“Stick to the sides,” my husband told me. We were going to a child’s birthday party, one of the little ones my son has grown up with.
“It’s a barbecue, right? So hamburgers and hot dogs. We’ll have to stick to the sides.”
Oh, right. It’s Friday.
“So why don’t you eat meat on Fridays?” A friend asked, as we began to prepare dinner on our camping trip – meatless — not impossible at all, just…inconvenient.
“Because Jesus died on a Friday,” I explained. “So we sacrifice something on Fridays in a memorial of that. Traditionally it’s been meat, so…we do meat.”
It makes sense to me, but it sounds so silly, and I can understand why people would think it’s strange.
“So when was the last time you had meat on a Friday?”
I squint. “Um…just before Lent, maybe?”
I shrug, and the conversation ends there – we both are fine with where we are.
It was my husband who came up with the idea of doing the Sacred Heart Devotion – attending Mass every first Friday of the month for nine consecutive months. (A much better explanation of the devotion can be found here and here.) But I had found the Sacred Heart much earlier than that.
My mother died in the middle of the night. My husband and children and I were staying at my in-laws’ house in New Jersey, close enough to the hospice center where my mother was. We had been waiting – making calls to nurse friends – Is this the end, is this the end? – and trying to make plans. My husband and I had decided to return to Pittsburgh with our kids and return after she had passed, because we didn’t know how long it would take, and there was precious little to do outside of sitting – sometimes in different places, like a hallway or a cafeteria or a hospice room – and waiting.
But she passed away in the middle of the night, so there was no returning to Pittsburgh when we’d thought.
I was asleep in my sister-in-law’s childhood bedroom, my seven month old daughter shifting in the pack-n-play on the floor next to the bed. A small light gently illuminated the room.
My phone rang. It was my father.
“Mom passed away,” he told me. He sounded so tired.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you for letting me know.”
Later he’d say he was confused by my reaction, he wasn’t sure it was even me he was talking to. But I was half-asleep, and in reality had no idea what to say or to think. I had been so tired, we all were, of waiting. And the moment had come, and I was still so tired.
It was still dark. I left the room and quietly made my way down the hall to the other room where my husband and son were. I wanted to wake my husband up to tell him, but decided he should sleep. No point to waking him up. (And there’s never, in my opinion, a good reason to wake up a sleeping child. I am very against that.) They both lay there, completely asleep, and I turned and walked back to where I’d been.
The first thing I did when I returned to bed was thank God over and over that it was over, and felt this enormous sense of relief completely wash over me. She had been so sick, and for so long. And she wasn’t any longer; and for that I was so, so grateful.
I turned back to my phone and messaged a bunch of my friends who had been praying for us and my mom, and told them she had passed. I put my phone back on the little table and rolled over again.
I started to drift off, and in those moments, caught between wakefulness and dreaming, I saw it: a heart. A large, anatomical-looking heart, completely suspended in black space. It was a completely still heart, not moving, but I understood it was alive. I knew, in my limited dream-understanding, that it was the Sacred Heart, and it understood suffering and was at peace with it. It knew my personal suffering, and did not turn away.
It didn’t do anything, just hung in suspension, but a great peace radiated from it. I knew, somehow, that my suffering and my mother’s suffering and the suffering of all those who knew her was absorbed by that suffering heart; and all I knew was that it understood. It got it. And that was enough.
I fell asleep soon after that and woke up when my daughter did.
We have two months to go until our First Friday devotions are complete. We’ve had to attend Mass with both kids this summer as school is out, and it’s not exactly what I would call a fun time, bringing two small children to a very early morning Mass – they make a lot of noise.
I hadn’t had any particular interest or understanding of the Sacred Heart prior to my experience with my mother’s death, but I can’t accurately tell you – nor put into words – the comfort and consolation I experienced from my encounter with it.
And it’s a comfort to me that even after the First Friday Masses are over, we’ll still be sacrificing something on Fridays as a reminder to us that we remember Jesus’ sacrifice, too. That we can share both suffering and consolation with Him. Because He understands both.