Introduction Chapter 1: In Praise of Maria: a memoir

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When I had previously been in nursing homes I was ready to climb the walls after thirty minutes. Here I was surprised that I did not find the hours to be a drag. I found I could sit in silence for long periods. Of course, I was always aware of my situation in relation to hers. I could not imagine how she passed the time. She could not read or did not wish to read (she who used to grab the crossword in the Times every morning). Even television – the pacifier of babies and the aged – did not interest her. I tried various things but a set of video tapes of her favorite program, “As Time Goes Bye,” was one of my few successes.

Throughout her illness and during the time in the nursing home, Maria showed little anger. I sometimes thought that she (and I) might feel better if she screamed and threw things. She remained remarkably calm under almost all circumstances. When she went to a hospital or clinic for a treatment, it involved being lifted up, pushed around, strapped down, and bumpily transported. She remained serene. I, not she, would get furious when she was left on a stretcher for an hour or more in a waiting room.

Her unlined face retained a strange beauty despite all she suffered. Some friends who dropped in told another friend that what struck them when they walked into the room was how beautiful she looked. It was therefore not mere blindness or bias on my part that she looked as beautiful at the end as she did the day we first met.

In October I received a call from a surgeon asking for my agreement that she have surgery for a “pressure sore.” The sore which was there from before she had entered Maria Regina had not responded to treatment. The surgeon said it was necessary to operate; otherwise, “it could mean her demise.” I obviously had to agree to the surgery. Until that time, I still did not understand the seriousness of a pressure sore; I thought it was just a bother and an irritation. When Christopher Reeve died that month, the press carried stories that most people with dementia die from pressure sores that become infected.

I was told that she would be in the hospital for seven days and in rehab for fourteen days. What happened was that she was in each place for about seven weeks. Neither place was bad but they were not as comfortable as the nursing home. I used to say that one’s expectations have been shortened when all one hopes for is to get well enough to go to the nursing home. After she had been in the hospital for many weeks a surgeon said to me: “We want to get her out of here because the longer you stay in a hospital the more problems you develop.” I thought that was surprising if somewhat depressing candor about hospitals.

When it came time to move from the hospital, I had a choice among a few rehab centers that had the proper machine to help her healing. My best choice was a place in East Patchogue, Long Island, which added a few more hours to my travel but which seemed a decent place. But after almost two months of treatment with machines and drugs, she showed little progress. I did not think it was anyone’s fault; they did what they could. I was asked to agree to insertion of a feeding tube – a temporary tube – to improve nutrition. I would not have agreed to a permanent tube but after a while temporary tends toward permanent. At one point, I looked at her with five different lines running into her body. I had approved each thing separately but I began to wonder if the total result was just a form of torture.

The house physician was a nice enough man but not much involved with her case. When I asked him in early December when she might be able to leave, he replied quite casually: “Oh, I don’t think she will ever leave.” His candor shook me up. Until then I was concentrating on each day while I waited for the rehab to be over. His remark forced me to start considering that if the wound from the surgery had not healed then the end might be near. My sisters had seen this in October when they visited Maria in the hospital but for me it was a sudden awakening in December.

The Final Goodbye (Dec., 2004 to Feb., 2005)

On Christmas day, 2004, I knew that Maria was dying. I had gone out to the rehab center with Dulcie and with Elaine Roulet, another close friend of Maria’s. This pair with their outgoing friendliness brought cheer to any room they entered. I knew that if they could not get a rise out of her, then she had passed a point of no return. When we entered the room, Maria closed her eyes. Whether the movement was voluntary or not, it was shockingly different from the past, even a few weeks earlier, when the three of us visited her in the hospital. We shared Christmas day with her but with little response on her side.

I talked to the house physician again. He knew a little bit more about her case now. His prognosis was more guarded but no more optimistic. I asked him if had communicated information to her primary care physician but I found that he did not know who that was. I offered him the phone number so he could call. I must admit I was still naive about the communication of information among health care providers. It finally came home to me two weeks later when I asked one of the surgeons about the antibiotics Maria had been taking. The surgeon had no knowledge of that. When I gave the name of the person who prescribed the drugs to the rehab center they did not recognize the name. The light finally dawned: I was the only person who actually was aware of all the parties involved. Unless I functioned as the link, these people did not talk to each other.

At 10 PM on December 31, I got a call from a nurse in the rehab center. The nurse said Maria was not responsive. Did I want them to send her to the hospital? My question was how was I supposed to judge that? I asked: “Can’t you call the attending physician to decide that?” He finally got back to me and we talked it out. We agreed that she was not likely to get much attention in a hospital emergency room on New Year’s Eve. She was probably better off where she was.

