Posted by: Peadar Ban | February 23, 2016

A BIRTHDAY ADDRESS IN THE FORM OF AN OPEN LETTER TO MY FAMILY ON MY SEVENTY FOURTH BIRTHDAY

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My wife and I, we sing at funerals, and have been doing that for a few years now.  When I tell that to folks I get a lot of strange looks, and not a few wrinkled noses and “Eeewwww!” sounds. I like doing it, as a matter of fact. And, sometimes after Mass is over I hear, from the people below me during the funeral Mass, that they liked it too. Most of the time, though, nothing is said. Folks at funerals tend to have something else on their mind, I think.

Then, there are those times I wonder just what it may be that they have on their mind; or, sometimes, lamentably, if there is a mind there at all on which a person may have a thing at all.. And, I wonder on those occasions what must life have been like for the person in the coffin or the urn which was just wheeled or carried from the church.  Did they leave something undone? Are they in line somewhere wishing they had taken care of something before the knock came at the door?

We sang at a funeral a few days ago, the second in  three days.  Folks like to die around this time of year.  They’re freer to do so between Christmas and Easter, I guess, and so are their families more free to let them go.  The schedule is more open, and Lent, that time of belt tightening, cleaning up, and preparation does seem appropriate for making the last trip, the one Home. And, so, we, I, feel it only right and just, proper and helpful toward salvation to die during the months between. Of course it is always best to do that after one has packed and made oneself ready for the journey. I truly believe that is the case; that letting go, that being let go to fly like an eagle, as the song we sometimes sing says, requires some kind of permission, some agreement of a sort and some leave taking among loves and, even, “Not-so-loves”..  As it takes two to tango, and a village to raise a child (or so they would have us believe), it takes a family for a happy ending.

The funeral was a small one, but all the folks necessary were there, and Mom was at the front, draped in baptismal white.  The Gospel chosen for the occasion this morning was from the Sermon on the Mount.  Father Pierre in his homily paid special attention to the next to last one, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  It was an aspect of the deceased’s personality mentioned by one of her sons in brief remarks at the end of Mass.  He remarked that his mother could, and did, get mad; but she also asked for forgiveness, and strongly suggested of her children to practice what, he said, she did.


For several months, now, since the death of my brother Tom, my own not too distant death has been on my mind.  Perhaps the fact that we haven’t yet sold the house I’ve spent more than half my life in, that the year long process isn’t over helps concentrate my mind on leaving…and on NOT leaving behind a mess.  I was over there last night making last minute “adjustments” to things for a home inspection today by a pair of prospective buyers.  During that time I came across the cards and letters of condolence I received after Sheila died, and had time to review some of the things I couldn’t read nearly sixteen years ago.  She was well prepared, even if she didn’t hang around until Christmas, as I had hoped she might.  But, then, she had cancer, and it has a mind and schedule of its own.

Anyway, I continue to think about her, my brother and one or two friends; already gone and getting ready to go.  Part of my thinking has to do with straightening out the messes I think I have made…as much as I can. Because families are like cats, and each member quite as capable of dropping the odd chipmunk at your feet in humble supplication, or knocking your coffee cup off the table in the morning simply because its water bowl is filled with that rot from yesterday, I realized that isn’t an easy thing to do.  Nevertheless…

So, a couple of weeks, on February 13, almost two weeks after the fact, my family gathered at our home for a little “party” I had planned for my birthday.  It was a result of these thoughts and ideas and incidents in my life over the last several months:  the death of my brother, Tom, littler things, bigger things and approaching the beginning of my 75th year here; three quarters of a century and what it means “concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

I welcomed them by singing a few stanzas of Dear Old Donegal, gave them some idea, briefly, of the sweet memories they had given me, passed out some token gifts to each of them, read them two poems about days gone by and people, too, and then I read them this:

