“Life is like an
onion. You peel off a layer at a time and sometimes you cry.” I thought of
those words as I cried. I thought of those words that night as I drove alone
towards Brooklyn - the night of the day that
Michael died. It was raining.
The phone call
came at It’s always
a phone call, isn’t it? I was down in Glen Riddle, Pennsylvania, giving a nun’s retreat when it
happened. “Hello.” It was my brother-in-law, Jerry. He broke down as he told me
that his son Michael was dead - dead at the age of fifteen.
It was too
sudden. It was too quick. He had only gone into the hospital that Sunday
evening. Here it was Tuesday morning and Michael was dead. I took a good breath
and said, “I’ll be home as soon as I can. WOW! Hope everybody is okay.”
The rain was
steady as I drove up the New Jersey Turnpike. It was good to have this time to
be alone in the car. I needed this time to cry and gain some strength before I
would reach my sister and brother-in-law and the family.
It was now
Tuesday evening. It had taken all day to get somebody to take my place giving
the retreat. Thanks to my two good friends, Sal and Joe, all was taken care of.
As I drove that
night I found it hard to believe that Michael was dead. Just last Friday my
sister Mary called me at our retreat house in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania.
It was just after five and we were about to begin a week- end retreat for men.
She told me that she just found out from the doctor that Michael might have
Hodgkin’s disease. That was the first time I heard that Michael was sick. They
had no idea till that afternoon that he was sick. Mary said that he would
probably 90 into the hospital that Sunday.
weekend I thought about Michael. I wanted to be with him in Brooklyn,
but I had to be on this men’s retreat. Then on Sunday I had to drive directly
from Tobyhanna to Glen Riddle for the nun’s retreat.
When I woke up that
Sunday morning, I knew I had to get to Brooklyn.
I’ll drive there first and then head for Glen Riddle, even if it meant being
late. I just had to see Michael and see how he was.
I kept thinking
that night as I drove up the turnpike how thankful to God I am that I made the
decision ion that Sunday morning to drive to Brooklyn.
I didn’t leave Tobyhanna till around eleven in the morning. That meant I’d only
see Michael for a few hours, but at least I’ d see him
The trip usually
takes two and a half hours. That Sunday it took four hours, because I got a
flat tire about five hundred yards from the toll booth of the GeorgeWashingtonBridge. The traffic was
bumper to bumper. I made it worse. I was in the left lane when I heard that
ugly sound of escaping air. My right front tire had died.
As I changed the
tire I cursed; I had lots of second thoughts about this rushed trip to Brooklyn. After all I’ll only see him for an hour at the
rate I’m going. Here it was 95 degrees - bumper to bumper - and I get a flat.
Boy, am I stupid. Why didn’t I wait till the end of the week? That way I’d have
a whole weekend to see Michael and the family.
I got the tire
changed pretty fast, probably because of the nasty looks from the cars that had
to move over to the middle lane to pass me. I finally made it to Brooklyn just in time for Sunday dinner. I ended up
seeing Michael for 45 minutes.
Thank you God.
Now I know why you had me 90 home that Sunday. It was the last time saw Michael
alive. I had to leave for Glen Riddle at four” I made it there just in time for
the retreat. Michael left for the hospital- around five-thirty that afternoon.
The whole family
went together. Michael was quieter that usual. He must have known what was
going on. Michael was smart. Michael was nosy. Michael always knew what was
going on. You should have seen him playing cards. And we come from a family of
night a doctor examined him and said there was no swelling in the glands. In
spite of that remark, Sunday night at the hospital was rough on everyone.
any easier, That evening the whole family, Mary and Jerry, and their three
kids, Monica, Gerard and Maryna, drove down to see Michael again. They were
scared. Some hope existed because of the doctor’s remark from Sunday night.
Nobody was thinking death, Nobody had an thinking that this would the last time
they would see him alive.
wasn’t old enough to go up to see her brother. She was eight. But her dad fixed
that. As they left Michael his dad told him to put every light in his room on
and then stand at the window. The whole family then got in their car and drove
around the block till they faced Michael’s room on the seventeenth floor. They
got out, looked up, and there stood wonderful blond hair light surrounded in
His dad Jerry
told me later on, “That was the last time we all say Michael alive.”
On the way home
from the hospital that night they too got a flat tire.
morning, Tuesday, Jerry woke up to go to the Mass at their parish church of Our Lady of
Perpetual Help. As he was dressing he was waiting for the phone to ring. On
Monday morning Michael had called from the hospital to make sure everybody was
up for work and school. That was Michael’s job every morning. He was always the
first one up. He was always the one who woke everybody up to a new day - to new
Just as Jerry
was going out the door the phone rang. He explained to Michael that he was
going to Mass now to say some prayers in hopes that the operation that morning
would be a success. He also said that his mom would be at Mass later on in the
morning and taking him communion. Michael’s parents have been delegated to
bring communion to shut-ins and the sick in their parish.
It was to be a
very brief operation that morning. They were to take a gland out of his
shoulder for a biopsy. It shouldn’t take long.
happened. He started to fail. They tried everything. He must have been very
sick, because he died so suddenly.
called Mary at home and told her Michael was in critical condition. Mary called
Jerry at work. Then she called her best friend Marie who was in the middle of
washing her hair. Marie grabbed a towel, ran to her car, picked up Mary and
rushed to the hospital.
got a cab from his office in New York.
I wonder what sped through his head as the cab sped towards the hospital. I
wonder what the cab driver thought as looked in the rear view mirror and saw
the face of someone wanting to get to a hospital as fast as possible,
Mary got there
first. A doctor and a nurse met her and walked her down a long corridor. Mary
knew immediately that Michael was dead. She got to a room and there the doctor
told her that Michael had just died on the table.
and rushed upstairs to Michael’s room. At first there was a mix up. The people
there didn’t know what was happening. Finally they brought Jerry to Mary, She
rushed into his arms in tears and that’s how heard his son was dead.
What do you
write after that? Do you go on?
It was just
after this that I got the phone call telling me Michael had died.
