Walked into the chapel at dusk last night, and there she was, in the casket off to the left, with her son standing sentinel. He is a priest and he was smiling a little in welcome as people walked up to him and hugged him, if they were young, or shook his hand, if they were older men. The older men who shook his hand would take his right hand with their right hands and then cover the two clasped hands with their left hands, I noticed. A sort of a paternal or protective gesture which moved me very much for some reason.
The casket was half open and she was wearing a lovely demure dress but you couldn’t see if she had her best shoes on. I assume she had her best shoes on. A pink glass rosary was wrapped around her hands. It being Wednesday I assume she would be praying the Glorious Mysteries, during which we meditate particularly on resurrection, ascension, and assumption. She knew what Mysteries we meditated upon every day of the week. She had prayed the rosary every day since she was three years old, I believe. Even when she was very ill she prayed the rosary every day and even when she could no longer remember her son’s face or name she would still run her fingers over her rosary. I believe you can pray the rosary even if you no longer know what the word rosary means. Perhaps that is when the rosary is prayed most piercingly of all.
Her hair was done beautifully in the bouffant style which long ago went out of style but most assuredly never went out of style for her. If there is a photograph of her in this world without her hair carefully elevated and frozen magically in place by mysterious elixirs, I have not seen it, and I cannot believe it exists. She is wearing her scapula, which I believe she wore every day of her life since she was a child, and she is wearing a Marian medal, because she and the Madonna were very close friends, and talked to each other continually, especially when she lost her husband and their other son.
Her surviving son is now moving toward the sacristy, for he will preside tonight over the vigil service for his mother, but it takes him a while to make his way to the sacristy to robe up, because people keep hugging him or shaking his hand. I will gather you with care, the chapel choir is singing. I stand by the casket for a while. I will hold you close to my heart, sings the choir. A child of about nine peers over the edge of the casket fearfully. We will run and not grow weary. I feel for the child, because it is unnerving to see a dead person supine in the chapel, and she sure looks like she is frozen solid, which may come from faint dusting of powder on her face and hands. We will rise again. Her son the priest emerges from the sacristy and lines up with his altar servers. Lift up your eyes and see who made the stars. The congregation stands, rustling, and turns to watch the priest, their friend and companion, begin the service. He and his mother will go home to their native city tomorrow, by train, and there will be a rosary at night in their old parish, with their old neighbors and friends chanting back and forth in the dim candlelight, and a funeral Mass the next morning, and then she will be buried with her beloved husband and their other son. Her son the priest will not be buried with his brother and parents, but will someday sleep with his brother priests in a field with a low stone wall, along which students walk back and forth to class. I have seen the field and the stone wall and I have seen students run their hands gently along the wall as they walk past the hundreds of sleeping priests. I know you, I call you each by name. I pray with all my heart that this is so, and bless myself with water from the baptistry, and slip out of the chapel to be with my wife and children while yet we live; while yet we live.
Brian Doyle was the author of so many books and articles he blew our minds. He was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine, where he regularly published some of the best nonfiction writers on earth. He died earlier this year after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Long may he be remembered and beloved for his openness to mystery, his graciousness, humility, and kindness to aspiring writers–and for his beautiful work. This vignette is excerpted from a new collection of Doyle’s essays, Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace, with permission of Franciscan Media.