queen.
So Mary Anne, housed by your prayers and kind thoughts, is, for the time being, strangely enough, thriving. The photo shows her enjoying the drawing Chepito made for her, complete with the Our Father and Hail Mary lettered on it.
As it turned out, the real death watch was not with my sister in California, but earlier in the month, in
Tegucigalpa, where Elio and Mema, who run a store that has been robbed at gunpoint about 6 times in the past
couple or three years, are receiving death threats from Mafia-type extortionists offering “protection.” You know, the kind of offer you “can’t refuse.”
Let me set the scene. You may recall from the December and January CASAs that Chemo’s brother Marcos was
visiting us. Well, it was finally time to take him home, to Tocoa. But we went the long way, by way of
Marcos had been with us for two months. When I think how parents--including my own--raise their kids for 18
years, I think, how did they do that? Marcos’ visit exposed my every flaw as a supposed parent, and to show you how desperate I got, I started re-reading the New Testament--this time in Greek! (Don’t worry, it’s an interlinear translation.) But we survived, and I loved them with all my strength and kept telling them so. The sweetest moments would come when they reminded me, “Recemos” (Let’s pray), before bedtime. We would pray for everyone we could think of...including you.
Anyway, Chemo was due for another post-op checkup, following his heart surgery last September, and I was
due to renew my Honduran residency visa for another year.
Of course we called Elio and Mema as soon as we arrived, usually the most available of friends, but something seemed amiss. No one answered the store phone, so I finally called the cellular. Mema said Elio was not well. Elio himself, who never complains, sounded...defeated. We didn’t find out the mystery till Mema’s birthday party a couple days later, a party that almost didn’t happen, said Elio, Jr., who hosted it.
They were getting phone calls. “Doña Mema, how much is your family worth to you?” They’re demanding 500,000 Lempiras (about $25,000)--or else. Elio disconnected the phone. That got them mad, so two armed men arrived on motorcycles, with a note, a bullet inside and the message: “We’ve got more bullets, enough for all of
you.” The next day, a dark gray car with even darker windows showed up; this time five armed men. Aren’t
some people brave with a gun in their hand? Extra points for threatening a woman, a mother.
A family as strong and devoted and--I’m going to say it--holy as ever existed, is now on the edge of a knife. You can just imagine the tension at Mema’s party. The food was plentiful and delicious, the guests were loving and embracing, the good wishes were heartfelt--but every knock on the door froze us all, till a familiar voice would answer from outside.
Massacres, of whole families, are a frequent occurrence in Honduras. And the newspapers and TV accounts are unsparing in their details and close-ups, even of the children blanketed in their own blood. So my imagination did not have to work very hard to see us attacked, wondering who of us might survive. I started to plan a strategy, which included throwing myself on some grenade that might come over the wall, or throwing the burning embers of Elio, Jr.’s barbecue into the eyes of the gunmen. I don’t think I’m brave; in fact, I took this as a sign I was losing my mind. Suddenly Chemo and Marcos, right at my side, seemed the most precious children of God in the universe, and I knew everyone else was thinking the same thing about their family, too. With the help of her grandchildren, Mema blew out the candles on her cake, but you could tell she had been crying. Some birthday, huh?
The next day, Sunday, January 11, we took a “nonstop” bus to Tocoa, a great big Greyhound type thing, a
Mercedes-Benz in fact. The eight-hour trip was a breeze, though our hearts were heavy, thinking of Mema
and Elio. Tocoa is north of Tegucigalpa, but this route makes a great loop, on paved highways, through half the country. So you might say it is, in fact, a “shortcut.” It made our previous attempts look like a wagon train.
In Tocoa, we returned Marcos to his sister Goya. We stayed a day or so, to see the cattle ranch where Goya’s husband Tonio works. Chemo just loved it, and Marcos was right at home, since he helps milk the cows
sometimes. They had 17 new calves this season, so now you know why cattle are called “ganado” (wealth!) in
Then on to Bonito Oriental, Marcos again in tow, for another visit with their mommy, Rufina. You know, this
voyage is so long and so yearning, I thought, We can’t come as far as Tocoa and not go the rest of the way to
Rufina. When would we go, if not now? School will be starting again in February. We’re this close--or this far!--keep a-goin’.
But it rained! It felt like a curse--every time we come here, rain!--and I did some cursing, let me tell you, though in English, so the boys just laughed. I said to Fidel, Rufina’s husband, as we hiked up the long hills to the house, “It’s not supposed to rain in January, is it?” “Oh, it does.” In fact, campesinos have a name for it: “cabanuela.” Folks plant their corn in May and June based on exactly which days it rains in January. I could tell them in advance: whenever I go to Rufina, it’s gonna rain, count on it.
But we had a good visit, despite my having to tell their own mother that her sons got drunk on my watch--twice! On Christmas and again on New Year’s Eve. No confession was ever harder. But Rufina took it in stride and did not blame me; she even teased the boys about it. Chemo complained, “He’s telling EVERYONE!”
The hike--more of a slip n’ slide--DOWN the mountain a couple days later covered us in mud to our knees. As we got on the bus to head home, we were wet and we smelled like dogs. We smelled like wet dogs. So I saw only one possibility. I changed clothes IN the bus, before we left and in between passengers boarding. Chemo kept warning, “Hurry up! Another lady’s coming!”
We stopped in Progreso to get Chemo new clothes, since he’d left three of his shirts in Tocoa, and all his pants were wet and his shoes were falling apart from the mud. We got a new outfit or two and some red Keds and we were getting all set to go out to the mall. “Miguel, how do you put these stupid shoes on?” They’d given him two lefties! But we got them changed (the shoe store was right in the hotel lobby), and he says, “Miguel, take my picture!”