That night in
the rain, as I drove towards Brooklyn, seemed
long and slow. The minutes were filled with tears and memories of a fascinating
character named Michael.
CHAPTER TWO THE WEEK BEFORE
life. He was the total extrovert. He was into everything. I think this was the
toughest thing that hit us when he died. You always knew he was in the house.
Did he know he
was going to die?
evening in the hospital Michael made an enigmatic remark. “When I die, don’t
write a book about how I died, but how I lived.” Michael said that joking
around, imitating a tough guy. He and his brother were sitting there in the
hospital talking about the movie Brian’s Song. It’s the story about Brian
Piccolo’s struggle with leukemia and his eventual death. It’s the story of his
deep friendship with fellow football player, Gayle Sayers,
Michael had no
such struggle. He died so quickly that we can only describe his life. How did
he live? One answer would be to simply look at that last week before he died.
It was a week
that he went to a Mets game, a Yankee game, played basketball, baseball,
finished school, went shopping, read, fooled around, listened to music, tried
to listen in on a hundred conversations, and probably tried ten new things and
thought a thousand new thoughts. It was also the week he found out he was
Michael was a
Mets’ fan from the beginning. That Wednesday night he and five other guys from
the block drove out to Shea stadium to watch the Mets try to beat Cincinnati, Being an
optimist Michael had no doubts that the Mets would win. I can picture him now
booing and banging his brother, saying, “Dang it!” when George Foster homered
and won the game for Cincinnati.
as soon as the game was over, the game was over. He moved onto new material.
His team had lost, so what else se was new? Now a new game began as the bunch
of them headed home. Their driver, Mike Ganey, got lost in Queens.
Each new mistake stake got Michael’s mouth moving more and more. Everybody knew
that you couldn’t make a mistake if Michael was around. He wouldn’t let you
live it down. “Nice going.... Gooooooood move Ganey.... Hey, I think I’m going
to like it here in New Jersey.”
They were still in Queens.
I heard that
story in the funeral parlor. The kid who was telling it said, “Somebody in the
car finally yelled, ‘Michael, shut up or we’ll kill you.’” When the kid
realized he said the word “kill” in the funeral parlor he turned red. But
Michael’s brother Gerard, standing next to me said, “Relax. That’s all right.
We’re doing okay. We all loved Michael and his mouth.”
the game of life, even when your favorite team loses, even when you’re lost in Queens.
All this took
place during the week of June 5 – 11th, 1977. That Friday my sister
Mary received the phone call from the doctor. He wanted Michael in the hospital
for tests. It looked like Hodgkin’s disease. She called her husband. Mary then
called me in Tobyhanna. Then the fears moved in.
He wasn’t to go
into the hospital till Sunday. How do you keep a kid busy till then? This was
not a problem with Michael. The problem was rather: How does the whole family
keep busy till they know what’s happening. The problem was rather: How do you
tell a kid of 15 he is seriously sick? Did he know it. He had been to the
doctor a few times al ready in the year, especially when he couldn’t’ t shake a
cough. He must have figured out something when he had to be X-rayed. He had to
drop off the track team at RegisHigh School because he
didn’t have the energy needed. He started to fall asleep while watching
television. This wasn’t like Michael. When asked if he wanted to work for the
summer, Michael said he would rather rest.
Mary and Jerry
told Michael he was seriously sick that Friday evening.
The next day,
Saturday, was tense. To keep busy the whole family got in the car to 90 down
town to do some shopping. Michael needed slippers for the hospital, but a 15
year old boy doesn’t wear slippers. They went downtown night for moccasins. He
also needed a new pair of sneakers, so Michael ended up with new moccasins,
plus a neat pair of green Puma sneakers. His reaction to that was, “Aaaallll
Saturday morning. What about Saturday afternoon? On the way home in the car
Mary said a prayer that something would come up. She forgot that Michael never
had a problem in finding things to do.
As they were
coming up the block, Jimmy Croney was coming down the block with tickets for
the Yankee game that afternoon. He had ten tickets and went scouting for kids.
He headed right for Michael and Gerard, knowing that one loved the Yankees and
the other “hated’ those Yankees.
believe that her prayers answered so quickly.
Gerard had a
great time in the bleachers of Yankee stadium that day; Michael didn’t. The
Yankees won. Naturally, 1977 was their year. I found out about all this at the
funeral parlor. Michael had a beautiful color as he lay there in the coffin. I
asked about it all and found out that he was out there in the bleachers of
Yankee Stadium a few days earlier screaming for the other tell. Did you hear
him Reggie Jackson?
That week he
also played baseball, basketball, cards, chess, and lots of other things we
never knew he was into. He went to Central Park
with the guys from RegisHigh School to climb
trees. He also finished in that week his first year at Regis. Was he looking
forward to all the pranks he would be pulling as a sophomore? Was he beginning
to wonder if he had leukemia or some sickness like that? Did he how he was
going to die?
The next day was
Sunday. As usual he was the first one up in the morning. The whole family went
to church together, came home, had a big breakfast, read the papers, and
enjoyed the beauty of a Sunday morning together. In the afternoon the two
brothers played stick ball with the kids on the block and then came in for
Sunday dinner when I got home around three o’clock as I described above.
As I was going
out the door around four to drive to Glen Riddle, I saw Michael and Gerard both
going down to the park to watch a baseball game. The park wasn’t too far away.
It was just an excuse for the two of them to have one last talk together before
Michael went to hospital.
The call came in
around five-thirty. They were just back in time and all headed for the hospital
Later on in the
evening Father Jack McGowan, a great friend of the family, came down to see if
Michael wanted to receive the Sacrament of the Sick. A few jokes went back and
forth between the two of them. Both were blessed with a great sense of humor,
but both were also nervous. Michael said, “Yes” and then all the family prayed
for Michael. The whole family also received communion together in the Sign or
Sacrament of the Lord’s presence.
As I wrote in
the beginning of this chapter, it was on this Sunday evening that Michael said,
“When I die don’t write a book about how I died, but how I lived.”
WEEK MICHAEL DIED
I arrived home that rainy Tuesday night from Glen
Riddle around . There
is no need to describe what happened. All of us, who have experienced the death
of a father or a mother or sister or brother and have had to drive or fly back
to our roots, know what it’s like.
