When my mother was in the hospital, I had a chance to spend allot of time downtown which is something I really haven’t done very much of over the past 20 years. I found myself invigorated by the energy of the city. I loved watching the beautiful people dressed in clean clothes, women walking stealthily on high heeled shoes, people distractedly crossing streets while multitasking on their cell phones. The hospital was near many amazing attractions in Montreal, like the fine arts museum, china town and St Joseph’s Oratory, and after my visits I would go somewhere to fill my energy levels back up before going home to face my family and busy life.
One night, like he often did, my husband met me at the hospital after work to say hi to my mom for a while and take me somewhere nice for dinner to distract my mind from being sad. “A dinner adventure”, we called it when we would allow our intuition to guide us to some cool new restaurant where the food was inevitably delicious. Our gut never lead us wrong. That night, we headed into China Town. I was having a particularly hard time with my sadness feeling as though the hospital environment and the disappointing narrow mindedness of the doctors were making my mother even more sick. It was a hopeless feeling, and I left with a heavy heart, only to find myself following my husband in our dirty old dented Ram pickup truck, fresh off the farm with one tire half flat and going down. Traffic was horrendous. The road was a sea of cars and impossible construction hurdles. People sat mostly patiently in their cars waiting for the next inch to open up ahead. Meanwhile, I felt like a complete country bumpkin, in my cheerful little yellow beetle feeling like the weight of the world was crushing me. The radio not working and there was no escape from my thoughts or feelings. Compounded with sitting in the heat and the stench of a downtown traffic jam not exactly knowing where to put my car – I felt my mind edging on a good therapeutic primal scream. It seemed like no one was very aware of the space around themselves and I was at constant odds with one car or another vying for space. Soon I found myself tossed like a salad by aggressive drivers into some place on the right side of the road which I hadn’t realized was a bus lane. After shifting to the left as much as I could, an angry frazzled completely freaked out bus driver pulled up beside me. The size of the double bus making my little bug look like a Tonka Toy. She gestured for me to open my passenger side window, and yelled frustratedly irate~
“Hey! Stay out of my lane. You’ve been blocking me the whole way”!
My mouth opened, my mind snapped, and I told her to go do something very unspiritual with herself. She yelled something about a report and took off amazingly fast. I felt immediately remorseful for my actions. I quickly realized that I certainly could not even come close to fathoming what it must be like to drive that bus up an down the insanity of that road every day, five or six days a week, through traffic. I would be insane too.
Compassion came too late and karma bit me in the ass as I watched the bus plow into into the passenger side mirror of my big dirty truck being driven by my husband.
When we arrived an hour later (usually a five minute drive) into the Asian part of town, he jumped out of his truck and said “Hey! Did you see that bus driver hit me!?”
How was I ever going to explain that this was entirely my fault? I had to laugh and must admit it took me a while to explain how it all happened between fits of laughter.
We had a nice dinner though I didn’t eat much. I was busy looking around and kept seeing things I wanted to show my mother. I wanted to take a pictutre of the pretty food on my plate to show her my dinner and where e could go when she would be bnetter. I wanted to take a picture of the handsome Spanish guitar player doing flamenco on his guitar in the square and ask her if it reminded her of our trip to the Canary Islands? I knew deep niside me that her condition had worsened too much and she would likely never see these things, from her body anyways, again. But I still wanted to share all of the amazing things I was seeing.
When I would go and visit and talk to her, she was so tired and on so many medications, that she could not focus. I could see it made her feel bad. She didn’t want to waste any time with me with sleeping, but she just couldn’t stay awake. So I thought suddenly, that I should take pictures so she could see what I was talking about without it taking so much time and energy. Maybe it would make her feel still like part of life.
I began to take random pictures. Statues and Fountains in places I hadn’t ever noticed although according to the plaques they had been there since the mid 1800’s. Stores with beautiful displays I would have liked to visit with her. A Puppet store in the oldest part of town in an arboretum type place that reminded me of Italy and I knew how much she would love that little corne. We saw the Old Port. The Horse drawn carriages and the nice people we met. I even took pictures of them.
Each day we would visit and I would see and go to different places. Someties with John, with kids, or alone.
The first time I found myself alone at St Joseph’s Oratory surprised me. I am not aligned to any religion – I feel no pull by them, but I have learned how to listen to the universe when ti wants my attention. Even when I think the request is strange, it usually makes sense later.
