By Timothy Herrick
Written/July 27, 2022
(this may be a work in progress)
Main Herricks: Kimball & Josephine (parents) – Children, oldest to youngest: Adrienne, Michael, Kenneth, Suzanne, Timothy, Elaine
Catholic. Frequent prayer and communion. I’m totally prochoice and politically ultra-progressive and sexually unrepressed but attending mass multiple times per week, devotions to Saint Jude and Novenas to our Blessed Mother give me a very enriching spiritual life, thus a peace of mind that’s otherwise unattainable. It helps me cope with the trauma of childhood and the struggles of adulthood. Knowing God is one reason I haven’t committed suicide, good thing she’s Catholic.
My sister, 11 months younger, Elaine, has cancer, real bad. She’s bed ridden, emaciated and immobile. In July some-sort-of-cancer-thing about the chemo weakening the bones caused her to be sent to a healthcare facility deep in the Bronx. But the 4 Train stops – the second to last stop – there. I saw her right after Independence Day. I hadn’t been able to do so until then.
My mother passed away in August of 2017 at the age of 98. That Christmas I spent with Elaine and her young adult son and his girlfriend, smoking weed, drinking bourbon and making Cornish Hens, the traditional Herrick holiday meal since before either of us were born. We usually spent the day with mom in Paramus, the first one in years we weren’t eating at a diner. She lives in Yonkers and her kitchen is narrow. I sat just outside the doorway while she prepared food, helping as needed. After eating, we watched the new Grateful Dead documentary. Everyone one of us loves the Grateful Dead, except for Adrienne. Our last Christmas together..
Elaine’s obsessed with food and health. Natural and organic, no ingredients you cannot pronounce. GMO’s are currently the biggest threat to society. One moment though she paused over the raw chickens, her voice suddenly cracked. I’m… constipated.
She’s more comfortable talking about body stuff – she’s a chiropractor – than I – a discussion of regularity while uncommon, it may have come up before. The older you get, the more often regularity becomes a topic during current state of your health chats, long a constant for us.
The way she said it, the unprompted tearfulness, her wavering tone had an unmistakable gravitas. She was always regular, now she’s not. The mysterious absence of cause for this effect upset her. I have diabetes, regularity or lack thereof is not unknown to those afflicted with humanity’s most popular blood sugar disorder. Smooth move tea, but I prefer enemas, I suggested. She went on to list different laxatives and enema brands and the topic faded and more reminiscent-laden seasonally appropriate talk ensued.
A few months later we had another surprise regularity chat during the course of the conversation that began as kindred toddlers alone in the world of the unquestionable authority of parents and the constant harassment by sadistic older siblings who saw the new arrivals as slaves to torment, abuse and mock. We communicate often, are probably closer to each other than the other siblings, who are not even on social media. We love talking about Paramus and 672 Terrace Drive and what movies she’s watched with her son or shows she went to with her boyfriend.
In 2009 I had a heart attack and contracted diabetes, later arthritis and some other stuff. I tend to dislike talking about health because it becomes a competitive conversation. Can you top this. What starts as an expression of empathy ends like a poker game, I see your chronic and raise you terminal. Woe’s you… no, woe’s me!
From 1995 to 2009, when I worked out 3-7 days a week, body stuff could be more interesting, but nowadays any good news is qualified by the irrevocable fact of for your age. I mean mine.
Elaine’s also anti-vaccine, which my 11 years older sister, Adrienne, the nurse, is still appalled by. I learned years ago, you can’t tell your siblings anything. I love, shrug and smile. In my experience – friends, lovers, colleagues and even other family members – all are more understandable than siblings. Maybe the mysteries of childhood fog our minds to each other forever after, but my siblings remain beloved by me and yet utterly unfathomable.
When COVID was still half-rumor, Elaine – she always votes blue, but like my mother, ignores the news – was adamant about how they can’t force her to take a vaccine. We weren’t even in lockdown yet, the vaccines more than a year away. Elaine, I would never expect you to get a vaccine, I admire the strength of your anti-vaccine belief.
I honestly do not care whether anybody gets any vaccine or not – Elaine would email me anti-vaccine propaganda hoping I’ll hop on the bandwagon – she also had this obsession with acai berries and sent me so many links I thought her email had been hacked. I get flu shots every year and the first signs of a cold it’s a Z-Pac. Of course I’m getting the vaccine, I support all drug usage. I’ll wait for the lines to die down and hopefully I won’t have to leave my neighborhood.
It was just before or just after the outbreak of COVID that the cancer was diagnosed. In the sacrum region but because of the location of the tumor it was inoperable, chemo and colostomy. I just know what Adrienne tells me, but it’s all the same to me. Medical stuff, both art and science, I can’t retain much else beyond my next appointment and the fact I’m too old to die young. Someone’s else’s health, or mine. Dull, even when horrifying, clinical facts that evade retention.
I get daily finger pricking, insulin, medication, quarterly bloodwork followed by my endocrinologist’s dispiriting ACI symposium. Be positive, she says. I reply, I would doc, but it’s intellectually dishonest.
It’s not that I don’t care about health, I love life most of the time and what I love has so far outweighed what I don’t. But biology other than sex doesn’t resonate enough to have a convincing opinion about. What opinion – whether expressed or withheld – I formulate is based on my personal healthcare practice of benign neglect, literature over life priorities and the insistence that suicide can be slow enough to be synonymous with fate.
I’m a wiseass, prone to wisecracks, a habit that has become so ingrained even when serious my tone and delivery still sound sarcastic. My medical advice and my opinion about medical news or advice someone’s been given is mostly: I never expected to live this long. Needless to say, my opinions in this area are rarely sought.
Somewhere into COVID, the message comes that Elaine has cancer, and is headed to Mexico for an all-natural treatment. Coincidentally, I got this message less than an hour after watching a documentary on Kathy Acker that just came on Kanopy – it’s a streaming service through the library – I hadn’t thought about Burroughs’s most famous acolyte for the longest time. She was committed to natural foods, went to Mexico for a breast cancer cure. I didn’t even remember she died.
