What’s the best gift your mom gave you? That’s the question behind my new series of guest-posts. Today’s contribution comes from the ever-insightful Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. From the corner office to the parish office, Fran is a former corporate executive turned parish office manager, Catholic writer, blogger (see links below) and social networker. Fran works at The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, NY, worships at St. Edward the Confessor in Clifton Park, NY and is working towards an MA in Pastoral Studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and ministry. When not working at, volunteering for, writing or studying about church, Fran is joyfully busy with her husband Mark and teenage stepdaughter Erica. Thank you for sharing this reflection, Fran!
It was August 1966 and I was almost 9. We were temporarily living in an apartment in a Victorian house, which also happened to be a funeral home.
The apartment had its own entrance, segregating the living and the dead. One day my mother decided it was time for us to have “the talk.” Being Irish-Catholic, “the talk” was not about sex! No, “the talk” was about death, a favorite topic of many Irish Catholics, my mama chief among them.
The scent of perfume mixed with cigarettes enveloped me as she took my hand and led me down the stairs. I wondered where was she taking me as we entered the funeral home, suddenly becoming aware of very cold air and the smell of flowers. To this day, certain floral smells or the sight of gladiolas transport me back to that moment.
I felt so afraid, but mom squeezed my hand and said that it was time to talk. “Death is nothing to be afraid of,” she whispered, “people are afraid of it, but don’t be!”
Who died? I began to cry. When someone died, I knew that they went to Jesus and never came back, like my grandma did. As much as I loved Jesus, I did not want anyone that I love going off to be with him!
Terror overtook me as we entered the viewing room and kneeled at the casket. I gazed upon a man in a dark suit. He was older and his hands were clasped and he had a rosary. My mind drifted and I remember thinking that it must be pretty good to be able to take your rosary! Could you take your scapular and missalette, too? Reality snapped me back to the present, the reality of my mother indicating that we were getting up.
The room was empty; it was between calling hours. My mother told me all about death, letting go, dying and going “home to God.” I was not exactly sure what she was talking about, but I listened. The point of living was to live well and then go home to Jesus and not to be afraid. This appeared to not be a negotiable choice from her perspective.
Mom went on about how people fear death and that death is actually a celebration. This confused me, although I already knew at 9 that a funeral meant High Mass, lots of crying and then a big party. She was clear that there was much sadness and pain; she talked about how she still missed her own mother every single day and that you had “take the bad with the good.”
Suddenly I did not feel afraid of the man who appeared to be sleeping and I was not as afraid about the idea that we died and would be going to Jesus. It took many years but I ultimately learned to see death through a different lens.
My mom gave me the best gift that day, the day of “the talk.” At 53, I am still in no hurry to go “home to Jesus” but I do not fear it nor do I fear death’s rituals. Mom gave me the gift to not be afraid to live – or die, even if I have not always lived that way over the years. It remains the best gift my mom ever gave me.