Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday Muse Reads 'Mortal Blessings'

It would be infinitely lonely to live
in a world without blessing.
 ~ John O'Donohue*

There exists a space between some mothers and their daughters. It may be filled with judgments and misunderstandings, with fear or disappointment or anger, with deliberate distance and unexpressed sorrow. It can be deep, seem an unbridgeable chasm.

It also can be, in the words of the late Irish poet John O'Donohue, "like the discovery of a fresh well", the source on which to draw "our power to bless one another" in "privileged intimacy".*

For Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, author of the recently released memoir Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell (Ave Maria Press, 2014), a sudden fall and its complications provide an unexpected pathway into that transformative space.

Early in Mortal Blessings, we learn that Marion Salvi Alaimo, the author's mother, age 82, has fallen and broken a hip. We also learn that that fall "prove[s] catastrophic"—not because of age alone but because of alcoholism and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other factors that have left Mrs. Alaimo's body severely weakened. So relentless is disintegration of her body that Mrs. Alaimo dies 48 days after her fall.

Between the time of the fall and the time of death, O'Donnell recounts how, at the time unconsciously, she and her siblings uncover, close, and bless the space between their mother and each of them, individually and collectively. In what O'Donnell describes as "wandering through strange terrain", they find their way forward, through joy and suffering and loss and grief, by creating and observing "rituals, methods of dealing with overwhelming difficulty, which [are] rooted in sacramental practices" learned during their Catholic upbringing. 

Catholic, yes, of the church, but also not; all-embracing, available to any reader of any faith, even no institutional faith. Because while making use of wholly contemporary or the most ordinary of tools—a cellphone, a wheelchair, a portable DVD and movies, get-well cards, a pair of scissors, nail polish, and a mirror—the rituals practiced by O'Donnell and her sisters call forth, fundamentally, their abiding love. Love that does not require pastors or priests, rabbis or imams.

The rituals involving their mother are simple, sometimes communal, at other times not: writing in a journal while traveling, selecting clothes, naming family members in photographs, watching Dirty Dancing, phoning friends and family, eating pie, combing hair, pushing a wheelchair, holding hands, praying in the dark. In each activity is vested the knowledge that "[s]acrament is enacted" in everything we do when we do it for someone we love.

Indeed, what stands out so clearly in this book, is informed by O'Donnell's rich understanding of the meaning and use of ritual, is that we all have available to us "numberless and immeasurable" ways — Andre Dubus's "seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity"** — to give, affirm, and heal with love.

What is so refreshing and ultimately compelling about O'Donnell's story is how very human and personal yet universal it is. The truth of her narrative is that it is recognizable, she says, "to anyone who has cared for a sick or dying parent". And, most important, the "methods" the author and her sisters practice daily while caring for their mother require the presence of no one but themselves.

It is, after all, presence—in laugher and tears, in witness, in memory and remembrance, in forgiveness—that, O'Donnell intuits, "gives us the opportunity to become better people." Presence affirms, gives meaning to, and honors the unbreakable bond between parent and child, mother and daughter, not only in life but also long after death. It is, O'Donnell shows us, sacrament and blessing both.

John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us (Doubleday, 2008), xiii, xiv, xv.

** Andre Dubus, "Sacraments" in Meditations from a Moveable Chair (New York, Random House, 1998, paperback, 1999), 85.

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell is a poet, essayist, and Fordham University professor. Her poetry collections include Waking My Mother (WordTech Communications, 2013), Saint Sinatra and Other Poems (WordTech Communications, 2011), and Moving House (WordTech Communications, 2009). O'Donnell also is the author of The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O'Connor (Paraclete Press, 2012), among other books.

Mortal Blessings is available in print and as an e-book and may be purchased directly from Ave Maria Press or through other booksellers.

Read an excerpt from Mortal Blessings.

Below, O'Donnell talks in depth about some of the sacraments she and her sisters observed while caring for their mother:

1 comment:

michelle ortega said...

Maureen, I love your review as much as the book itself. I have finished it as well, but keep picking it back up again. So many of Angela's insights to digest. Thank you for describing so well why it should be read!