Twelve words. That was all there were. Terse. Impersonal and veiling what must have been an intense life lived. Dying just weeks short of her 91st birthday, this obscenely short obituary seemed to mock her. In a world that glorifies self in the living, and oftentimes after death, the eulogizing/canonization that is part and parcel of funerals, this notice in the newspaper indeed was perplexing.
She was not unknown to our parish. Our pastor visited her as one of the sheep in the fold to which he is entrusted; the Legion of Mary members visited her as part of the spiritual work of mercy to which they dedicated themselves.
To me, she was the lady in the mirror. She never failed to draw my attention, sitting as I was on the organ bench with my back to the altar, her actions reflected in the mirror on the organ console. The mirror is necessary for me to know where Father is at all times in the liturgy. My object is to see Father, but, dressed as she always was in white, she became part of my pre-Mass preparations.
On Sundays, ten minutes before the Principal Mass, she would enter the side door, push her walker across the front aisle, and stand in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Slowly, she would light a votive candle, pause in silence, then make her way back to the Joseph and Epistle side of the church to sit in the front row. Her perfectly coiffed white head occupying the bottom third of my organ mirror. At the Readings, she would turn her body toward the Lay Reader, and at the Gospel, she would struggle to rise to her feet, but rise she did. And at Holy Communion, Father would head toward her on the front row to feed her Christ's Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. And by virtue of her being on the front row, everyone else on that row received Jesus, everyone in the church in silence, in reverence, awaiting for his turn to receive. The only sounds that accompanied her reception, was the schola chanting the Communion verse, and sometimes, a fussy baby's pleas.
Once, after most everyone had left the church after Mass, she was standing on the ramp waiting for the nursing home's bus to pick her up. For whatever reason, it was late and there she stood, alone, seemingly fragile. The neighborhood where our church is, is not exactly safe.
A friend and I decided to stay and wait with her. What followed was a fascinating conversation wherein her life story emerged...not particular details, but the tenor and shape of it. What we heard was a life of estrangement from a family that was not particularly devoted to her, children that were in conflict with each other. Her daily existence was punctuated by battles with health insurance. But I learned what an iron will she had, what a feisty spirit she had and to whom one could really say, she suffers not fools.
When Father called me to plan her funeral, the first thing he noted was that the family did not care what the liturgy should be like. Father then left it to me to choose the music and the readings, though he changed the Old Testament reading to the 2nd Maccabees passage about the worthiness of praying for the dead. He worried that we would be the only other Catholics there besides himself and the altar boy. So he requested that my sons, the schola, receive at Holy Communion. Usually at Funeral Masses, the cantor(s) do not receive as there's music to be sung. In the congregation, there is always a large percentage of non-Catholics who do not know the liturgy or music, hence the need for strong cantors.
After my conversation with Father, I set about producing the bulletin and realized that Father had not given me the dates of the span of her life. The obituary was silent, so I called the funeral home. Sadly, they had no idea either.
A friend who could not attend the funeral due to a previous engagement urged all the Legion members to attend. I feared that there would only be a handful of people there multiplying the stark loneliness expressed by the terse obituary.
A few minutes before Mass began, I looked down from the loft and saw the Legion there, a neighbor and her family, and one other person unknown to me. Twenty people who took the time to come to grieve. When the family arrived, I descended to the narthex to meet them. Only one member was Catholic, so there was expressed discomfort with the procession. The Lady in the Mirror was cremated and her family did not wish to carry the urn of her remains. Perhaps it was due to the tension and emotion of the day. There was no room for judgment, there was only the service to be done for her--to pray for her immortal soul.
The funeral music was full of chant. From the Psalm to the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The schola chanted Ave Verum Corpus. And at the Ablutions, they played a two-violin arrangement of Caccini's Ave Maria. The Mass ended with the chanting of In Paradisum. Each Legion member came up to us afterwards and commented on how beautiful and how God-glorifying the music was and the beauty of the Mass, because it was done according to rubrics with no room for sentimentalizing actions.
After Mass, the only child who attended, gave some brief remarks. From it, I learned that she was born in 1919 the youngest of Polish heritage. Other important dates in her life, her marriage, the birth of her children were mentioned. And woven throughout this narrative, was the acknowledgment of the estrangement among the family members, the sometimes strident and judgmental words that the Lady in the Mirror said throughout her life that her children carried with them in their hearts, bruising them and continually wounding them. But now, she is gone, and acceptance must come. Two of her great-grandchildren were there, children of the son who came.
In that painfully almost-empty room, life and death met. The legacy of our fallen nature perpetuated in the strife between loved ones. Yet there was hope, too, that reconciliation is possible.
But one memory will stay with me...and that was her devotion to Mary and her faithfulness to the Eucharist. She was there every Sunday, rain or shine, heat or cold, carrying with her the wounds of her heart and the fragility of her body. I cannot know the graces that God has poured into her. What I know is that she responded to Him. When many stronger and more cherished people have fallen away from the Faith, have abandoned the Church, she was a witness to the enduring and compelling need to be within Mother Church's bosom.
Rest in peace, dear Lady in the Mirror. May light perpetual shine upon you. May angels greet you at your coming. Rest eternally in the mercy of Our Lord and the gentle pleading of Our Lady to whom you showed such devotion.