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Squeamish feelings laced my email to the Pastor of the College Church, requesting a Memorial Mass following my passing. A member since 1977, my departure thirty years later had been abrupt. There was this dream:

It is Sunday, at the College Church. Soon the Mass will begin. The noise is deafening: hundreds of parishioners chatter, musicians tune their instruments, and the choir rehearses. In the vestibule with others, I sit in my little red go-car, like the Shriners drive, and wait for the entrance procession to begin. With the signal, I rev my car and follow the one in front of me down the main aisle. Suddenly, my car veers off to the right, races past the others, makes a sharp turn at the sanctuary gates, and exits down the steps onto Lindell Boulevard.

 For months prior to this dream, I had been uneasy with the Sunday liturgy; it listed toward the theatrical, pumped me with excitement, and pulled me out of why I had come in the first place. The dream’s message seemed clear: Leave. It never occurred to me to speak with the pastor. In retrospect, however, the problem was mine.

Yesterday’s visit with Father Dan, however, reversed years of festering resentment, reconnected me with decades of worship that had sustained my chronic illness and pain, recalled old friends, and restored deep peace. “It’s not that often that I meet with the terminally ill who plan their own funerals,” Father Dan said handing me the guidebook he’d brought.

He understood far more than he thought. I’m relieved and grateful.

 

 

 

I can’t believe what just happened. No matter that I was new at my job with the Visiting Nurse Association, that I was swamped handling our own referrals and had no time for supervising. She poo-pooed my objections, said that I had been recommended by the social worker at Cardinal Glennon’s for her practicum placement and no other would do. Besides, she was late for her class at Washington University and had to leave. Laughing, she grabbed her stuff and said, “See you Monday. This’ll work out—You’ll see!”

And it did, but not as you would think. She had no need for supervision: I needed it from her. Thus began our dinner meetings in the Delmar Loop, August 1979.

A single mom, she was raising five children, working nights at Glennon’s ER and finishing her master’s degree in Social work, besides having one in nursing. She inspired me to minimize my arthritic pain and engage in life around me. It worked, even to discarding my social work practice and becoming a certified chaplain, a better fit with my emerging gifts.

Our bonding deepened with annual retreats at Gloucester, where we continued our dinner meetings over fresh seafood and more laughter. There, she found her God in tending seagulls, their wings broken by the casts of anglers on the breakfront by Gloucester harbor—My wings have long since been whole.

Long seasoned with life’s fullness, she continues touching many.

Her name is Pat.

 

 

Questions about the timing of Mary Oliver’s last publication, Upstream, Selected Essays in 2016 caught my attention. She passed in 2018.

In these nineteen essays, two of which are original to this slim volume, she left us a life-long template of her spirited struggles. It’s as if she had unfurled gossamer threads over her troubled psyche; then wove them into a wordsmith, a solitary, a listener, a passionate observer of life’s waxing and waning, a priestess.

For whatever reasons, Mary Oliver was not safe in her childhood home or in the classroom. Such fragile beginnings are nuanced in her first essay, together with the compelling influence of her mentors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. Only in the surrounding woods and creek outside her semi-rural Cleveland home did she find solace; it became her Temple where she pondered, wrote, and discovered who she was, what she was, and what she wanted to be in the world.

And she became that, and exquisitely so.

Her nineteen essays in Upstream reflect her affinity with whatever flies in the skies, maneuvers on the forest floor, or swims in the ocean: a black-backed gull, a snapping turtle, a common spider, among others. Her judiciously placed words illumine the depth of her exuberance; its freshness feels like the first morning of creation. Yet, the leitmotif of death shadows its élan.

Perhaps sensing her own, she must have selected each essay in Upstream, mindful of its whorl of energy enriching the one following and plunging her readers into the mystery of living life with its imponderables.

 

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