Farrah Fawcett, died the same way said a friend when I told her the story, kind of missing what I thought was the point. The juxtaposition of my sister’s news when the Acker bio was on the mind – regardless of my opinion of her place in the canon, that New York literary scene is a cultural highpoint and her death was sad and tragic. She seemed to epitomize that long-vanished milieu I still hold transcendent – but it didn’t disappear overnight – middle age can be as unkind to life as it is to youth. I was taking a walk thinking about Acker and the relentlessness of cancer when Adrienne called me about Elaine.
Cancer. My dear cousin Alan died of colon cancer at age 45, which was on my mom’s side, the catholic side, most of whom lived into their 90s, including Alan’s father, Uncle Red. My father’s side, protestants and puritans – Mayflower and Plymouth Rock – had aneurisms – dad, and heart attack, his father, or diabetes, paternal grandmother. None of them made 70. I thought the Herricks would be cancer-free, genetic-wise. I know I am because when I had my heart attack in 2009 and had to give up cigarettes a buddy of mine Rick I knew from the gym said if cigarettes are going to kill you it’s either cancer or a heart attack, never both.
Some people believe what they read on the internet, I prefer folk wisdom and hearsay. I’d been doing the catholic prayer thing since 1997 – year anno for my devotion to Saint Jude – Tuesday night prayers – so by the health crisis my faith was what I wanted it to be, a dependable part of my life.
From 13 to 25, I was an atheist, but as Patti Smith said, I like Catholic things. Only a fool or the narrow minded can look at life and not concede inexplicable, unseen forces are at work – good luck or bad luck –individual attraction – humongous quandaries like after death then what or before birth who was I – one can conclude everything’s random or nature and see no hand of God. One can even have a lucky number and win at Roulette but only in Atlantic City and still see no hand of God. Love, desire, compassion can be argued to be survival techniques honed through evolution.
What we seem to be agreeing with, sharing a mutual acknowledgement of, is there’s something to see in the unseen. How can randomness have any pattern, yet how can you deny a pattern is discernable? Maybe you’re fine holding out, an agnostic leaning towards atheist because science will have an answer some day, just not in your lifetime. For me, it was Catholicism. Frequent prayer & Communion. I am sure being raised catholic and instructed by the Sisters of Charity until I reached puberty has nothing to do with my decision.
Truth-be-told, I had to unlearn most of what the nuns or the genuinely despicable ring of rapists and pederasts known as the Irish Christian Brothers taught me before I could truly know Catholicism.
Sunday masses – well, Saturday in anticipation – once I’ve done that consistently for about a year, I expanded the reach. Weekday mass attendance is actually quite easy when you’re working in New York. You’re always within walking distance or a subway ride to some of the most extraordinary catholic churches in the new world and there’s masses before and after work and a lunchtime 12:10 special. A Manhattan tradition was being one among the smudged foreheads on Ash Wednesdays trudging proudly through the streets announcing to all the world that the true Christendom has begun another Lent. Spring is just around the corner.
My experience with faith is that mine is always growing, which sounds like a cliché to anyone except those with faith. Not that doubt disappears, far from it. Questioning faith – far from equivalent to not having faith or losing faith – is about the application of the light, never the light – those who lack faith find this a puzzling paradox.
My struggle with faith ended in 1995 or 1996. If it’s not in the Apostles Creed or the Gloria, whether it’s the lowliest priest or the pope himself, the true faith not only demands you ignore them, but gives you the conviction to do so. Prayer and Eucharist… done. Now think about something else and go about the business of writing for a living, and within that framework, live.
The catholic mass gives me a peace of mind like nothing else. Though some masses seem more meaningful than others, peace of mind arrives every mass. It’s not serenity, not exactly. It’s the first step, one’s the extension of the other, more than copacetic but the more I consider the osmotic duality of peace of mind and serenity it seems the more convinced I am that the serenity attainable within peace of mind barely hints at the heaven to come.
I don’t long for serenity, I just appreciate the peace of mind as long as it lasts and recall some version of the feeling throughout my waking hours. My cup is either half-filled or fully-filled or overflowing. Peace of mind was a rare feeling for most of my teen and early adult years. Life in America is more fucked up now than it’s ever been but it was very dysfunctional back then too and it kept on getting worse, although the policies of the Clinton Administration did create a prosperity as yet to be replicated. Future archeologists will write massive studies of the different stages of dystopia and the mounting levels of stress everyday people felt every day. Peace of mind may not be all you need, but if you’re lucky enough to attain it, you can make it through most nights.
By 2009, Catholicism as worldview and practice was an unshakeable foundation of my life. Understandably, mortality was on my mind after the cardiac infarction and the onset of diabetes type 2. I have a feeling if my heart attack happened in the late 1990s I wouldn’t have made it to the stents.
I had walked to the church for mass, but I was out of breath and nauseas. I was too sick to go in. The music minister said I looked green. I went to the emergency room that night, after a phone call to Nancy.
We had a relationship which ended for… reasons… around 2008. She moved to North Carolina and we talked by phone. I called to thank her for the times we spent together in case I was found dead. She asked me if my arm felt radiated and I said I never heard that word in this context before but I would use it to describe how my left arm is feeling. She said, go to the emergency room, they have to take you.
Episcopalian, she liked going to mass. Protestants can be like that, especially the Anglican variety. Any service will do. Needless to say, Catholics hold a different view. Anyway, we loved each other and perhaps we have transubstantiation to thank in part for some of the most uninhibited love making of both our lives.
As a thoughtful gift about a year or so into our relationship, she gave me rosary beads, really nice set, claimed to be based on genuine Vatican designs: ruddy colored wooden beads, silver-plated chain, a more elaborate than typical crucifix and pendant. It’s splendidly faux, like a reproduction of a Victorian copy of a renaissance sacramental. Some kind of Vatican art show was travelling through and it was sold at the gift shop, I forget the details, but it’s an exquisite rosary.
I tried praying the rosary once or twice, but I couldn’t find the groove. I used to keep the Nancy rosary beads draped over the Gateway desktop. I like catholic objects, statuettes and such, around my living space. Rosary beads dangle nicely off the random nail or across a framed picture.
