The Prodigal Daughter

The daughter had been estranged from her mother and hadn’t seen her for decades.  She stood frozen in the hospital doorway and couldn’t move.  I begged her to come over to the hospital bed and take her mother’s hand because she had only a few minutes to live.  The daughter shook and sobbed but still would not let go of the doorsill.  Her sister was already holding the mother’s other hand so that I might anoint her.   I began the ancient ritual of Last Rites without her.  At the end of the rite, I reached to anoint the mother’s other hand, and there it was, now held in the palm of the estranged daughter.  How much courage it must have taken to walk those five steps from the doorsill. And in that instant the mother went to God holding the hands of both daughters.  The once-estranged daughter fell into the bed like the little girl she once was and hugged her dead mother.  How efficacious are the Holy Sacraments, so that reconciliation can take place in five short steps, in five quick seconds?  I suppose the mother had been waiting decades for the prodigal daughter to return—and at the last seconds of her life, she did!

I think of that little broken family every Mother’s Day, as I do so many of the sainted mothers I have met in my priesthood.  The mother who slept at the hospital bedside of her dying teenage son for weeks so she could be there at the end. The Haitian mother surrounded by her children saying the Rosary continuously until her passing. I remember the mother whose children never came to her funeral; where could they possibly be? Her body had no preparation and was placed in a simple wooden box with nothing but a cloth shroud. There was the mother who came to me every couple of days for food and clothes.  She was always high as a kite on some drug or another.  I asked her where her children were.  She didn’t know where they were anymore. After her tears, she composed herself and went back to work the streets.  Years later her body was found on the train tracks.

The one thing of course they all have in common, is that they never forget us, their children.  Some mothers are exceptional and some fall short, but one thing is certain—they love us, their children, no matter our response.  In Greek, this is called “Agape” (αγάπη).  The ancients had three words for the word love:  Eros, Philios, and Agape.  Agape is that perfect love that gives to the other, even if it is not returned or appreciated.   This is the only word used by Jesus in the Gospels.  This is the love of God and the love of our mothers.  And it is why they get old and frail and broken: because they have given everything for their children; they have kept nothing for themselves. I read somewhere that whenever there is a plane crash, the Flight Recorder which records the final words and actions of the pilots’ last seconds is retrieved.  No matter the country, no matter the language, the last recorded words of the       pilots before the plane hits the ground are always the same: “I love you mom.”

At every deathbed I ask the dying person whom they wish to see first in heaven.  The response is always “my mother.”  I asked this at the deathbed of a dying and catatonic priest. He had been unresponsive for a long time. Instantly he looked directly at me through his tears and clearly yelled “I want to see my mother.”  By that evening he was with her.

I was fortunate to have taken care of my own sainted mother for about a dozen years as she slipped deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s.  It is a very long death.  Fortunately for the final years I had help from the Carmelite Sisters who were founded to care for the aged and sick parents of priests.  The Carmelite Sisters continue to be the best caregivers for the Aged and Infirm.  The Sisters have a custom of surrounding the bed of the dying person as they recite the Rosary until the person has gone to God.  That’s how my mom went, as her children held her.  Could it get any better?

On this weekend of Mother’s Day, we all take time to remember our mothers who gave everything for us and kept nothing for themselves.  They gave us life and were the first to teach us about our faith. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah asks the question: “Can a mother forget her child?”  No, of course, she cannot forget!   Former First Lady Barbara Bush, in her 1990 Wellesley commencement speech put it in perspective for us on this Mother’s Day: “At the end of your life, you will never       regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.”

– Fr. Gerard Gordon