My brother died last night. I got the news in one of those dreaded early hours phone calls, from my daughter Barbara in Johannesburg. I think I knew, going to answer the call, what it would be.
Michael had been admitted to hospital two weeks earlier. At that time, it was not clear what the problem was, and tests results were awaited. Cancer was a possibility (he had been a heavy smoker for decades), and he also was having major difficulty keeping any food down, so had lost a lot of weight. We all knew though, what was the real problem – years of drinking, and sleeping rough which followed, had destroyed his health. Recently, his difficult living conditions were also starting to undermine his desire to live.
Tests showed that it was not after all cancer, but there was pneumonia. This was still serious, but with nursing care and proper nutrition (by a drip), he had sfirst eemed to start recovering, then unexpectedly passed away last night. When Michael was first admitted, one of the first people to see him was the parish priest, who confided to one of my sisters that he did not think Michael had more than a fortnight to live. In spite of what appeared to have been some improvement, he was right almost to the day.
The involvement and attendance of a priest will have been a great comfort to my mother: after spending most his life estranged from the church, Michael had been having regular discussions with Fr Gerry over the past year or so, and had himself been undertaking what he saw as missionary work, arranging informal prayer meetings among his neighbours in the shanty town community where he was living.
My mother, Doreen, was a convert from her parents’ Seventh Day Adventist Church. She made the switch to marry my father, who was of Irish / German ancestry, and insisted on the conversion to his own faith. However, firm as he was in a proclaimed Catholic faith, he was never known to attend Mass outside of Easter, weddings and funerals. It was Mom then, who raised seven children in the Catholic church, dutifully shepherding us all off to Sunday Mass, and ensuring that we all attended Catholic schools (until the sheer expense made it prohibitive, which nearly broke her heart). As the family moved (repeatedly, on business transfer) around the country, she became a stalwart in a succession of parishes, baking endless cakes for the Catholic Women’s Leagues, standing outside supermarkets with CWL collection tins, and serving on convent schools’ PTAs. She was bitterly disappointed to find over the years, that as her children grew up and left home, they all appeared to drift away from the adopted Church which had come to mean so much to her, or even . Yet,when I visited last September, I was fascinated to see that of the seven children, five had become involved in what some might see as some form of missionary work, (although some of it very unconventional). In Port Elizabeth, one daughter has given up her business career to work full time as an unpaid volunteer for the Methodist church, doing business consulting for poverty alleviation and development charities. Another is deeply involved in conventional parish activities in her (evangelical) Anglican parish. In Cape Town, another sister has moved right away from conventional religion, but is involved with other forms of spirituality and with voluntary counselling programs. Here in London, I have the Soho gay Masses and this site, which I see as a form of mission. And Michael had his shanty town mission.
My Mother’s own mission is no longer helping the Church. At her age, with only one lung, (one was removed in a very early bout of pneumonia), she tires easily can barely walk to the communion rail. She no longer bakes cakes for the CWL, nor rattles collection boxes for the church on Saturday mornings. Instead, for years her main concern has been looking after her beloved Michael, trying to “help” in whatever way she could, despite all professional advice that the help she was attempting to provide was probably counter-productive. All of us have had different ideas about how to respond to Michael’ problem, which at times has threatened to drive the family apart. Through it all, Mom has stuck by him resolutely, offering constant help, materially and in constant prayer. Over and over, she insisted against all evidence that he was “doing well”, and would “come right” in the end. Perhaps, after all, she is right, “in the end”, as he now enters into new life.
Please pray for my brother, Michael.
Pray for my mother, Doreen
Pray for me, and my own weaknesses. .