Dear Ones:
I never met any of my grandfathers, of whom I may have had three. That part of my/our family history is hazy; such things not being spoken about in front of the children at the time I grew up. I am, really, very unfamiliar with what is not spoken of in front of the children today.
This much I know about the men who may have had a claim on the title of grandfather. One died young, in his mid-50’s. His son, my father, followed suit. Of the other two, one may have run off, falling in love with long distance as I like to say. The other? Well, if he may have been anything to me, he may have been a step-grandfather, but he, too, was a ghost, a word not spoken, and name not mentioned beyond a mysterious reference from time to time to someone named Charlie.
In that, I had a lot in common with my children, who never really met either of their grandfathers. They had only two, there were/are no others.
So, I have no “training” for the role, no example to follow. Perhaps, I could say, I hadn’t sufficient training for the role of father, either, because grandfathers, at least the ones I knew from the tales my friends who have been fathers tell, become coaches of a sort, in the art of raising, preparing and maintaining children. I think about that from time to time and have to say the evidence may prove the case against me, and I am ready to admit my guilt.
My own father, if he taught me anything worthwhile during the short time he was with me, having departed now close to fifty years ago, taught me to love, to be a friend. Beyond that, Dad left the classroom and went inside himself, then died, from being there too long (?), just when I could have used his advice, love and wisdom most.
And, so, only I am left to tell you. What I have to tell is, or could be called, a love story; an unfinished love story. And like all love stories, it has a happy ending. Oh, how I hope it does.
When I was very young, little more than an infant, only several months old, I don’t know exactly…. But, it was just then, in the winter of 1942 when the world was at war and full of hate, and pain and anger, I came down with measles.
From the stories I heard as a youngster, the family greatly feared for my mortality. And, I got cared for by almost everyone available in the family who could do it.
All of the shades in the little apartment in the Bronx where we lived were kept drawn all day long, lights turned off in any room where I was, because people feared too much or too strong a light would damage my eyesight. I was regularly bathed to control my fever, which was in the 102/103 degree range for a week or two, kept unclothed in the warm rooms and carried on a pillow because of the rash, and the possibility of irritating my tender skin.
No one is alive today who remembers this illness. No one who lived through it with me; my parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles, the rest of their family and friends are all dead. My brother was the last to die, only a few months ago; and we were both told how very much concerned he was that his baby brother was sick. He was only a little more than three himself, and could not, I am sure, have understood the meaning of someone he loved possibly leaving him forever.
But, because I was very much loved… as my mother and father explained to me when they told me the story… by everyone in the family, and by God… I did not die, I lived. I very much loved hearing the story told, and listening to the song my father used to sing to me when I was young, the song he sang when I was near death: “You Are My Sunshine”. My Sunshine was his title for me. My father called my brother, Tom, his Pride and Joy, a title Tom often told me he did not like as much as mine.
Love gave me life, of that I have no doubt, and kept me alive when I was nearly dying.
Love, and Love’s skill at healing saved me again only eight short years later when I was hospitalized with a burst appendix and peritonitis. A two week hospitalization followed while I was treated for that infection with antibiotics and a tube in the incision to drain the “foul smelling fecal matter” which the operating surgeon found had filled my abdominal cavity when he opened me on the operating table followed. I know of that last unpleasant detail because years later while working at the same hospital during my high school days I looked up my medical records and read the surgeon’s notes. I spent another month at home after my discharge from the hospital, pampered and cared for by my parents and relatives, and once more only I am here to tell the tale.
There have been times since when I have had the passing thought that Love did me no favors then, keeping me alive. But, and of this I am sure as I am sure that my feet end in toes, Love, in its many forms, and from its many sources, has kept me alive and brought me back from death, both temporal and eternal death, many, many times since despite my passing emotions and annoyances, my petty fevers, my thin-skinned sensitivities …. too young, still, and undisciplined …. my continued weak resistance to the infective organism of un-love, the virus so easily transmitted, so virulent and deadly, so present in the air we breathe, the lives we too often lead, the attitudes we have about ourselves and others far from us and closer still; as close as you are here with me now.
I have lately been reflecting on this, and have come to see that we, we’re all more or less the same: sick infants, in the grip of a viral fever, helpless children filled with poisons of our own making, who are kept alive and who will be eventually cured (if we submit to the treatment, regard the precautions and take the prescribed medications) by Love; which is the only cure that works.
I have also thought about this: That everyone here is a vector of that virus, a source of those infections, and that I am, and have been often, a source myself, a disease carrier and a source of illness in others.
