The Catholic Woman’s Dying Wish
I shall find my fallen daughter before I’m a long time dead…
God came to her as she slumbered – gently at first – his words on replay. Round and round, night after night, pricking her subliminal consciousness, eking and scratching as she tossed and turned. Sometimes Maria wished she could flick the eject button but they came unannounced and uninvited, echoing a burning need within a heart that ached with pain and regret.
In her dreams flames licked at her feet and hands. You lied. You weren’t there. You let her go. Why?
She woke disorientated, muttering the words into the silence of the room. A dog was barking. A mouse scratched in the attic above. The radiators were making a gentle bubbling hum. She felt clammy; flapped the heavy quilt to circulate air. Her nighty was sticking to her chest.
She sat up, grabbed her walking stick, pulling her orange lifeline pendant from inside her nighty, loathing the paraphernalia of illness and old age. Eased her feet into slippers. Turning the bedside light on she reached over and popped a blood pressure pill, then a water pill from blister packs she kept close to hand. Death coiled its’ grip around her as she remembered the heart surgeon’s words ten years ago. The patch up should give you an extra decade of life Mrs. O’Brien.
She pulled open her bedside drawer and took out her rosary beads and a tatty black and white picture postcard of the Pope, postmarked County Kerry. This had been the only contact from Kathleen since the day she had sent her pregnant teenage daughter away to a laundry in Ireland. Thirty five years had passed by. Soon it would be forty years if she lived that long. The clock was ticking. And when the hour came it would be too late.
Mum. On the 10th September 2009 at 3pm I’ll be in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgement where I will atone for my sins.
Reading the postcard always made her pray. She couldn’t think of what else to do. The postcard was a puzzle sent to solve.
She made the sign of the cross and said the following prayer as she did each day, without fail ever since the postcard’s receipt a few months after she had left.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Through her troubled thoughts she whispered into the moonlit bathed room…
I shall find my fallen daughter before I’m a long time dead.
Finding Kathleen would not be easy. She would need help. And so when the sun nudged above the Chilterns, daylight illuminating every corner of her flat she pulled out her black leather handbag from the kitchen drawer and headed down to the newsagents to buy the Daily Mail. It was Saturday and she looked forward to reading Monica Porter’s weekly newspaper column ‘Missing and Found.’ The stories were intriguing and featured the tales of people who were searching for long lost friends and family members: childhood pals, wartime comrades and evacuees, old flames, former work colleagues. All of life was there and sitting down, each Saturday at around eleven with an iced bun -she knew wasn’t good for her heart – and a milky cuppa she would smile at the light hearted, poignant stories and cry at the emotional reunions after months, often years of searching. She often imagined her own emotional reunion, wondered what Kathleen now looked like all this time later and where she was living. She imagined the house she lived in, a husband, two happy laughing children and speculated about the career she’d followed.
Back from the newsagent she spread the paper across the table to read the latest stories. She glanced out of the window to the smudgy green hills in the distance and found herself asking the same questions over and over. Why hadn’t Kathleen returned home? Had she been such a terrible mother that she couldn’t face returning home? Was she even still alive? If they met would they get on? Or would she still be the argumentative feisty teenager that she remembered? She hoped not.
Maria finished reading the column and taking a sheet of Basildon Bond she began to pen a letter to Monica detailing all the raw facts: the date that she sent Kathleen to ‘The Weeping Lady’ Magdalene Laundry in Southern Ireland in 1974 when she was 14 to have her baby and atone for her sins. She assumed the nuns at the ‘Weeping Lady’ had arranged for her baby to be adopted.
Maria put the pen down, dabbing her eyes as she thought about the grandchild she had never met. What had become of it? And then, not for the first time she questioned her motives for sending Kathleen away. Would it really have been so difficult to allow Kathleen to stay, have the baby at home and help to bring it up? She sighed, rubbed her forehead and tried to wheel back in time, recapturing the emotions that had been her driving force: the terrible fear of shame, the sin of sex out of wedlock. And suddenly those emotions were as raw and intense as they had been the day she had arranged for Kathleen to go. There had been no choice. She would have brought shame upon the family, upon the community and what would the priest have said? If she had had her time again she would, in all probability have made the same decisions. But hindsight was a wonderful thing.
But something inside her heart was changing. Maybe it was the influence of the new church she had started to attend. It focused on God’s grace, His love, His forgiveness. She remembered something the minister had said in church:
Unless you forgive yourself, forgive the situation, realise the situation is over you cannot move forward. Maria no longer went to confession. She was filled with the love of God and He had forgiven her, forgiven Kathleen. Formal confession served no purpose. But despite coming to know a loving God in recent months there was still a strong part of her that couldn’t shake off the power of sin and all that it meant.
She turned her attention back to the envelope; enclosed a copy of Kathleen’s birth certificate and a copy of her national insurance card which had arrived in the post two years after she had left. She had already contacted the Magdalene survivors’ group to see if they could help but it would take time. Within the various institutions there had been a policy of secrecy. She had been informed that the penitent registers and convent annals remained closed despite many families wanting information. She was just one of thousands wanting answers. The last Magdalene Laundry in Ireland had closed in 1996 but from what she could gather there were very few records to account for almost a century of women who passed through their doors. She had contacted the Catholic Church as well, for their help in finding Kathleen but with so many other families clambering for help in tracing their loved ones she didn’t hold out much hope.
Maria also needed her son Darius’ help. She would wait until the New Year before tumbling her big ugly confession to him and beg him for help.