Fifteen years ago, my bishop (Nicholas Dattilo) told me shortly after his mother passed away that the death of the mother of a priest is something very unique. While we had both experienced the deaths of our respective fathers, I only now realized how true his insight was. I loved my dad profoundly and mourned his death (just six months after my younger brother was killed by an underage drunk driver). I was named after my father and proudly use the JR. suffix to honor his memory. He was Sicilian and mom was Polish, but I had a strong affinity for the Italian half, partly because my surname was Italian and because my Italian relatives were so colorful and memorable.
I loved my mom as intensely as I loved my dad but growing up, she was the stern Polish disciplinarian and dad was the affable Italian head of the family who adored his four boys. I inherited my dad's sense of humor but from mother I got my resolve and perseverance to never give in and never give up. What some might call being stubborn, I would see as being fully committed and resolute to see things through to the very end.
When my dad died on February 11, 1998, it was after a four year battle with leukemia. My brother Michael died from Muscular Dystrophy in December, 1992, at the age of 26. Dad had taken early retirement so he could stay home and care for Mike as mom was working full time as head nurse of the Emergency Room and Trauma Center at the local Catholic Hospital. Michael was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy when he was 10 and had some very painful surgeries on his legs. Despite these, he still was confined to a wheelchair the rest of his short life. I remember mom and dad taking turns to be with Michael at the children's wing of the hospital. I was in high school seminary at the time and Fr. Leo Duscheck, SVD, would often give me a ride to the hospital after class so I could visit my brother. You could see the blood seeping through his plaster casts.
Michael had to transfer from parochial to public school only because the Catholic schools were not equipped for wheelchairs. This was before the ADA made it mandatory. He attended three years of college at Edinboro in a dorm designed exclusively for disabled students. He would never graduate as his disease only weakened him more and more but those were his happiest days having a modicum of independence.
Mom and dad sacrificed a LOT for me and my three brothers to attend Catholic grade school. They went without so we could have what we needed. Three of us went to college and two graduated. While we had student loans, mom and dad paid for all the other costs and incidentals. They lived modestly and sometimes frugally just to make ends meet but there was always plenty of food and lots of love and faith in our house. When I entered minor seminary after 8th grade, I would often bring over seminarian friends from out of town. Mom and Dad made homemade pasta and meatballs and said their door was always open.
During minor seminary I met Father Levis who became a friend of the family. He would often come over to anoint my brother Michael and bring him Holy Communion.
I was ordained only four years when my first family funeral was my brother Michael. I still cannot remember how I got through it let alone how I preached at it as well. Five years later, my brother Joe was killed by a drunk driver. Six months after that, my dad died from leukemia. In less than ten years of ordination, I buried half my immediate family.
When pops died, I became patriarch of the clan but mother was still very much in charge. She worked until they forced her to retire and then she became a lay volunteer and unofficial sacristan for the discalced Carmelite nuns in Erie. That gave her purpose.
Since mom and dad were unable to take vacations while they cared for Michael and then dad got leukemia, I decided once she was widowed to take mom on as many trips and excursions as possible while her health allowed. Our first trip together was to Italy in 1998 to celebrate my tenth anniversary. Dad had died in Feb. and we were leaving that summer. She felt awkward but I assured her that my father ands her husband would have wanted her to go after so many years of being caregiver for Michael then for dad. So she went and we joined a pilgrimage of 40 people to Rome.
A few years later, we went to Sicily and after that a trip to Eastern Europe that ended in Poland. We visited the shrine of Padre Pio and got to Rome for the Millennium. Cardinal Arinze arranged for my mom to get an audience with Pope John Paul the Great after the general audience (see picture above). She was sick when Pope Benedict XVI visited the USA in 2008. As it was also my 10th anniversary that same year, I asked the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, if he could give my mom a blessing as she was unable to see the Pope during his visit. The Nuncio gave her a private tour of the Vatican Embassy in Washington, DC, and gave us Italian cookies and coffee before giving my mom a rosary blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.
One Thanksgiving I was ready to take her to Italy and she said she wanted to go to Ireland instead. I said why Ireland? Dad was Italian and you are Polish. I have a cousin in Ireland. Well, I made plans and because she wanted to stay in a castle, we got rooms at Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara, Galway, Ireland. It was only 90 miles from Shannon airport but I discovered only after landing that 90 miles in Ireland are not like 90 miles in America. An hour and half drive became a four hour journey PLUS I had to learn quick how to drive on the left side of the road and steer a car with the wheel on the passenger side all the while my mother is sitting in the front seat yelling and screaming that I am not staying on the road (which were made for one Fiat, not for two medium sized cars)
Nevertheless, she enjoyed the castle and loved Ireland. Most of all, my mother loved joining me and Father Levis whenever we went to EWTN to tape our Web of Faith television series. Deacon Bill Steltemeier loved her many different hats she wore each day to the chapel. She got to meet and become friends with Mother Angelica and the Poor Clare nuns. When Reverend Mother built the Temple in Hanceville, my mother was included in the invitation sent to me and Father Bob. All three of us attended the dedication and consecration of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. We were there the night before and saw the cloister area before it was sealed. We ate at the formal supper and met all the EWNT celebrities like Fr. Groeschel, Fr. Rutler, Fr. Shaughnessy, Bishop Foley, Bob & Penney Lord, Fr. Charles Conner, et al.) We all cried during the Mass the next day as that was the first time many of us had seen a Communion Rail USED during Mass. The shrine was gorgeous, the music was superb and the Mass was as reverent as being in Heaven itself.