I’m sure some of you went to the Inauguration. In Tegucigalpa, we went to the circus. It was an evening’s respite from the sad scares at Elio’s house. I couldn’t take any pictures, but they took one, and only charged 100
Lempiras for it...! Well, that’s all right, it was some kind of fund-raiser for kids with cancer, sort of like the Shriner’s Circus. There were lots of dancers and singers, and performing animals--including an amazing flock of doves that flew all over the bigtop and never missed a cue--and flying and leaping acrobats and a major clown/mime who stitched the whole evening together--and topping it off, a magisterial magician who spoke his Spanish with a Slavic accent, creating tigers out of thin air, disappearing damsels and dogs with equal grace, and at one point, vanishing the whole circus troupe and conjuring a helicopter in their place! Afterwards, Marcos kept asking, “Miguel, was that real? Did it really happen?” “It was magic, Marcos.” “Well, what’s magic?”
I think that’s what a lot of folks felt, watching the Inauguration of Barack Obama--PRESIDENT Obama! Is this
real? Is it really happening? Magic. Here, the electricity was off the day before, and came back on just in time for the event and it shut down again just as it ended, with Aretha Franklin singing, and Rev.Lowery announcing the day “when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead man and when white would embrace what is right.”
Just before I came up to the States, we finally installed Eduar’s cross at his little grave. I guess I was selfish, but I just didn’t want anyone else to do it; I wanted to do it myself, to be sure the letters were BIG. But I had plenty of help from the boys. I bought wooden alphabet letters in Tegucigalpa and made a stencil with them. We got daubs of paint all over ourselves. You can see the less-than-perfect result, but, by golly, you CAN see it. And at our cemetery, it’s the very first thing anyone will see now.
To the bare facts of Eduar’s tiny life, I added the word BENDICION (“a blessing, please”). It’s what kids ask of their “padrinos,” or godparents, or of other adult family like aunts and uncles, and of their parents first thing in the morning. “Bendicion,” and comes the return, “Dios te bendiga,” God bless you, often with a hand placed on the head. So little Eduar is asking Bendicion from everyone who sees his cross. But Eduar, blessed now beyond any blessing we could give him, is blessing us. So here, where poor folks,especially children, usually read whatever they read outloud, anyone entering the cemetery will see thecross and very likely say, “Bendicion.” God bless you,
comes the reply.
Last month I watched a documentary about the Donner Party. The Hastings Cutoff was the advertised "shortcut" that actually added 125 miles to their ill-fated trek west, dooming them in the Sierra Mountains of Colorado,
where they arrived just as theworst winter on record began. Some folks today judgereligion to be such a shortcut, an illusory attempt to bypass reality, ending in drifts of despair. But faith is no shortcut. It reveals a truth unseen, but sure. There are no shortcuts in life. We all make the same journey, till sooner or later we lie by Eduar’s cross,
or climb Morgan Hill. But, as you have proved, when you pray, when you direct your thoughts to others, you
are standing on a Rock. That is real...magic.
So please continue your kind vigilance for my sister Mary Anne, and if you will, extend your cover of concern to Elio and Mema.
Bendicion, Miguel (from Morgan Hill, California)
3. FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2009
ESTA ES SU CASA--MARCH 2009
Just in time
My sister Mary Anne, bathed in your good wishes, loves the Pacific Hills Manor hospice in Morgan Hill, California, and it loves her--she shows few symptoms of imminent death from multiple brain tumors. I think the comfort, even the thrill, of our visiting--me, Barb, Nancy, Bec, and Chiquita, Bec’s chihuahua--buoyed her spirits and gave her a new lease on life. She would get tired, and have “bad mornings” with headaches, but she never got tired of thanking us or forget what tasks remained before her passing. We took her out at least twice, once back to her house in San Jose to clean out her room in her son Christopher’s house, and another time to the bank to arrange payments for the funeral--as well as a spree at the local Walgreen’s, for socks (pink! had to be pink!) and things.
We also got her a miniature LCD TV that fits right on her tray table, with a cable hook-up, to watch her favorite MSNBC shows. And she has a wonderful roommate, Cheryl, who Mary Anne got hooked on “Lost.” Cheryl is so sweet that when we were still visiting one evening and “Lost” came on, Cheryl, who had never even seen the show, watched it on the room TV and took notes for Mary Anne so she wouldn’t miss the latest plot developments. THAT is real care! With other patients, Mary Anne can go to Sunday Mass at St. Catherine’s just across the nursing home parking lot. The staff just wheels the folks over in wheelchairs. The motto of Pacific Hills is “We are family serving families,” and it rings true.
After the first Mass, Mary Anne exclaimed, “That was the most beautiful Mass I have ever been to! I feel so spiritual!” And I could agree, because I had gone myself. So spiritual that she vowed to “smooth things over” with Christopher and his wife. There had been some strains and striving in the course of their three years living together, along with the two grandsons, aged 7 and 5, mostly because of Mary Anne’s 4 or 5 cats. (I almost said “mangy” cats, but I guess they weren’t really mangy; they only smelled that way...and her Toto-sized “mangy” dog, too!) So that is another miracle. And her younger son, Sean, living in northern California, will be drawn into the circle again by and by, as well as her estranged husband Jim. It was something to see, and it’s not the fear of death that is affecting Mary Anne. She’s not afraid at all. When Barb pointed out the activities and little projects the nursing home offers, Mary Anne says,
“Don’t worry about any of that, I’ll be gone in two weeks.”
