I’ve known since I began writing this blog that there were stories I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell until after my parents were dead. But I thought it would be many more years before I could tell them. A year ago, both of my parents were alive (though my mother’s Alzheimer’s was advancing rapidly). Now they are both gone.
Here is the first of the stories I have waited to tell.
This story happened just a year ago in June 2014, on the last visit I made to see my mother. She lived in a dementia care facility, and my father visited her daily. I went to see them every few months from my home halfway across the nation, and on my trips I made the daily visits with my dad. My mother had been hospitalized a couple of weeks before I saw her in June, and she was not doing well after her hospitalization.
Every Sunday morning the local Catholic parish near the facility where she lived sent lay Eucharistic Ministers to conduct a brief prayer and communion service for the residents. They held a group service, which my mother attended for the first year or so she lived there. Then they visited the rooms of Catholic residents who could not come to the group service.
On the Sunday last June during my visit, a woman stopped my my mother’s room while I was there to offer her communion. Catholic practice is that as long as dementia patients might understand the significance of a consecrated host and can physically consume some small portion, the host is offered to them if they want it.
Mother could still say the “Our Father.” My dad and I weren’t sure she knew what it meant, but she recited the words with very little prompting. After all, she had probably been saying them since before she started school—a long-term memory that was still with her. So the woman started the prayer, and we all—including my mother—prayed along.
Then the woman gave my mother a small piece of consecrated host. One symptom of late-stage Alzheimer’s is that patients have difficulty swallowing, and this minister knew that my mother could not handle a whole host.
About thirty minutes after the minister left, I noticed my mother fidgeting. My dad had left the room to talk to a caregiver, so I tried to figure out what was wrong. Soon it was clear Mother had something in her mouth she didn’t like, and I got her to spit it into a tissue for me.
It was the fragment of consecrated host, which she had not swallowed.
Now what did I do?
Catholics revere the consecrated host as the Body of Christ. I knew it couldn’t just be thrown in the trash, but I didn’t know the proper disposal method. So I folded it carefully in the tissue and put it in my pocket.
I didn’t tell my father, because it would distress him. He would worry both because my mother wasn’t swallowing (she’d had trouble eating since her hospitalization) and because he’d also want to do the right thing with the host. I decided to take responsibility for this problem myself. What could I do that honored both my parents and the consecrated host?
When we got back to my dad’s house, I researched proper disposal of the host. My first discovery was that Catholic Canon Law automatically excommunicates anyone who knowingly discards the consecrated host improperly. As with civil law, once one knows what the law is, one is bound to follow it. Though apparently ignorance of the canon law could be an excuse.
Nevertheless, having taken on responsibility for the host, I would have to handle it correctly, so I could sleep at night. I discovered three options:
Option 1: I could consume it myself, which didn’t sound very healthy, particularly since my mother had been sick recently.
Option 2: I could dispose of it in a dedicated sacrarium (a special sink in the sacristy at a Catholic church), but that would require me to talk to my father and get him to drive me to the church, where we would have to find someone to let us into the sacristy. He might well have chosen to undertake Option 1 himself at that point.
Option 3: I could dissolve it in water until it was no longer recognizable as bread and dispose of it in the ground.
I chose Option 3 as the choice that was most likely to treat my parents with respect and still be congruent with Catholic expectations.
I dissolved the host in water overnight. The next morning I poured the water under a statue of St. Francis of Assisi in a garden in my parents’ front yard. I figured St. Francis would take care of the rest. He’s a compassionate fellow, known to be gentle and kind. I thought he would understand my need to be sensitive to my mother’s disability and my father’s concern for her. And I said the “Our Father” as I poured out the water for safe measure.
When I began to tell my daughter this story some weeks later, she interrupted me with, “Just put it in the ground.”
“How’d you know that?” I asked.
“That’s where the sink at the sacristy goes. It doesn’t go through the sewer, water exits straight outside to the earth.”
Apparently, her Catholic education was better than mine. Of course, she started in a Catholic preschool when she was three months old and stayed in Catholic schools through her undergraduate degree. I guess twenty-two years taught her something.
I now chuckle thinking of the story, which worried me terribly at the time. A part of me wishes I had chosen Option 2, so I could have shared the story with my father. My mother’s difficulty swallowing meant we put her into hospice within a week or two after she spit out the communion host, and she died less than a month after this last visit of mine.
Then my father died suddenly six months later.
Which is why I can write this story now.
What family stories do you have that you can’t tell yet? (You don’t have to tell them in the comments, but you might start writing them down for yourself.)