My last car, the Grand Marquis, I was 27 – I had renounced Atheism and concluded that Catholicism made more sense and was more intellectually honest than other theologies, philosophies or mythologies – I hung rosary beads from the rearview mirror. That automotive decoration was the extent of my religious practice at the time, but an important first step was taken. I openly exhibited my personal cultural Catholicism.
In May of my ninth or tenth year – probably for the Feast of The Visitation – Our Lady of the Visitation students were selected to form a human rosary – for a holy visit from an auxiliary bishop. Robes bright red, accompanied by the parish priests in matching vestments followed by a retinue of altar boys, black cassocks, white surplices. Most of the moms, all the teachers and janitors, and half the parish turned out for the visit. After mass, the clergy led the congregants outside and the chosen student body assembled into the beads, positioning themselves around the parking lot like we practiced for weeks before this day of holy pageantry, equal to the Holy Communion and Confirmation services, although sometimes the Archbishop presided over those sacramental rites, not a minion.
He was fatter than life, a tubby giant, more stern than jolly but still a little jolly… majestic, deference inspiring. His hand nearly covered our skulls, as he placed it over each bead, bellowed to the sky Hail Mary, full of grace (etc.)… thy womb Jesus… poignant pause.. then everyone rejoined. Holy Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen. Clear and loud and reverential. The bishop’s voice was deep and widely audible and the response was a chorus of familiar, parish voices, fuller by number than his, but not by volume.
I had my heart attack in September (09) and it was earlier that year – May – when Deacon Caesar made a rare visit to the Tuesday night Saint Jude novena to push-pin a flier for a novena for Santa Cruzan festival onto the cork bulletin board in the vestibule. Saint Mary & Saint Michael are in the same neighborhood and Saint Mary’s has lots of Filipinos and this procession and street fair is their tradition, and part of that tradition is the novena preceding the festivities – nine consecutive days of rosary recitation – for good weather for “Santa Cruzan Day.”
The more you pray, the more you love praying and you’re always open to new prayer opportunity. I got a chance to tell Nancy I prayed on the Vatican rosary. I only went to one of the nine and while very fulfilling, and certainly enhanced this day of spiritual fellowship through symbolic pageantry, I never attempted the rosary in earnest again that summer.
In September, I had the health crisis and was informed by the doctor that my body was informing me the party was over. The cigarettes have got to go. I used the patch for a week or two, otherwise I quit cold turkey. Before being admitted to the hospital, I could barely endure not smoking for any flight over an hour. Being forced to survive an unthinkable smoke-free three days in the hospital convinced me I could find the inner-strength needed to never use tobacco again.
Whatever the instigating motivation, quitting smoking meant five months of doing little more than not smoking. I had cravings but no temptations and eventually no cravings. I also was pondering the meaning of my life and how this brush with death changed that meaning and my entire emotional state was made more confused and anxious by having my favorite pondering aid forever forbidden.
I had a stressful job, broken relationships and a sometimes precarious living situation due to the condo conversion of the building where I live. Other than going to the gym – a routine that remained unabated post-stent but I lowered the weights – I asked myself, what did I enjoy the most this year?
What made me happy… recently, thus easily replicated?
Saying the rosary with the Filipino faithful for clear skies on Santa Cruzan Day.
I carried the Nancy beads with me, bought some pamphlets at a catholic bookstore – eventually finding the excellent Saying The Rosary: Prayer Comes Around by Gary Willis, but that was years later – I made attempts to pray the rosary, but the process wasn’t gelling.
I went to my first post-op, follow-up visit with the cardiologist who installed the stents. He reminded me that I had 95 percent blockage and was considering open-heart surgery. He was worried about the stents in a case as serious as mine. After the exam he said he heard something he didn’t like and ordered me to go directly from his office to the Emergency Room of the hospital where he was chief of cardiology, four blocks away.
The doctor’s appointment was at noon. I wasn’t admitted until after the midnight hour. I had a paperback, rosary beads and a flip phone. The novel was too disappointing to finish. My only other prayer on me is a Saint Jude Card I kept in my wallet, but I never say that more than once. I got out my rosary brochure because I could never keep the mysteries straight and a new set had been added since the bishop came to OLV. I also kept missing lines to the closing prayer, Hail Holy Queen; I began reciting the prayers to pass the time. Death can be averted, but rarely tedium. I followed one rosary with another. Distant fingers kept track of what prayer to say when.
Certainly the circular methodology of the beads reflect similar mandala-like thought patterns of the collective unconscious. Repeating the prayers – the opening, Apostle’s Creed and closing Hail Holy Queen – frame the Our Father, 10 Hail Mary’s, the Glory Be – the words dissolved into syllables, a repetitive sequence of sounds which affected me much like a mantra creates a meditative state. Hours passed and even when I was admitted and in the ICU I held the rosary, continuing through my two-day stay. When not talking to the nurses or doctors and other staff – and nothing’s more detestable than cable news so I kept the television off! – I murmured. The syllables slowly returning into words and I’m awestruck with the simplicity of the thoughts expressed, the vitality of the meanings full of grace, the lord is with thee.
An essential tenet – for me, at least, but sadly under-invoked by clergy, church leaders and most of the body of our holy mother the church – is the communion of saints. A joining of prayers through intercession with the souls and angels in heaven. Gets a shout out in the creed. In the somnambular dimness amid the hospital night shift hum and my inner drone of prayers I’ve known since I could retain memories I discovered an aspect of Catholicism that even before my 1997 return to an active belief was hiding in plain sight. I never realized the immensity of that communion or felt such a desire to offer my adoration to this infinity. As Allen Ginsberg wrote, every day is an eternity. Are you my angel?
