It all started with a text from my sister. I had just gotten off work and walked out to my car. There, waiting on my phone, was the news that my mom hadn’t shown up for work that morning, that there had been an accident with a fatality on her commute, that she wasn’t answering her phone, that she had been missing for six hours.
I immediately called my sister, and together we racked our brains for ways to look for her, hoping against hope that our worst fears wouldn’t be realized. Feeling powerless, I made my own drive to my home in southeastern Virginia. Back in Southern California, the rest of my family waited. They called the highway patrol; they called local hospitals; they drove down the country road leading out of our rural town, the same way mom would have driven that morning, to be turned around by police. My wife and sister constantly refreshed a local Facebook group looking for any sort of news about the crash, but there was no clear indication of whether or not mom was involved.
Once I got home, as we watched our two-year-old and six-month-old sons play in blissful ignorance, my wife and I tried to reassure ourselves that everything was all right. There had to be a reason why she was fine and her phone was just out of service. At this point, it had been nearly eight hours since the accident had happened. How would the police not have informed the family if she really was the fatality? And since she hadn’t been admitted to any local hospitals, she must be fine.
Then my dad got a call from the highway patrol. They had just finished clearing the accident, and one of the officers who was at the scene would be in touch shortly. Then a car pulled up to their house. The worst was true. Mom was dead. She had died on impact when her car had rolled over. We found out later that the reason it had taken so long to inform the family is that the coroner had been held up in the traffic from the road closure. The road where the accident had happened was the only route to the nearest city.
Mom was the most devout woman I’ve ever known. She had married late because she had spent many years discerning her vocation, including entering the novitiate at St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity. But once she knew she was called to the married life with my dad, she did all she could to raise the four children God gave them as good Catholics. I probably have enough examples of this to fill a book, from helping feed the homeless on the streets of L.A. to summer camp at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado to homeschool trips that took us up and down Southern California and beyond. But the greatest example, and most effective measure, of her devotion was her love of the rosary. Every single day, no matter what was going on, the rosary was non-negotiable. Whether it was in the car or on the couch, morning or evening, despite tantrums, distraction, and stubbornness, we said it every day.
G.K. Chesterton (whom mom introduced me to on pure faith that he was an EWTN featured Catholic intellectual she thought would appeal to me despite never reading anything of his work herself) said anything that is worth doing is worth doing poorly, and what he meant is that it is more important to do things that are worthwhile than neglect them with the lame excuse that we can’t do them well. This spirit is what embodied mom’s approach to the rosary, and despite many obstacles to holiness in ourselves and difficulties in our family life, we eventually grew to embrace Our Lady as our own mother, who mom never tired of reminding us was a far better mother than any on Earth.
And so mom died as she lived. When first responders found her, her rosary was still clutched in her hand, her brown scapular around her neck. It was the first Friday of the year.
For the family left here below, the rest of January went by in a blur. We planned for two funeral Masses to be said for her — one in California at the church where she and dad were married, which most of her family and friends could easily attend, and the another in Lander, Wyoming, where my parents had planned to retire. The one in California would be in the Novus Ordo, and the one in Lander was to be a Requiem Mass in the Vetus Ordo.
I flew to California by myself for the first funeral Mass exactly a week after she had died as my own family and I struggled through a bout with the flu. It was hard not to feel a sense of unreality at first, but it was all brought home the day after the funeral, when we went to the scene of the accident to erect a memorial cross and found some of her personal belongings among the scattered car debris. Most were things as mundane as coins and floss picks. Then someone found the flower barrette that had been in her hair. The next day, I flew home.
For the Requiem Mass in Lander, I brought my wife and kids. We planned to stay for a week at the house my parents had purchased there, and despite the circumstances, we were looking forward to the time with family. Wyoming is a hidden gem among the states, a place of unsurpassed natural beauty, and in January, bedecked with a mantle of snow, I could not imagine a more beautiful place for Mom’s body to await the last day. The Requiem itself was heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and as the casket was wheeled out of the church, the black vestments and unbleached candles, veiled by a cloud of incense, were suddenly juxtaposed against a sky as blue as Our Lady’s mantle with snow-covered mountains and valley below, as the schola besought the chorus angelorum to welcome her soul to eternal rest. And so we buried her. It is a moment I will never forget.
Mom’s favorite saying, from my earliest memories until just before she died, was “It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that we all get to Heaven.” Her other favorite saying was simply “Offer it up.” Easy to say, hard to live, she lived her life by both of these and did her best to teach us to do the same.
The latter especially has always been hard for me, both to understand and to put into practice. How does one accept pain, suffering, loss, disappointment with joy? Like Job, we cry out, “I don’t understand,” and the reply from above is simply to agree: “You don’t understand.”
We had a wonderful time the rest of the week with family. That Sunday was Candlemas, and that night, it snowed and continued the whole day Monday, leaving nearly two feet of fresh snow on the ground. Our flight home was scheduled for Tuesday morning, so we postponed it a couple of days to avoid the storm. By now, all of the extended family as well has my dad had left. One of my sisters and my brother live in Lander, and my youngest sister had planned to go back to California with my dad, but a back injury kept her behind until later in the week.