It’s already been over four weeks, and she’s perking along. Because she seemed to be doing so well, Barb and Nancy and I all went back to St. Louis, where more arrangements needed to be made for Mary Anne’s funeral, because she wants to be buried in the family plot at Calvary Cemetery. It gave us a chance to decompress and relax together, too.
I was only in St. Louis for a few days, but I got there just in time to help Barb take down her Christmas tree. She was much quicker organizing a pizza/pasta party for the Dulick clan to celebrate little niece Jayme’s fourth birthday (umm-umm, Talayna’s--to die for, you should pardon the expression). I was just in time for the first anniversary of the killings at the Kirkwood City Hall. Just in time for the baptism of Teresa Jorgen’s nephew Jack. Just in time for the Orchid Show at the Botanical Gardens. Just in time to congratulate Bart Prosser for Parkway North Teacher of the Year. Just in time for Gary Mazzola, principal at Parkway South High, to offer again his faithful support for my work--and play--in Honduras. Just in time for Rams’ meatloaf.
I apologize to any and all that I missed this round--and I DO miss you!--but I will be back in April (April 16 to May 4, I think), so there will be some more just-in time. Jenny Marquart, principal at North High, is scheduling a “Speakers Series” and invited me for a slot. I’ll be accepting other invitations, too....
I got back to Honduras just in time to hear Elio Flores’ diagnosis of prostate cancer. Elio and Mema are still on the list of the “extortionist guys,” as their son Elio Manuel calls them in his English. It is, of course, no joke. They fled their house and store and holed up with friends and relatives, on the run from threats of death unless they pay half a million Lempiras in “protection” money to these criminals. And now cancer. it’s a slow cancer, you know, prostate cancer, but Elio did not wait around. He’d seen this coming, as his test results rose each of the last three years.
When his worried daughter Felixsa, a nun in the begging order Verbum Dei in Guadalajara, Mexico, mentioned her father’s condition to a woman who out of the blue helped her pay a bill at the pharmacy, the woman offered yet more, and big, help, since her own husband had just been operated on for...prostate cancer. The woman offered her husband’s surgeon! How’s that for a donation! Elio, who is diabetic, obese, and hypertensive, was warned by his doctor, Don’t even think about getting an operation in Honduras! So Elio and Mema flew to Mexico, where even now he is resting and recuperating from the successful surgery, with his daughter--his Sister!--at his side. I don’t know if you can spread prayers around like bailout money, but the prayers that so many of you promised for Elio and Mema’s gang threats seem to have trickled down to include his cancer--and you didn’t even know about it! Such is the great comfort--the great comforter, you might
say--of our common humanity.
I got back to Las Vegas just in time for the beginning of classes. I called Chemo every day when I was in the States, and he actually started saying he missed me. But Dora got him ready for school, as well as Pablito and Chepito, with their uniforms and school supplies. I accompany Chemo every day, though he usually runs on ahead--classes start at 7:00 a.m.--and then I go back for recess at 9:00 with his “breakfast,” prepared by Dora, who fixes the food for three of her own kids, one more is no bother (she says! God love her).
Chemo’s in second grade, with Dorisell, Dora’s youngest, and during my absence he got a lot closer to Elvis and Dora’s family, especially Elvis, Jr. In fact, he still spends the night over there, and he does his homework with Dorisell. It’s wonderful! I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts calling Dora “Mommy”; he’s stopped phoning Rufina, his “real” mom. I guess I feel a little ambivalent about that, but bottom line is Chemo’s well-being. A mother who loves him every day trumps one a million miles away.
The Bandidos, Pablito and Chepito, are in fourth grade together, with Dorita, another Dora daughter. They have the nicest teacher in the whole school, Profe Avener, but you know what? they almost resent his kindness, ‘ cause he gives them no excuse to skip class. But they skip anyway. I don’t know--I can’t imagine we have come to the parting of the ways. I’ll love them till I die--or they kill me with a broken heart--but I’m not chasing them down anymore. Chepito is 16, Pablo just turned 15--in fourth grade! There are boys that age in the villages who already have kids! I just spent about $4000 building their new house, and they won’t even cut their hair. After all my cajoling and blessing and warning, they did come to Ash Wednesday Mass, though Chepito got no closer than the porch of the church.
But it is Lent, after all, and I just read an amazing book from the 1950s that is still way ahead of its time called “The Lord” by Romano Guardini. The theme is mercy. What else would it be?, a book about Jesus. But the forgiveness we sinners seek--and so readily, even thoughtlessly, accept--from God, is validated in our own embrace of others, so horrible in their conduct, so offensive, so “indictable,” but probably less sinful than ourselves, if we were honest. I never read a book with a more intimate “take” on The Lord--except, of course, the Bible that I am diving into “again, for the first time,” as the saying goes, as if it were a new Harry Potter.
I was just in time for the first anniversary of Juny’s death, and just in time for his brother Avelino’s first epileptic seizure. Berta looks at me, “Miguel, am I going to lose another son like this?” It would be her second, Juny at age 32, and now Avelino, 22. Maybe her third, if that’s what her grandbaby Eduar just died of in December. It was lovely to see the house--the cantina--usually draped with drunks, dressed up again as a shrine for 9 days. After the novena, we took the flowers up to Juny’s grave, stopping to decorate Eduar’s, too. Meanwhile, I gave Avelino a supply of Phenobarbital that I got with Juny’s old prescriptions; so far so good. No more seizures....