I didn’t increase my weekly mass intake as a replacement for cigarettes, but both behavior modifications occurred simultaneously. In NYC, at least back then, the churches were open all-day, with regular masses. The rosary (after the Saint Jude card prayer) was now my pre-mass prayer and if I don’t arrive early enough to finish, during the homily – best ignored 70 percent of the time anyway – or after communion sufficed and in fact, re-focused my mind. On Tuesday nights before the weekly Saint Michael Saint Jude mass and novena prayers the Vietnamese parishioners – sometimes more than a dozen – would say the rosary in Vietnamese – half-sung, a chanted lullaby. As I said my rosary I sometimes wondered how many times we were praying the same words to Momma Mary. What a wonderful communion, what heart-shared delight, genuinely fantastic rosaries.
By 2010, I was saying the rosary multiple times a week until around 2015, when mass became daily and likewise the rosary. Since then it’s been a rarely wavered six days a week. Every year I join the Santa Cruzan crew for five of the nine novena rosaries and I remind Deacon Caesar about him tacking up that flier and how that got me into the rosary. As long we get one, it’s worth it, he said.
All he got was one but the one he got stayed in for the long haul.
Deacon Caesar told me about ACTS – adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication – it’s an old seminary chestnut used to describe the perfect prayer, the Our Father. It sounded vaguely familiar, but it made such instant sense to me it felt completely fresh. More of a natural than rigid order, all prayers contain those elements. Within the prayerful mind, the communication with God contains the memorized (or read) text and your direct dialogue and related contemplation. Pauses are also the prayer.
The Saint Jude novena – again, 1997 – that revealed to me a fuller concept of prayer beyond the liturgy of the mass or begging God not to let you die or giving you strength to ask for a raise. Intercession is the perfect realization of the communion of saints. If you want to piss off protestants bring up the beauty and wonder of speaking to God through saints and the blessed mother.
I had the Tuesday night Saint Novena prayer, other times I would read my Saint Jude prayer card, obtained in 1997 at the same store where I got my silver Saint Jude Thaddeus Pray For Us pendant. But after I added the rosary, I came upon one of the most critical revelations of my spiritual life.
The answer to prayer is prayer.
Why does God exist whether you believe in Him or not? Thy Will Be Done.
You say nature, they say God – disasters globally and personally exist. In a Rolling Stone Interview, Bob Dylan said, God is arbitrary. How else could He seem to us? Maybe faith and prayer and a belief system in souls and the invisible world and after life allows us to process the contradictory fact the hope we cannot live without is that we cannot know His Will, we can only have faith that God is love.
However, wherever, whenever… shit happens regardless of belief or explanation. Christ on the Cross, Mary to the Angel Gabriel, Thy Will. The mystery of faith is no mystery, just inexplicable. Defies logic. The more comprehensible the concept, the less holy it must be. How could something as subjective as faith be otherwise?
Like the rosary, circular for if we are to adore, ask forgiveness, offer gratitude for life and love, and implore for assistance, we’re doing so out of belief in Jesus Christ and the Trinity and that God is Love and we are made in His Image. Jesus Christ was both man and God and left with us the Holy Spirit so we can love each other because all we have on this earth besides faith in the Glory of heaven is each other.
Deacon Caesar and his wife, Lourdes are holy travelers, especially after he retired from his job in the city, vacations / pilgrimages to places like Rome or Fatima – twice to Lourdes! From a trip to the Holy Lands they brought me back a souvenir, a lovely wooden rosary. String instead of chain, simple cross, earthly tone. Jerusalem is inscribed on the cross. The Gospels begin in the wilderness and end in Jerusalem and the Acts of the Apostles start in the holy city and takes the message of the messiah to the farthest reaches of the known world… you know, Rome.
Analogies get fuzzy, the wooden beads were a touching gift. I called them my traveling beads. I don’t always have the Nancy beads with me, sometimes I forget them. I kept the wooden beads in an inner pocket of my satchel, where I store a notebook and pen, book I’m reading, bottle of water and pills and papers and everything I can’t find when I’m looking for it and do find when I’m not looking for it. This compact and before it became threadbare, fashionable man-purse came with me near everywhere I journeyed.
Outside of pre-mass, I occasionally said the rosary in a park or while taking a walk. Enjoyable, but never became a lasting habit. My visits to Mom included a pleasant bus ride from the train station through bucolic Ridgewood to her assisted living facility in Paramus and more than once had a lovely session of quiet prayer looking at the trees and sunshine. Fewer than ten people wherever on any of these busses, no one could tell what I was doing. Holding the wooden beads enhanced the prayers, the slightly different feel added a new and refreshing zip to the recitation and the pauses.
Funny, rosaries outside of church were a short-lived fad. An experience worth repeating but only once or twice. I hadn’t taken out the wooden beads for years when the very minor miracle but priceless human moment happened. I wrote about this in Eyes of Mom, about the last time I saw my mother alive was when she was in a semi-conscious state, totally unaware of my presence. I called up Elaine and asked her what should I do? She said just talk to her. Just be there.
That got mundane real fast so I got out the wooden beads, blessed myself and kissed the cross . I whispered the prayers… the final amen I kissed the cross then blessed myself. My mother opened her eyes and mouthed Timothy. She suddenly perked up for a brief whispered interchange. Elaine was astounded, especially the name part, the knowing who I was. She was in a near-vegetative state and her soul would depart in 10 days. I never prayed with my mother, not counting masses or grace before holiday meals. I don’t remember any rosary discussions even though I was the only offspring to attend mass with her and after 1997 it was a more or less monthly or six-weekly activity, an OLV mass with my mother, who was still a star, having worked as a secretary at the school then rectory for Paramus Catholics.
I wasn’t saying the rosary then. I didn’t have the heart attack until after she entered assisted living to experience final fragility. Our conversations now consisted of her repeating sentences to me, like is it raining or have you heard from Kenneth?
Those times on the bus, the rosary was still new to me, mom had only been at the assisted living center a year or so. I’d still have the wooden beads, paperback but I never read on the bus. I liked watching the suburbs, the land of my birth, Ridgewood, a couple of stops in Fairlawn, then Paramus, the outer edge, Paramus Road and the gradual slope of George Washington Cemetery, where Kimball & Helen Josephine remain at rest. Sometimes you pray, sometimes contemplate.
