FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
This time 28 years ago – December 29th - on the eve of the Holy Family Maura and I were in hospital visiting Dad who had taken ill on St. Stephen's Day and was being checked out. As we were leaving him, she and I looked at each other and said "he's dying." There was something in his eyes that made us both think this. So, we went to the nurse in charge and said we thought our father was dying. She said, "not at all. He's fine." And we went off home.
When I told Mam what Maura and I were thinking she said, "well if you think he's dying then go back and anoint him." This we did and when the praying was done two interesting things happened. First Mam took hold of his hand but he took it away as if to say this is not the time for holding but the time for letting go. Then he pulled the bed clothes up under his chin looking content and complete and told us to go off and get a drink for ourselves. We did!
And at home we sat up talking until the phone rang at 1.00am. The nurse said, "there's no need for alarm but your father has taken a turn. It's not necessary for you to come but you can if you wish!" Of course, we went and as we were about enter the room, we were told to wait. He was surrounded by doctors and nurses. One nurse said to him, your family are coming to see you and he replied, "it would want to be soon." I think he died then and they tried to resuscitate him but he was gone.
It strikes me now that Maura and I had a knowledge of my father that no medical person could have. It is the knowledge of a particular kind of love that is born of years and years of family life, time spent together – bad and good times. We spent a lot of time together as family – moody morning breakfasts, hurried lunchtimes and long evenings that were often peaceful and sometimes filled with arguments. And in the era before television we spent our time by the fire talking. As little children, it was he who put us to bed saying as we walked up the stairs, “all together like Brown’s cows!”
He was gentle and silent and somewhat overlooked, still is overlooked in some ways because we have always paid more attention to our Mother. And he had his weaknesses that we came to know; I had my arguments and misunderstandings with him; we got over them again and again. And through it all there was an intimacy developing, a kind of knowing that cannot be spoken but is real and deep as the ocean.
All of this comes to mind on this feast of the Holy Family when we contemplate the family of Bethlehem and Nazareth, when we reflect on our own family life with its blessing and its struggle. We are not talking about a zen-like tranquillity but something more akin to the sea in its various manifestations.
I think of how Jacob got to know God when he wrestled with Him all night long and when the night was over, he was both injured and blessed and he had come to know God up close and personally. Family life takes us to such deep levels in our relationships and we get to know each other like no one outside the family can know us or love us or sometimes hate. It’s why family fallouts are so traumatic – the wounds they open are also deep as the ocean but they are all part of the creative mix that make us who we are and can be healed through mercy and forgiveness. It goes without saying that there are aspects of the mix of family life that are unacceptable – all kinds of physical, emotional, mental and verbal violence.
Getting back to the night my Father died, the early hours of Sunday morning December 30th. A nurse came to us where we waited at the door of the ward and brought me in first to pray with him. It was like looking at Jesus crucified. His upper body was bare and his back was arched from the shock they gave to revive him. I thought how I wished they had left him alone and had allowed us to be with him as he was dying but things are what they are and they were only doing their job. And our real farewell had come in the evening when he was anointed. We cried the whole night.
An interesting aspect of our family life is that both our parents allowed us the freedom to follow our own path in life. They never tried to push us in any particular direction – at least not in my case – and Dad in particular was very proud of anything we did and Maura was always the apple of his eye.
There’s a bit of tension between the twelve-year-old Jesus and His earthly parents. He is getting a sense of who He is meant to be in this world but Mary and Joseph in their distress do not understand Him, a familiar feature in the relationships of a lot of children with their parents. On the one hand the child needs to start discovering his or her path in life and on the other hand the child can only gain the necessary wisdom for life by living under the authority of parents. It was the same with Jesus who grew in wisdom and stature under the authority of Mary and Joseph, a necessary period in any child’s life and it might help children to meditate on and pray to the twelve-year old Jesus to help them through. It would help parents also to pray to the Holy Family to get them through many situations that might otherwise be impossible.
I am reminded
to keep alive a sense of colour and light,
the brightness and the smile of life.
the brightness and the smile of life.
The colour of Africa
flaming red and purple blue of the Massai shuka -
its colour and its lively striding movement.
Colour reminds me
of the kitchen floor at home when we were children.
painted yellow in the night by Mam
- yellow and dotted with many lively colours
it was our lino and our carpet and it was beautiful.
Colour reminds me
of Dad walking barefoot in the morning
His feet of lumpy purple veins half sticking
to the newly painted floor
and the blue transistor radio turned on long before its time
its piercing whistling noise driving us demented
until the gentle strains of “Donal Abu”,
the news and the soft and haunting sound
of the sea area forecast.
I am reminded and I am grateful…