I just missed Heydi’s funeral, who, at age 20, lost her life to brain cancer about 45 years younger than my sister will. This was so hard, because, you know how you always ask about someone, and they always say, no matter what the real situation is, Oh, she’s a little better. Heydi was in San Pedro Sula getting chemo and other treatments off and on for three years; she was here visiting about six months ago, and she was radiant. You just wanted so much for her to be all right. But I did ask the kids to show me her grave in the cemetery, already marked with a strong, steel cross. This is good, because some idiot teens have been ripping up and knocking down crosses in the cemetery, the MEGA-LOCOS they’re calling themselves. Everyone knows who they are, and no one will say it out loud. They also knocked off the new cross on the little church at the top of town. Mega-locos? More like mega-poopheads. I’d like to catch them and, you know, forgive the
daylights out of them...
I think Mary Anne got her extra time to embrace again all her family, and we got the time, too, to rediscover our sister and our family, rooted in love. Maybe, as the Bible says, all things have their time, just in time.
4. WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1, 2009
ESTA ES SU CASA--APRIL 2009
All things must pass
“Mike, I don’t want to scare you, but I’m going blind.” My sister Mary Anne is right on schedule. Hospice gave her a little booklet about the end stages of brain cancer, and she can still see enough to confirm its agenda, including loss of any taste. “You know it’s bad when you can’t even taste Chinese!” She is weakening daily, but still perks up enough for one more outing, one more Mass, one more “Last Rites.”
I have a plane ticket for St. Louis April 16 to May 4, my “regular” annual visit, but I am ready anytime....
There have been several rehearsals for my sister’s passing.
Esther, 98, who lived in her own house just a block from Teresa Jorgen in Kirkwood till January, went “home to the Lord” on March 4. After several falls, she finally retired to a nursing home. The lovely thing here, is that, if I had not gone to the States in January to visit my sister, I would not have seen Esther before her death. Esther loved to look at my photobooks. And she would always say, “Yes, but do they know the Lord?” I would assure her that they did. “Oh, I know they do, I can see it in their faces.” The bigger question for me was, do they know Esther? She prayed for me and my work all the time, so I saw myself as the link between Esther and the Lord and my little “slumdogs.” I showed them her face, in photos yes, that was easy, but I tried to show them Esther in my own face. She was well named, for Queen Esther in the Bible, most famous for her irresistible faith in prayer. The Queens are now sharing thrones.
“Slumdog Millionaire”--what a relief to give an Oscar to a movie that affirms life instead of those ghastly “serious” films “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men.” I got a pirated copy in Tegucigalpa--you can’t pay full price even if you want to here, no one sells something for $20 that you can get on any street corner for a buck--and I thought, Man, I know these kids! I was watching it on a Sunday--chicken night--and it put me in such a good mood, I fed every kid who walked in, about a dozen in all, without “carding” them to be sure they went to church today. I thought, in the Spirit of Esther, who baked me her wonderful wafer-thin oatmeal cookies and scolded me if I didn’t take enough, How’s about this supper be our church for today? You know, God in the midst; some people see the Virgin Mary’s face in a pancake. Here, we got God in the mashed potatoes.
Of course, the annual retreat helped. Fr. Jack Barron couldn’t come this year, because he’s overloaded with work at his own retreat house in the States. So our new priest, Padre Jaime Parra from Panama gave about 50 of us our two-day retreat. He’s young, engaging, and--let’s be frank--a native speaker. Fr. Jack’s Spanish was sometimes more sincere than syntactical, so folks here just loved Padre Jaime’s effortless eloquence. Now, I was the one straining to catch every word! I have to say, his best prayer tip, as far as I was concerned, was, Put away your wristwatch. It was very freeing for someone as “retentive” as myself. (I had eight clocks in my classroom at Parkway North!) Suddenly, the time flew by.
But just as the retreat ended, our serenity was severely tested. News came that Elvis’ brother Marlin had been hit by a taxicab in New York City. He was in Huntington Hospital clinging to life. It happened on a Saturday night, March 7, and already by Monday, they were ready to pull the plug: he was brain-dead. Marlin may have already “died,” but his family needed more time to absorb the impact, and to pray for a “miracle.” They asked me if I knew anyone who could help. Well, we got at least a little miracle when I called Justin Diedrich (North 2000), now a doctor in San Francisco, whose wife Claudia Muñoz is, guess what, a neurologist! Claudia agreed to call Huntington Hospital to asses the situation, and, if possible, urge a delay in disconnecting life-support. You see, there was the suspicion here that an “illegal” is a nuisance in a big city hospital and the sooner the bed is empty, the better. We were in constant contact with a cousin Selvin, also living in New York, who could only barely grasp all the details of the diagnosis. But once Claudia called the hospital, she could assure us that they were indeed doing all they could, and when Selvin sent us a photo of Marlin in his ICU bed, he looked for all the world like a fallen king or a president, in a million-dollar ICU. But he had no brain activity at all; “life-support” would only amount to death-support. Nevertheless, they agreed to delay till the evening the disconnection originally planned for Tuesday morning. And the next day, I called the hospital to thank them for their extraordinary care. You know, it is sort of miraculous that doctors and nurses--just “doing their job”--treat a perfect stranger like their own family. I saw it with Chemo’s doctors and nurses, and you see it in Marlin’s case, and, of course, with Claudia.
