They show up often in books, unintended reminders of something that is very likely no business of the discoverer’s. In his novella Kathleen, Christopher Morley gets the action going when a young man finds a letter in a book—in a library, in a bookstore, I forget which. Letting Go, Philip Roth’s best novel, I think, begins with a young man reading a letter from his dying mother and the reader is caught up in its elegiac phrases and the poignancy of such a communication between parent and child.
Old missals and breviaries are often veritable files for holy cards, among them memorials of someone’s death. Someday in the unimaginable future someone will open a book and find such a card. “In Loving Memory of Mary Elizabeth O’Callaghan. December 10, 1996.” That single date will set the mind going and something at least generic about sadness and hope will be stirred up in another soul.
As protest against the centrifugal force of modern society there is much talk of families and communities, most of it bogus. Real families become tenuous and unstable and individuals seem only that, individuals. But there is only one way into this world and that is via a mother’s womb; birth is to that degree a social event. “For we are born in others’ pain, and perish in our own.”
If death is something each must do alone, it also involves others, and never more so than when a child dies, especially in the womb. When Mary and John learned that their child, already seven months along, no longer lived, they were devastated. A delivery without hope of life, the ambiguity of one dead before she saw the light of day. They were fortunate to find that they would suffer their ordeal in the midst of family.
Their own, of course, parents and siblings, but a wider one as well, that of Notre Dame. Just north of campus there is a grouping of buildings: married student housing. There in penury and shared anxieties and joys, young people pursue advanced degrees against a background of domestic noise: kids laughing and crying, the spills and thrills and parties and anniversaries, pregnancies, births, baptisms. In this village, as it has been called for more than twenty years, there had never before been an event like Mary Elizabeth. Always before, miscarriage had occurred early. A stillborn infant was new. It was not something to go through alone, and in these circumstances it would have been impossible to do so.
Father David Burrell, the chaplain of the Village, said Mass in the crypt of Sacred Heart Basilica, and it was edifying to see a professor acting as what he more essentially is, a priest. Father Michael Sherwin preached a moving sermon on the way our lives are strung upon the rosary that recalls the mysteries of our salvation. The church was packed. There had been no announcement of the Mass, there didn’t have to be. People heard and came. For those who were there, that is what this little card will recall.
But it will fall under the eyes of others down the years. In La vie spirituelle of 1938 I came upon a card, bound permanently with the pages of the magazine, a card asking that favors granted by the intercession of Archbishop Lamy should be made known to an address given. Whoever used it as a bookmark scarcely imagined that it would be at least as permanent as the page it marked. Libraries and used book-stores are treasuries of such unintended reminders and one hears the ghost of Hamlet’s father keening, “Adieu, adieu, remember me.”
In a copy of the Summa theologiae I have kept a letter from my mother, a mere bookmark at the time; she was alive then and of course would write other letters. Mothers are immortal. Eventually I realized how precious it was. It bears no date but from its contents I can locate it on the line of her life and ours. In a copy of Thomas’s Quaestiones disputatae, there is a letter from Marvin O’Connell written when I was a graduate student and he still a seminarian. Thus in books of mine I find notices for faculty meetings that took place decades ago and in a copy of Plato’s Republic, bought in 1949, I recently found an earnest note to myself in which I laid out the dialogue I would write that would rival Plato’s. Ah, youth!
Long thoughts brought on by a sad yet somehow joyful event. There are as many joys and sadnesses as there are lives, many more in fact, and all the more because we are sustained by others when the sadness comes and it becomes in some sense theirs as well. So I recall little Mary Elizabeth as I will always remember Michael Mclnerny who went to God forty years ago at the age of three and whose wide blue eyes look into mine from the card I carry in my wallet.