My mother, Rosemary Mulligan McCann, was a brilliant woman, and it was particularly hard for us to watch as Alzheimer’s seeped her brilliance from her.
When St. Ignatius encourages us to be detached or indifferent to an outcome or a decision, he knows detachment leads to a freedom which will bring us closer to God. When I think of that kind of freeing detachment, I often think of my mother’s last years.
Over those difficult nine years, she did not complain. At first she could no longer drive a car; later she no longer chose what clothes were put on her in the mornings. Losing those abilities was not her choice, but she was not bitter about her losses.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
For all that she had to give up, she was gracious, introducing us proudly as her daughters, often several times during the same meal. After a while, she introduced us warmly as her beloved sisters.
She joined the choir at her care center because she loved to sing, but after some months she had to quit because she was unable to learn new songs.
The burden of this terrible disease was to live each day not always comprehending where she was. “Is this my room?” she would ask over and over. “Whose room is this?” she wondered, looking around.
…my memory, my understanding,
It was not her choice: she was forced to practice detachment every day, letting go of her awareness of the world around her. Her fascination with politics and her love of entertaining were gone. Her five children watched as she relinquished her family roles as grandmother and then mother because she no longer remembered who our children were. Then, she no longer remembered us.
…and my entire will,
She gave up talking with her oldest friends, unable to carry on a conversation or use the phone.
…All I have and call my own.
When I visited, she would be thrilled to see me, joyful when I walked in the room. If I left for a minute and returned, she would give the same delighted response, elated that I had come to visit her, unaware I had been with her for two days.
You have given all to me.
She had a devout faith life, and prayers kneeling at the side of her bed had been a lifelong nightly habit. When she no longer knew what year it was or what city she lived in, she still had an innate sense when Sunday morning came around, and she was determined to get to Mass. Once she slipped out of her care center and was found walking the nearest highway, looking for a church.
To you, Lord, I return it.
She was polite and grateful to those who fed her and those who came into her room to care for her. They, in turn, loved her spirit and her continuing puns, even though she could not remember their names.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
When she was in the later stages of her illness, she no longer spoke much. But we could connect with her through music and through prayers. She knew the songs of her childhood and could recognize the operas she used to listen to with her father.
I could pray the Rosary for her and sometimes prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries for her, telling her how Jesus was suffering with her and loving her. Occasionally, her mouth would move in repetition as I prayed the words.
Give me only your love and your grace,
My mother set an example for me of God’s love and care in the midst of confusion and fear. She had been unwillingly detached from her intelligence, her relationships, and so many things that had made her earlier life a vibrant one. She allowed God to hold her close, wordlessly, when she didn’t understand anything that was going on in her life.
When I look at my own life, I see a constant and unreflective need to complete my to-do list and show off my accomplishments, senselessly trying to prove my worth to the God who loves me endlessly. My need for control in my own life and my unfounded idea that I have to earn my way to salvation is so different from my mother’s example. I am beloved by God simply in being and not doing.
I have so much to learn, and it is all there in front of me, in my mother’s example of detachment.
…that is enough for me.
The prayer woven throughout this piece is the Suscipe of St. Ignatius Loyola.