But here in Las Vegas Marlin stayed alive. Elvis said he could not tell their mother Yuya. “It’ll kill her.” Yuya, you may remember, was hysterical with the death of her 96-year old father Faustino last fall; you can just imagine her losing a son. Nor would Elvis tell his children, especially Lily studying in Tegucigalpa and Neysi studying in Victoria, and even the littler ones. Or even Marlin’s children. Something about not “missing class”...
I was at a loss, since when we went over to his mother’s Wednesday night to pray, I assumed this was the “wake.” Not exactly. When we went to Yoro on Thursday to fax papers to the funeral home in New York authorizing the shipment of Marlin’s body back home to Honduras, I thought, well, that’s it, it’s public knowledge. No, not yet. Spanish is conveniently ambiguous, so I could say to people who kept asking, Yes, we are bringing “lo” back to Honduras, where the pronoun can be either “him” (Marlin) or “it” (his body).
Things came to a head on Sunday when Profe Titina prayed aloud at Mass for “Marlin, who died last week,” and Godo prayed for Yuya, “that she might be sustained in the loss of her son.” Everyone was there, and I saw Elvis, Jr., 12, visibly shrink in his pew, and Elvis himself with a sort of dazed look. But wait, by Sunday night, the cover story was back on track, and at another prayer service at the house, the very same Titina and Godo were praying for Marlin’s “health.” Obviously, someone talked to them. I added my own prayer, choosing my words carefully, for Marlin who had built my house, and made it a home for me, but my own country was not a safe home for him. Yuya herself was a bundle of rags in her bed, moaning hopelessly, “Ay de mí! Ay de mí! Mi criatura! Mi criatura!” ‘Criatura’ practically means a newborn. I guess for our mothers we are always a baby. But even an “hysterical” woman knows when her child is dead, don’t you think? No one has to “break the news” to her... The charade was killing us all.
We went to Yoro again a few days later, this time to fax papers to a lawyer Selvin found to sue the cab company for “wrongful death.” Both of Marlin’s parents had to sign, but, still, Yuya, who cannot read, was spared the truth. Elvis told her it was a paper to clear his salary for teaching at the night-school. Actually, both signatures looked identical, so I sorta think Vidal forged Yuya’s. But if justice is done, this stricken family should be compensated for the life and livelihood lost when a working man of 40 is cut down in his prime. If he had lived to his grandfather Faustino’s age--and Faustino was cutting wood till a month before his death--he was shorted at least 50 more years....
Then they started fighting over the corpse! Carlin, a half-brother in New York, seemed to want a piece of the action, seeking to appoint himself the “guardian” of Marlin’s children--and, we all thought, since Selvin had just kicked him out of the house for a constant drunk--grab a windfall. Somehow, a few long conversations later, and maybe Marlin’s post-mortem capacity for healing, Carlin dropped his own plans and joined Selvin’s efforts.
Finally, on Monday, March 23, it was time to go get Marlin at the San Pedro Sula airport. Honduras, someone told me, has a fund to repatriate its citizens who die abroad, but it seems Selvin did not know about it. Instead, it was a “Wonderful Life” moment; family, friends, and neighbors and co-workers all contributed, to pay the hospital, the funeral parlor, the plane ticket--with money left over. At first, when Selvin sent us photos of Marlin in this gorgeous, brushed-steel casket, I just assumed it was a “loaner,” you know; and dressed in a fine suit, he looked like a Wall Street banker (before the crash!).
I volunteered to go along to San Pedro, assuming I could pick up some of the tab for gas and food and things. We set out in 3 pickups, each with a brother and a driver, Elvis and I in Chepe’s truck, Nando and a cousin in Nando’s truck, and Marvin in Tonio’s camper, which would serve as the hearse. I wondered how God might bless us this day, and believe me, we led a charmed life. No problems at all. I spent the hours reading a book on the Shroud of Turin, the wrapping Jesus shed, they say, on Easter. Oh, to wrap us all up in such a linen of grace!
There WAS one moment of danger, you might say. I was downloading cash from an ATM in Burger King in Progreso, where we stopped for lunch, and suddenly a teenager with her head bloodied ran in, just robbed by some hood. Folks all gathered round her, and I thought with a jolt, that should have been me! with all the money I was carrying....
The plane was due at 8:15 p.m. Marvin and I waited at a freight entrance GATE 6 while the others stayed in the parking lot. Marvin, who never goes to church, confided in me how this experience had touched his faith. “I always believed, you know, but now I want to do something more.” I told he’d been doing “more” all day...while I was feeling like a fifth wheel. I sort of wondered why I had come.
Marlin touched everyone, I guess, even total strangers. At 8 o’clock, a young airport worker--a kid, he was--comes peering out the enormous gate. “Are you the folks waiting for Marlin Matute?” Yes! “The plane’s here, we just have to get the box off.” Amazing! I thought, He didn’t have to do that, he could have just let us wait here.... But we got on our cell phones to alert everyone, including back in Las Vegas, that Marlin had come home.
Then we ran into the buzzsaw of bureaucracy. See, even though Marlin was dead, in a casket, like cargo, he was still a “passenger” who had to clear Customs and Immigration. For such cases, the office was deep in the bowels of the airport, up on the second floor. The kid took us up there, apologizing every step of the way for the inconvenience, and we got there just as the woman was closing the office for the night. The kid sweet-talked her into opening up again, but she wasn’t happy about it. “You know, if you people get the wrong body, don’t blame me.” I thought, maybe this is why I’m here...I did my humble, helpless gringo act, pointing my cap at her that says “Dios te bendiga,” and put in little thank-you’s at every opportunity. I even got the kid, who was rolling his eyes and pinching his hands together (“blah-blah-blah”)--because the woman wouldn’t shut up--to relax. But the real ice-breaker came when a guard stepped in to announce they’d just killed another “barba amarilla,” a highly poisonous “yellow-beard” snake that comes out of the brush looking for water. “Un metro! un metro!” (“a meter long”) and we all laughed and cringed at such an encounter, the woman most of all. By the time we left, she was apologizing for being brusk with us, and offered her sympathies.