Tuesday afternoon, my uninjured sister, brother, wife, and I took the kids sledding. It wasn’t a big hill, and before putting my two-year-old son on my lap, I took a test run alone and had to push myself along to keep moving. We went down the hill together and ran into a drift, tipping the sled over. He began screaming in pain, and we hurried as quickly as we could to the car; though everything seemed fine, we wanted to check under his snow gear for broken bones. Under his pants, his thigh was horribly swollen. We rushed to the hospital. He was quickly taken back, and X-rays showed a broken femur, but being in a remote town, the local doctor was unable to properly cast it, so they recommended we keep our flight two days later so we could get him seen at home as soon as possible.
So it was that we found ourselves on a small plane in Riverton Regional Airport. As I carried my screaming son on board, it was starting to snow again. The flight was delayed over a half-hour as the ground crew de-iced the wings. We had a 55-minute layover in Denver departing from a different terminal. We weren’t off the airplane until 15 minutes after our connection was scheduled to board. Before we left Riverton, I had asked the ticketing agent for wheelchair assistance in Denver and D.C., and when we got to Denver, a wheelchair was waiting. They had called the gate for our connection to ask the plane to wait but emphasized that we still needed to hurry. The race against time began. We moved as quickly as we could down the concourse, down an elevator to the train to the next terminal, and then back up the elevator, all the time trying not to jostle his leg, which was sensitive to the slightest movement despite the painkillers we had given him.
Once we were all on the right concourse, I sprinted ahead to the gate. When I got there, no one was left but a single gate agent and a few passengers for the next flight. The agent had tried to hold our flight and even called her supervisor, but the plane had already pushed back and was taxiing out to the runway. The next flight to D.C. left at 8 o’clock the next morning, and now it was snowing heavily in Denver as well.
I dropped the car seat I was carrying and leaned up against the ticket counter to catch my breath, feeling utterly defeated. Once my wife arrived, we began discussing options to reschedule, hoping against hope we could get a flight that evening, even to another airport, so we could get my son’s cast on before the weekend.
Then, suddenly, the unthinkable happened. The phone rang, and the agent told us to stay where we were. The flight we missed had turned around was taxiing back to get us. The passengers waiting for the next flight from that gate cheered. We were escorted down the jet bridge and watched it pull alongside the plane before the boarding door opened. Tired and disheveled, both children crying and close to tears of gratitude ourselves, we stumbled on board the plane that had left without us at the end of a soured journey that we’d never planned to take.
We got safely back to Virginia late that night, and my son got his cast on the next day, which was Friday. Then, Saturday evening, he began vomiting, and for the third time in five days, we took him to the E.R. Once the doctors established that the vomiting was a side effect of the sedation he had undergone the day before, we drove home with a prescription for nausea medicine. We were only three miles from our exit off the interstate when I cried out in terror as I saw headlights coming toward us, heading the wrong way on the freeway. I remember listening to a conference where Fr. Ripperger said that his Guardian Angel had momentarily possessed him to prevent him from getting into a car accident, and I am sure the same thing happened to me in this instance. The car swerved and jerked back into its lane, and my wife and I thanked God for saving us from a deadly crash.
Quoniam angelis suis mandabit de te, ut custodiant te in omnibus viis tuis. In manibus portabunt te, ne forte offendas ad lapidem pedem tuum. —Psalm 90:11–12
“For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” —Isaias 55:9.
Providence is a strange thing. How can the same God allow us to undergo such horrible trials only to draw us clear when all seems lost? At first glance, it seems illogical, almost cruel, but I never have felt more in the palm of His hand in all my life than in the moments after avoiding what almost certainly would have been a fatal collision after running a gauntlet of trials.
The truth is that He uses even these awful circumstances to show us how much He loves us. We know this because it reminds us of His life here on Earth. Jesus knew from experience what it was to lose a parent. He was no stranger to physical or emotional pain, and no one had a greater empathy for the suffering of others, as can be seen by even a glance of the Gospels.
Were that not enough, there’s also Our Lady. Mary knew well what it was to see her child suffer unspeakably. She steadfastly stood by the foot of the Cross when nearly everyone else had left, and she watched the person most dear to her in the world suffer the horrors of Calvary.
All of this makes my family’s rough start to 2020 pale in comparison, and it’s a comfort, because we know we’re not alone. Jesus suffered, and it brought about our redemption, and Mary united her sufferings to His. Together, they gave us the greatest example of how to suffer well. All we have to do is imitate them and trust God, uniting our sufferings to the Cross, knowing that the Resurrection is sure to follow, even and especially if we don’t understand. Maybe that is exactly what Mom would have wanted us to take out of this.
Joe Terlisner works as an engineer and graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy in 2016. He resides in eastern Virginia with his wife and three sons. In his spare time he writes poetry, some of which can be found at at clamores.substack.com.