Several years before it was finished, Mother Angelica often took me, mom and Fr. Bob to see the progress of the 'chapel on the farm' as she called it. We saw the dirt road, the gravel road and then the paved road. We stood on plywood and peeked out the Rose window soon after it was installed.
My mom loved Mother Angelica. When my brother Joe died on July 5, 1997, Reverend Mother telephoned my mom and gave her words of comfort. She never forgot that. So, as long as she was able to travel, I took her to as many places as I could and brought her along to almost everything I was invited. We even got invited to a few Family gatherings for EWTN.
One summer I drove mom to Canada to see Andrea Bocelli and just this past November, a week before Thanksgiving, I got her to see the three Irish Priest tenors sing in Harrisburg.
2011 is when mom began to slow down and her health started to deteriorate. She had spinal stenosis which required major surgery on her back in Feb. of 2012 followed by four months of rehab in a nursing home. I was driving back and forth between Harrisburg, Erie and Pittsburgh (where she had the surgery at UPMC) when I got into an automobile crash that landed me in ICU. After that I decided I had to do something and moving mom closer to me was the answer. She lived alone for several months after the nursing home rehab but her diabetes and heart condition worsened and she ended up on the floor for two days, unable to get up. That got her hospitalized just before Christmas. She was diagnosed with aortic stenosis and three blocked arteries and a bad valve. The cardiologist said she could not survive open heart operation. Another four months in nursing home rehab. Thanks be to God I had some help from my cousins, especially Jackie Mehler and her husband Tom who took mom to the doctors, shopping and an occasional meal.
I moved her in June to assisted living in Harrisburg, just ten miles from my rectory. She hated it at first and told people I kidnapped her. After three months she got used to the place which we made as comfortable as possible. Then she had a TIA (mini-stroke) in July and an internal Gastrointestinal bleed a month later. Both hospital visits were ten or more days each. The last one required she go to sub acute nursing care rehab before going back to assisted living. The goal always had been to beef her up physically so she could get a transcatheter aortic valve replacement (as she was no candidate for traditional open heart surgery). Problem was that she would get better and then a monkey wrench was thrown at her. Shingles hit her hard at the nursing home then she had numerous urinary infections. Fluid was building up in her legs, ankles, and in her lungs.
When she died on Saturday, December 28, both me and my only surviving brother, Mark, were there with a few good friends of mine and hers. I visited her almost if not actually every day at the nursing home or assisted living facility. I did what I could. While not easy, I had the enormous help of several parishioners who visited her on a weekly basis. My classmate and co-author friend, Fr. Brighenti, helped with his presence, priestly fraternity and kindness.
We had a Funeral Mass for mom in my parish of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Marysville, on January 2nd and a Mass of Christian Burial on Monday, January 6th, in Erie where she was buried next to my dad and my two brothers and sister.
As painful as it was to bury dad, yes, burying mom was more difficult. I was exhausted as caregiver but I was also devastated as the eldest son. Bishop Dattilo was right. When a priest's mother dies, the bond between mother and son is torn just as it was on Calvary on Good Friday when Jesus had to see His sorrowful mother at the foot of the Cross as He was about to die for our sins. Jesus, the High Priest, had a human mother whom he loved dearly. Losing your second parent is indeed hard enough but that special bond that connects a mother and her child makes her loss even more intense.
I was so wiped out from the many weeks and months of mom's illness and frequent hospitalizations and complications, etc., that the tears I expected at her funeral were not there. The day after they came in abundance.
I know she is at peace, that her suffering is over and that she is reunited (or will be) with my dad, my sister and my two brothers as well as her own mom & dad and her siblings who went before her. That gives comfort but the pain of loss, which even Our Divine Lord Himself experienced at the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus, remains and for good reason. For if we do not miss the ones we love, how can we long to see them again? If there is pain is separation, is there not more joy in reunion? I know my mom sorely missed my dad with whom she had been married for 39 years before he died. She missed my brothers Michael and Joe. I hope and pray they are all together now with the Lord and with His Blessed Mother. Meanwhile, I mourn the loss of my mother who gave me life, gave me love and gave me faith. My vocation to the priesthood would never have come to fruition were it not sewn by the love, faith and example of my mom and dad as they raised us at home.
Love you, Mom. Pray for me. Your son, John.