Two months after we got married in 1987, my husband and I moved to Minnesota, leaving behind my family and my childhood home in Wisconsin. I missed my home and my family terribly in those early years, but more than anything, I missed my mother. When Stephen and I went to Mass on Sundays, I tried to miss her less by praying for her. Praying helped me to feel connected to my mother even though I was far away.
When it comes to our Catholic faith, my mother and I have never been outwardly demonstrative. It makes us both a bit uneasy when others emote about their beliefs; overt displays of religiosity have never suited either of our temperaments. Thus it was truly unusual for us to decide, as we did in 1998, to go on a retreat together. This was not something we had ever done. But a friend of mine had been suggesting for years that I go on a retreat, and I finally decided to take her up on it and invite my mother too. It had been a rough year; my father had died, an unexpected and painful death that stunned his family, especially my mother, his wife of fifty-six years.
My mother and I agreed to go on this retreat together not knowing what to expect. We pretty much just thought we would enjoy some “quiet time” for meditation, eat good food that we didn’t have to cook and relax in the hot tub. Looking back, I think God had a plan for us that weekend. He was pulling us out of ourselves and toward Him; the hot tub was just an incentive.
It was a silent retreat, but there were a few scheduled respites from the silence, and my mother and I made the most of them. We spent one of them in that hot tub, where my mother told me that the priest had spoken to her in confession about preparing for death. “Whoa,” I said. “That sounds dark.” My mother said no, she was grateful for their conversation, that she had raised the subject herself. She thought she would be ready to die when that time came, but she was afraid that she would suffer as my father had suffered, and that she would not give us, her children, the tools we needed to stay close after she was gone. She said that she prayed for that, for us, her children.
Then my mother surprised me; she asked me to pray that she would die well, and that she would not have to suffer for too long. This wasn’t anything I wanted to do; the superstitious Irish part of me (in other words, all of me) worried that if I brought up my mother’s death with the Lord He might hear me and start thinking about my mother’s death Himself, and decide it was time. I knew this was a silly worry, but the power of naming things is real; to name something is to call it into being, and I didn’t want to call my mother’s death into being.
Nonetheless, my mother was asking this of me, and I knew I needed to say yes. I started to pray every night for my mother to have a good death, always adding, “Many years from now, ok?” I also prayed that I would be present for her, that if she struggled or suffered, I would find the grace to help her, as she had always, without fail, helped me.
In the spring of 2001, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, the same kind that had killed my father. It was a stunning blow; she was a woman who still belonged to a tennis team, did water aerobics, and worked at Mount Mary College as a lecturer. She was one hundred percent alive, and I could not imagine that she was dying. It was too soon.
I prayed that she would live, that the diagnosis was a mistake, that she would be exception somehow. I wasn’t ready for my mother to die well. I didn’t want her to die at all. Certainly not now. Not yet. I still needed her. And yet, I knew what she had asked of me. I told God that I still needed my mother, but I also prayed that when she did die, it would be a good death. Knowing myself and my own weaknesses, I prayed that my heart would be filled with her needs rather than my fears.
In June, after I taught my final classes of the semester, I drove to Wisconsin. On the day I arrived, my mom had just come back from her doctor appointment, where the oncologist had told her that she had about three months to live. A stunning blow. We sat silently on her front porch together for some minutes after she told me this news. “Well, mom,” I finally said, “What would you like to do today?” She said, “I would like to buy a box of Fannie Mae buttercreams and I would like to get a manicure.”
At the moment my mother mentioned a manicure, I was flooded with a powerful desire to get a manicure, too, something I had never done in my life. In fact, I was possessed of a sudden certainty that I wanted to get an entire set of artificial fingernails. As a nail-biting, cuticle chewing academic, this was inexplicable, the equivalent of Mel Gibson being suddenly convinced that he needed to shave his legs. But my mother took this “new me” in stride, and off we went. She got her manicure and I got a whole new set of fingernails, painted peach.
In July, we found out that the cancer had spread to my mom’s spine and to her shoulders. She was in constant pain, and none of the drugs the doctors gave her seemed to help very much. When she took higher doses, she hated the way she felt, woozy and “out of it.” I was staying with her, and one night when I was helping her get into bed, I looked at those acrylic peach nails, and I said “Hey! Why don’t we put these fake fingernails to work, mom? Would you like me to scratch your back when you get into bed?” Her eyes opened wide and she said, “You know, that might feel good.”
When I was a little girl and would come into my parents’ bedroom on cold winter mornings to wake my mom up, she would more often than not ask me if I wanted to jump into bed with her and snuggle under the covers. She would scratch my back to the count of one hundred and I would scratch hers. We both loved those back scratches. I realize now, looking back, that her count to one hundred went a great deal more slowly than mine did.
Here was my chance to make up that imbalance. From the moment my mother laid down on the bed and sighed with pleasure when I began to scratch her back, I knew exactly why I had those fingernails. They were an excellent back scratching tool. Every night from that night until the night before my mother died, I scratched her back. She would murmur sometimes, “You stop, now, when your hand gets tired. I will never tell you to stop.” The pain which Vicodin never seemed to blunt was better, and she was able to get to sleep.
When I had prayed for the grace to help my mother die well, I was not thinking that acrylic fingernails would be involved. Yet there they were—God answered my plea for strength with fingernails. And He could not have done a better job of answering my prayer. My mother, Mercedes Lynch Maloney, died on the morning of August 4th, 2001. I had prayed that my mother would be the exception and outlive the doctor’s three month sentence. Instead, she died before even those three months had passed. But my mother never asked me to pray that she outlive her prognosis. What she asked me for, I did. And God answered.
A week after burying my mother, I took my acrylic fingernails off. It had been a rough summer, and I had been away from my family quite a bit, so my husband and I were taking our children to the Jersey Shore for a week. I was at a rest stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a place I had visited with my mom and my son a few years earlier. My son didn’t have much time with his grandmother, but the time they had was golden. In just a few short years, my mom shared her love of history and especially the Civil War with Jamie, and she would be so proud to see him now, an active and involved citizen with a passion for politics and a love of civics. On that day in Gettysburg, I cried—hard–and threw my peach acrylic fingernails in the trash can at the side of the highway.
I am back to having the chewed up nails of a philosopher, and since that summer of 2001, I have not had the remotest interest in even polishing them, much less replacing them. That desire flamed up and disappeared just in time to allow my mom a last bit of physical pleasure on this earth. I thank God every day for His strange, wonderful, perfect answer to a daughter’s prayer.