''Thanks For The Blessing, Mom...''
“February made me shiver with every paper I deliver. Bad news on the doorstep…”
- Don McLean, American Pie
February hasn't been a great month for us in recent years.
My mom, Anna McLernon Bird, died a year ago today, just a month before her 85th birthday. I was away on assignment, covering a meeting of the OPEC oil exporters group in Algeria at the time. It was a tough flight home alone, made even longer by the connection through Rome, which required an overnight stay at an airport hotel. Mom had suffered a heart attack and seemed to be doing well initially and we had nice visits with her before she left us.
Eight years earlier, on Feb. 26, 1997, one of my three brothers, Joe, died after a sudden illness. We had just celebrated his 44th birthday for weeks earlier.
At Christmas, as I recovered in the hospital from my liver transplant in the company of wife Nancy and Kathy, one of my two sisters, Nancy got a sudden chill and announced that Mom had just spoken to her.
In a moment of frustration over my phantom lingering hepatitis last summer, Nancy joked that she thought Mom had put a curse on us. When Mom spoke to her from the beyond at Christmastime, her words were brief: ''It was a blessing, not a curse,'' Nancy quoted her as saying.
We all three wept at Nancy's encounter.
A few minutes later I said what seemed like the only thing to say at the time: ''Thanks for the blessing, Mom.''
We fully believed Nancy's experience. This wasn't the first time something like this happened to us. Moments before we received a telephone call from hospital staff that Joe had passed away, odd events were playing out as several family members sat around Kathy's dining room table.
The doorbell at the rarely used front door rang. When someone went to answer it, no one was there. The house was fairly isolated. No one could have rang the bell and fled or hidden so quickly. Then the overhead lights dimmed to the point of nearly going out before returning to full strength. Then the phone rang and it was the hospital with the sad news. Nancy looked at her watch to check the time. Her watch had stopped just minutes earlier - the same time that, we believe, Joe was sending us his goodbye signals.
Mom, you're in our thoughts and prayers constantly. And we thank you for the blessings...
Below is the eulogy I wrote and delivered at Mom's funeral mass at Our Lady of Sorrows church in Mercerville, NJ.
Three feet tall.
Three years old.
That starkly beautiful description is how Mom (nee Anna McLernon) was officially classified on her arrival at Ellis Island after a harrowing nine-day voyage on the SS Adriatic, arriving from Liverpool on August 14, 1922.
Her parents carried $240 with them – the equivalent of $2,500 today – to set up a new life for her and her brother, then just 10 months old.
(Sailing on the sister ship to the Titanic)…They nearly never made it across. A buildup of coal gas caused a massive explosion below deck. Seeing the bodies of crewmembers in the water sparked fears of a mutiny. But the ship limped into port.
When Mom told the story, she recalls her own mothers’ memory of having to prompt her to overcome shyness and speak to the immigration officer.
Failure to do so would she her labeled a mute and marked her for deportation.
She started talking then, the story goes – and never stopped.
While the physical description of the wee Irish tot from Belfast may seem hard to reckon some eight decades later, the underlying traits of the classic immigrant tale of America’s greatness are unmistakable.
Everything Mom did was to provide the best possible for her family. Hard work and scrimping to provide a Catholic school education beginning right next door here.
And never forgetting to send in fresh cuttings for the nuns when the lilacs were in bloom.
Mom instilled a strong work ethic, spurring us to summer jobs and responsibilities early on.
She and Dad raised six kids, and with an unbending strength, she suffered the pain of burying him, her only brother James, and two sons Joe and Wally well before their time.
Mom always managed to find the freshest vegetables, yet the occasional instant mashed potato flakes revealed the incredible struggle of trying to juggle a full-time job and house full of kids.
There weren’t big birthday parties, but that only made the events there were even more special.
4th of Julys with (our cousins) the McLernons in an always-crowded swimming pool.
Mom even piled a few of us in the car for a long ride to Disney World with Cousin Char and took on the scary Space Mountain roller coaster – though she said she’d wear rubber pants, if she were to do it again.
She regaled us tales of her youth – going with the gang to watch the Trenton Giants play at old Dunn Field. She used to see Willie Mays play there.
The Say Hey kid, Mom?
She even got his autograph on a baseball - threw it away, though, ‘cause she never thought he’d amount to anything.
Say Hey, Mom.
Well, so she wasn’t a good baseball scout.
But she had an unassailable sense of goodness.
In June 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was struck down, Mom bundled us kids into the car and drove at night to New York City to wait for hours to pass in front of his casket - lying in state in St. Patrick’s Cathedral – because it was important to honor such a man and what he stood for.
The sight of all those others waiting, just like us – showed that we shouldn’t give up hope in the face of such a tragedy.
With six kids, there was always something going on in our house.
Wally wanted badly to join the Air Force and then badly wanted out; Maryann moved to Paris; Denny was getting married, Kathy joked about moving to Alaska to paint the pipeline and Joe was walking across America to raise public awareness of the plight of the Hopi Indians.
“You’ll never believe what your brother is doing now.’’
When it came my turn to walk away from a great job to instead roam the Greek Islands and the Sahara Desert, Mom barely batted an eyelash.
You knew she’d be fretting every minute – an echo of her years earlier practice of keeping a close ear to the police scanner if one of us wasn’t home on time – but after six kids, there wasn’t much that was going to surprise her anymore.
Mom wasn’t the type to hand out much direct praise to us kids – that just wasn’t her style – but she proudly kept her friends and neighbors up to date on what we were up to.
I’ve never seen her happier, though, then with her nine grandchildren.
She never became a great-grandmother, but she was a great grandmother.
We’d always joke that it was impossible to go anywhere with Mom without her running into a friend or acquaintance – “everywhere she goes, she sees somebody she knows…”
Now, with Mom moving to her eternal reward in Heaven, the pain of our loss is eased with the knowing that she’s in the company of family and friends.
Thank you for everything Mom.
We love you.
Rest in peace.