Posted by: Peadar Ban | December 24, 2010

Wake, Awake!

In the spirit of the season, a kind of christmasstory:


On Monday, December 20,  snow fell lightly, quietly, gently.  There was little wind, so the flakes meandered down from the gray sky.  They fell among the trees in the wildlife sanctuary behind the house, dusting the top edges of branches.  They seemed to perch on the wrinkled brown oak leaves still left here and there; the ones to be pushed away in spring by new leaves, green ones.   Snow continued for a good part of the day.  Later on wind came and went, pushing the light flakes into small piles against fences, hedges, stones.  After a bit another gust would scatter the piled flakes in all directions.  At last, though, evening came, the snow ended, the wind calmed and the sun set behind thinning clouds.

On a calm day a snowflake’s descent is more pilgrimage than fall.  The temptations of tree limbs and stray leaves avoided it rests at last on the frozen earth.  There it dies into the next day’s brightness or sublimes into rising mist under the warming sun.  Pilgrimage over, snowflake returns to heaven, its source and home.   It’s interesting, we see them falling, staying and never see them rise.   They’re only here for a while, anyway, to brighten our winter with their unique beauty.

While the snow was falling so lightly I stood before the windows in the back room of her house describing this scene for my mother-in-law, Mary Supple.  She lay in a lounge chair, her eyes closed, as I spoke about what was going on outside.  Like a snowflake she was nearing the end of her pilgrimage.  When I finished speaking she had fallen asleep.  I left and went into the kitchen to see if I could be of some help with supper.  Mary would not eat, of course.  Dying people, their bodies shutting down, eat very little.

She was awake early the next morning.  It was to be her last among us.  My wife, Mariellen, gave her something to eat for breakfast, a slice of pear I think, paper thin, a sip of orange juice.  I looked out the kitchen window while Mariellen was inside with Mom.  Above a band of powder blue a few stars still shone in the clear sky.  A bright one, due east, hung above the place where the sun would soon rise.  In a few hours it would be up, its brilliance making jewels of the frozen crystals from yesterday before they melted away.

It had been arranged that we’d leave soon after sunrise.  Mariellen’s sister Peg, a nurse, would take our place at vigil with Mom and we would go home for a little while.  Dad would go to Mass at St. Mary’s, as he and Mom had been doing for so long. We’d miss Communion with Mom when he got home.  Yesterday, he had brought Jesus home in the falling snow.  Mom had become too weak to receive all of the host so he fractioned it, giving her a small piece and the rest to Mariellen.  After Communion we sang an Advent hymn, “Wake, Awake.”

Wake, awake the night is dying,
And prophets from of old are crying,
“Awake ye children of the light!”
Lo, the dawn shall banish sadness,
The Rising Sun shall bring us gladness
And all the blind shall see aright.
Rejoice, the King is near.
Our praises He will hear,
But we must be prepared to see
The brightness of eternity.

It seemed the perfect thing to do.

Anyway, as we drove home to get a change of clothes, do a wash, I thought about the sky early in the morning.  As silly as this may sound it reminded me of the sky over Bethlehem so long ago; with its bright star guiding the Wise Men to Jesus.  After returning later in the day, we looked in on Mom.  She was still as we had left her, eyes closed, breathing softly, preparing for eternity.  I wished her well, the words of our song the day before echoing in me.

I sat with her that afternoon while Dad and some of the children met in the kitchen to talk about funeral plans.  We listened to Vivaldi and a CD of her grandson, Chris, singing with his college glee club.  She roused herself twice, once to tell me that she wanted Dad, and then to tell everyone that she wanted to see each of them before they left.  Peg was the last to go in.  Weeping as she left she drew the curtain across the entrance to the room.  That hadn’t been done before at all.  She came to us and said, “Mom told me to pull the curtain.  She said it was good to see everyone, but now she must go to sleep.”  How gently she chooses to leave us, I thought.  Behind the curtain she was in her recliner, breathing softly.