The next week her primary care physician called. Dr. Ryan Cahill was a fine, caring physician serving the nursing home. He had always been straightforward with me, doing what he could for her but honest about the limitations of any treatment. I asked what he thought and he replied: “Tell me what you want and then I will tell you what I think.” Not many physicians are that willing to listen. I said that the wound had not healed. One choice was to go back into the hospital for more surgery but that was unlikely to succeed. More surgery and antibiotics would probably just add to her discomfort. However, without further surgery she was likely to develop an infection. He agreed.

Then I asked him to describe to me what it is like to die of sepsis or septic shock. He provided a description for me. He assured me that pain could be completely controlled. We agreed that she should return to the nursing home and be given palliative care. Good Shepherd hospice was contacted to give us additional help in keeping the patient comfortable. When she was returned to the hospital she was given a quiet room on the first floor with ready access to any service she might need. Staff from the second floor where she had previously been came down to see her.

She stopped receiving nutrition because her body could no longer tolerate it. There are acrimonious debates in this country that surround “the removal of the feeding tube.” The tube is not actually removed; nutrition is simply halted. Some people scream murder when there is such a move; they claim the patient has been starved to death. There are some debatable cases but most of the time the inability to take food is a sign that the body is preparing for death. In any case, the cause of death is not “starvation,” an inappropriate name for allowing the person to die. In Maria’s case continuing the feeding would have worsened her condition because the body could not absorb the nutrition.

When I arrived on Saturday, January 29, the nurse told me that Maria probably had only a few days to live. Obviously, I should have known the end was coming soon but it still caught me by surprise that it would be so quick. I moved into the nursing home, staying in a guest room that they had provided whenever I wished to stay overnight. My sister and brother-in-law came down from New Hampshire and the three of us went to the funeral home to make arrangements. Afterwards, I would be relieved that all of that preparation was in place.

I did make one quick trip to Montauk to pick up a few things that would be needed. On the trip out, there was an incident that touched me deeply. There is a friendly conductor on the Long Island Railroad whom I often meet. We exchange pleasantries; he often checks what I am reading or what movies I have seen. On this day, I blurted out “my wife is dying”; he was the first person I had said that to. He finished collecting the tickets and came back to sit and talk with me for an hour. One does not expect such compassion from a railroad conductor. It was one of numerous gestures of kindness I experienced from friend and stranger alike.

On the morning of February 1, I was waiting for Dr. Cahill. When he arrived and I asked him what he thought, he replied: “You have been here more than anyone else; you tell me.” I was again surprised by his willingness to listen, rather than play the expert. After he heard what I had seen in the past few days, he checked her chart. When he saw that her kidneys were essentially closed down, he said she could not last long.

I stayed with her throughout the day trying to aid her breathing. Her lungs were filling with fluid. Listening to a person dying of pneumonia is disconcerting. There is obvious discomfort for the patient that cannot be removed but there is no apparent pain. I went out briefly for dinner and when I came back the breathing was more labored. I did not recognize the gurgling of a dying person. A nun who had great affection for Maria was with us. She recognized better than I did how close death was. She had seen it dozens of times; I had little experience.

I held Maria and tried to keep her mouth clear but, of course, my efforts were futile. When the staff tried to suction the lungs, I thought for a moment that her breathing had suddenly improved and then I realized that she had stopped breathing. The time was 9:50 PM; the last moments had been relatively peaceful. Two other nuns came in to pray and to provide immediate assistance. I called my sister and her husband who had gone over to their motel a few hours previous. They immediately returned and stayed with me until the funeral home came for the body.

Immediate Aftermath (Feb., 2005)

The next day I was mostly in a daze. Most of the funeral arrangements had been made and I had plenty of help in attending to whatever had to be done immediately. By the middle of the day, there was nothing more for me to do in the nursing home so I went into New York. I was waiting for a call from the funeral home which was trying to arrange an autopsy. Michael O’Brien had asked me if I would have an autopsy; he was concerned about the presence of Lewy Bodies in the family gene pool.

The funeral home had difficulty finding an available pathologist. Rather than sit alone in my apartment, I went over to school and met my graduate course. I could have canceled the class; the students were probably surprised that I came. I did not think of it as heroism. I simply found that teaching that day and throughout the semester was therapeutic for me. The students were wonderfully supportive and it gave me a chance to talk out my feelings. At about 10 P.M. that evening I got a call from a pathologist. She said she was willing to perform the autopsy the next morning. However, she needed a check for $4000 dollars before she would begin. Early next morning I was on the Long Island Railroad check in hand.

