This year, we didn’t even wait until the day after Thanksgiving to start celebrating Christmas. We set up my mom’s wheelchair next to the piano, and my brother sat down and started playing Christmas carols as soon as Thanksgiving dinner was done.
We were never the most liturgically correct family on the face of the planet in the best of times, but this time we had an urgent need to get as much celebration in as possible.
My mom was dying.
In fact, she was too exhausted to move into the chair by the piano that day. She just sat in her chair in the next room, listening to the music and smiling.
It seemed like much longer, but it was only two Thanksgivings ago that we all first knew she wouldn’t be with us very long.
Maria Hoopes had started slurring her words in the summer of 2004, and we three children of hers privately consulted my Dad. No, he assured us, our mother had not become a secret drinker. They weren’t sure why she was slurring her words, but she was seeing doctors about it. There are a couple of potential causes for a slight speech loss. Mostly, they weren’t serious. The doctor was eliminating different problems and would soon figure out which it was.
But by the time Thanksgiving 2004 came, my mother could hardly speak at all, and the doctors were no longer quite as breezy about their predictions.
I offered a toast to my mother at Thanksgiving that year. It felt like the right thing to do, since we were all worried about her. But it caused her and my sister to burst into tears and run from the room.
Women’s intuition is a powerful thing — sometimes more powerful than medicine. It took the doctors three more months to confirm what my mother already seemed to know: She had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.
That’s a disease that claims different muscle groups in your body. Once it starts, there’s no telling how long it will take until it shuts down too many muscles for you to stay alive. But death is the only thing that can stop it.
Nothing before in my experience has tried my faith as much as watching my mother suffer from such a horrible disease. At times, I lost all patience with God. I couldn’t understand why a good God wouldn’t save a woman like my mother if he could — or why he wouldn’t give me some grand sign about why she had to suffer this, and what good he was possibly finding in it.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, when God decided to answer all of my questions, thoroughly.
Consider: A diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease is a death sentence. My mom received her diagnosis on Ash Wednesday 2005. The doctor’s words to her were basically the same as the priest’s that day: “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
Also, though she never received the healing we prayed for, we all received a different kind of healing.
My wife and children and I had
seen very little of my mom before she was diagnosed. She lived in
The disease changed my mother in ways even more significant than the physical ones.
Maria Hoopes was smart and witty —
she had come to
She always had something to say, and she was always restless for something to do.
Lou Gehrig’s disease stopped all of that. It made it impossible for her to use her hands fully, to walk long distances, to eat or to talk.
But she could smile. And her perpetual smile is what many people chiefly remember about her. It was a mystery to everyone, me included: How could someone have such joy when she had lost so much?
I think I might know why.
My mom never said the Rosary with me before she got the disease, and hadn’t expressed much interest in the Register Rosary booklet when I gave it to her years ago. But after her diagnosis, I began to notice the booklet out on her nightstand. Then, she began joining us as we prayed our nightly Rosary on our visits.
She had never gone to daily Mass with our family before she was diagnosed. But now she began going with us whenever she could. It was on one trip to daily Mass with her, last spring, that a priest offered to give her the anointing of the sick for the first time in her life.
When we visited her for Thanksgiving this year, she was in no condition to go anywhere at all. But she was determined to go to Sunday Mass with us one last time, on the Feast of Christ the King. From then on, the sacrament would be brought to her home.
When Mass began, the priest surprised us. Though she hated to hear herself praised in public, and at Mass of all places, he offered a little tribute to her. He praised the way she had shown that suffering can be borne “with dignity, and even with joy.” Then he gave her the sacrament of the anointing of the sick for the second, and last, time of her life.
The next day, April and I took the kids to Bisbee, where my Mom grew up. I took pictures of them at the church she had attended, at the playground where she had played and near the house where she had lived.
When we got home, my Mom was praying the Rosary — something I personally had never seen her do on her own, apart from an invitation from us.
After dinner, we showed her the
pictures of her grandchildren playing in her hometown, and one of her
grandchildren read her a report about
Then, at 8:15, we all said goodnight as Dad wheeled her away. Fifteen minutes later, she was dead.
She died after a night spent smiling, surrounded by family, and with her rosary by her side.
Again and again, people at the memorial service talked about her mysterious smile. Many of them mentioned the last time they had seen it — when she came to the site where Sonoita’s Catholics want to build a new church, to watch the ground being consecrated by the bishop. The week before my mother died, she asked that donations be made in her name for that new church, Our Lady of the Angels.
Something astounding had happened to my mother in the midst of all of this suffering. When my 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, wrote an essay about her grandmother, which she titled “All for Suzette,” my mind was made up.
As a last Christmas gift in thanksgiving for my two mothers — Maria Hoopes and Mary, Our Lady of the Angels — I decided to try to help them get their church built.
I can’t do it on my own, but if anyone out there has the means to help this project, I know they would both appreciate it. If Mary’s smile is like my mother’s, it will be reward enough.
Tom Hoopes is executive editor
of the Register and co-editor
of Faith & Family magazine.
Find out more — and read “All for Suzette” by Olivia Hoopes — at AllForSuzette.org
Donations can be made online at that site or to:
Our Lady of the
c/o St. Thérèse of Lisieux Catholic Church