The weight of my mother’s coffin staggered me. My sister-in-law and I were at the foot—the lightest and narrowest end, my brother and his son at the head. Still, my knees buckled as the load settled onto my shoulder as if, in her dying, my mother had taken on gravitas. I braced myself and prayed that I would not stumble, that I would not let my mother down on this, her last and briefest journey.
The day before, I went to the funeral home to look on my mother’s body one last time—a debt I owed the one who had borne me. I found myself stopping just inside the door, rooted in place by the room’s absolute stillness, the sweet scent of flowers not quite masking the odor of decay, the conviction that I was utterly alone. I could not see my mother’s body from where I stood, only the stark oblong of gleaming wood, a thin delineation of white satin around the top like an old-fashioned chalk outline at a murder scene.
Only when I stood over the casket did I see how small she had become in death—the size of a twelve-year-old girl, no more, no less.
Her hands were folded at her waist, her face unnaturally smooth and unlined, her mouth not her own. When I mustered up the courage to touch her cheek, her skin was cool like marble and just as unyielding. I stroked her hair because that, of all her parts, felt the same.
It is a poet’s fancy and a preacher’s charity to call death sleep. It is nothing so natural but an absence, a lack. Call that which is gone anima or what you will. I only know that when I touched her, she was not there.
Michaelangelo’s Pietà—the one in St. Peter’s, Rome—is a beautiful lie. Mary and her son are young, flawless, the man but sleeping in her lap. It is an image of what we wish to see, not what is.
Michaelangelo’s late, unfinished, Rondanini Pietà is nearer the truth; an aged crone straining to hold a weight that is forever slipping earthward.
As a young mother, Elizabeth Ann Seton lowered her infants tenderly into their cribs, the burden of their bodies light; as a widowed mother, she held her dying daughters in her arms and then watched as they were lowered into the ground.
Before burial those small coffins would have been placed before the altar in the tiny chapel in St. Joseph’s House, the altar that Elizabeth commissioned to be carved in the shape of a manger, the Christ Child’s first cradle.
Praying for her daughters lying so still in their coffins, did their mother remember when she nursed them at her breasts? Was she as stunned as I in the transformation to utter stillness, those bodies that had been warm and light and quick, those hands now motionless that had plucked the bodice of her dress? Did she think of Mary, Mother of Sorrows, who once gazed upon the body of her Son, perhaps entreating Him to rise as He had once raised His friend, Lazarus?
Did Elizabeth likewise pray that He raise up her daughters as He had raised the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus?
In her spiritual writings shortly before her eldest daughter, Anna Maria, died, she refers to the infant Jesus as “Child of Calvary.” The cradle is also the coffin; birth also death. And vice versa.
In a remarkable act of trust, Elizabeth referred to the death dates of her daughters as their “Heavenly birthdays”—the day when they were born into eternal life after the long, hard labor of dying.
Stroking my mother’s hair as I had done three months before on my last visit when she was alive, the best I could do was acknowledge that her sufferings were now past, that the cruelty of Parkinson’s that had inexorably entombed her in a body that would not obey her commands, now had no dominion over her. It was as if death had been her cure, the miracle I had been praying for all along.
Step by careful step we carried the body of my mother to the church and laid her down on the catafalque before the altar, the same altar where I had received my First Holy Communion and the chrism of confirmation, where my grandparents had received the Host, where the last time the remnants of my family attended Mass was on Palm Sunday, 2014, when my uncle, my mother’s brother, was still alive.
During the Requiem Mass, I kept my hand on her coffin.
After the service, we carried her out, the burden no lighter but this time I was prepared to take the weight.
Pondus meum amor meus.
“My weight is my love.” (St. Augustine.)
Marie Patricia Phelps
1934 – 2022
Suzanne M. Wolfe grew up in Manchester, England, and received a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Oxford, where she co-founded the C.S. Lewis Society. She served as Writer in Residence at Seattle Pacific University and taught literature and creative writing there for nearly two decades. Wolfe is the author of four novels: The Course of All Treasons (Crooked Lane, 2020), A Murder by Any Name (Crooked Lane, 2018), The Confessions of X (HarperCollins/Nelson, 2016, winner of the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award), and Unveiling (Paraclete Press, 2004; revised edition, 2018, winner of the Award of Merit from the Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards). She and her husband, Greg Wolfe, have co-authored many books on literature and prayer including Books That Build Character: How to Teach Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (with William Kirk Kilpatrick, Simon & Schuster, 1994), and Bless This House: Prayers For Children and Families (Jossey-Bass, 2004). Her essays and blog posts have appeared in Convivium and other publications. She and her husband are the parents of four grown children and have three grandchildren.
Image at top: Michaelangelo, Rondanini Pietà. Wikicommons.