The delay for the autopsy pushed back the wake until the weekend and the burial until Monday. That schedule was probably a fortunate one because it gave time for people to read the notice in the newspapers and to travel from great distances. The day before her death I had written three separate obituaries. The first obituary was for the New York Times. I knew that it was a long shot getting a story into the Times. Our wedding had gotten a write up but that was when Tom Harris was with the paper. As it turned out, I gladly paid for the death notice in the Times that would be read by many people in New York and beyond. In the second case, Newsday did not use the obituary that I had written for them but they assigned a staff person to write the story. They had a fine picture taken on our deck in Montauk when they had done a feature on Maria. I was delighted with the picture and story that they ran.

The one newspaper I was sure would run a story and let people around the country know of her death was the National Catholic Reporter. I called the paper immediately but it took two days before I got through to the editor. He seemed interested and I immediately e-mailed the obituary that was tailored for that paper. They did not even run one sentence acknowledging her death. I repeatedly tried to get an explanation why, but with no results. I am still angry at that newspaper. Six months after Maria’s death I was still getting letters from people who were just finding it out. The organizations we belonged to tried to spread the word but it did not circulate to everyone who would have been interested.

I knew that most people coming to the wake would be expecting the standard Irish Catholic format. If the choice were just for me, I would not have gone along with an open casket and many other features. I allowed the body to be embalmed though I consider the practice to be weird. A steady stream of people came for the two days. I met some people that I had not seen in twenty, thirty or forty years.

I had chosen a church for the funeral based on a helpful suggestion by Padraic O’Hare. The pastor in this church not only knew Maria but would be amenable to having what we wished for the burial service. I went over to the church with Dulcie and my sister Mary to talk with the liturgist about music, prayers, and the rest of the ceremony. Elaine, the liturgist of the church, had a more coherent picture of how to handle things than any of the three of us. Thus, the funeral was done with a beautiful simplicity in elegant surroundings. It included music Maria would have loved. John Rowan, the pastor, spoke with warmth about Maria. I provided the eulogy toward the end of the service.

Maria had given me instructions about burial in a plot next to her father and mother. That required a long funeral procession from Sayville, Long Island to Middle Village, Queens. At the grave site, Padraic delivered the final poetic testimony. Then fifty of us went for a meal at a nearby restaurant. That part of the day had been efficiently arranged by Michael O’Brien. The food, drink, laughter, and tears flowed in abundance. Maria would have loved it; her kind of gathering.

Joan Didion points out in her book that people are always concerned about getting through the funeral. They worry about falling to pieces. But people usually do manage to hold themselves together through the funeral. The ritual is designed to support the mourners, and a tight knit community provides an emotional balance. What may catch some people by surprise is the sudden hole in the world immediately after the funeral. For the next year and more, the rest of the world goes back to its ordinary business while the mourner may still be trying to find a firm footing on the earth.

Maria’s story comes to its essential close with the funeral; this memoir is her story, not mine. I will add only some details about public forums of mourning by her friends immediately afterward. I estimate that I received about four hundred letters of condolence. Some of them were brief e-mails that could be answered briefly. But most were lengthy handwritten letters. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would be faced with answering four hundred letters, I would have said I could not do it. Strangely, I did not find writing replies to be burdensome. Writing a brief note of thanks to people who expressed their deep felt sorrow was therapeutic.

The range of letters was remarkable from people who knew her since childhood to a priest who visited her classroom for an hour in 1962 and never forgot her. I was particularly struck by a number of gay/lesbian former students for whom Maria was their chief support when homosexuality was not an open issue. I am sure she never thought of gay rights as a cause. It simply wasn’t in her nature to discriminate against “outsiders.” She often described herself as an outsider in institutions where she worked. That seemed odd, given that she seemed so easily accepted wherever she went. But I think she never forgot the feeling she had as an eight-year-old who was hustled off to the playground and not told that her father had just dropped dead. She seemed to have an instant rapport with people who are considered by society to be of low status. I used to sit back and marvel at this talent for talking to anybody.

Through the effort of Professor John Hull in England, ISREV established a web site. Members were invited to submit testimonies about Maria. Many of the group had already written to me. John Hull collected about two dozen of these remembrances and posted them along with a small selection of photos. Unfortunately, the digital camera had not come into general use before Maria’s sickness so photos are not as easily and clearly transferred to the Internet. I used to kid her that the best picture she ever took was one taken while she was on a whitewater raft on the Colorado River. Since she was holding on for her life, she was not posing for the camera. The result is a picture with all the wonderful emotions of her inner life evident on her face.

Two gatherings shortly after her death stand out in my mind. Fordham University’s religious education department organized a memorial on March 22 (The date sticks with me because we always celebrated that date as the first time we met). Professor Gloria Durka, the most steadfast friend one can imagine, organized the program along with her colleague, Kieran Scott. Kieran delivered a beautiful tribute to Maria, based on thirty-five years of friendship with Maria and myself.

