Losing our matriarch
At the start of April, some of my aunts and uncles mentioned to my Grandmother, Mary Sheahan, that her birthday was coming up, reminding her that her birthday is April 10.
“Oh,” she said as casually as if she were discussing the bus schedule. “I’m not going to make that.”
She passed away less than a week shy of her 95th birthday. Her death was not a shock, and we were as prepared, at least bureaucratically, as a family can be.
My Grandmother was born Mary Fogarty in 1924 in Roscrea, Tipperary, in what was then the Irish Free State. There were only 48 United States at that time, and Calvin Coolidge was President. Prohibition would last another nine years in America.
Her father had been in the British Army, enlisting in the early 20th century when all of Ireland was under British control. He had spent time in India and had fought in the First World War, including the fierce Battle of the Marne. When he came to the U.S. he worked as a janitor and had fought for the right to organize a union, winning a court battle to form a union. This sense of right and wrong, and fighting for your principles is one that runs strongly in our family to this day.
My Grandmother married my grandfather, John Sheahan, in 1948 and their first child was born in 1949. At one family barbecue, her oldest son, my uncle Tim, pointed out to her that his birthday was exactly nine months and one day past her wedding date. She giggled and, noticing me observing this conversation, instructed me not to comment. Tim smiled and said, “It was Bear Mountain,” referring to where my grandparents had honeymooned.
I doubt I will ever know anyone who embodies unconditional love and the joy of living the way my grandmother did. Her world centered around her family and with seven children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren, she had a lot of love to share and names to keep straight. Hers was always the voice of kindness and love, and her generosity of spirit never waned. Whether it was caring for my Grandfather through decades of debilitating health problems or facing her own mortality years later, she was always an example of great strength. It was she who went about my Grandfather’s wake comforting others who were weeping, even though it was her moment to mourn more than anyone’s. We would have easily forgiven her a moment or two of self pity, having lost a husband, a daughter, and son-in-law along the way and dealing with difficult health issues in her final years. But she was a rock of strength, sustained by a strong religious faith and a dedication to her family that went beyond what anyone could ever ask.
My Grandmother’s life was her family, and she showed us that the greatest joys are often the ones of simply being present and investing time and care into the lives of the people around you. Her power stretched far beyond her blood relatives and her wake and funeral saw visitors from every part of her life, including people she had worked with decades ago or knew her as a neighbor for only the last few years.
If there is any available measure of the amount of love my Grandmother brought into the world, it was reflected in the care and hard work her own children did during her final months and years. My Father and aunts and uncles worked around the clock taking care of her and navigating through our Byzantine and often inept healthcare system. When her final course was set, relatives flew to New York from all over the country to be with my Grandmother at the end.
When my Grandmother passed, our family became a team effort yet again. My Aunt Patty’s house became a central gathering place, my cousins gave readings at the funeral or served alongside me as pallbearers. My Aunt Peggy arranged for the Ridgefield Chorale to sing at church and they did beautifully. My Father delivered a beautiful eulogy that left not a dry eye in the house and had both humor and inspiration.
One thing that my older relatives taught me is that the work you have to do during a wake and funeral is helpful, in that it keeps your mind occupied on something else other than the loss of your loved one. I was honored to be a pall bearer, and focused on making sure things went smoothly at what is the most heart-wrenching part of the funeral.
In the years after my Grandfather died, my Grandmother described a dream she had. She sees my Grandfather, appearing as he had when younger, dressed sharply in a suit and hat. He strides through the lobby of a building and gets into an elevator. She goes to follow him in but he puts his hand up, signaling this was not her time. The elevator doors close and the car begins its climb without her. I hope this dream replayed again for my Grandmother, and she joins my Grandfather on the elevator this time. The doors now close on the rest of us.
We are without our matriarch, but she has left us with loving instructions in the way of her example. If we live our lives with a fraction of the love, dignity and grace that Mary Sheahan had, we will have earned our rest.