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Now and at the Hour of Our Death

On birth and death.


It wasn’t until last September that I finally met my older brother. The day was overcast, and my family had gathered in a cemetery to bury my grandfather, who had died earlier that week. Death for him was long and painful: “the sort of suffering,” remarked the priest who said his funeral Mass, “that God only permits the Irish.” My grandfather was eighty-nine. The last time I saw him, he swore to me, as he lit a cigar with trembling hands, that he would live to ninety. I laughed and replied that I would hold him to that promise.

Of course, we know neither the day nor the hour, and only a month later he gasped for a few last breaths in a hospital bed while my mother and grandmother sang hymns and prayed the Rosary by his side. He died to the words of the Hail Mary. For the first time in many decades he was at peace with his family. My mother made funeral arrangements in the morning. The Mass would occur the following day and the burial two days after that. But placing my grandfather in the ground so quickly required overcoming an unforeseen difficulty, for which my older brother is mainly responsible. Brendan himself had died about thirty years beforehand—just minutes after he was born—and was buried at the foot of my grandparents’ plot in Fairfax Memorial Park. For my entire life, this fact was an integral element in a Rowan family tradition: every year on Brendan’s birthday, my parents took us to his grave to pray the Rosary (and afterwards we ate brunch at IHOP). On occasion, my grandparents would visit as well, and my grandfather would joke that he had been shrewd to offer his plot for Brendan, because, when he died, we would be forced to visit him too.

No one had imagined, though, that burying my grandfather would require disinterring Brendan. When the cemetery director informed my mother of that fact over the phone, she recoiled. “Would you like to be present when we re-inter him?” the director asked. My mother wept. She had buried her first son when she was in her twenties, young in her faith and in her marriage. In the three decades since, she had borne seven more children and raised them to adulthood. Her children were starting to have children. Now she was burying her father. She did not want to bury her son again. She declined the offer.

No one blamed her. After all, Brendan’s story is a strange one that I at least have always struggled to understand. My mother became pregnant with him when she was twenty-seven. She and my father had been married for about three years. It was a marriage yet unformed by hardship. My father had a busy job and did not take off work for the baby’s first ultrasound. My grandmother, a former nurse, accompanied my mother instead. The procedure seemed routine until the doctor looked at the results. “This baby has no chance of survival,” he said. My grandmother cried. My mother just stared at him. “Well,” the doctor continued, realizing that perhaps he had been a little too direct, “maybe there’s a one percent chance. These conditions are rare. It’s hard to say what could occur, I suppose. This doesn’t happen often.” “What can we do?” my mother asked. “Normally women terminate the pregnancy,” the doctor replied.

What happened was that Brendan’s kidneys had not fully formed, and they never would. It put my mother in a strange position. While Brendan was in her womb, it was as if his was a normal pregnancy. My mother’s body nourished him, and he could grow to term (except, of course, without a few vital organs). But birth was a death sentence. The doctors gave him minutes outside the womb, in the best case scenario. To most medical professionals, the choice between death now or death later was clear. Better to get it over with. And many of my parents’ colleagues and acquaintances saw it the same way. Brendan was going to die. They could almost name the exact day. And, as my mother’s belly grew, all they could see was that reality looming larger. Why, they asked, prolong his suffering, or yours?

The answer is fairly obvious, and, I think, the same one given by the priest at my grandfather’s funeral Mass. It is some people’s lot in life to receive intense, prolonged suffering that often only ends in death. My mother had done nothing wrong (and neither, for that matter, had Brendan), but the fact remained that her son’s death would be hard. Oftentimes there is no explanation for these things, except perhaps, the intrusion of sin and death after the Fall. And maybe for this reason, my parents never had a discussion about choices and hard decisions. No one weighed right and wrong. And no one dared to propose that Brendan was just a half-formed fetus. My mother’s mind works with the directness and absoluteness of the Medieval Church, so for her there was always clarity about what was to be done. She carried her pregnancy to term and prayed that her son would die well.

In the thirty years since, my mother has often told Brendan’s story as a pro-life testimonial. And it is. But I’ve always found it an odd fit with the sunnier stories about women who were undecided about keeping their pregnancies, were persuaded to do so, and whose children grew up to do wonderful things. These are stories fundamentally about a woman’s choice, where once the correct choice is made—life—then the mother experiences tangible happiness in the form of her child. The reverse story is also commonly told. A woman makes the incorrect choice—abortion—and spends the rest of her life making amends for it. These stories are sometimes quite moving, and, for people already receptive to pro-life positions, often convincing.

But any semblance of this choice was denied to my mother (as it is also denied to any woman who miscarries). The only choice she had was between death now or death later, which for her was no choice at all. She was given a child to love for nine months, at the end of which he would be taken from her. There was nothing she could do about it, no grand moral drama. Sometimes these things are achingly simple. My mother’s understanding of her situation, I think, touches on something that is often underplayed when people speak about pregnancy and abortion: to be pro-life necessarily means to be, in a way, pro-death—or at least accepting of death as something over which we have as little control as we do life.

I don’t believe this attitude is a despairing one. It certainly did not seem so for my grandfather in his last few years, as his organs gradually failed him. For most of his adult life, he had smoked a pipe, but when the grandchildren were born, he abandoned it. Once we were all grown—and especially after he knew his days were numbered—he picked up cigars, not because of some libertine impulse, but because he knew we enjoyed chatting on the porch, and tobacco was his way of bringing us together. (He left the remainder of his cigar stash to THE LAMP.) My grandfather was often a difficult man, but in the final years of his life, my love for him became steady, in a way I had not thought possible. My mother often says something similar of Brendan. Learning that his death was certain put her at peace. All she had to do was love him in the time allotted.

I had not considered any of this when we arrived at the cemetery. But as my grandfather’s casket was lowered into the ground, my mother changed her mind about Brendan. She turned to me and asked if I would be willing to lead the rest of her children in a second funeral procession. I nodded. The cemetery office was radioed, and Brendan’s casket was rolled out of a large walk-in fridge and prepared for re-internment. Soon, we saw a long white hearse winding its way down the cemetery drive toward us. It halted about one hundred yards away from my grandfather’s plot. A liveried driver stepped out and beckoned to us.

Six Rowan children (one absent, at that time on an airplane somewhere over Lake Erie) walked slowly from the grave to the hearse. The driver opened the rear door, revealing, on the rollers that usually hold large, oak caskets, a small, white fiberglass container. I was reminded of a tackle box which held my childhood fishing rods. He told us that Brendan’s casket was within and that it was in an advanced state of decomposition. Then he stood back. The six of us reached into the hearse and removed the box, pallbearers huddled too closely together. Earlier, a bagpiper had played for my grandfather; now there was no sound but the grumble of the gravediggers’ pickup truck. As we carried the box across the grass, careful not to step on any of the headstones, the truck reversed to make room for our procession, flattening the flowers laid on the graves behind it. The sky darkened, and it began to rain. No one spoke as we placed the box on top of my grandfather’s casket.

Soon it poured, and we retreated to our cars. The gravediggers began piling mud on top of the caskets. As we drove away, I watched the scene through the rearview mirror, not quite understanding its meaning. After thirty years, Brendan had returned to see his mother and meet his siblings for the first time. We had a few minutes together, but even then I knew he tied a bond that I suspect will only be broken upon death.

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