(May 15, 1938-August 1, 2009)
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.My grandmother faced many enemies in her life, and overcame each one. The most notable was the battle she fought so long against her own body, against Schleroderma, an enemy that took from her some of her fingers; that took from her the healthy breath of her lungs; that ultimately took from her her life. Yet she fought with all the weapons she had. The physical ones we humorously referred to as “puff, pump, and circumstance.”
—I Corinthians 15:26
When the pulmonary hypertension that resulted from her disease had advanced far enough to make it difficult for her to breath, my grandmother went on oxygen. Though she had various devices over the years, the most enduring was the regulator that would issue small puffs of oxygen in tune with her breathing—the ubiquitous little “puff” sound was so much a part of her later years. Sometimes, out of pure enthusiasm and strength of will, she would knowingly disrupt the pattern, most notably when, moved by the Spirit, she would decide that she would sing a hymn in this very church. It often would happen when I was present to sing with her, and we would holler away at the top of our lungs—and then she would sit down and let the puffs catch up with her.
As her pulmonary hypertension continued to advance, she acquired “pump and circumstance.” “Pump” refers to the machine that would pump a once-experimental medication, Flolan, directly into her pulmonary artery via a direct line. Thus, she would go trolling along, with puff on one hip, pump on the other, and trailing behind would be “circumstance,” the large thermos bag that contained the extra and emergency supplies for her Flolan.
Her weapons, however, were not just physical. Indeed, her greatest asset of all was her faith in God. His grace, so wonderfully bestowed upon her, was truly what kept her going to the last. I remember as a child, during the sermon or such other “boring” part of the Mass each Sunday, she would sit on the floor with me here, just a few rows back, and tell me stories. My favorite seemed to be the story of my own birth. As many of you know, I was born quite a few weeks premature, and my hold on life was tenuous for a time. As a result, Fr. Nevels came to the hospital the very day of my birth to baptize me, lest I should die without the grace of that sacrament. My grandmother, who was to keep as near to a 24-hour vigil as her body and the hospital staff would allow, retrieved for him a paper cup with some water, which he blessed and with which he then baptized me. The water now being holy, however, it could not simply be thrown down an ordinary drain. My grandmother, having not the strength then to carry it from the upper floor of the NICU to the ground outside to pour it out, drank it instead. I’ve sworn in times since that it is because of that holy water that she remained so long alive.
Indeed, many of my fondest memories of my Nannie—a moniker for the grandmothers in her family going back several generations—are connected with this very church. She was for years the head of the altar guild, and I would often accompany her on Saturday mornings to help with the tasks of cleaning and preparing for the Sunday Mass. For many years, my special tasks on Holy Saturday as part of the preparations for Easter were to wash with soapy water the High Altar—climbing under which is a great adventure for a kid—and going around on my hands and knees with an iron and a roll of paper towels, meticulously drawing up from the floor of the sanctuary all of the candle wax that had been spilled in the course of the previous year. My favorite part of the Easter Vigil each year—probably what kept me awake for it—was the breaking of the silence at the great Gloria, for Nannie had a set of sleigh bells that usually would hang on her front door but which, for this occasion, would accompany her to the church just so that I could join in at the Gloria—a part of the Mass whose coincidence with her name has been the cause of many comments over the years, both punning and poignant. I also served as an acolyte in this parish from a young age, and Nannie took it upon herself to ensure that I had my own cassock and cotta; as a child, this meant sometimes yearly visits to Gerkens Liturgical Supply to be fitted for a new set. Given that my mother has headed the flower guild for nearly as many years, I probably hold the distinction of being the only boy in the history of this parish trained both as an acolyte and on the altar and flower guilds!
Such stories as these date back to that time when her health was fairer, before the puff and pump and circumstance—a time that seems sometimes today so long ago. But that was the time of my childhood, and I was blessed to have a grandmother—my Nannie—who lived a bare ten-minute drive away. We’d see her at least once a week, on Sundays here at St. Mary’s. But usually, I would see her far more often, especially in the summer when school was out. We would go to the movies together, or out for a treat; and I spent many a happy afternoon in the swimming pools at Heather Ridge Country Club, where she and Bob were members for many years. It was to her house that I went the day my younger brother was born; as many of you know, my mother used to do child care out of our home, and that day, she asked me to clean up the kitchen after lunch so she could sit down for a bit. Turned out, there was a good reason for her to sit down: Evan had decided that he needn’t hang around in the womb for another few weeks; February 19 seemed the day to come. So I went over to Nannie’s house to wait; though I have since in times of humor denied that I could so enthusiastically react, she told me quite clearly that she darn near had to scrape me off the ceiling when I was told that I had a baby brother.
It was not until I was older that I began to realize that it was not just that holy water from my baptism, however, that sustained my grandmother’s spirit. Her faith in God, a faith so profound and sure, was a witness to us all—and it was a faith that I did not begin fully to appreciate until I, too, began to mature in my faith during my first years in college. Most in this parish have seen and known the depth and character of her faith, for it has served this Church well. As a steward and warden of this parish, as an officer of this diocese, as a rock to this communion through years of plenty and years of dearth, her faith sustained us as much as it sustained her. When I entered college and found myself so far away from home for the first time, it was her counsel and guidance that helped me to tap my own heart and find Christ’s love there to guide me. Though we only rarely spoke directly and at length about such matters of faith in the years since, the silent bond of our shared faith served and strengthened us always. As my study of the history and theology of the catholic Christian faith progressed, I came better to understand the import of her profession as Sr. Mary Frances, a third order oblate of the Order of St. Benedict. I started making a point of calling her especially on her saint day, March 9, the Feast of St. Frances of Rome; and as I studied more and more the history of Christian spirituality, I began to understand why my grandmother had chosen the charism of St. Benedict: ora et labora, pray and do work.
Yet, the extraordinary strength of my grandmother’s faith could be at times discomfiting. Her confidence in me never wavered, but my own confidence in me did. She was always quite certain that when I stormed the gates of Heaven, my prayers were especially efficacious; I must confess that all too frequently, those prayers, when said at all, were far weaker than she seemed to think. The trouble, you see, with being the grandson of a saint is that I almost never even come within sight of living up to the standard which she has set. At the same time, of course, that standard becomes the spur not simply to fall under the weight of failing weakness but to turn once more to the Lord and to keep moving forward, if not confident of one’s own strength then certainly trusting in His.
Her trust in God’s grace and Spirit is what kept her going, despite the obstacles that this life placed before her; though physically frail, she knew more surely than any merely human knowledge can know that the Good Shepherd was her strength. It was from this utter solidity of her faith that so many of us have so often drawn our own strength and confidence in the help of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Our sorrow today is as much for the absence of this reassurance as it is for anything else. We feel that a long shadow is cast upon us—seemingly now the darkness of grief, the shadow of the valley of death, the absence of one so deeply loved. Yet, truly this shadow is not that of despair; rather, it is the shadow cast by a great soul now standing in the living and eternal light of God. The Lord has assuredly received her into the company of the saints and angels—for that she was a Servant of God I am most certain—and there shall she spend “ten thousand years / bright shining as the sun”. Her enemies are vanquished, her mortal toil has ended, and she lives now with Him who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.
This eulogy was delivered at Gloria's Requiem Mass at St. Mary's Anglican Catholic Church, Denver, Colorado, on Saturday, August 8.