I heard more of
the story about what happened in between the tears and the unbelief that
Michael had died so suddenly.
I heard that my
mother and sister Peggy had driven up from Baltimore that morning. Their plans were to
drive to our house in Brooklyn and then go to
the hospital to see Michael. When they got to the house Peggy saw all the cars
and knew something was wrong.
They were on the
road when Michael died. Peggy, Sister St. Monica, is a nun. She was teaching in
the time. My mom was down in Laurel,
Maryland for the high school
graduation of my brother’s daughter, Mary.
weekend my sister Mary had a dilemma. Do I call them up and have them worry or
should I wait? She decided to wait till after graduation. But just in case she
sent a note down to my sister-in-law Joanne. Kathy, another of my brother’s
daughters, was up in Brooklyn that Sunday and
was heading back to Maryland.
But on the way back the car broke down. She called her mom and dad and told
about the note. She ended up reading it over the phone to her mom. When the
graduation was over Joanne told my mom that Michael was in the hospital – but
just for tests. Then she called my sister in Baltimore. Peggy said she would drive my mom
up to Brooklyn the next morning, Mary didn’t t
want to make everybody nervous, She didn’t want to say anything till the
reports from the hospital were in.
knows that night it’s hard to sleep that night. I tossed and turned what everybody
had said and how their eyes looked. I worried about my mom and Peggy. What were
they going through? Both were so special to Michael. Did they feel bad that
they weren’t there? I worried about eight year old Maryna. How was she taking
the death of her brother? What goes on in the mind of an eight year old girl?
Then I began to
worry about the doctors and the nurses from the operating room. Were they able
to handle this sudden tragedy? Did their husbands or wives or kids ask, “What’s
wrong with you tonight?” Just thinking about that brought more tears. Who do
they go to when everything goes wrong? Their family doctor, when he heard the
news, immediately closed down his office for the day. It was too much.
The next day
Michael’s father had to go to the morgue. Even the word sounds what it’s like.
We waited for my brother Billy and his wife Joanne. They arrived around that morning from Maryland. Then the men,
Jerry, his son Gerard, Billy and I drove to KingsCountyHospital where they do all
How does a
morgue handle all these emotional people coming in to identify bodies? The room
where we had to wait and fill out the papers was not designed by the director
of a funeral parlor. It was typical New York City Government office space.
woman there was special. She landed everything beautifully. She told Jerry that
she had heard from a nurse in the hospital where Michael died that Michael was
a great kid. Then she stopped doing her papers for a moment. She looked at Jerry
delicately, Wow! You look just like your son. She had seen the body downstairs
in the morgue, jolt know how that woman was placed in that job, or how New York
City places its people, but this woman was in the right place all right time.
She called downstairs.
It took a while till they were ready for us. Then she took us down on the
elevator to the morgue. Michael lay there on a hospital table, behind a glass
window, His dad asked if he could touch the body, but the woman said gently
that he better not. I wondered why they had this glass wall. Then I real
realized that people would leap on their beloved.
It was a scene
I’ll never forget. There was a father and a brother facing the death of someone
they shared 15 years of life with - memories, ups and downs, jokes, - the big
moments and the small moments, I’ll never forget that scene of tears and love
Then I noticed
that my brother-in-law suddenly braced himself. He wiped the tears. I could
hear him saying to himself, “I got to be strong for Mary.” Then he said, “Let’s
go.” The four of us than thanked the woman and headed for the door. We headed
for the next few days together,
While we were at
the morgue my two sisters were home. They were just sitting there, talking
about the gift of Michael. My sister Peggy told me later on that Mary began to
realize that she had better start thinking about Michael’s burial.
Mary got up and
welt up into Michael’s room. She came out to the living room holding Michael’s
navy blue suit. She spoke softly, “I’ll have to put this on him and he hated
it.” Mary loves to sew and she told Peggy that she had made the suit for a
cruise the family had taken together the summer before. She said that Michael
looked so handsome in it, but how he hated it.
Then she said
gently, “What I would like to do right now is put him in his blue jeans, his
red track jacket from Regis, and his favorite shirt.” She knew Michael; she
knew he never liked to wear a suit.
So back went the
suit and out of the closet came his blue jeans, his favorite tan sport shirt,
and his red RegisHigh School jacket. Mary
smiled because she said she could hear Michael saying, “That’s cool, mom.
Later on in the
day Jerry had to take the clothes to the funeral parlor. He really liked the
idea dressing Michael up the way he would like. But he added that he wanted to
take Michael’s new Puma sneakers along too. Mary said, “Why not give them to
some kid who would really love a brand new pair of Pumas?” Jerry answered, “No,
I want him to wear the Pumas . I’ll go out and buy another pair of Pumas for
some kid, but I want Michael to wear this new pair.”
The rest of that
Wednesday the family and friends had some time together. Thank God Mary and
Jerry have so many friends. Without the presence of people like Marie and Chris
and so many others we wouldn’t have had so much strength and grace to make it
through the next few days.
Jerry and I went up to Cosgrove’s Funeral Parlor. Jerry wanted to see if
everything was all right. The undertaker did a beautiful job. I’ve read
criticism about funeral parlors, about the American way of death, the way the
corpse is prettied up in make believe sleep; but I’ve also read enough
anthropology to know death has to be handled with some kind of ritual and
ceremony. I stood back and cried a bit when Jerry performed his own private
ritual. He stood there quietly for a moment. Then he kissed the forehead
gently. Lastly he made the sign of the cross. We both wondered how we’d all
make it through these three days.
The viewing was
from two to five in the afternoon and from seven to ten at night. The whole
family went to the funeral parlor at . We all watched Mary to see if she was all right.
Then the doors
were opened. After they were closed at night, after we got home, took off our
shoes and talked a bit, we all were able to sleep immediately, because those
two days at the funeral parlor were long, long days.