Back at GATE 6 at last, they pointed to me to come in and identify the body. I tried to say Marvin was the brother, but they just waved me in. Then I was sure: THIS was why I came, to be Marlin’s brother and welcome him home. They opened the huge cardboard box, and, to my astonishment, there was the gorgeous brushed steel casket! They opened it, and there he was, no doubt the first and last of his family ever to be embalmed. I almost cried to think of the care lavished on this poor soul.
They opened the gate and pulled the cart out, and by now all the others had gathered. (We had picked up more family in San Pedro, filling our three cars.) We opened the box and casket again, and the tears just flowed. The kid, still attending, never hurried us and helped us load the whole thing in the camper, and it just fit, like a love letter in its envelope. It was 10 p.m.
So we set out, our little 3-car caravan, the “hearse” leading the way, the longest funeral procession I’ve ever been in, four and a half hours in the dark, the last two in a fog of dust on the bone-dry summer roads, not another car in sight the whole way.
We arrived at 2:30 in the morning, where a huge crowd met us at the house, a chorus of the damned--a screaming and wailing of hellish despair, led by Yuya. All the play-acting had not diminished her Greek tragedy a micron. She exploded and fainted dead away at least 20 times, reviving with a quick mouth-to-mouth from anyone nearby when she collapsed.
Las Vegas had never seen such a casket! The curiosity maybe outweighed the compassion, so Elvis kept it mostly closed and tied the lid down with a rope. We just stayed up, finally dispersing about 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. I went home and cleaned up and got some rest. They delayed the burial another day, while they worked on the crypt. They wanted something more than a mere hole in the ground for Marlin and his tiny palace.
It was a hot day when we laid him to rest at 4:00 in the afternoon. It really looked like Yuya and Doña Julia, the grandmother (the wife of Faustino, mentioned above) would just plain die of strokes, so we kept them home as half the town trekked up to the cemetery.
The Novena began the next day, nine days of prayer, featuring Bible lessons. By the second day, Yuya was preternaturally calm and quiet as she sat in a corner of the parlor. Her reserve now was almost scarier than her rage had been. We’d have as many as 60 people a day, a record I think around here. Tomorrow (Thursday) is the last day.
Marlin did build my house, not alone, of course, but he was such an easy-going, pleasant, older-brother type for the younger workers that he really kept them focused and relaxed during the months of construction. That was 5 years ago. You know, the father of the family, Vidal, who has appeared in these pages before, most notably for being an incorrigible drunk, bequeathed his alcoholism to his sons, even Elvis, one of the original founders of our AA here 15 years ago (and sober ever since). So, as soon as Elvis told me of Marlin’s accident, he added immediately, “He wasn’t drunk, this time.” Well, no, a cab rarely hits a drunk, I suppose, a moving target; it’s the ordinary pedestrian that is most at risk.
Neatly placed in the timetable, too, just prior to Marlin’s return, was the death of María de los Angeles Rodriguez, 64, the same age as my sister Mary Anne. I think the dead and dying have a network we the living cannot log on to, and they coordinate their comings and goings. So we waked María, the mother of 5 strong grown sons, the night before we headed for San Pedro for Marlin’s body. One son, Miguel, told me all I needed to know about his mother and how she’d raised him, when he gave a little sermon a few years ago, warning us not to accept a “cheap Jesus,” the pretty Jesus with the celebrity entourage and his hand in your pocket. The Cross was not a Blue-Light Special at Wal-Mart. When God joined the life of the poor in Jesus, it came at the price of his very soul.
Snuggled in the midst of this marathon of grief was the anniversary of our Las Vegas chapter of A.A. Here was life! We celebrated one Sunday with delicious plates of food and even richer servings of testimonials. Men from at least 6 other communities gathered for the occasion, a network, as I say, of the living, but almost as unknown--anonymous?--to the wider world (so in need of its healing spirituality!) as the secrets of the dead.
Even Leon was “dead” for about an hour one day. He’s still in jail, a year after he tried to kill Nazario with a machete. Talk about a moving target! They were both so drunk, Leon could only nick a chunk of Nazario’s right ear. I like the rule of law as well as the next guy, and Honduras is totally unfamiliar with the concept, so, while he has probably “suffered enough,” nevertheless, in the time he’s been locked up: we built a new house for his wife Irene and his sons Pablito and Chepito (the “Bandidos”); the boys have stayed in school, 4th grade; and no one’s been beating anybody (except me when I slapped Chepito around for getting drunk on Christmas--and New Year’s). Anyway, I was suspicious when Leon kept calling recently, saying he was so sick, and asking me to transfer “saldo” to his cell phone, minutes which he would then sell to other prisoners, so he could get medicine. Hmmm. First of all, it wasn’t his cell phone, and the “owner” was right there. Turns out it was a little extortion plot. The owner was pressuring Leon; he wanted the saldo for himself. So when I didn’t fall for the bait after a few tries, the guy calls Irene and tells her Leon died. Poor Irene is strung like a harp, so she fell to pieces. “Irene is crying! Irene is crying!” came the Bandidos with the news. But in the next breath they say it wasn’t true, they just talked to “Tata” (their affectionate word for their dad). Even talking to Leon didn’t have an immediate effect, but she calmed after a while. A lost chapter from “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Marlin’s middle name was Christmas (Natividad), but everyone called him “Chente,” short for “Ausente,” because in his 20s he would just go missing for a while (one time, he ended up in the Army, but soon deserted) and suddenly re-appear. Christmas or Chente, such events bespeak the great lessons of our life, that even death can lose its taste. As the song says,
I still believe beyond believing,
That life can spring from death.
