I did not grieve my mother the way I thought I would. There was no keening, no bleak loneliness—only a few hot, convulsive sobs, followed by a soft peace. That felt odd, because we had been closer than most. My father died when I was a baby, and I had no siblings, so we had only each other. I had spent much of my life dreading this separation, wondering who I would be without my life’s only constant, anchor, and familial refuge. But in the end, she was so eager to die, so thoroughly ready and so miserable, that it felt unfair to vote against her wishes.
After I lost her, instead of dipping into sorrow, life improved sharply. She was no longer suffering, for one thing. Surface details smoothed: I was shocked to win an award I had always yearned for; to have a chance to travel to Los Angeles; to relax into a slovenly ease my husband welcomed and my mother’s high standards had never allowed. Then I landed this job, which was exactly what I would have dreamed up, had you handed me a pen. Then my husband landed a gig teaching, which is what he does best.
And then I decided my mother was a saint.
They say that grief predisposes us to the paranormal, loneliness opening us to the least rational possibilities—but this was cool logic. Somehow, somewhere, Nette was pulling strings for us.
She had suffered her whole life with anxiety and a sort of loving hypochondria that had her experiencing, literally, whatever someone she cared about experienced. “Oh, honey, now my neck hurts, too!” She was not competing, mind. She had never wanted attention; was incapable of enjoying it. Any attempt to celebrate her birthday was drained of all joy by her distressed litany: “Oh, I told you not to do this!” “Oh, you paid so much for this!” Nette was happiest (only happy, really) when she was “doing for” someone else. Skinny her whole life, she could have indulged in Falstaffian excess but made the occasional candy bar suffice. Comfortable financially, she could have bought pretty clothes and taken a European vacation, but that held no appeal. She bought presents instead, brought candy to the tired clerks at the bank, asked after people’s children by name and grade, loved babies and puppies and anything tender and vulnerable. She was the best caregiver in the world, because what she gave was truly care, not mere service or dutiful fetching. Anyone who was sick or sad or scared felt better in her presence.
None of this is grounds for canonization, and by now you are thinking (correctly) that she was a wee bit insecure, one of these anxious, fragile types who try to secure their place in the world by pretending their own needs do not exist. But—stay with me, here—the saints were a little off-kilter, too. Anorexic, by today’s definition, or masochistic, melancholy to the point of clinical depression, even passive-aggressive. These were not sturdy folk. It was through their sensitivity, their exquisite neural receptivity, that pain and love shoved their way, conjoined twins with their shoulders pressed tight.
Mary Andino, a graduate student in history at Washington University, has been researching those who claimed to be holy many centuries ago, in the early modern period. Often, they were women, unschooled and overshadowed by the authority of male clergy (yet acting as their confessors). These “living saints” broke the rules, tossed blessings from the sidelines, professed a holiness that would never have survived the legal, clerical, patriarchal rigors of the Inquisition (and might not survive today’s rigorous canonization process, either).
But perhaps we define sainthood too narrowly.
Leaving her little cottage had become terrifying for my mom, even though her most fervent remaining wish was that she pass the test to renew her driver’s license (she did) and continue to manage on her own (she made it almost to the end, just three months with us to say goodbye). Right up until those last three months, she would slide into her ancient red Toyota and pray to Baby Jesus to get her to the grocery store and back. And Baby Jesus would pat her soft cheek and give her courage every time.
How I envied her that faith, its certainty and consequent efficacy. I live too much in my head, analyze and second-guess, use phrases like “consequent efficacy.” No way would I trust an infant born two millennia ago to alleviate panic disorder; I would buy myself a bunch of therapy instead. Yet I am not convinced its … efficacy … would be as reliable.
The morning that I woke—grateful all over again for the new ease in life, the new job, the reprieve from what I had expected to be a year of anguish and mourning—and decided my mother was a saint, an absurd and delightful thought came to me: I, the long-fallen-away Catholic, could pray to her! I could pray to someone who already loved me, as she regularly put it, “more than life itself.” Someone who knew and cherished all my flaws (even the sloth, though she strove mightily to contain it). I could finally pray with ease and familiarity and genuine warmth and joy and laughter and deep, abiding love.
Which I guess was what prayer was supposed to be all along.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.