I left for the memorial in plenty of time; the train ride from Grand Central is about half an hour. It is probably a reflection of my mental state at the time that I – who spends much of his life on trains – got off at the wrong stop. I showed up an hour and a half late after walking through much of the South Bronx. I felt just awful, having delayed the service and then missing most of it. Few of the current students had known Maria except through her writing. Nonetheless, her spirit was somehow present through the faculty that did know her. I should add that Fordham had not waited to pay tribute to her only after her death. They had honored her in December, 2002, when she could still appreciate the praise lavished on her by faculty and students.

A few days after Fordham’s tribute I went down to Hollywood, Florida, at the invitation of Joseph and Mercedes Iannone. The Iannones have for decades done superb work in education first with families and parishes, then at St. Thomas University in Miami. I knew that being with them would be a comfortable and comforting situation. Since Maria and I had taught at St. Thomas, many people there knew and admired her.

On Sunday evening (the eve of our wedding anniversary), the Iannones got together an intimate gathering of friends who offered remembrances of Maria. What was unusual, I recognized part way into the evening, was that everyone in the gathering had recently suffered their own loss or death. They understood the feeling of grief. Anyone in mourning can become too self-absorbed, forgetting that the world is filled with fellow mourners. This simple, poignant moment in South Florida was a fitting tribute to Maria’s simple joy in the small things of life. She was a dynamo of energy for good even in her sickness and I like to believe that her presence did not end with her death.

APPENDIX


Eulogy for Maria Harris by Gabriel Moran.

(Delivered at Lawrence Church, Sayville, Long Island, on Feb.7, 2005)

If it were solely up to me I would prefer silence at this point, which is mostly what I shared with Maria during the last months of her life. However, for such an articulate woman some few words should be said on her behalf to her friends who are gathered here today.

I know I am biased but I think that anyone who knew Maria would agree that she was an extraordinary person. So often I heard someone say: “Well, of course, everyone loves Maria.” Each time I heard that I would think: What an amazing thing to be said of anyone. People seemed to mean it. She evoked a reaction of joy, admiration and love from so many people – whether women or men, young or old, gay or straight, people in high office or people consigned to menial work.

The reaction of women was especially noteworthy. They seemed to take pride in her accomplishments. I did not sense envy or jealousy. I think it was because Maria saw herself as surrounded by a sea of sisterhood within which and for which she spoke. Women sensed that and delighted in her talents. She treated everyone with respect, as if you were the most important person in the world. And it wasn’t superficial. If you were a friend of Maria’s, you were a friend for life.

She could cry up a storm on sad occasions. But she had a sunny personality. Her mother called her Mary Sunshine which was very fitting. She brought a brightness and enthusiasm to every group she worked with. We often team taught. I could not duplicate her talent for bringing out the best in every group. But I did learn from her and I became a better teacher.

Maria was a Sister of St. Joseph for 23 years. In the deepest sense, however, she never left the community of women; nor did the religious congregation ever exclude her. I was happy to share her with all the friends she had made, especially her dearest friend of fifty years, Joanmarie Smith. I only knew Maria for thirty-nine years. The day she walked into my office I think both of us knew within five minutes that our lives would forever be entwined. How that would happen was not clear. She figured it out pretty quickly; it took me a lot longer.

Her name in the religious order was Maria Crucis. She loved the name Maria and it seemed to fit her perfectly. I always thought that the name Crucis was ironic. She did not give the impression of carrying a cross through life. But in the last four years she earned that name. From the first moment when she was diagnosed, I never heard a word of self-pity or complaint. There was no “why me?” or “this is unfair.” I think it was because she viewed all she had as gifts. When she had to relinquish each of life’s powers, she could do so gracefully.

In bearing with the disease, she had a strength that I had not known she possessed. And perhaps she herself did not know she had such strength. She had never had a serious illness in her life. When she would get an annual cold and be miserable for a day or two, she would warn me that she would make a terrible patient. As it turned out, she was completely wrong about how she would handle a terrible disease.

In the late 1960s a group of seven older churchwomen gathered in Philadelphia. They decided that the image of the old in this country needed changing. The news media condescendingly called them the Gray Panthers, a name that they ran with. They succeeded admirably in what they set out to do. Maggie Kuhn, the leader of the group, said in an interview that she intended to continue the work as long as she lived. The interviewer said: “How can you say that with such certainty? Suppose you get sick and are lying flat on your back in a hospital?” Maggie Kuhn replied: “Then I will make that my work.”




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