The evening went its quiet way.  Peggy left us after supper, and we were alone with Mom, Mariellen, Dad, her brother Jay and me.  We had been keeping our vigil in a spare room downstairs while Dad slept in with Mom.  He used the hospital bed; the one she found too uncomfortable.  But this night Mariellen wanted to be closer.  The intercom we had in both rooms was useless now for picking up Mom’s faint breathing.  We had brought an air mattress from home and inflated that on the living room floor.  That way, we were right outside the entry to Mom’s room.  It was about ten PM when we lay down.

I went to sleep almost immediately, but Mariellen was up and down each hour to check on her mother.  She offered her sips of water, moistening her lips and mouth.  At one in the morning she woke me.  “Mom wants to know if there’s any way she and Dad can be together.”  “You mean move her into her bedroom?” I asked.  “Yes,” she said.  “I was just in there and  when I asked her if there was anything she wanted she said, ‘I wish there was some way Dad and I could be together.’  I told her that we could easily arrange that in the morning and she just said ‘Oh’.  She was quiet for a while.  I thought she had gone to sleep, and then she said  it again, ‘I just wish there was some way that Dad and I could be together.’ ”

Mariellen continued, “She’s very weak, and I don’t know what will happen to her if we move her, but she sounded so disappointed when I said we’d do it in the morning.  Maybe we ought to wake Dad and ask him what he thinks.”

And, so, we found a way, and moved her into her own bed with Dad by her side, fulfilling her last wish.

As I put my arms around her to lift her from the chair she had lived in for days without change my fingers knit themselves between her ribs.  She sighed and whispered her thanks as we laid her down near Dad.  Her hands and feet were already so cold.  It is the way of it that we die so.  It was the way with her, slowly growing colder as she eased into eternity.

Some little while after she was in her own bed, her breathing labored still, Mariellen called the hospice nurse who said to give her some morphine by mouth to help her breathing relax.  Looking in on them shortly after, her Dad said that Mom was finally peaceful.  Mom nodded.  Sometime shortly after that she died.  So quiet was her going that Dad wasn’t sure.  But, Mariellen could feel the cold air flowing from her face like a breeze at an open window.  Not long ago Mom had said something to someone about how she wanted to die.   “I thought I would just spend time enjoying my children and grandchildren and then fly quietly away.”  She did.  Just so.

Later, before the sun rose, I looked out the kitchen window.  There was the star, and a smaller, fainter one beside it that I hadn’t noticed the day before.  It was very calm and quiet.

At times like this everyone looks into memories, recalling events and conversations, distilling meaning from them, searching for insights and lessons, holding them, tenderly sifting until only good remains.  I have two memories of our recent time together with Mom and Dad in Ireland, a place as close to heaven as heaven trusts itself to get close to us. First, a walk in the rain, just Mom and I, in a little valley between mountains covered in dull gold where we talked of the way things were.  Later, an afternoon looking out a window at the wild wind on the sea and  the serenity of  swans on the waves during which neither of us said anything at all. It was cold enough, I thought, to snow, but no flakes fell.  Only the swans in the wind, still on the waves. I thought then and believe now that the Good Lord was lifting the veil and letting a taste of Paradise fall upon our tongues in those two moments.

I am at the time of my life when I know two things more clearly.  I will see many go Mom’s way, and I will not be long in following them.  I pray for them all and to a few I send my own prayers, those I am certain I can count on to be where they will be heard and attended to.  May they help me and all of us to be with them one fine day.  Now, Mary Supple, all sadness banished, is one of them; one more in my own canon.

Why am I saying this?  Because I am convinced that while we still feebly struggle, here, she in glory shines — in the brightness of eternity; like a swan above the wild wind, above the wild wind at last.

December 31, 2004


  1. I remember your story of moving her to be with Grampa Supple. I’m glad you listened. Such a grace.

    • The whole time was a strange grace-filled time, a time both in the world, here, and not. You know a lot about dying, now, so I guess you understand.


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