I am standing with my mother and her friend Stella on the beach in Atlantic City. I am 12 years old. Our toes sink into the wet sand, and we wiggle them free as the waves retreat. Stella searches the horizon, her head cocked back, poised in a salute to the scorching August sun overhead. My mother’s olive skin, like Stella’s, has turned toasty brown after only a few days. On the other hand, I inherited my father’s Celtic genes and am a splotchy pink.
It is Aug. 15, 1973, the Feast of the Assumption. We are waiting for the bishop to fly overhead inside a tiny plane to bless the waters in which we are standing.
Pope Pius XII proclaimed in a 1950 doctrine that the Blessed Mother “did not molder in her grave” but was “saved from all defilement and malady that weakens the bodily frame.” Unlike other mortals, the Virgin Mary was taken “body and soul” into heaven. To commemorate her Assumption on this date, these New Jersey waters are blessed every year.
Unlike other mortals, the Virgin Mary was taken “body and soul” into heaven. To commemorate her Assumption on this date, these New Jersey waters are blessed every year.
My mother’s stout and sturdy figure fits snugly inside her navy blue swimsuit. She is holding a Tupperware container so she can fill it with the sanctified seawater. Stella, the same height as my mother, no more than five feet, is in a flouncy floral with a pleated skirt.
“Katie, wasn’t that procession beautiful today?” she says to my mother, who nods and smiles.
Earlier that morning the faithful had followed Father Palumbo and three altar boys down Atlantic Avenue. A group of Italian men, two elderly ones with short sleeve shirts buttoned to the collar, and two younger ones with thick black hair, broad shoulders and skinny waists, carried a statue of the Virgin. The statue wobbled as its bearers strained to steady the platform covered in roses and white carnations. Women followed, fanning themselves with church bulletins, rosaries hanging from their fingers like vines.
We had all been at Mass, but my mother and Stella were more interested in the coming action on the beach. The blessing was the real spiritual payoff, the part of the day when they would have something to take home. The water of the Atlantic, soon to be holy, was a tangible object that could be shared, saved for emergencies, something to show for their faith.
The water of the Atlantic, soon to be holy, was a tangible object that could be shared, saved for emergencies, something to show for their faith.
I am full of doubt and introspection. The ritual offends my adolescent agnostic bent. Even as a small child, I questioned the lessons of Catechism. “Why did God make Man if he were to sin against Him?” “How do we know for sure that he exists if there is so much suffering in the world?” For the most part, I kept the questions to myself. Still, it is impossible to be utterly disbelieving in the God of Catholicism around Stella and Katie.
We hear a buzzing sound, a puttering and then a roar. The small prop plane passes. A white hand waves and disappears from inside the plane. People on the beach make the Sign of the Cross. I see Mrs. McGuire and her three sons, one son in a wheelchair that the other two dragged to the beach. There is a frail woman in a low-slung beach chair at the water’s edge. She rubs her knotty arthritic knees with the water and kisses her silver medal pinned on her cotton dress like a piece of hope. A young mother drags her toddler into the ocean and wets his hair.
I don’t think any of us expect to see an angel or the Blessed Virgin. But I notice an awed silence as we all admire the sparkle of the sun on the water and the tail of a shifting cloud. Perhaps that is enough of a miracle.
My mother splashes me. “Bless yourself, Patricia. You’ll do good in school.” She laughs, and I laugh with her.
A few raindrops begin to fall.
My mother’s faith is simple and straightforward. She expects practical rewards for her devotion, and if they are not forthcoming, she will settle for a sense of community within the church.
“Look Katie, it’s raining,” my mother’s friend Stella says, “the Blessed Mother’s tears; good luck. She knows we’re here.”
My mother’s faith is simple and straightforward. She expects practical rewards for her devotion, and if they are not forthcoming, she will settle for a sense of community within the church where she is an active raffle ticket seller, cake sale baker and devoted Novena attendee. She has endured the burden of a drug-addicted son by praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She hopes for the best and puts the rest in God’s hands.
Sixteen years later, it is Aug. 16, 1989, the day after the Assumption. Stella has saved some holy water to bring to my mother’s hospital room. In her pale blue gown, my mother’s chest is flat from her mastectomy three years before.
A new nurse on the floor addresses my mother as “Mr. Lawler,” and I quickly correct her, enraged at her error. I’m still aware, though, that her bald head and wasted body could confuse a stranger. I have already summoned a priest, although my faith has long been broken in the brittle August days that are crackling outside, drying up my hope. What is the meaning of her suffering? I was married two weeks ago without her present. This should be a happy time in my life, but there is sorrow all around. But Stella is still lively. Her loud voice booms against the white tile floor. She is more familiar with death than I and faces it head on. This, she knows, is the last chance to say goodbye to her good friend and she doesn’t waste a minute on silent stares of anguish.
I am told that at the last moment, my mother sat up, looked towards heaven and fell back to her pillow. I chose to believe Mary came to her, took her and is with her still.
“Katie, Katie,” she says, “I’ve got some water from the shore, the priest blessed it yesterday.” Stella presses a small vial into my mother’s hand and closes it for her. My mother’s breathing comes in full gasps as if she is trying to suck the whole scene inside of her.
Stella fills the hospital room with recollections of their 40-year friendship. She repeats old stories—The Mummer’s Parade, the way they danced together at weddings, how they both loved Burt Lancaster movies, all of this—until my mother is alert enough to smile. Stella, a mother of six, knows the most important thing for Katie to hear is that her children will be all right. Stella’s daughter Carol is married to my brother, and like him, is an addict. Stella knows the sorrows of motherhood, too. Both Stella and Katie look to Mary because she suffered as well. It is the hour of reassurance, of letting go, of peace. That my wedding two weeks ago was perfect and I am happy. That my brother, though still afflicted, is trying to find work.
I am talking to my mother as well, fussing with the water pitcher, changing channels on the overhead TV. I will not tell her the meaning of her life. I am trying to convince myself that if I don’t say goodbye, she will not die.
Stella leaves that evening and does not return. I spend the next day watching the deterioration and malady of the body that brought me to life. A nurse comes in and, delicately as possible, tells me that she can up the morphine drip to end my mother’s suffering, and I believe she means my own as well. Alone, with no one around to help me decide, I agree.
An hour later after I leave the hospital, I get the call. I am told that at the last moment, my mother sat up, looked towards heaven and fell back to her pillow. I chose to believe Mary came to her, took her and is with her still.