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An Irish Wake During A Modern Plague: How COVID-19 Denied Heartbroken Family A Proper Goodbye

Eileen Callaghan
Eileen Callaghan Photo Credit: Callaghan Family

Coronavirus didn't exist when Eileen Callaghan of Bergenfield was diagnosed  with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma last fall.

It was here in full force, though, when her daughters recently had to leave the 88-year-old Irish family matriarch at the ER door.

One of them, Bridget Callaghan-Kane, wrote about her family's experience with their mom's subsequent death "and the world we find ourselves living in at this time in history."

An Irish Wake During A Modern Plague

Anyone with a drop of Irish blood knows what an Irish wake is, the going-away party that was thrown for an Irish man or woman who was emigrating to America because, once gone, these men and women never returned -- "dying" in the eyes of their parents, brothers and sisters and other various family members, friends, and neighbors. 

These “wakes” were often gatherings that lasted many hours, with food and drink offered by the family of the departing loved one and plenty of dancing, storytelling, singing, and laughing, along with a good bit of crying and lamenting the loss of their fine son or daughter.

But there is such a thing as an Irish wake in the more traditional sense: a wonderful sendoff, the wake itself, with the parish priest leading family and friends in the rosary, and a cup of tea (or something stronger) back at the house afterward. The final goodbye and the closing of the casket. The Catholic Mass in honor of the deceased, the crowd at the cemetery, and finally, the real wake: lunch back at the house or the local Irish pub. 

It is this final part that is so important to the family, where you hear stories about your loved one (stories you never heard before), where you laugh and cry at the same time and drink to the memory of your loved one. 

And right now in America, indeed all over the world, the Irish wake is simply not possible. I found this out the hard way, through the death of my mother.

Eileen Callaghan was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in October of last year. 

In October there was no such thing as COVID-19. None of us knew what “social distancing” was. The last thing any of us worried about was having enough toilet paper or paper towels. My family and I were trying to get our heads around the fact that our mother had this life-threatening disease at the age of 88. 

This was a woman that before last October hadn’t been in the hospital since April 7, 1970, the day my youngest sister, Pat, was born. It was impossible to believe that our dear mom was facing this daunting illness. We all did what we could to make her life as easy as possible.

My mother made several trips to the hospital during her illness and each time she was hospitalized she never spent a moment alone. Either myself or one of my sisters spent each night with Mom, and there was always my brother and father to help out during the days. 

 We went to doctor’s appointments with her and helped her with her medications (my God, she hated all the pills). My sister Pat brought her to hair appointments and my sister Mary Ann made sure her nails were always done.  

At Christmas it was hard to believe that Mom was as sick as she was -- she looked absolutely beautiful. But she was sick, very sick, and we all tried to make the day as stress-free as possible.

Although life had desperately changed in our family’s little corner of this world, little did we know that life in America was about to drastically change -- a change that would keep us six feet apart, a change that would stop us from shaking hands or hugging, a change that would stop us all from doing the boring, ordinary things that we all did every day, like get a haircut, stop for a quick slice of pizza, sit at the Starbucks with a nice, hot cup of coffee and your laptop, hang at the local diner with a few friends for a great breakfast, or just invite a few friends to your home for a glass of wine.

In the beginning, things didn’t change much for us. We were still able to bring my mom to her doctors’ appointments, CVS hadn’t yet marked off six feet sections of the floor with Day-Glo tape, and you could still sit in a restaurant and have a meal.

And then our little world was to change more than even we could imagine. 

On March 28th, Mom had to go to the ER. Although I tried to keep her out of the hospital, her doctor assured me Mom had to go, and so we took her there.

You haven’t lived until you take your 88-year-old mother, unable to walk without holding on to her daughters, to the double doors of the ER, being met at the door with a nurse in full PPE (mask, face guard, gown and gloves), pushing a wheelchair and telling you that you must leave your mother at the door. 

We could not go into the ER with her. My sister Pat and I watched while our mother, all 95 pounds of her, sat in a wheelchair, all by herself, at the ER intake. We could not interpret for her what the doctors and nurses were saying so she could understand what was going to happen to her -- the blood tests, the CT scans, the medicine she was being given. 

She was all alone. And we were heartbroken.  

My father couldn’t get over the fact that we couldn’t even visit her. 

Her doctors were so kind. They called me several times to update me on my mother’s condition and the tests they were doing to determine the severity of her issue. The nurses' station on the fourth floor spoke to us and assured us that she seemed to be comfortable. 

