I am standing with my mother and her friend Stella on the beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I’m 12 years old. Our toes sink into the wet sand, and we wiggle them free as the waves retreat. Stella searches the horizon, her, head cocked back, poised in a salute to the scorching August sun overhead. My mother's olive skin, like Stella's, has turned toasty brown after only a few days. On the other hand, I inherited my father's Celtic genes and am a splotchy pink.
It is August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, 1973. We are waiting for the bishop to fly overhead inside a tiny plane to bless the waters in which we are standing.
According to The Lives of the Saints, the Blessed Mother "did not molder in her grave" but was" saved from all defilement and malady that weakens the bodily frame." Unlike other mortals, Mother Mary was taken "body and soul" into heaven. To commemorate her Assumption on this date, these New Jersey waters are blessed every year.
My mother's stout and sturdy figure fits snugly inside her navy blue swimsuit. She is holding a Tupperware container so she can fill it with the sanctified seawater. Stella, the same height as my mother, no more than five feet, is in a flouncy floral, with a pleated skirt.
"Katie, wasn't that procession beautiful today?" she says to my mother, who nods and smiles.
Earlier that morning the faithful had followed Father Palumbo and three altar boys down Atlantic Avenue. A group of Italian men, two elderly ones with short sleeve shirts buttoned to the collar, and a two younger ones with thick black hair, broad shoulders and skinny waists carried a statue of the Virgin. The statue wobbled as its bearers strained to steady the platform covered in roses and white carnations. Women followed, fanning themselves with church bulletins, rosaries hanging from their fingers like vines.
We had all been at Mass, but my mother and Stella were more interested in the coming action on the beach. The “Blessing” was the real spiritual payoff; the part of the day when they'd have a something to take home. The soon-to-be holy water was a tangible, object that could be shared, saved for emergencies, something to show for their faith.
I am full of doubt and introspection. The ritual offends my adolescent agnostic bent. Still it is impossible to sustain utter disbelief around Stella and Katie.
We hear a buzzing sound, a puttering and then a roar. The plane passes. A white hand waves and disappears from inside the plan. People on the beach make the sign of the cross. I see Mrs. McGuire and her three sons, one in a wheel chair that the two others dragged to the beach. A frail woman in a low-slung beach chair at the water’s edge rubs her knotty arthritic knees with the water. She kisses her silver medal pinned on her cotton dress like a piece of hope. A young mother drags her toddler into the ocean and wets his hair.
No one is expecting to see an angel or the Blessed Virgin. The sparkle of the sun on the water or the tail of a shifting cloud is enough of a sign for most of them.
My mother splashes me. "Bless yourself, Patricia….You'll do good in school," she laughs, and I laugh with her.
A few raindrops begin to fall.
“Look Katie, it’s raining,” Stella says, “the Blessed Mother’s tears, good luck. She knows we’re here.”
My mother's faith is simple and straightforward. She expects practical rewards for her devotion; and if they are not forthcoming, she'll settle for a sense of community within the Church where she is an active raffle ticket seller and cake sale baker. She has endured the burden of a drug addicted son by praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She hopes for the best and puts the rest in God’s hands.
Now it is again August. 1989. The day after the Assumption, and Stella has saved some holy water to bring to my mother's hospital room. In her pale blue hospital gown, my mother’s chest is flat from her mastectomy three years prior.
A new nurse on the floor addresses my mother as "Mr. Lawler," and I quickly correct her, enraged at the error, but still aware, that the bald head and wasted body seem without gender to a stranger. I have already summoned a priest, although my faith has long been broken in the brittle August days that are crackling outside, drying up my hope. But Stella is still lively. Her loud voice booms against the white tile floor. She is more familiar with death than I, and faces it head-on. This, she knows, is the last chance to say good-bye to her good friend and she doesn't waste a minute on silent stares of anguish.
"Katie, Katie," she says, "I've got some water from the shore, the priest blessed it yesterday." Stella presses a small vial into my mother’s hand and closes it for her. My mother's breathing comes in full gasps as if she is trying to suck the whole scene inside of her.
Stella compresses their life together in this short time. She repeats old stories—The Mummer’s Parade, the way they danced together at weddings, how they both loved Burt Lancaster movies, all of this --- until my mother is alert enough to smile. Stella, a mother of six, knows the most important thing for Katie to hear is that her children will be all right. Her daugther Carol is married to my brother, and like him, an addict. Stella knows the sorrows of motherhood too. And they both look to Mary because she suffered with her child too. It is the hour of reassurance, of letting go, of peace. That my wedding a week ago was perfect and I am happy. That my brother, though still afflicted, is trying to find work.
I am talking to my mother as well, fussing with the water pitcher, changing channels on the overhead tv. I won’t tell her the meaning of her life. It is as if by holding back I can save her.
Stella leaves that evening and doesn’t return. I spend the next day merely watching the defilement and malady of the body that brought me to life. A nurse comes in and delicately as possible offers to up the morphine drip to end my mother’s suffering, and I believe she means my own as well. Alone, I agree.
An hour later I get the call. I am told that at the last moment, she sat up, looked towards heaven and fell back to her pillow. I chose to believe Mother Mary came to her, took her and is with her still.