One day after leaving the hospital, I got lost, in my distress – completely turned around. I had found myself baffled by the same horrific construction loop 3 times and each time I went around I found myself passing the immense and mysterious St Joseph’s Oratory. A place reputed to have been built by a sainted priest who healed crippled people. His heart was inside in a jar. Cool.
My path was pretty clear. No matter which “short cut” I tried to take, all other exits were blocked. I had never been to the Oratory except once as a child when I was doing my first communion. It meant nothing to me back then. It was boring. A place that no one in Quebec can help but see, perched high atop Mount Royal, visible even to remote communities like where I live nearly like from Rigaud mountain, nearly an hour away. Local mythology says that Mount Royal is an inactive volcano.
I drove into the gates, finally surrendering to the loop of lostness I had found myself in. I felt out of miserably place in my cheerful little yellow bug, peering sadly up at the man at the gate who asked for a 5, 00 parking donation to help support the church. I remembered then I was completely broke. I shuffled nervously through my change and found I only had about 3.50 and no other money. I felt utterly dismayed. I was pretty sure if I couldn’t find some peace my heart would break right then and there and if I couldn’t get into Gods own house, as they say, because of a lousy $1.50, I decided I would break up with my faith. I would write it a Dear John letter to God and be done with it.
Which is of course when the man looked down into my dark eyes and smiled kindly –
“This is fine Madam, please enjoy your visit”, he said in a gentle French accent.
Relief. All of a sudden everything felt warm. My hands which had been numb with cold despite the warm summer day \began to tingle coming back to life. I smiled up pretty weakly, but he got the point. I later came to see that this man’s kindness, from his heart, transferred to my heart and helped it to beat abit more normally. I needed that connection and it shows me proof that there are no small acts.
I parked the bug on the side of the sloping lot where the stairs begin. You couldn’t miss it, big and round and yellow sticking out amongst the sea of greys and blacks and browns. I got out beside the The stairs of Pilgrim’s where people come from all over the world the climb over 100 stairs on their knees, saying a prayer for each stair. The supplant themselves in the hopes that God will look upon them more favorably for ther obvious act of humility.
It struck me that in our culture, seeing people in open public prayer was a strange thing to see. I I felt like I was seeing something private that is between you and God. I never knew I felt like that before and I’m not sure I still agree. “Maybe sharing prayer like that will help everyone around them?” I wondered as I try not to stare at the reverent face of the Hispanic woman saying prayers to the Virgin Mary in Spanish. Her daughter only a few stairs behind bowed her head kneeling on the stair in quiet mumbled prayer. The woman reaches the top stair and places her hands on the landing like she is making a statement, leaning forward, her face upturned and unabashedly says her payer to the door in front of her. The door beside the next set of fifty stairs. Fifty more prayers before what? “Is God listening yet or is It too busy comforting her poor knees”, I can’t help but wonder.
There are hundreds of stairs to climb to get to the main entrance of the oratory. Once inside, a sweet faced girl greets me openly shoving a pamphlet into my hand and asking me if it was my first time. I told her that I was especially interested in the legends of Brother Andre; the sainted priest who was reputed to have healing powers and had cured many people of terrible illness. I had heard about the crutches and canes lining the walls outside of his crypt. Then of course there was his heart, which was apparently in a jar somewhere. I didn’t ask her about this. I’m so sensationalist – my mind smiles. I would fnid it if I was meant to. But secretly nd between you and I, I looked for it the whole time, and never found it.
I tell the greeting girl I’d like to see the place of the miracles.
Ah yes!”, she says as if everyone comes in looking for miracles. She refers me to the map pointing to several places. The place is an absolute labyrinth.
“You will find the best way is through here “, and she makes a zig zag squiggly line with her finger ending up pointing to a chapel with an exit on both sides. The place is an incredible maze, and I am pretty sure I’m going to get lost. I always get lost but I usually like it. I think I do it on purpose secretly looking for the places no one else sees. Or maybe being continually lost is a sign that I am incredibly distracted and really don’t care where I am. Either way, I am used to finding my way through places I am not familiar with, both figuratively and practically.
I go up a long escalator herded together with a bunch of other people. I am suddenly a tourist in my own city and I like it. I hear some American accents, maybe from New Jersey. The young boy is wearing a black torn wife beater covered ostensibly by a plaid shirt. He has multiple facial piercings and a momentarily grim look. I start to make some negative assumptions about him and catch myself when he looks up at me with eyes that smile – and all I see are his eyes. They are young and fresh and he has gentleness inside of him that maybe his outer appearance doesn’t belay right away. It makes my heart feel good to and I smile back.
