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Mary Flanagan pushes her glasses back on her nose. Then, with well-practiced ease, she slips her hands under her graying brown hair where it covers her ears and fluffs it out. These are customary gestures when she is concerned, what gamblers might call her tell. “Christ hae mercy,” she says. It is Mary’s strongest oath, one that she has used only three times before. She can remember those times well.
“Christ hae mercy,” she had said when she was told that her son, Sean Jr., would be returning from Vietnam a quadriplegic. His jeep had hit a mine and rolled over with him trapped beneath. His neck had been broken, leaving him with only a slight amount of movement in his right arm, barely enough to operate the electric wheelchair which the Veterans Administration provided and which is now sitting unused and uncharged in his bedroom. Now he sits, as he does most days, watching television. The wheelchair in which he is sitting is one that Mary had purchased because it would be lighter for her to push.
“Christ hae mercy,” she had said when she was told her husband, Sean Sr., had died of a stroke while driving his M.T.A. bus down Massachusetts Avenue. The bus had careened off a telephone pole and crashed into two parked cars. One pedestrian had died. Some of the passengers had been injured, some severely and some less so. Sean had been dead on arrival at Cambridge City Hospital.
“Christ hae mercy,” she had said when her daughter, Kathleen, told her that she had lost the baby that she had so longed for. The doctors told her there would never be another pregnancy, a pronouncement that both Kathleen and Mary had tried to take with practiced Catholic stoicism. John, the would-be father, had not been so stoical. He had left his wife and remarried outside the church – a secretary at his office, a woman desired by many who did not know her.
“Kathleen, you’re still married in the eyes of God,” Mary had counseled with fervor. Kathleen, having given up hope forKenneth Weene husband and child, took a job practical-nursing at The Sisters of Mercy Home for the Incurable, a hospice with a dramatic and palatial presence near Boston College and a reputation for providing loving care for terminal patients – especially those with contagious diseases.
Now, for the fourth time, Mary Flanagan is taking the Lord’s name in vain. At least that is her feeling about it. As the words pass her lips, she knows that tomorrow she will go to confession rather than wait until her usual Friday visit. She knows that Father Frank will, of course, laugh at her sense of sin. He more often than not does. “Mary,” he will say. “It’s hardly taking the Lord’s name in vain to ask for mercy. It’s part of the mass itself.” “It isn’t the words, Ferther, but the way I said them,” Mary will respond with her Irish accent still intact after living most of her sixty-three years in Boston. “It was an oath, and that I swear to.” This she will say and cross herself with solemnity.
Then, to appease her guilt, Father Frank will give her a penance, which he’ll already know will be doubled or even tripled. “She suffers from such religious pride,” the priest will reflect as Mary leaves the confessional, “but that is beyond her grasp.” He’ll think this and shrug his shoulders in resignation.
That comes tomorrow. Right now Mary is dealing with the news. Her friend and confidante of thirty some years is leaving Boston, going to Florida to live with her sister. “I can’t take any more of the snow, Mary. It leaves my bones aching. My sister says it’s almost never cold in Fort Lauderdale, and they have electric heat just in case. Imagine, never being cold.” Lois pauses for a moment. “You know, Mary, you and Sean could move to Florida, too. It would be a lot easier for you, and Sean would be able to go out more.”
This last comment was, they both knew, ridiculous since Sean never went out except for his medical appointments at the V.A. Hospital in Brookline. Then she would call an ambulette, which would take him to the hospital entrance and whisk him home again as if he were hermetically sealed off from the world of the able- bodied.
And, of course Mary takes him to church, to mass.
