A Catholic Monthly Magazine

It Tolls for Thee

Anne Kerrigan“If you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.”

A father writing to his child, from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, 2004. Page 52.

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Child bell

© KenRockwell.com

John Donne, English poet, 1572-1631. Meditation 17

The doorbell at our home has long been an issue. Our four year old grandson would always press the “ringer” and nothing would happen; he would look at us quizzically and ask, “Why isn’t it making noise?” We finally made a trip to Lowe’s and bought a new one. We gave him the honour of choosing the melody from among the ten options. He chose “Joy to the World.” In the true Christmas spirit, we honored his request.

Then, about a month ago, the doorbell sang out its melodious chant, calling all to rejoice because “the Lord has come.” Only I was not in a joyful or rejoicing mood; I knew it was the hospice nurse coming to admit our beautiful forty-nine year old daughter to the hospice program. I wanted to run the other way, and let the nurse just stand there, thinking nobody was home. Answering the door and greeting the nurse meant I really had to admit that we were at the end of the battle. “Joy to the World” sounded like a taunt. I walked to the door with leaden feet, and an even heavier heart; I couldn’t run, I had to face it. I slowly opened the door, and welcomed the nurse, a very pleasant and lovely woman. Of course, she would be pleasant and lovely. Hospice workers are a special breed; they all try to be like that. I should know because, at one point in my nursing career, I actually was a hospice nurse and I always tried to be cordial and accommodating. Yet, here I was, on the other side of the fence, as unbelieving and scared as any new hospice family.



Kathleen lived with her husband in Belgium. They were both teachers and they had been home for a summer visit when Kathleen’s condition began to suddenly deteriorate. It became very clear that she would be unable to return to Belgium; Kathleen would now receive her medical care here at home on Long Island. She had fought so long and so hard! Her quiet bravery inspired everyone who knew her. The breast cancer that had started its insidious journey about eleven years ago had finally mounted its final assault. The radiation and the IV chemo could do no more; the oncologist was ultimately halted in his tracks. Kathleen’s bones were disintegrating under the siege of the cancer, and all that was left to do was manage the pain, and journey with her till the end.

As the admitting nurse began to talk, I started to feel better prepared to deal with the specific issues at hand. My primary interest was the pain management. I knew I would have enough help to address the “activities of daily living” but I needed to know the newest techniques available in order to keep my daughter comfortable. Little did I know at the time that the biggest obstacle to pain control would be my daughter herself!

In spite of the horrific bone pain, Kathleen almost always refused the full amount of morphine allowed. “I don’t want to be loopy,” she would say. Even to the end, she wanted to maintain contact with those she loved. As much as I did not want to lose her, it was incredibly painful for me to see her in such agony. I wanted to respect her wishes but I would ultimately succumb to my own pain. “Please take the morphine,” I would beg. “Not yet,” was her reply. “I will let you know when I want it.” It was only the last week of her life that she finally asked for the full dosage of the medication. I sobbed, and told her that I was so sorry that the cancer hadn’t come for me instead of her. “Don’t be silly, Mom. I have had a wonderful life.” Her courage silenced me.

She fought that disease to the end! It may have been the cause of her death but it never defeated her. She went home to God on August 11th, 2011, surrounded by her family.

She ran the race and fought the good fight, and as St. Paul reminds us, a merited crown awaited her.

It is so easy to believe when all things are going well! The faith you so often easily profess is challenged when faced with the death of a loved one, especially a child. Do I really believe a merited crown awaits her? Do I really believe she is now in the loving arms of the God who made her? Yes, I do believe. What I do also believe is that faith is NOT certainty! Faith means believing when you do not really know in your head but you do know in your heart. In the dark of the night when I cannot sleep, I hang onto that belief as a drowning man clings to the side of a lifeboat. Through all of this pain, I have come to understand that my faith is still alive; battered and shattered but alive.Bell tolls

Kathleen’s story is that of a courageous young woman who loved life and never let the cancer rob her of the will to live well. During her last visit to the oncologist, the doctor told her that she was one of the most courageous people he had ever met. He said, “You have the heart of a lion.” She did have the heart of a lion. She never let the cancer get the upper hand. Cancer taught her the value of each blessed day and she never forgot to be grateful for the gifts in her life. Her story can hardly be captured in a few words. One day, I will write a book about her life so that others may come to know her and marvel at her bravery. I also want family members, yet born, to know of her, and to be able to use her example as a guide for their own lives. In spite of the pain of loss, I am trying to be grateful for all things, as she was. Dear readers, please pray for us.

The time has come for me to depart. I have fought the good fight to the end. I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith. All there is to come for me now is the crown of righteousness which the Lord will give.”

2 Timothy 4:6-8.

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