Mother passed in August of 2017 and Arlene in August of 2016. Arlene’s Jewish but not religious whatsoever and my brother, Michael has never expressed any interest in religion other than derision. They raised their child, Stephen, Jewish. No organized funeral service, just a reception for friends and family. Somebody led us in the Kaddish. Appropriately low-key for baby boomer hippies who never dug religion in the slightest. Beautiful, sad, like death. There’s no wrong way to grieve or specific tribute-ritual required – she meant so much to each of us – I got to spend time with family. I took the train to Yonkers and Elaine drove us to Connecticut, mountains and hills lush with summer.
No coffin, an urn, picture collages of Arlene through the decades and there were breaks and lulls and time to fill. I said a rosary, nonchalantly, for Arlene. Nothing to see here, just another mourner spending time with his thoughts. I used the Nancy beads since I actually stayed overnight and barely made it in time for a noon mass back home and was carrying a travel bag not the walking-around satchel.
Same deal with the Nancy rosary before my mother’s funeral mass. I said a rosary on the way from the funeral home to the church. I was next to Adrienne, my sister Susanne and her Husband, Nay. Each limousine sat four. Adrienne saw what I was doing and I shrugged, I always say a rosary before mass and she said I love you, which was touching and the sentiments you want to hear on a such a wistful, memory-drenched day.
That’s my routine. Saying the rosary while prayer is also the foundation for more prayer and deeper contemplation. Prayer prepares my mind for prayer and the peace of mind of mass, even a funeral mass. Yes, it eases anxiety and that’s a line during the consecration – protect us from all anxiety. Anxiety as a diagnosis wasn’t in common parlance until recently, so I’m not sure if I was suffering from anxiety as a physically reoccurring condition, like being horny or hungry or tired. I see no connection with the possibility of undiagnosed anxiety and the fact I daily smoked one to two but rarely more than three packs of Parliaments since graduating College in 1982 and the 2009 cardiac infarction.
The funeral-related rosaries were planned. As the family of the deceased during funerals, there’s long lulls between longer stretches of chitchat, heartfelt and poignant, even when mundane. I’d have time for personal prayer. Holding the daily Nancy beads connected me to my routines, grounding me to get through the disruption grief inflicts. How will I keep steady during these days with my family, bring the Nancy beads.
When I held the thicker, rounder wooden beads and prayed in the same room as my unconscious mother that was a spontaneous act of prayer. That’s not just daily prayer, but life – finding the familiar in the new or the new in the familiar.
Deacon Caesar and Lourdes nodded with knowing smiles when I told them the mom rosary story. She said your name said the Deacon, both statement and query, double checking the facts. The second after I finished her eyes opened and she mouthed my name. I said the rosary on the set you brought back from the holy land.
I keep them in a pouch in my satchel, they’re my travelling beads. I’m very careful with them, the cross became untied and slipping the soft string back through the hole of the cross was impossible. Lourdes said the same thing happened to her and she used a needle to push the string through than super glued the string to the hole.
I’ve been preferring a tote bag to the satchel, now mostly retired in or near the closet. I have a three-piece prayer kit – leather change purse, in which I keep the Nancy beads – the bead purse I keep in a canvas pouch that has a transparent picture-Id sleeve on one side. In the sleeve I keep my Saint Jude prayer card, purchased at a Catholic Book store in the Village in 1997. Embossed card, short prayer. I used to keep it in my wallet but taking it out to read before mass or after communion got to be a drag, especially with beads to coordinate, I suppose if someone insisted I can recite it from memory, but reading the same words has its own power. I flip over the pouch, scan the prayer, remove the bead purse, let the sequence of silent and/or soft murmuring commence.
The kit container is the largest pencil case I could find at Jacks 99 Cents Store. This zippered, cloth case carried the prayer/bead pouch and small prayer books, miniature pamphlets really. I have three or four tiny books of Saint Jude prayers and devotions, and the entire Saint Jude Novena prayer – three pages and litany – which I said every Tuesday from 1997 to 2013, when the priest cancelled it for lack of attendance – some cornerstone Vietnamese families moved to Bloomfield and everyone else gradually dwindled off. I’ve said it every weekday ever since.
For the trip to the Bronx, I just took the prayer pouch with the Nancy beads in the tote bag and traveled light – bottle of water, diet ice tea, diet Mountain Dew, granola and protein bars, and ibuprofen. I hadn’t been out of my neighborhood – except for doctor visits near my neighborhood – since Christmas.
I didn’t gasp when I saw her. She was motionless, head leaning on one side, bright brown eyes. I’m the blue-eyed one. Hers are dark caramel, like Dad’s. The last eyes to see him alive, she was home when he had his aneurism and called 911. I didn’t know what to expect, other than sickly, bravely fighting and succeeding because survival had been achieved. But the battle had taken its toll and the war is lost, like it always is, though not yet finished.
With cancer, there’s only two certainties: it always comes back and the cure is either worse, as bad or almost as bad as the disease and one’s only hope is almost until that hope becomes ending suffering.
Four years at least since I’d seen her, my last visit to Paramus, a trip to see the parent’s grave for a birthday of mine that also fell on Easter. We’d spend Easter Sunday (I go to the Saturday night vigil service) seeing mom then eating at a diner but we could still go to the place in Ridgewood.
The transformation from then until now transcended shock. How does one expect this? I immediately recognized death. I’d seen it before, same basic setting – adjustable bed either in a hospital or a room in house converted to work like one. I’m not talking about that sense that on or near the edge of the clinical lighting death hovers a shadow amongst shadows, scurries out of sight but always in reach. Nor am I referring to mere weakness of the gravely ill. I saw the death mask barely submerged beneath the boney yet swollen countenance. Her head hadn’t enlarged, it just seemed so because the rest of her body was so diminished.
Colostomy, bones weakened by radiation – all this Adrienne-speak suddenly went from sibling drivel to explanation of fact. Humanity manifested, for every life ends in its own way. Your death is unique until you die. Not realizing the extent of the devastation was more a case of not completely understanding what it means as opposed to being surprised by what I saw. Beholding an adult 94 lbs. cannot be processed until you’ve actually seen her. Dear sister, you are dying, this sucks!
