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50 Hours With God
Kathryn Begnaud
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012
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EIGHT DAYS before our mother died, on April 4, 2011, we finally heard the truth. Or rather, the truth had finally been spoken to us in a clear, concise and unvarnished manner. Prior to that afternoon, Mom, Dad and we 11 children had each been living privately with the truth of Mother’s illness nibbling away at our minds. Only rarely did we acknowledge to one another where these diseases generally lead: to the church cemetery. To speak of death aloud would have been a betrayal to our mother. Instead, by way of tacit agreement, an unspoken understanding developed among us—an agreement that occasionally prompted us to make secretive and worried eye contact in a way that neither Mom nor Dad would detect. We were in the fourth week of Lent when truth arrived—a little over halfway through the miseries and mysterie —and we would not realize until after her death that we were about to experience the most honest Lenten preparatory time of our lives, the holiest and most profound Easter and, most of all, a glimpse of Pentecost. But before those many graces were poured over us, we dug in our heels. Firmly. Resolutely. Nobody goes willingly to a cross. Even the disciples argued vehemently against it. And so, for 20 months, we tiptoed around the truth in a sort of dream state, praying that truth would not rise up and find our ears.

Each of Mother’s medical appointments found any three of my sisters sitting on the white-papered examining tables—their feet dangling and swinging like kindergartners—while the other girls took the chrome and vinyl chairs on the floor next to Mom and Dad. Our brothers stood and constantly blocked the entrance so that doctors and nurses had to continually apologize in order to squeeze into the room.

Once the doctor entered the room, whichever of our brothers had been seated on the doctor’s rolling stool would relinquish the stool immediately and stand red-faced in the corner while we girls rolled our eyes.

The doctor would ask Mother how she was. She always said, “Fine,” to which he predictably smiled in return, patted her knee and then turned away from us to peer at his computer screen. Meanwhile, we became adept at deciphering nonverbal cues sent zinging across the tiny medical cubes into which our family of 13 had poured ourselves.

Nobody talks plainly anymore. And nobody has the courage to ask plain questions. For 20 months we wanted to ask, “How long until our mother dies?” And yet, for 20 months, none of us, especially Mom, wanted to know. She refused to consider death. So for 20 months we toured limbo until the brutality of truth spewed over us on April 4, 2011.

The shattering of our defenses occurred during Mother’s last appointment at the Coburn Cancer Center in St. Cloud, Minn. And we were mad as hell. Why hadn’t they told us sooner? Perhaps we would have been kinder had we known how loudly the clock was ticking.

Oncologists had been vague about her prognosis. Diagnosis, on the other hand, was always crystal clear. After all, a picture is a picture, and Mother’s lungs were taking on a rather polka-dotted look. Her doctors seemed to love their laptops, preferring to study her uploaded image rather than look into our mother’s sad blue eyes.

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