What most people don’t know about my mother: Throughout this entire nightmare, she didn’t complain. We knew she was in pain because although she didn’t tell us, the pain was all over her face. It couldn’t be helped: Her pain was excruciating.

She was sent home (Thank God) by ambulance on Sunday afternoon and it was obvious to all of us that Mom’s time with us was running out. And it was at this point that we all realized that the outside world was about to come crashing into our little world. 

My Mom wanted last rites. Could we get a priest to come to the house and pray with us and Mom? As my parents had been attending their local Catholic Church for over 30 years, my sister Pat called for a priest. 

No answer. So Pat left a detailed message. 

After a short time with no return call, Pat drove down to the presbytery. She knocked on every door, rang every bell and continued calling on her cell phone -- no answer. 

So she called the parish down the road and a miracle happened: A parish priest answered the phone, my sister told him what was needed, he asked if my mom or anyone else in the house had coronavirus, and came by the house a half-hour later and gave my mom the peace of mind she needed. 

The most wonderful thing of all was being able to be there and listen while Mom said the "Our Father" and the "Hail Mary."  These two prayers were some of the last things she was able to say. 

Happiness is getting a priest to come to the house in the middle of a plague. When the hospital bed arrived we placed her into it, as gently as possible, and there she stayed and over the next two days (the last two days of her life) she hardly spoke at all.

Sunday evening, after all of this excitement, my dad asked me if his sisters, one living in Hartford and the other in Boston, could come down to say goodbye to Mom and do the unsaid -- be a support for him. 

I had to explain that his sisters simply could not come. "Stay at home" made it necessary. Their ages made it impossible. Their health made it impossible. And so, during the most traumatic, most upsetting time in my dad’s life, he was unable to have his sisters by his side.

And then, very peacefully, Mom left us early Wednesday morning. The undertaker arrived, in mask and gloves. We made an appointment to speak with him at the funeral home later on in the day.

And so on to the cemetery. 

We were not permitted in the main office. We waited in the car for a very industrious fellow with a clipboard who brought us to a lovely spot in the veterans' section. All of the paperwork (including the check) was signed in our car. We waited in the car for the receipt and then went on to the funeral home. 

And this is where we actually realized how this plague was going to break our hearts even more than they were already broken.

The very nice funeral director, Bruce was his name, was as gentle as possible with us. Over the last couple of weeks Bruce must have had this conversation a hundred times. He explained that, although we could lay Mom out in the dress she chose two weeks before she died, we could only have 10 people at a time in the room to visit Mom, and each person must be six feet apart. 

Friends and family had to wait their turn to get in, standing six feet apart in the lobby or, if there wasn’t enough room in the lobby (there definitely wasn’t enough room) people would have to wait in their cars. 

My sister, Dad and I believed this to be too dangerous to our family and friends. And so, although Mom was laid out (and looked so beautiful - peaceful smile and her dancing shoes on her feet), we did not have her obituary printed in the paper.

OBITUARY: Eileen (Riordan) Callaghan/June 19, 1931 ~ April 1, 2020

But this wasn’t even the worst part.

My mother, a woman who, except for the last four weeks of her life, went to church every Sunday, every holy day of obligation, a woman who brought us all up with the rosary and the Immaculate Conception novena, who held on for dear life to her Sacred Heart badge (and it wasn’t easy to keep track of it -- that badge went everywhere with her) could not have a Mass of Christian Burial.

It is a terrible thing to lose you​r​ Mother. She knows you and loves you longer than any other human being. 

I consider myself blessed to have had my Mom as long as I did, and watching her over the last few months made it clear to me that her pain was total and simply said, could only end in one outcome. And I can accept that outcome. At the very end of her life her eyes said it all, her eyes told me that she knew she had to go. And she was alright with going. She even gave us a small smile as she took her last breath.

But it is the inability to give my Mom a Catholic Mass, more than anything else, that has me stuck. And this surprises me.

It never dawned on me that this would bother me, but it does -- a great deal. It is this, more than anything else, that breaks my heart entirely.

I think about all the families that have had to deal head-on with this plague. Those that have been struck down by the virus, their families, the doctors, nurses, PCAs, all of the hospital workers, the cops, firefighters, and EMTs, Doreen stocking the shelves and working the register at the local CVS, all of the people stocking the shelves at the Stop & Shop and ShopRite, putting their lives in danger every single day so we can all get the medical care we need, the help we need, the prescriptions we need, and the toilet paper we need. 

And it is the dedication of all of these people, the people running toward the danger, that makes me absolutely, positively sure, that this too shall pass -- and that, eventually, Mom will get the Irish wake that she deserves.

~Bridget Callaghan-Kane

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