I thought that but I didn’t verbalize it. My second un-verbalized thought was, Thy Will Be Done.
God is love. The love we feel for each other and the love they feel for us, is God, the essence of the Holy Spirit, perhaps the Holy Spirit. My love for my sister was overwhelming, any physical expression had to be constrained because her abundantly apparent fragility. I kissed her cheek hello, sat in the chair next to the bed and held her boney hand. She wept, briefly, well within Herrick boundaries of public and/or familial emotional display. I’m the outburst one, the rebel child.
My calm – not quite the word, for I was not tranquil– but an atypical composure washed over me. Death is here. I’m very alert. Not the finality of death when you are at a funeral and the transition though recent is completed. Did I just say transition? I guess there’s no escape from the lingo of the day. Why not, right – process and journey – I have mine, you have yours – it’s a concept we humans immediately grasp and identify with because that’s how bodies and minds work, one thing after another. Life is an ordeal writ large segmented by time, transitioning is a way to comprehend why suffering, loss and sorrow is inescapable.
This conceptualization falls short of what I was feeling seeing death in her face. It was take your shoes off Moses, you’re on Hallow Ground. I was in the presence of the divine. Life, no life, then what happens to life. The endless quandary. What does the fact of life say about what there is when there’s no longer life? You explain, speculate, wait for science or study theology but the point is not that the answer is faith or not, but that the question proves that death is the clearest sign or manifestation of a divine, yes, The Divine.
Whether we think we know or believe we think we know, inevitability is always present and seeing death confirms this universality. The ending of life has its own eternity, that first moment of no longer. Skull shimmering. Just you and death, that’s what this life amounts to after all.
Not that it’s devoid of meaning or purpose, quite the opposite. But everyone faces this moment of mortality and everyone faces it every day but with the cancer like my sister has, how long can one live with this much death is the only question. Death is like the dew in the morning or the blueness of the sky – ask all we can know all we must – but it simply is – cogs in the materiality of existence whose reality we confirm by each of our lives. Death proves the immateriality of another existence by removing a life from the material world we know.
Catholicism is just another religion, yes of course the best and produces the best writers, (okay only some of the best) and by now you know where I am coming from, but what I like about it the most is how Catholicism conceptualizes the divine.
I do not believe humanity is innately prone to goodness, much less morality, without a personal God. We need the divine as much the divine needs us. Who or what is divine we answer for ourselves, the smells and the bells works for me.
The divine is all about the immaterial. Death may be just an earthly remnant of the ultimate supreme consciousness, but to see it tarry in all its purely factual and heartless glory filled me with awe. I was physically closer to God than I ever have been in my life.
I am not describing feelings in retrospect. I had a sensation of holiness seeing Elaine and immediately knew why. I felt something else almost as quickly but even more surprising. Fortitude.
Thy will be done.
Don’t bring flowers, my nephew warned by text. Nothing to put them in. Get a birthday card for Kenneth. Fresh flowers are kind of my thing, but the Korean bodega that sold them closed. The birthday card was a an excellent idea – it gave us an activity to accomplish together – quality time – I could buy one at the Walgreens along with the travel provisions.
My feelings about birthday cards are either indifference or despair in the best of circumstances. The day was in no need of further poignancy. I picked the first one I saw, the biggest one in the rack. Hans Solo. It was a juvenile card, some Star Wars dialogue as the birthday wish, but since it was over-sized the inside cover allowed for ample space for Elaine to write well-wishes to our older brother. She can move her arms and has a little work desk to lean on for writing on a tablet or notebook or mixing all-natural protein powders with water.
Do you think he’ll know who it is, she asked. A fair question, Kenneth is so off the grid he emails from the computer at the library and hasn’t emailed anybody since 2015. He’s never owned a phone. I think I remember seeing one of the originals with him I said, when he used to visit in his truck. She paused jotting and told me the last time he visited these parts that Kenneth told her about how much he loved having her as a little sister and he cried.
She wrote a nice paragraph in an elegant cursive; my script reads like mumblety-peg scars. I scribbled a Much Love, Happy Birthday, Timothy.
This manic obsession with natural foods and the public and personal danger of western medicine and packaged food is the Kenneth Cult. He was a vegan before there was a word for it, not just natural, mostly uncooked. I emulated him and was a vegetarian for a while in high school, living on peanut butter sandwiches. I began fainting and went back to meat and pizza. Elaine had longer runs with it and eventually became a chiropractor, taking the K.C. to a logical application.
I mailed the card Monday morning from the post office, it would arrive on his birthday, Thursday. On the back of the envelope I printed very slowly so I could maintain legibility: Our little sister has little time. A visit from you would mean the world to her. We love you. Timothy.
The place that replaced the place that sold produce and fresh-cut flowers sells produce and gourmet food and salads and they also have a brilliantly delicious desert bakery. Strawberry Cheese Cake. Layers of significance emanate off every gesture. Cheesecake was one of my mother’s specialty deserts – of which there were three – pecan tarts, a neighborhood favorite and this layered pudding thing with a graham cracker crust topped off by a blanket of whipped cream, chilled into icing. That was my favorite but she rarely made it. Cheesecake was her big desert.
Mom never baked again after Kimball passed. Elaine would bring cheesecake for mom to eat. It was from some place in Brooklyn, where her boyfriend lived. This place had a NYC location near an office I slaved through for a few years and some colleagues would go orgasmic over this cheesecake.
I have to say, mom’s was just as good as any cheesecake I’ve ever had. It all tastes good, but the same. This obsession with this Brooklynn bakery was another example of annoying New York chauvinism. I joshed, is the Jersey City cheesecake as good as Brooklyn? She slowly smirked… almost. She looked just like mom.
Her color was good, for someone whose most of her digestive system has been removed. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but she didn’t appear sickly. The facility is a Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. I hate that they use a verb as a noun, nursing. It’s a live-in physical therapy facility. The hope is that she can go from bed ridden to wheel chair bound.