At the top of the escalator I enter a chapel and I go inside to the front row. I say a prayer. I don’t actually believe God hears me better just because I am in a church, but I do believe that She pays attention to my heartfelt intention and my spontaneous expression willingness. I think God really listens to willingness because that’s when we are able to hear.
I pass through into a another room, a crypt filled with lights from a sea of candles, a waterfall of each flowing down onto several prayer stations. It is breathtakingly beautiful and I find myself standing still while the world walks around and past me. It is a magical place. Behind me along the wall are the crutches and canes in the hundreds of the people that brother André healed. They hang in rows and layers upon layers, all made of dark old wood. Some carved mostly plain canes and crutches each with its own history and story. I stood looking at them for a long time. I was amazed that you could touch them and they weren’t behind glass. I put my hand on one and hoped for its magic to come inside of me. I closed my eyes tight like a little kid throwing a nickel into the wishing well and I whispered silently to myself “Help. Thank you”.
A simple prayer. Surely one of my favorites.
A good prayer because it leaves the results and expectations up to something that knows more than I do.
I walk around slowly and notice that there are different stations of prayer. St Joseph, I learn is the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus. He is the patron saint of allot of things. Families, fathers, virgins and the dying amongst others. The last two interested me. Who would be the patron saint of virgins? A man who trusted his wife when she said she was impregnated by God, I suppose.
I realized then that if you believe in the miracle of the virgin birth, then the fact that he a) believed her and b) stuck with her, makes him a really exceptional man. I don’t know if that’s the real reason as the church says, but it works for me.
Then I came to the final station – Prayer for the dying.
I hope God doesn’t mind, but I didn’t have the 5.00 for the cost of lighting the candle. I found whatever change I had and put it in the little coffer.
Then I lit a candle, for my mother. It was probably the first moment I realize that she was actually dying. I knelt and prayed. Not because I thought God would like it better if I did it this way, but because I felt like a heavy weight was pressing me down to my knees and I had to rest and just be with this sadness. I found it interesting to be in a place where if you just knelt down in the middle of everyone an everything, no one looked at you funny. It wasn’t regarded as ‘religious fanaticism”. It was just You being with God.
After a long healing cry with a bent head, I got up and left the station slowly. I feel like I left something behind there – something I had come in with and couldn’t carry anymore I suppose.
I walked to my left, unsure of where I was and come upon a beautiful golden statue of St. Joseph with a pool of oil at his feet. The plaque said that this was the oil of St Joseph that it had been reputed to have healing properties and had been continued along generations and was used b Brother Andre. now it maintained its holiness by being blessed by his priests. Interesting…and surprisingly Pagan too, I thought secretly to myself.
I have never been comfortable with the thought that a single person had special powers that could bless anything better than the good intentions of God through any kind of people. I remembered the holy water behind me and decided to take off my Tibetan oil necklace and fill it with the water of that place. The room, it seemed to me, must hold a powerful energy because it was constantly filled with spiritual seekers – simply people who were looking for answers. This in and of itself felt incredibly strong. So I filled my necklace so I could bring part of that experience to my mother as well.
I loved the oratory. I walked for a while longer, visited upstairs in a place like a wax museum, vividly real reenactions of Brother Andre’s life with displays of his miracles. I was amazed at how small people were back then. He was a teeny tiny man, maybe 4’10”- and he helped build this gigantic Cathedral. Amazing.
I took pictures of everything I could to show my mom the next day. I found myself wanting to see things through her eyes – what was important and beautiful. It made me pay more attention to the details that made things alive and wondrous, hoping that I could bring her this living experience as vividly as possible.
This is the first holiday we have without her. It’s very strange surreal and painful all at once. It makes me remember what is important, and all the things I am grateful for are multiplied as I understand what she would have given to have lived just a few more weeks to experience this gathering of thanks that was her favourite holiday.
At Thanksgiving, she used to make us all say something we were grateful for at dinner. The challenge would be tossed out almost ceremoniously like a glove onto the dining room table and she would choose the first person to start – always followed by a grumble and silence. The first answers are usually short. I am grateful for my food The end. I am grateful for family. I am grateful for my friends and my job, grateful for music, for art for love…and it would continue, the last idea always contributing to a new idea of what we could be grateful for and the bubble would get bigger and bigger.
I am grateful for my mother and for the ways she showed me how to express gratitude in my life. Today I will feed my family and friends and feel so blessed to have this love all around me, feeling her right there where she has always been.