Perhaps it was
the red jacket; perhaps it was the enormous strength of Mary and Jerry; perhaps
it was the fact that we have so many friends; but everybody who walked into
that small chapel, walked out having experienced something special. They saw
our tears. They saw the tragedy of Michael’s sudden death. They saw the nervous
faces of his classmates from RegisHigh School, who didn’t
have time to figure what this was all about. But they also saw a family with
enormous faith in God. This was the most precious gift our parents and their
parents and their parents passed down to us. Faith is in our roots.
Looking back now
we all have some specific memories from those long hours at Cosgrove’s Funeral
Parlor. I’m sure my mother knew it was the exact spot where my father Michael
was also waked. To me the most graphic moment was on Friday evening when my
seven nieces arrived from Maryland,
My brother and sister-in-law have seven kids - all girls. Because it looks like
our name won’t go on, I always tell my brother he’s a failure. Because of their
jobs, they weren’t able to arrive from Maryland
till then. Around ten to nine all seven girls walked into the funeral parlor
together. Suddenly there was a strange silence. Everybody stopped talking at
once. The girls stood there in the back not sure just what to do. They could
see their cousin Michael up there in the coffin. We had the benefit of three
days together. They didn’t know what to expect, just coming off the highway.
They hesitated. Then everyone in the still crowded funeral parlor watched those
seven girls walked up and kneel down by one at Michael’s coffin. What would
seven girls - aged 12 to 20 - be thinking and feeling as they knelt there? I
thought it was good for them to face all this, the reality of death, because
someday they might have to face what my sister Mary is going through now.
I still have
vivid memories of Jimmy Hennessey’s death from when I was a kid. He was a kid
in our grammar school class who died around the age of ten. The wake was held
in his home. Well, I’m glad our culture moved wakes to funeral parlors. That
was the first death I experienced. I remember silence, tears, old people
sitting around on chairs, and our whole class marching over to 64th Street
in white shirts and blue ties. What will my brother’s seven girls remember
about Michael’s funeral?
And what about their
cousin Maryna? How was she taking her brother’s death? Should she go to the
funeral parlor? Mary did what she always did with Maryna. She asked her. She
first explained what was happening. Then she gave her some time to think. Then
she asked her if she wanted to go. Maryna is a very interesting kid - a little
professor. She said she wanted to go, but only for a little while. So that’s
what she did. One of us would take her over to the house of her best friend,
Patricia Lavelle, for the rest of the day. What will Maryna’s memories of
Michael’s death be? Or better what will be their memories of his life be? The
two of them used to have great times together.
The next morning
we had the Mass.
All of Michael’s classmates who helped us so much during the week were there,
plus most of the other young men from RegisHigh School.
Father Steve Duffy, Father Raymond Swords, and so many other Jesuits from Regis
came over to concelebrate the Mass.
Some very good Redemptorist friends of Mary and Jerry also came, Marty Crowe,
Tom Radley, Phil Dabney, Joe Keenan, Tom Barrett, and Jack McGowan.
Being a priest
I’ve been to many funerals but this one was the biggest yet, I concelebrated my
father’s death in 1970 with so many friends. Looking back now I think his
funeral was a bit easier. He had lung cancer and we knew it. He went into a
deep coma, We had a week’s warning. But most of all, my dad had a long
But Michael was
young and full of life when he died. So my goal for the Mass was to celebrated
life not death. I wanted to let the huge crowd in that church really know who
Michael was and what his life was like. I wanted to celebrate the life that God
had given us in Michael.
sister, did the first of three readings we selected for the Mass, It was from
the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. We picked it because it was the
type of “stuff” Michael liked.
is an appointed time for everything,
a time for every affair under the heavens.
time to be born, and a time to die;
time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
time to tear down, and a time to build.
time to tear down, and a time to build.
time to weep, and a time to laugh;
time to mourn, and a time to dance.
time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
time a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
time to seek, and a time to lose;
time to keep and a time to cast away.
time to rend, and a time to sew;
time to be silent, and a time Io speak.
hesitate for a moment. She was doing this for her brother.
Next came her
brother Gerard. He did the second reading. Because he’s six foot three, he had
trouble adjusting to the microphone which was set for someone five foot nine. Michael
used to needle Gerard, saying that someday he would be taller than him. For the
second reading we decided to add a personal touch. Gerard read their family
poem. It was a poem that had been part of the family down through the years for
many reasons, but especially because of the last stanza. Monica had it put in
her yearbook when she graduated from Saint
JosephHillAcademy in Staten
Island. Gerard bent over and began reading the following poem by
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
roads diverged in a yellow wood,
sorry I could not travel both
be one traveler, long I stood
looked down one as far as I could
where it bent in the undergrowth;
took the other, as just as fair,
having perhaps the better claim,
it was grassy and wanted wear;
as for that the passing there
worn them really about the same.
both that morning equally lay
leaves no step had trodden black.
I kept the first for another day!
knowing how way leads on to way:
doubted if I should ever come back.
shall be telling this with a sigh
ages and ages hence:
roads diverged in a wood, and I -
took the one less traveled by,
that has made all the difference.
As Gerard read
that poem the family knew that it now had another meaning.
Then I read the
following words from the gospel of Saint
John. They are words Jesus spoke the night before he
“Do not let
your hearts be troubled. Have faith in
God and faith in me. In my Father’s
house there are many dwelling places; otherwise, how
could I have told you that I was
going to prepare a place for you?
I am indeed
going to prepare a place for you, and then I
shall come back to take you with me, that where I am
you also may be. You know the
way that leads where I go.”
Thomas, “we do not know
where you are going. How can we know
Jesus told him: “I am the way,
and the truth and the life; no one comes to
the Father but through me. If you really
knew me, you would know my Father also. From this point
on you know him; you have seen
The sermon must
be Michael. That was my goal as I prepared it. I wanted it to be full of life,
so I told the crowded church that Michael’s days were totally alive. He was all
mouth. He was all ears. He never missed a trick. He was a star. He was a
gentleman - with a heavy stress on gentle. He had the gift of being able to
talk with anyone and everyone. You could always see him talking with old
people, young people, all kinds of people. I stressed the word “talking.” He
loved to talk, In his 15 years, he lived 50 years. He did, He loved sports,
studies, reading, needling people and playing practical jokes. But he never
hurt people. He was the old man, the kid, the brat, the enquirer, the
investigator and the type of person who loved to be himself. If he was anyone,
he was his own man. Then I added, “But there’s a world of difference between
hearing about Michael and experiencing Michael.” I saw many heads saying “yes”
when I said that.