I lollygagged in Manhattan between the Bronx and Jersey City. I got off at Union Square and watched the summer and the people. Regardless of… well, of the cancer, I was able to hang out with my sister and had some family time and as happy and precious as those are, especially now that their finitude gets more and more apparent, I still need to debrief from the experience. After leaving mom the train ride from Ridgewood to Hoboken was always a memory typhoon, simultaneously analyzing the immediate past, the recent past and the deep past. Mom aging made sure mortally was never excluded from this sometimes exasperating reverie.
Is this the nature of God, the arbitrariness? Everyone is fate. Needing to process family interaction is always framed within the paradox of we cannot chose who we are born to or the historical context in which we are born. What’s not up to us gives our life most of its problems! If only, if only.
The least we all can hope to become is a kind memory. I love summer weather and it was a hot but not humid July day and everybody was younger than me pleasantly beautiful. I have barely left my neighborhood or looked at anything other than the same old everything in a few seasons. I’ve actually walked with little discomfort and felt somewhat healthy during the entire odyssey to the Bronx.
The youngest will die first, the irony of this iteration of the Herrick clan. I believe someday we will all be in the memory dream world of Kenneth living alone in the hills of Sardis, Ohio. Never an ounce of fat on him, has had less than 10 drinks of alcohol his entire life and does yoga every day.
Next day the Sunday 8:00 am. If you’re suggesting that some of my obsession with mass attendance sounds like a touch of the OCD you might have a point. But having a disruption in the prayer pattern and weekend routines enhanced the rosary and service. What could I do about Elaine? What should I do. Bringing her flowers like I did for mom is a pointless notion, as would be books to read or music to listen to or movies to watch – we talk about movies, music and books all the time, or used to – no, cancer is not a broken leg with a cast to sign and a funny story to retell.
I talked to a friend about the trip, how I feel sad but good about the visit, I had clarity. I was also surprised how she was worse than I was led to believe, it’s beyond awful. I’m strangely calm, there’s literally nothing to be done.
Do you think maybe going to mass all the time makes it easier for you to accept death?
Talk about hiding in plain sight. I must admit, death does come up in Catholicism. Be with us particularly at the hour of death so we may face that decisive moment with courage and serenity, Amen. That’s from the Saint Jude novena, prayers I say every weekday. If she was me, I’d be praying like Padre Pio. Elaine has thanked me when I tell her about praying for her. There’s a special Prayer for Someone Who is Sick in one of the Saint Jude prayer kit booklets. I recite it five days a week for her. I will occasionally post an Instagram shot of something Catholic and she will always like and often comment.
Why have we only spoken superficially about faith? That’s the Herrick way. My father rarely went to mass, and I have pre-school memories of watching some probably 30s era animation on the black and white TV set with my father and Elaine while mom and the older four went to mass. Then it was six with mom driving piled into the blue station wagon and Kimball stayed home and after mass we stopped at Gary’s Bakeshop for fresh rolls and rye bread.
Adrienne, the eldest never wavered. I was an altar boy at her wedding. Michael and Suzanne married Jews and raised their kids Jewish, but it was cultural not religious, barely more than having a menorah on the mantle next to the Christmas tree. Arlene told me once, if you ask me both (Judaism/Catholicism) are bullshit.
Kenneth has formulated his own philosophy of life that blends Eastern and Indigenous thought with yes, Jesus Christ is lord and savior.
That information is not gleaned from years of discussion. What I’ve written here is about it for the extent of the conversation about religion I have had with my siblings and that’s always been the case. When you got to high school, Herrick church attendance was voluntary. Except for Adrienne we all had better things to do than go to mass on Sunday mornings and it wasn’t going to be watching old cartoons with the never-know-when-he’ll-erupt Mount Kimball. If you no longer believe that the Eucharist is not the body and blood of Jesus Christ, you didn’t have to go to mass.
If you are living under my roof you are getting your ass to mass – that was the way most of my Roman Catholic peers grew up. When they left home they never went to mass again unless unavoidable, like weddings or funerals. In our house, we could be like Dad. I have a sneaking suspicion that mom, strict in all other areas, maintained a lax mass attendance policy because being away from her children and husband enhanced the peace of mind the roman rite induces.
We’re just not a family to impose religious belief after puberty. My mother’s father was Jewish, so marrying Jews was never an issue. There’s nothing to discuss when nobody cares about religious beliefs other than their own especially if you have none. It’s you and your own soul and that’s why after Confirmation we were free to choose. When I returned to the church and was attending mass with mom when I visited, it caused no blip or comment. Other families, especially with a very observant matriarch, religion can be a divisive sore point. In Herrick realm, nobody cares what someone else believes, not counting self-deprecating sarcasm.
I’m not a proselytizer anyway, the very idea sickens me. My favorite parable is Lazarus and the Rich Man, where the Rich Man has to resign himself to burning in hell without even a drop of water on his tongue for the way he treated the sickly and impoverished Lazarus, his final request is for the Messiah to rise from the dead and prove there is a heaven to his friends and family so they can stop being shitheads, God says, if they don’t believe in the prophets and the law, they’re not going to believe in a resurrected Messiah.
God is telling us, the basis of faith is already here, but no one can find it for you. I can tell you that I receive Peace of Mind from the Catholic Mass, but I cannot show you my interior solitude. I behave morally and if people who meet me and know me can see that then that’s the extent of all the evangelism I got.
Thus, the core of a problem with Elaine. Her ex-husband and father of her son was Moroccan, raised Muslim but no obvious religious practices. The guy was a dolt and couldn’t handle his liquor and was out of her life before Hallaj was a preteen. She’s been a single mom since the dawn of the 21st century. Elaine has the same catholic upbringing and education as all of us, yet she wasn’t a believer (Adrienne, Timothy) or anti-religion (Michael, Suzanne). She was a member of the Kenneth Cult, where a sliver of Christianity resides. He once wrote a precisely printed letter to mom thanking her for raising him catholic but hasn’t been inside a church since my father’s funeral in 1988.