We all carry it around with us. It is called Original Sin, though it also goes by other names, most commonly Pride; though it can also be known by the names jealousy, anger. There are others, too, and maybe you have felt their fevers from time to time within you. They are always painful. Very painful. And they last. They resist treatment.
I’ll not belabor the point or stretch the metaphor. I simply want to say that these illnesses don’t respond to any care, cannot be healed by any treatment, but one … Love.
A friend of mine, a lovely woman who lives in France, who, God willing, I will meet someday, sent me something a few days ago. She didn’t send it directly and only to me. Rather, I think she must have been used by another Person, another “Physician”, as a conduit, a path to deliver the message I needed, everyone needs, so desperately. This Other One is the prescribing doctor for my, for our, ills, and I have come to think of my friend in this situation as the compounding pharmacist.
I will read what has been prescribed and suggest how it may, must, be taken:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Romans 12: 9
Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Romans 13: 10
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Ephesians 4: 2
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.
1 Peter 4: 8
I have differences of opinion, belief, style, values, life, choice and even of what foods to eat with everyone in this room, to a greater or lesser degree; and to a greater or lesser degree those differences of opinion and belief, of action and lifestyle, I have with everyone in this room have caused me some pain, worry, anxiety or ache for as long as I have known you; and for most of you for as long as you have been alive. And I have no doubt that you can say the same thing about me… and about everyone else in this room, too. Some of these “differences” are merely passing … call them annoyances … like ants at a picnic. Some are deeper, darker, perhaps more dangerous.
We all have a multitude of sins which need covering over; which need to be covered deeper than deep. And we all need to take the medication offered by Love, which is, simply, love, to drain the poisons, to open the shades, to let the light to shine in. We must swallow, and expel pride. We must hate what is evil; but hate it first and most importantly in ourselves and cling, cling with all our strength, sometimes, and cling desperately, perhaps, many times, to what is good. Until we know The Good, and love it, too.
That may seem like work, seem too hard a task, seem to be a “thankless” task. We are all used to getting paid for our work. But, what if what we have now, what we are being asked to work at reaching is simply what we have been meant for all along? That’s what occurred to me while thinking about this. We were created by Love, to love and be loved.
In the end, the only thing we have in common, the one thing which unites us and will bring us peace is Love. Then, why not live in Love with one another, quick to forgive, believing the Good, hoping for the most, Joy filled, striving always for the most pleasant and, above, all forgetting what would please ourselves and placing the needs of the other before our own?
That means we must be completely humble and gentle, being patient and bearing with one another in love. Then we will be able to love each other deeply, covering, burying and putting out of sight a multitude of sins. Sins which are our own, too; sins we see so clearly in others but cannot bear to look at in ourselves.
When my son left me thirteen years ago, I knew it was my fault, and not his, and that once more my mouth had gotten me in trouble. Nonetheless I was mad.  I was very angry, but that soon changed as I contemplated what had happened.  And, then, for several days I thought I would simply go to his door and, on my knees, beg his forgiveness. But, I was too timid. The mouth that had gotten me in such trouble was incapable of helping me perhaps heal the situation. I’ll confess to you all that I’ll still be speaking three days after I’m dead, and most of that will be the wrong thing to say at the wrong time. But, I’m trying to listen, and slowly, I think, trying to make my own what I wrote on a board that hung in what was once Andrew’s bedroom, a line from St. James’s Epistle “Know this, my dear brothers: everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.”
Children … you are all my children in one meaning of the word or other, even you to whom I am not related by blood or law or custom (yet)… let us love one another. For as the Apostle says, “Love is of God.”
Because, after all, God is Love. And, we are made in His image and likeness, aren’t we.
Love,
Poppa

When it was all over, I sang them one of my favorite Irish songs, The Parting Glass, and invited them to leave.  I feel better for having done what I did while I could still do it.  I wish my brother had, and wonder whether the folks who get up at the end of funeral Masses to say a word or two about Dad, Mom, Granny or Uncle Ted, would rather have heard the same , or something similar from the one silent before them.

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Responses

  1. Beautifully, beautifully, beautifully written… (This may sound like I am repeating myself a little too much, but I sincerely mean it). The same way I will say: Very, very, very profound. Thank you so much for posting this. Thank you. Magnifique partage…

    Fania

    • Thank you, Fania. Thank you very much.

  2. Nicely done, o hoary-headed bard of Da Bronx. Unlike your three Poppas, may you stick around to impart wisdom and love to another generation of Crimson-haired little Gallahers.

    • Thank you, oh mighty Chef.

  3. You’ll forgive me if I simply re-read this at the actual event. xo

    • What’s to forgive?

  4. True. You’ll not be there to argue about it. I might snaz it up a bit, bring in a few Irish dancers…

    • If they can dance to this, take it on the road and make some money


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