I said all that
in the sermon. But I wanted to end by stressing something else. Somehow this 15
year old kid had a unique gift. I’ve never experienced it quite so much in
anyone else. He made people feel special. He made the other person that he was
with feel that they were valuable. He made me feel special. He made me feel
important. He always wanted to know when I was coming to Brooklyn.
He wanted to see me.
After he started
going to Regis High School Michael started telling me about a Father Duffy who
taught Latin. Michael really loved the guy. He was an “old” Jesuit whom I knew
was special from the way Michael described him. Michael would come home from
school and it was “Father Duffy this” and “Father Duffy that”. I didn’t meet
the man till Michael’s funeral , but I knew he was special.
Michael made the
old ladies on the block feel special. He would stop right in the middle of a
game of street football with his famous, “Hold everything.” Then he’d run help
lug their packages right to the door. Then he’d run back to the game of life.
This was so normal for Michael that nobody noticed it or made cracks about it.
Everybody knew if an old lady came down the block with a package, that it was
time for a break till Michael was back,
He always made
sure little kids felt special, especially those whom the other kids left out.
For 10 years I
saw Michael do this to his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody. You
should have seen the line he had for both his grandmothers. He had both of them
wrapped around his finger. So that is why I ended my sermon with the following
message. He made everyone feel special, like a star. So I’m sure his
grandfather Mike went up to God and said, “Hey God, you have to meet my grandson
Michael. He’s something else. He’s special.” So after hearing so much about
Michael, God decided he would take him home to Himself.
Of course that’s
the kind of stuff the Irish call blarney. Of course it brought tears. Then I
said, “So I don’t know about you, but I’d like to give his parents and God a
hand for creating such a beautiful kid.” And the church clapped the loudest
clap and the longest clap I’ve ever heard.
After the Mass
we all headed for the cemetery in Staten Island.
We made it there and back without too much trouble. Jerry’s sister Marge and
brother-in-law Jack got lost, but that gave us something to distract us and
needle Jack about after we got home from the cemetery.
We came back to
food. For three days our friends from the neighborhood and New Jersey brought us lots of food. We
(meaning the women of course) ended up not having to cook for almost a week and
half. This ancient custom of bringing food and making the meals for people
experiencing the death of a loved one is one more sign of the loving care of
people for people.
downstairs, and in the cellar we had wall-to-wall friends, cousins, uncles,
aunts and neighbors. After some funerals you want to be alone, but after this
one, we all seemed to want to be with people. Michael would want it that way,
because he loved a full house.
Late that night
it all ended. We made it. All were okay for the time being. We were too drained
to feel anything beyond being tired. However, as I lay in bed that night the
only person I still worried about was Maryna. I thought about a special moment
in the cellar that afternoon. She said something I thought was precious. We
were talking about Father’s Day which was coming up the next day. Maryna said
to me, “Why don’t they have a brother’s day?”
Board by board the boardwalk is built.
I once rebuilt a boardwalk at our retreat
house in West End, New Jersey. A big storm had ripped it apart.
It wasn’t that long. In fact my sister-in-law, Joanne, had dubbed it, “The
World’s Shortest Boardwalk.” But as I began to repair it, the other end looked
about 10 miles away. However, as I nailed back board after board, I began to
say with the hammer, “Board by board the boardwalk is built.”
The time after a death is like the time after
a storm. You have to begin to put the boardwalk of your life back together
again, even if part of it was swept out to sea.
The time after a funeral is a time for
healing, for rebuilding, for starting again. Slowly one has to survey the damage
caused by the storm and hopefully make the decision to go forward. Obviously it
can be a time of anger and depression. It’s a time then when we need each
other. It’s a time we have to sit around and share.
But people have to go back to work. One by one
people go out the door. The friends that filled the funeral parlor, the church,
the house, get in their cars and drive away. The family sits there minus one.
Fortunately my sister Peggy, Sister St.
Monica, had just finished the school year. She was able to stay around to help
keep my sister Mary moving when she needed moving, give her time to speak when
she needed an ear, and let her have time to be alone when she needed to be
alone. My sister-in-law Joanne also took a week off from work to stay around
and help everybody through this new week without Michael.
Compared to the week before everything was
obviously quieter. Thus it was a week to reflect upon all that had happened so
quickly. Reflection then is probably the first step, the first board, on the
way to beginning to rebuild one’s life without the other.
I wondered how my sister Mary was doing. Last
week was too crowded and too soon to really know. Was it easier for her to take
Michael’s death because she was actually working on a paper on death for a
course she was taking at FordhamUniversity? How close to
the reality of what she was beginning to go through were these recent books on
death? To me Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Rabbi Earl Grollman’s books on death were very close to touching on feelings and
thoughts that hit people when someone they love dies. They helped me; would
they help Mary?
As the week went on Mary told us that she was
only now beginning to see why so many things that took place in the past year
happened. Things that had puzzled her only now began to fit into place.
The year before Michael was thinking of going
away to a high school preparatory seminary run by the Redemptorists. He was
dabbling with the dream of perhaps becoming a priest someday. All of a sudden
he received a scholarship to RegisHigh School in New York City. It’s one
of the best high schools in the country. Michael was a brilliant kid and this
Jesuit high school was a great challenge for him. In the one year he was there
Mary saw how well rounded an education he was getting. Perhaps they were after
him too. Mary and Jerry told me last summer that they would have been proud if
Michael had gone away to our Redemptorist minor seminary in North East, Pennsylvania. They felt
Michael, being Michael, was mature enough to handle being away from home for
high school. I had gone there, felt homesick at times, but ended up loving
every minute of it. Their real good friend, Father Jack McGowan knew Michael
very well and would have kept an eye on him. But Mary now realized that if
Michael had gone away to St. Mary’s in North East, they would have seen very
little of him this past year, the last year of his life. If he had gone away
Mary felt she would have always wondered if Michael would have shown any signs
of serious sickness. Thank God he stayed home and went to Regis. All they
noticed was the cough and the tiredness. With that they took him to the doctor.