Mary, with diligent resistance, considers her friend’s suggestion. “I cannot leave Sean’s grave and go to Florida. I have my duty. And, there’s Kathleen. Would you ask me to leave my daughter without a home?” It is true that Mary visits her husband’s grave as often as she can, bringing with her a small bunch of flowers to leave by the headstone. It is not true that Kathleen considers this her home. In fact, she has not visited this immaculate house since her husband had left and Mary had made her pronouncement of required eternal marital fidelity. In that pronouncement the church had alienated mother and daughter in a way that neither of them could ever discuss. Mary knows this because every night she kneels on the small, worn blue rug by her bed, eyes fixed on the “Bleeding Heart” and speaks to God of her sorrow. She offers her pain up to Him and for the redemption of her lost husband’s soul.
“No, Lois, I’ll miss you awful. But this is my home. This is the house that Sean and I made ours, and I plan to die here.”
“Momma.” The young man’s voice is soft and labored.
“Yes, Sean, my darling.”
“I need to use the facilities.” Mary gets to her feet slowly – with the weight of years and sorrows. Carefully, meditating every step, she pushes her son’s chair into the kitchen with its time-scarred pine cabinets and faded furnishings, and across the off-green linoleum floor to the door that had once led to the garage and which now connects to his bedroom with its carefully designed bathroom.
Mary had had the garage converted into a bedroom and bathroom for Sean so that he could stay in the house. The rooms had been designed with space for his chair and hoists to help move him about. Without those mechanical devices, Mary could not have helped him. Her body no longer has the strength that had once allowed her to raise her children, do the housework, and take in laundry to add a few dollars to the family budget.
She slips a harness around her son’s inert body, and an electric motor hoists him upright. She pulls down his pajama pants and then slowly lowers him, keeping him positioned with one hand, onto the toilet. When he has finished, she raises him again, cleans his behind carefully with pre-moistened wipes as if he were an infant, spreads a protective salve, pulls up his pajama bottoms, and then – ever so carefully lowers him into his chair.
Sitting in the blue club chair, her head resting on a painstakingly crocheted doily, Lois waits in silence. Her eyes rest on the red and white bisque plant, an anniversary gift of long ago. She doesn’t bother to look about, for she knows the room and knows that it holds neither secrets nor excitements. She knows from experience that this bathroom routine will take at least twenty minutes. That is of no concern. She also knows that the embarrassment it costs the young man is beyond calculation. The pain that it causes her friend, Lois knows, is also beyond her understanding; but she knows that this pain, like all of Mary’s others, will be offered up without complaint.
Lois wonders how it is possible in a world run by a just God that the active young man whom she had once watched climbing the neighborhood trees, playing stick ball in the streets, and skitching behind cars along icy streets has been reduced to this impotent mass. It is also a source of wonder for her that he continues to live now that he can do so little to help himself. It is, in Lois’s mind, a cruel trick of God to have so burdened a saint such as Mary Flanagan. Then, Lois has never been that much a fan of God. Her own life has given no proof of divine love, only of life’s pain.
Mary, Lois knows, is another story altogether – devout enough for all of Boston’s Irish. If souls can be prayed from purgatory, then Mary has rescued untold numbers. But that is not what has made Lois her friend. Lois values Mary Flanagan because she is decent and kind. Behind the well-worn quality of Mary’s life, Lois senses those qualities of propriety and care. But there are some things more, some things which Lois can not quite define. If forced she would mention courage, yes courage, and ... and, yes, intelligence.
Lois sits patiently until Sean is once again in front of the television. He is watching reruns of “I Love Lucy.” Over the years it has seemed to her that Sean has only liked reruns, reruns from his childhood. Often she has pondered the why of this. “Perhaps,” she thinks, “in those shows he can lose himself, he can make believe that he is once again whole.”
“I’ll miss you something fierce,” Mary comments after she has settled herself on the faded red sofa.
“I know that, dear.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” Sean adds somewhat surprisingly. “You’re our only visitor.” That is true enough. Over the years Mary and Sean’s friends and family have slowly disappeared from their lives. Now, only Lois comes to see them. Many days even the postman doesn’t come. They receive almost no mail other than bills, Social Security and veterans’ checks, and third class mail addressed to occupant.