A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Cross and the Recliner

The Pieta: the artistic depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ after His body is taken down from the cross. The most famous is Michelangelo’s marble statue in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.”                                                                                                                                       

The Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 1995. Richard McBrien, General Editor.

She never said a word, but I could tell by the grimace that this new pillow wasn’t working.

Our daughter and her husband live in Belgium where they are both teachers. They were home for a summer visit when it became clear that Kathleen would be unable to return to Belgium. She had been battling breast cancer for over eleven years; the cancer was now in her bones and exacerbating rapidly. Kathleen was now finding it difficult to even walk. It was becoming almost impossible for her to get into a comfortable position. The slightest movement was painful, and changing positions became a monumental chore. We surrounded her with all sorts of pillows to ease the pain of transition from one location to another. When those pillows didn’t help, we ran out to buy new and different pillows of various shapes and sizes. We had all types of pillows; round ones, square, oblong, soft, firm, and rectangular. We had small ones, large, medium, and even extra small. Eventually, the assortment of pillows which had, at one time, lovingly encircled her with comfort, now just seemed to be causing pain.

Nothing worked any more. The air mattress actually hurt her back, and so we returned it. The memory foam helped for a few days, and then even that was unable to relieve the excruciating bone pain. When a pain spasm hit, Kathleen had to change positions quickly in order to alleviate the sudden onslaught. Someone suggested an electric recliner which would enable her to change positions more easily. Why not? That might be a possibility. We ran out to Raymour & Flanagan, and purchased their top-of- the- line electric recliner, demanding a two-day delivery. It arrived as scheduled. We were all elated since we felt that this was the holy grail of comfort; we felt certain that this “magical” chair would be the answer. Initially, it worked. When the pain spasms hit, Kathleen was able to quickly move the chair in such a way that it enabled her to alleviate the pain at the pressure points. She still needed the assortment of pillows. This arrangement lasted only about two days.

Then, no matter what we did, the pain broke through. The cancer had effectively invaded all of Kathleen’s bones and any movement was excruciating. The chair, the pillows, and even the morphine couldn’t stop the persistent onslaught of the cancer pain. It broke through all Kathleen’s defenses. It went around, through, over and under everything we put in its path.

At this point in the battle, all I wanted to do was to hold her, tell her I loved her with all my heart, and remind her that God was waiting for her. But Kathleen was in such pain that it was impossible to even touch her. Not even being sure she was able to hear me, I told her I loved her.  My mind went back to those young and carefree days when I could hug and squeeze her till she laughed out loud. That was in my dreams; my reality was that I couldn’t cause her more pain. I felt rooted to the spot, my leaden feet refusing to move, and my heart breaking. Just one more hug was all I wanted.

Was this how Mary felt when she could not hug her Son as he was dying on the cross?



Kathleen eventually settled into an apparently comfortable spot in the recliner. I think it was the combination of the morphine, the pillows, and a decreased level of consciousness that allowed a moment of respite for her. That moment gradually evolved into a deeper level of unresponsiveness, and as she rested in the recliner, Kathleen finally went home to God in the evening of August 11, 2011. The  family said its good-byes and, eventually, I had some time alone with her. I sat at the foot of the recliner, close enough to finally be able to hug her. I told her I was so sorry that the cancer had not come for me instead of her. What else was there to say? I was drained, mentally and physically.

Was this sadness what Mary might have been feeling? As Mary held the dead Jesus in her arms, did she ask “why?” as I was? Perhaps. In faith, I knew I had to give that question back to God, knowing that I would never know the answer until I see Him face to face. I asked God for the strength to never ask that question again, and I also asked for the strength to trust Him totally and completely.

C.S. Lewis once said that, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” I will try to put my anguish aside, so that I can hear the voice of God, now that He is shouting.

The Pieta by Michelangelo depicts Mary holding her dead son in her arms. I was at the foot of the recliner, my cross, holding my dead daughter. At that moment, I felt a deep connection to Mary; she had her cross, I had my recliner. Hopefully, as time goes by, she will help to heal my shattered heart.

“Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are at my side.”

From the 23rd Psalm

 Anne Finnegan is mother of five, and grandmother of nine, and this is part of a memoir she is writing on her family. She lives in West Islip NY

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