Mary also realized now why the whole family
went on a cruise last summer, just before Monica went away to VillanovaUniversity.
It was their last big vacation together as a family. Michael loved every minute
of it, running up and down stairs, hiding from Maryna, playing pin ball with Gerard and Monica, and eating a hundred times a day.
Those were the big things that began to hit
Mary. But mainly there were all those special little moments to remember: going
to stores together, remarks, playing cards, cooking together - oh yeah Michael
loved to cook. Moments like that were precious memories Mary kept in the photo
album of her mind. The tears would come when she realized Michael would no
longer be around to have his picture taken doing all the million and one things
that kid loved to do.
On one of the mornings of that new week my
sister Mary and I both woke up with the same idea. What about a special “thank
you” card for all the people who came to be with us at Michael’s death? I
mentioned it to Jerry and Mary jumped in with, “Yeah, I was thinking of that
just this morning.” We put our heads together and came up with the idea of a
card or something with Michael’s picture on it. Somebody suggested putting on
it Robert Frost’s poem. Many people who heard Gerard read it at the funeral
Mass wanted a copy of it. They said that they had never heard it before. I
guess they too slept through many an American Literature course in high school.
With a picture of Michael and the poem Jerry
and I drove down to see a friend of his who did a lot of printing for American
Express - the company where Jerry works. On the way down in the car Jerry kept
telling me that he wanted whatever Mary wanted. We must get the best for
Michael, no matter the cost.
We finally found the place somewhere in
downtown Brooklyn. We even found a parking
spot. Jerry’s friend, the owner, was great. Soon we had a tour of his whole
printing plant. However, I think now that he became very nervous when Jerry had
to tell him why we had come.
Finally we got down to business. The result
was a card with Michael’s picture inside on the left. On the right, where most
cards have a verse, the printer put Robert Frost’s poem.
But what should we put on the front of the
card? We hadn’t planned that well, because we really weren’t that sure of what
we wanted. After a while I suggested putting down the message of my sermon last
week. It was what I felt was the main message of Michael’s life. “Michael was
special... and so are you.” Jerry immediately said, “No, ‘Michael is special’
instead of ‘Michael was special.’” There is a big difference between “is” and
“was” after someone dies.
So that’s what we ended up with. Jerry ordered
a thousand cards in blue and white. There on the outside of the card is the
Michael is special
...and so are you!
On the inside is Michael’s picture and Robert
We then drove home knowing Mary would like it.
For a while both of us were silent. After a long pause Jerry said, “Do you know
what Mikey would say about that card, ‘Dad that’s cool.’“
The Doody Family
CHAPTER FIVE DOES THE RAIN STOP?
the rain stop?
During the weeks that followed the reality of
Michael’s death slowly took root. Each of the three kids and Mary and Jerry
were the soil of Michael’s life; so too they were the soil of his death. His
body was planted in the cemetery. His presence was still in the house. How long
does an amputee feel the presence of a leg that is no longer there?
Michael’s older brother Gerard bunked with him
for 15 years in the same room. They were true brothers, fighting, laughing,
tricking each other every chance they had. Gerard kept telling me that he
couldn’t believe what had happened. “One day he’s here; the next day he’s
Monica and Maryna, the oldest and the youngest
kids, struggled in their own ways. Michael was such an extrovert and into so
many things, that it’s hard to have all your investments suddenly terminated.
Now I understand the meaning of the Depression. It was a crash and suddenly
everything is lost. Michael, Maryna and Monica invested a lot of time together.
Then there were all those thank you cards to
write. We come from a family that doesn’t like to just send out a Christmas
card. We like to make it personal. I guess we get it from our mother, “the
Mary told me how difficult it was sending out
all those thank you cards. Each one she picked up had Michael’s picture staring
her in the face. But water cleanses and tears have the power of running water
to refresh the soul.
It took a couple of weeks, but Mary sent out
all those cards. Thank God she had my sister Peggy to do the addresses. They
were an advertisement for caring. Many people who received a card phoned
immediately to say, “Thank you for the thank you.” Do you then add, “Thank you
for saying ‘thank you’ for the thank you”? Smile.
Then there was the meeting of people on the
street and the going back to work. Everyone who has experienced death knows
that it’s the person whom you meet that needs the reassurance. Fortunately,
after standing there in the funeral parlor, meeting person after person, one
learns what to say. One knows that the other person doesn’t have to say
anything; one also knows that the other is scared. Their presence is enough. It
helps fill the absence.
Jerry began telling me about people at
American Express where he works.
Many of them came over to the wake and the funeral Mass. But then there were others he hadn’t
seen yet. Some were scared. They didn’t know what to say. They too needed
reassurance. Do you bring it up to them? He knew that they didn’t know how he
was taking the sudden death of his son. On the other hand, who knows what
memories of past deaths erupt when someone hears about the death of someone
else? Who knows what the other has been through? Who knows what how much the
other person fears death? Death sure gives us a chance to get out of ourselves
and into an awareness of what the other might be going through. I guess the
only way to find out is to begin talking.
Mary told me about the day she met Elaine, an
old friend of hers, at the bank. They hadn’t seen each other in over a year. Naturally
they began asking how the kids were. Mary suddenly had to break the news about
Michael. What do you do? What do you say so as not to make the other feel
uncomfortable because they hadn’t heard what happened? They both went across
the street for coffee. Mary told the whole story. Then the tears continued,
because Elaine began telling Mary about her son Anthony. He was the same age as
Michael. He had cancer. For the past year he has been suffering terribly.
Constantly they have had to go back and forth to the hospital for treatments.
Does the rain stop?
I couldn’t help meditating on a saying I read
somewhere a long time ago. I don’t remember who wrote it, or exactly how it
goes, but I’m sure whoever wrote it wouldn’t mind me using it.
the human heart
to create there
places that never
existed there before.