Please keep praying or wishing for all of those--especially my sister Mary Anne--who are making that leap.
5. SATURDAY, APRIL 18, 2009
MY SISTER MARY ANNE: IN PARADISUM
I took a plane to St. Louis, but it was my sister Mary Anne who was flying--to Heaven. She died Friday night, April 17. She lingered into the evening; when her son Christopher arrived with his boys, she could depart in peace. Earlier in the week, sisters Barb and Nancy had returned to the Pacific Hills Manor in Morgan Hill, California, to be with her in her last days.
And thank God Barb and Nancy went out there! There was some unfortunate confusion, and Hospice had been treating her with Tylenol, and only “on request”--for brain cancer! But, you know how when you ask most folks, “How are you?” they just say, “Fine,” while some others launch into the Apocalypse? Well, my sister Mary Anne, despite her nickname as a haughty teen--”Queeny”--was the first type; she had been transformed by her final illness into angelic meekness. She was infallibly in good spirits, sorting through her jewelry and coins and who gets what. About the most she would complain when I’d call her every night was, “I’m a little tired.” Or she would say, “Yesterday was bad, but I’m a little better today.” But she was not better, she was in terrible pain, and confused about the meds, and didn’t want to “bother” anyone. So, not until Nancy, who is a nurse, saw the situation for herself and Barb filed a written
complaint, did they finally schedule a narcotic every 4 hours, and Mary Anne could relax for her final journey.
But Mary Anne had become a queen of sorts at the nursing home, so popular was she with the staff, who would come in and say hello, even if they were just passing by, pat her hand, stroke her cheek, and thank her.
Mary Anne’s best “doctor” was a Deacon. Deacon Rick Haeckel from St. Catherine’s Church across the street brought her Communion every day and prayed with her. It was the highlight of her day. And it was sort of sweet that she kept referring to Rick as “my Deaconess.” Perhaps all kindness is feminine in some sense. And he would arrange for the priest to anoint her with the Sacrament of the Sick as often as she asked. She used the old name--The Last Rites--and liked to say she was getting “my Next-to-Last Rites” again. The last Last Rites was just a couple days before her death, this time with Barb and Nancy present.
So great is the power of prayer that the rest of us are living on the leftovers. Her son Sean finally came to his mother’s bedside, and Barb said Mary Anne’s blind eyes lit up and her whole face smiled like never before. Tears and hugs abounded. And Jasmine, Christopher’s wife, followed up a lovely letter she wrote to Mary Anne on Good Friday with a visit of great compassion and reconnection. They were all there, Christopher, Jasmine, and their little boys, Ian and Bryson, to say good-bye to “grandma.”
The ancient hymn sings to the dying, “May the angels take you into Paradise.” I must thank you forever for being her angels. It means the world to Mary Anne.
Details of the funeral in St. Louis yet to be arranged. For reference' sake, her name: Mary Anne Ferris.
I am staying at Teresa Jorgen’s house. My cell phone: 314-605-3267. (Teresa’s phone: 314-966-5782.)
6. SATURDAY, MAY 2, 2009
MY SISTER MARY ANNE: THE FUNERAL
"Seventy percent chance of showers." Not! Thunderstorms they were predicting for Thursday (April 30). All the weather girls and weather boys consulted their charts and maps, but they did not consult Mary Anne. She did not let it rain on her parade. The only sprinkling we had, as we were leaving the cemetery, Barb said was Mary Anne saying thank you.
Even the undertaker at Ambruster Mortuary said he'd never had a service there as lovely as this one. People were giving me credit, but all I wanted to do was make it comfortable enough that others would be able to speak. So I made sure I went first, because I knew I didn't want to follow--
For example, Rory ("Roe"), my nephew Jason's best friend, and a preacher in his own right. The Dulick family sort of adopted him, and he spoke so feelingly at my mother's funeral in 1999 as well. He makes us look good! "I love the Dulicks, they never say an unkind word about each other." Quite a compliment (a tad exaggerated!), but he did know Mary Anne from sharing some vacations in California when Barb took Jason there to visit.
Barb picked the songs, and had them primed on her iPod, and she hit every cue. The songs--and the readings--were the things Barb and Nancy had played and sung over and over for Mary Anne in her last days.
Our Susan Boyle moment was my brother John, the oldest sibling. Homeless by choice, unshaven, dressed by Goodwill and coiffed by the wind, he strode up to the mic as some in the audience squirmed. He squinted at the reading (he lost his glasses years ago) and began, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." It was so fulsome and dramatic a recital that when he boomed the words, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I FEAR NO EVIL!" you believed him! But, of course, like Susan Boyle, it was the singing that really stunned. Accompanied by the pianist the mortuary had provided, he sang "Bali Hai" from "South Pacific." I'm not kidding. "Secular wisdom" he called it. But it was just as appropriate as the Scripture readings I commented on. A tribute to Mary Anne's experiences as an actress and performer.
Most people live on a lonely island,
Lost in the middle of a foggy sea.
Most people long for another island,
One where they know they will like to be.