Several years ago, just after mom was admitted into the Assisted Living facility but could still go outside we’d go on excursions, mom in the front, me in the back. Elaine drove a taupe minivan. I found a book of inspirational aphorism that was easy to look at. A few mentioned Jesus Christ. Nice book, fancy dark-blue leatherette cover – upbeat reinforcement, New Age but with a Christian friendly bent – but only in few passages, far from the entire content – not a book seeking to convert to belief or substitute for scripture, still Jesus Christ was central to some of the thought conveyed in the motivational aphorisms.
Any mention of Christ was unusual in the self-help or natural health books she liked. I remember asking her about it but she hadn’t really read this book. It was a gift or something. Whatever discussion we had was in passing. Other than nativity set figures small enough for the bookshelf during the holidays, I have no idea how she feels about God or Catholicism, the one true faith or as I like to call it the one form of Christianity that you won’t be spending time in Purgatory for believing. (yes, that’s joking/not joking).
Though, what I do know is now this question is unavoidable. Duh. Face to Face with the fact eternity awaits no matter what we know or believe.
Tangibility when it comes to belief seems a matter of degree. Praying the rosary and the pallor of the dying can both be called by faith, examples of the divine. If you would say where is the proof? I would say proof of what? Encroaching death is a more tangible sign than a prayer to the unseen, as signs are generally defined. If what that proves is the same as what it enables to be proven is a very separate discussion.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen – recited 53 times each Rosary.
I wanted to see her again as soon as possible, that was my the immediate notion. I would be saying the rosary if I was her, but my pushing or insisting will only make her resentful and my siblings would rather do purgatory time then agree with me.
Leaving a set with her and another slice of cheesecake – blueberry – would make for a nice visit.
Order some fancy rosary off the internet? All the catholic stores I knew were closing when I was still working in New York, going shopping for a set was a ludicrous idea. I have a few sets at home and they’re mostly decorative, except for the wooden beads from Israel. But I was mired in reverie about the implications and subtexts and the actual experience of the journey to the Bronx to visit Elaine before the wooden beads idea dawned on me.
First I emailed a Herrick group chain.
“Had a nice visit with Elaine, she’s lucid and enduring and drinking and eating natural products. She’s 94 pounds, essentially immobile from the waist down. I brought a birthday card for Kenneth which she filled out and mailed it this morning at the post office. On the back I wrote our little sister has little time. In all honesty, she looked worse than I feel I was led to believe — although her color was good — and it troubles me to write this but I think the only question left is will she go home before Hospice. August has been unkind to this family this century. Love you all.”
Adrienne emailed me back privately saying
“Thanks for your perspective and also for sending it to Michael & Suzanne. While I understand your feelings and perspective on her condition, I prefer to try to be positive until it is no longer feasible. She is trying to be positive also. She’s in my daily prayers. I am so thankful that at least one of the sibs were able to see her!!! If it wasn’t for the pandemic and the inflated gas & motel costs I would have been there also. THANK YOU SO MUCH! Love, Adrienne
I responded by transcribing the Wooden Beads idea as it developed in my mind.
“ my plan is to visit her asap and give her rosary beads. These are one of my “traveling” beads, not the daily main ones of course. They are wooden, from Israel. The deacon gave them after he & his wife LOURDES returned from a pilgrimage to the holy land. Filipino. I am going to tell them tomorrow after mass. I am hoping there’s a brochure or something kicking around, How to Pray the Rosary, and I’ll just leave it with her. It’s not a chain but a string and the cross is untied but I bought some stuff at the 99 cents store and I’ll fix it. Same thing happened to Lourdes and we discussed rosary repairs a few years ago. These were the rosary beads I used when I prayed to Momma Mary the last time I saw mom. When I told Elaine this story, after I said the prayers mom was alert and said Timothy, she was surprised that mom actually said my name. Deacon Caesar and Lourdes loved this story. I have never seen anyone so emaciated. Arlene retained more weight at the end. I’ve never seen death so present. You better than few others I know understand exactly what I’m saying. Hospitals, assisted living facilities, waiting rooms — the same visage behind the face becomes more and more visible — it took my breath away, but I also discovered something that surprised me. Fortitude. I’m sure going to daily mass and sustaining a devotion to Saint Jude since 1997 has nothing to do with it. I am always positive about her healthcare, for my answer has always been, what did Adrienne say?”
The second visit wasn’t as quiet as the first. A lot of staff checking on her, but nothing medical, nurse’s aide business, lunch. The subways were delayed, the trip slightly more aggravating, my mood not as even. She was a little more tired, but looked better and seemed stronger. She had actually been outside the day before. The immediate goal is to be able to sit up. She loves her new physical therapist.
I’m getting a little frustrated because every exchange gets interrupted by a nurse’s aide or somebody in scrubs face below the eyes concealed by the disposable surgical mask with paperwork or critical information, like no soup with lunch today or the PT has been rescheduled.. At one point Elaine mentioned a former coworker said she was praying for her.
Speaking of praying I have brought you a gift other than cheesecake.
I’d like to say that we held hands and recited the Magnificat in Latin, but no. I would like you to have these and told the story about Mom which she knew but it’s a tale she wanted retold. These were those beads.
Any conversion moment would’ve happened there but a nurse’s aide came into talk about the activity calendar taped to the wall. That wasn’t there the week before, maybe they’re incentivizing her to be less bed ridden. The significance of giving her the rosary seemed downgraded to thoughtful gesture. We talked about the sequence of the prayers, she looked at the brochure. We didn’t talk about God or the immortal soul or the Communion of Saints or anything like that.
I fear August less.
I like the way they feel in my hand, she said, which is exactly what I told Lourdes when I asked if she had any kind of how to pray the rosary brochures and I told her it was for my sister. Due to sibling rivalry I have to diplomatically suggest not impose prayer, maybe with the prayer and brochure left behind she’ll pick it up on her own. Being from a big family, she understands the dynamic and of course had the brochure. Lourdes offered to give me a new rosary, but I told her that I was giving her the wooden beads you gave me from the holy lands, the one I prayed with my mother, when she said my name.
I like the way they feel in my hand and I like knowing these specific beads are in hers.
She understood. I only pray with wooden beads.