A good friend of mine always used to say about
people I’d get angry with, “Oh he just has suffered enough. That’s why he
doesn’t understand.” Suffering sure is a great teacher, that is if we want to
learn. Michael’s death was to teach us so much. But what away to learn.
I noticed that my brother-in-law did a lot of
thinking about Michael’s death. I caught him so many times just sitting there
by himself. “What are you doing?” He’d answer, “Oh, just thinking. Just
thinking.” Then he’d give me the results of his “just thinkings.” I’ve read
many articles that talk about the difference between loneliness and solitude.
With Jerry I experienced the results of his solitude. Healing takes time.
Healing needs friends. But it also needs quiet.
He told me about some of his thoughts and prayers
after dropping into his parish church
of Our Lady of Perpetual
Help. It’s still open during the day and it’s still a great place to escape
into the presence of God.
He told me about a book he had just read by
Raymond Moody, Life After Light. It was simply story after story of
people who had a near-death experience. Almost everybody saw a great light ...
a being of light at the end of a dark tunnel or cave.” “I am the Light of the
World.” That is how I heard the story about the night before Michael died, how
the whole family stood there on a dark street and looked up and saw Michael
standing there in the light of his hospital room.
Jerry told me how blessed he was that he and
Mary had made a Marriage Encounter Week-end a few years earlier - how it really
helped them to grow so much. “Imagine, he told me, “how couples might turn on
each other and blame each other for a kid’s death. Imagine if they found it
difficult to communicate with each other, especially at a time like this.” He
was so glad that they learned so much through that week-end. They had learned
to regularly take the time out to listen to each other - to check things out -
Another time that I was talking to Jerry he
told me about the time he had to go up to Michael’s room in the hospital just after he died. He had
just heard the news from Mary. Before they left for home Jerry had to go and
pick up Michael’s things. It really hurt to find his bed already fixed up for
the next person. It was too quick. In the next bed was this beautiful old
Italian man. He was lying there moaning, “The little boy is dead. The little
boy is dead.” How do hospitals, if they do it at all, break the news about a
death to the person in the next bed?
Jerry often told me about all the trouble he
had in trying to get the autopsy report. New
York City paperwork is slow, but six months was too
long. It finally arrived. It was hard to figure out because it was rather
technical and the handwritten parts were rather scribbled. Michael had an
enormous tumor in his chest. It was larger than a grapefruit. The cancer was
eating into his lungs, esophagus and the sac around his heart.
To find out more clearly what the autopsy was
saying I showed it to a good friend of mine, Garry, who is just about to begin
interning as a doctor. He read the report slowly. I was amazed at his response.
He was not technical. He spoke with deep concern and care. “It must have been
rough on Michael’s parents.” That was his first response as he looked up. “This
happened too quickly.” He went on, “The family must have been in shock. How did
they ever make it?” Then he said, “Many times in cases like this, it gets so
bad that the family finally says, ‘It will be a blessing if he dies.’ But this
kid died too quickly. How did the family take it?”
If all doctors were as sensitive and as aware
as that, then we are in for a great new wave of doctors. I’m aware that people
like Doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross are trying to educate as many clergymen and
women, medical personnel, and social workers to be as sensitive as possible
towards those experiencing death. Here was a new doctor who was extremely
sensitive in just reading an autopsy report.
Receiving the autopsy and moments like that
were tough. I suppose what would have taken place if Michael had died slowly
the gradual saying that it would be a blessing if he die, had to take place
after his death. The fact that he also had malignant tumors in his kidneys and
lungs helped us say that.
It also made us aware of the tragedy of young
people dying from various types of cancer. Stories about athletes with leukemia
or young people who die in car accidents often appear in the papers. Last week
while I was giving a parish
mission in North Carolina a couple came up to me to ask for prayers for Woody.
He was their fifteen year old nephew who had died two months ago in a
motorcycle accident in Alabama.
Now I have some small idea about what’s happening behind the scenes of stories
The clock moved forward. The healing slowly
began. Mary told me that she and Jerry had no regrets. But they also told me
that there were still many rainy days, days when the whole thing seemed like a
dream -a nightmare - that they hoped would be gone in the morning.
CHAPTER SIX REMEMBERING
A good friend of our family, Father Jack
McGowan, lost all his books in a fire at our seminary last year. His room with
everything he owned, photos, souvenirs, letters, all were lost.
I was recently talking to him about Michael
and he said, “Well, I hope they keep on talking about him.” He then mentioned
an idea from a book he had lost in the fire, Dawn Without Darkness by
Anthony Padovano. “To remember somebody is to keep that person alive. As long
as somebody remembers us, we are a live to that person.” “Unfortunately,” Jack
added, “the book is out of print. But see, it’s still around because I remember
That’s why I’m writing this book. I don’t want
Michael to be out of print. I want to keep on talking, keep on remembering him,
keep him alive. I want to gather some of the beautiful memories that kid gave
On June 14th of this year we
celebrated the first anniversary of his death. We had a crowded mass at our
parish church. But the most beautiful thing happened after mass back at the
Father Tim Healy, S.J. and a bunch of
Michael’s classmates from RegisHigh School came down the
house. It was tough for Mary and Jerry to see these kids, because they could
picture how Michael would have grown in one year. But as they sat there and ate
as only teen-age boys can, they began telling stories about Michael. Each story
triggered another story.
Sitting there listening, I began to notice
that each story began with the word, "Remember." "Remember when Michael pulled that trick
on Father Duffy.” "Remember the day so and so had Michael lock him in his
own locker, so he could try to catch the guy who knew the combination to his
lock and who was putting stuff in his locker.” “Remember how Michael locked him
in and then ran around the school telling how stupid this guy was to let
himself be locked in his own locker.” “Remember the day Michael tried to take
over the basketball team ...a mere freshman.” “Remember... remember...