Bali Ha'i may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you'll hear it call you:
"Come away...Come away."
Nancy wanted to read a "Pet Prayer" but didn't think she could get through it, so her son Dan read it. It's called "The Rainbow Bridge." Do you know it? I wouldn't let Dan "explain" it first, so only gradually do you realize it's about your pets.
By the edge of a woods, at the foot of a hill,
Is a lush, green meadow where time stands still.
Where the friends of man and woman do run,
When their time on earth is over and done.
For here, between this world and the next,
Is a place where each beloved creature finds rest.
On this golden land, they wait and they play,
Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.
No more do they suffer, in pain or in sadness,
For here they are whole, their lives filled with gladness.
Their limbs are restored, their health renewed,
Their bodies have healed, with strength imbued.
They romp through the grass, without even a care,
Until one day they start, and sniff at the air.
All ears prick forward, eyes dart front and back,
Then all of a sudden, one breaks from the pack.
For just at that instant, their eyes have met;
Together again, both person and pet.
So they run to each other, these friends from long past,
The time of their parting is over at last.
The sadness they felt while they were apart,
Has turned into joy once more in each heart.
They embrace with a love that will last forever,
And then, side-by-side, they cross over together.
But ultimately Nancy and Barb did speak. Last week, Nancy had said, without realizing what an extraordinary remark it was, that, in the very last minutes of Mary Anne's dying she left the room to leave Barb and Mary Anne's son Christopher alone with Mary Anne for the holiest and most private moment of one's life, because "I didn't feel worthy to see her die." Most of us just assume a deathbed is open for business 24/7. At the service, she underscored Mary Anne's simple bravery and perfect peace in the face of death. "I would wish for all of you that you can die so well."
And Barb noted Mary Anne's mastery of right-brain, left-brain that seems to run in the family; in Mary Anne's case, flipping from actress to computer programmer. Also her bravery. A little later, at the cemetery she spoke again, putting it all in perspective: "I finally realized why Mary Anne wanted to be buried in St. Louis, when she hadn't been here for 30 years. She just wanted to return to her childhood, when she was happiest."
Our family "reunion,” as I called it in a previous email, then moved to Blueberry Hill, where owner Linda Edwards, Barb's lifelong friend, invited us to enjoy the hospitality of St. Louis' favorite place for food and friends.
Speaking of famous friends, maybe you saw Beyonce on David Letterman a week ago or so, or on the Today Show the next morning. Beyonce's drummer Kim, who Barb basically raised right along with Jason, told Barb: "Be sure to watch, we're dedicating our song to Mary Anne." That's a love you can't download off iTunes! (But I must plug one song on iTunes, the most ecstatic version I've ever heard of the final commendation "In Paradisum," by Curtis Stephan. I have tried to “attach” it; this is an experiment!)
At the cemetery, we took turns sprinkling Mary Anne's grave with holy water. And then, as I said above, she sprinkled back.... It was a great blessing for her husband Jim, to close this chapter of his life. And Christopher and Sean plan to see each other more, now that their mother's illness no longer complicates visits. In fact, Christopher is talking about bringing his boys to St. Louis for a visit! Sean would love to do the same, if he can just regain custody of his son Alex, distanced from him now through other complications three time zones away, in Hawaii. I told him Mary Anne was now in the best possible position to reunite them for good. And I have no doubt she will.
Life, death, and more life. One other person spoke at the funeral. Jason read a letter he wrote to Mary Anne just before she died. He thanked her for all the fun times--and Barb has the videos!--that he enjoyed with her and Christoper and Sean in California when he was little. He read quietly, but you could have heard a pin drop. Christians huddled in the catacombs might have welcomed an epistle from St. Paul with the same attention. Because Mary Anne was practically the first of us to hear the news that Jason and Sonja are expecting a baby, due in November. You can spot the latest ultrasound at the bottom of the CHRISTOPHER/SEAN poster.
Thank you for your love and support. Even if you could not attend, I heard your call, in my heart, every night, every day....
7. SUNDAY, MAY 26, 2009
OBITUARY: MARY ANNE DULICK FERRIS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Ferris (Dulick), Mary Anne, 64, fortified with the Sacraments of Holy Mother Church, passed away Friday, April 17, 2009, at the Pacific Hills Manor Hospice in Morgan Hill, CA, after enduring a cluster of cancers, including eleven brain tumors. Mary Anne was born January 11, 1945, in St. Louis, MO, daughter of the late Dr. Michael Xavier Dulick and Alice Louise Dulick. Attending Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, where she majored in drama, she toured with shows on U.S. military bases in Europe. Among her passions and projects: soccer--she coached her boys’ teams; feral cats--rescue and release (the ones she didn’t keep for herself!); coins and collectibles--thanks to QVC! She is survived by her loving husband James Ferris; her son Christopher Ferris and wife Jasmin and their sons, Bryson and Ian, of San Jose, CA; her son Sean of Sacramento, CA, and his son Alex; her brothers John Dulick, Mike (“Miguel”) Dulick, and Robert Dulick, and sister Barbara Dulick--all of St. Louis, MO, and sister Nancy McKenna of Columbia, MO; and dear cousins, nephews and nieces, including one due in November! The family would like to extend heartfelt thanks to those who cared for Mary Anne in her final days at Pacific Hills Manor and Deacon Rick Haeckel of St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, who prayed with her and brought her daily Communion. In her memory, Mary Anne asked for donations to Mike’s work with the poor in Honduras. (Michael Dulick 731 Simmons Ave. St. Louis, MO 63122).