Sitting there I looked around the room
watching everybody’s face. I experienced why Abraham Heschel, Elie Wiesel and
Henri Nouwen said story telling and remembering were so important. Now I
understood better, how much of the Bible was written. It was written to
preserve the stories and the memories of a people. Now I understood the meaning
of the words of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me.” The early Christians must
have sat around and did exactly what we were doing that Wednesday. They must
have said, "Remember that day when Jesus told the story of the Prodigal
Son. "Remember the day we wanted to get rid of those kids and Jesus told
us to let them come to him.” “Remember... remember... remember.” As we sat
there eating we remembered Michael. So too Jesus was remembered in the breaking
of the bread.
Well, somebody must have said, “Hey, we better
write these stories down before we lose them. We better write down these things
Jesus taught us so we can pass them down to our kids.”
I sat there listening to those kids, hoping
they would write down those stories about Michael which I had never heard
before. I wish I had a tape recorder handy.
It taught me first hand, the importance of
talking about those who have died. It taught me the importance of
anniversaries. It taught me the importance of an audience, for friends of a
dead person to get together and talk about their friend. It taught me the
importance of writing things down.
Yet I hesitated about writing this book.
Should I or shouldn’t I? Would it cause only rain. Would it cause only more
pain just as grass is beginning to grow over Michael’s grave?
I wasn’t sure, so I asked my brother-in-law,
Jerry. He paused and said, ‘Let me think about it.” About a month later he said,
“Okay, maybe it will help others who have to go through the same thing.”
I asked him if he had anything he would like
me to say. “Put in,” he said, “that after 8 months, after 10 months, after 12
months, it’s still murder. For the first 6 months people are real aware of what
happened, what you must be going through, but then after that some people must
figure you should be over it. Well, it’s one year now, and we still miss
Michael more than ever.”
I was one of those people who felt they were
doing okay. I told Jerry that. “Well,” he said, “tell people what we are going
through, just in case this happens to them and they think they are the only
ones who feel this bad a year after someone dies.”
I’ve often wondered about this “missing” of
someone. In my sermon on Michael’s first anniversary I used the example of an
amputee. During this past year whenever I met a person who had lost an arm or a
leg I asked them what it’s like to lose an arm or a leg. I asked them how long
they felt pain in the missing limb. They all answered that the “phantom pain”
never leaves. Often, they told me, you’d find yourself reaching down to scratch
a leg that wasn’t there. I couldn’t understand that. I figured that the pain
would disappear after a while. But then I thought about stroke patients. They
have a rupture or something like that in their brain and then the whole left or
right side would go. I thought back to when we studied biology and remembered
how different parts of the brain control different parts of the body. There was
the answer. A person might lose an arm or a leg, but they still had a place in
the brain for that missing arm or leg.
There it was. It was now so simple. Michael is gone. But our brains still contain
all those beautiful memories of him. As long as we’re around Michael will be
around. He had become part of us - a member of us. To remember is to “re –
member” a person, to pull together parts, members, of us that are gone.
But we need that audience to share our
rememberings. My sister-in-law Joanne told me about a couple who moved from
their neighborhood in Maryland
to the mid-west. The husband had been transferred. Just after they arrived
there they had the tragedy of losing a child. Joanne heard that they were still
going through hell, especially because they didn’t know anybody out there to
share their stories about their kid with. Nor did anybody out there know their
Thank God then that Mary has friends like
Marie who is a great listener. Marie and people like Father Marty Crowe would
call and ask, “How are things going?” People like Father Joe Keenan would come
down at least once a week to listen and pray with Mary and Jerry. The priests
at Regis kept in contact. Then there was that big mass last September at Regis
when all the school gathered to remember Michael in prayer.
But most especially I noticed that the family
itself, Jerry and Mary, Monica, Gerard and Maryna talked to each other about
Michael. How else could then live in a house filled with the memories of
Michael? How else could they face the big days of Thanksgiving, Christmas,
Easter and especially Michael’s birthday? On Michael’s birthday, Mary and Jerry
took Gerard and Maryna down to Villanova so they could be together with Monica.
They drove down after school, went out to dinner, and drove back to Brooklyn that same night. The next day the New York papers told the
story of a couple in Westchester,
New York, who committed suicide
together the day before. Their only son, aged 17, had drowned the summer
Jerry was right. People need to know they are
not the only ones who are going through this. I hope this book reaches people
who think they are all alone.
I began writing. I began gathering what I
remembered about Michael. I began jotting down all the ideas that Jerry had
given me. I began thinking about all Mary had told me in many late night
conversations. She had said that many days she was operating at only 25 percent
of her energies.
Mary told me that it was the little things
that caused the most pain. Little reminders would flash so suddenly and
unexpectedly. She said she would be sitting on the train and there would be a
kid sitting there who would be Michael’s age. The tears would flow. She wished
she had a pair of sunglasses handy. Then there would be those moments when
Michael would be needed for a fourth hand in cards, or she’d catch herself
calling him to run to the store. Then there was the day at Jerry’s mom’s
apartment when she told us that Michael had promised the week before he died
that he’d be there the following week to paint her apartment. Or there was the
knowing that he would have been tops in whatever field he entered. There was
the knowing that the family would never be the same again.
We will continue to cry
knowing that the pain will never leave us. But the pain is the reminder, just
as much as the picture of Michael on top of the television. The pain reminds us
of what we lost and so we remember those whom we love. It’s not a vicious
circle, but part of a beautiful circle that makes us human. As somebody said,
“Only humans remember their dead.”
This book then is a memory, a remembering of
Michael. I write it for the family. I write it for his friends. I write it for
all those who might be going through what we’re going through – losing someone special.
Maybe too, this book will help someone realize
the message of Michael’s life. It is written on his tombstone: “Michael is
special to God ... and so are you.” It is that same message that was on his
memorial card with the added words about God. Michael was only 15 when he died,
so he only had a chance to meet so many people to tell them that they were
special, to help them experience that. Maybe this book will help Michael’s
message reach so many more.
I suppose too that I wanted to write this book
to fulfill the prediction Michael made that Sunday night before he died:
“Someday they are going to write a book about me.”
He gave one
stipulation: “Don’t write about how I died, but about how I lived.” Part of us
died when Michael died and I suppose this is the root of our sadness. So I hope
this book preserves a bit of the life of Michael Doody, who died in the year of
Our Lord, June 14, 1977.