+January 19, 2014
“He’s your cousin, your first cousin. His name is Bill. He’s my brother Bill’s youngest son. He’s an O’Donnell, and that was my name before I got married.”
I don’t know when my mother told me that. Maybe 70 years ago. But it was important, because I learned I belonged to a family. I was a few years younger than Bill O’Donnell, and we belonged to the same family. We lived in the same house growing up. He and his brother and mother and father lived on the 1st floor at 335 Boulevard in Bayonne, NJ and I lived with my mother and sister and Aunt Mae on the 2nd floor.
We went to the same schools, the same church; we knew the same neighbors and had some of the same friends. We played together on the streets and in the parks as kids. The kids called him “Binker.” I’ve never figured out what the name meant, except that there were so many O’Donnells around they needed a name to distinguish him from the others.
You learn a lot growing up together. We don’t realize how much. Bill taught me how to play Pinochle, one summer, I remember. We learned from the same people and in the same environment. We both owe a lot those who raised us.
Bill’s father was very much like him, maybe a bit quieter. He was a hard worker who often worked the night shift at one of the oil refineries in Bayonne. In the summer before he would go to work I would sometimes sit on the porch with him and we’d talk about the New York Giants (before they left for the coast) and sports. He was an easy man to talk to, a good man to be around. For one thing, I think he taught me how to read the box scores in the paper.
People lived close to each other then: they walked to the store or church, or to see their friends or family. When they walked by our house, Bill’s father knew them all; he talked to them all and they talked to him. You learn from someone like him how to appreciate people and how to talk to them.
Bill was like him. A hard worker, he loved his family, and he had a wonderful gift for appreciating people and knowing how to talk to them.
As I remember, the doors of that house in Bayonne were hardly ever locked. There were always cousins, or neighbors, or sometimes people you didn’t know at all in our house. Everybody was welcome. Priests were always in and out. I suppose Bill’s brother and I got interested in becoming priests meeting them.
The O’Donnells believed the bigger the crowd in your house the better. In business terms I guess you would say they believed in mergers and acquisitions. And so when Bill brought Mary White around, they knew they had a good thing. It was the perfect merger and acquisition. Not only did you get Mary, but you got her nine brothers and their wives and all their kids too.
Whenever I visit the O’Donnells now, too infrequently I’m afraid, I feel connected to those old days. Maybe it’s because Mary has every family picture ever taken over the years on the walls of their house. But really, it’s because of the values there– love of family, love of children, love for others. Bill exemplified that love, a love good for any time and place.
He had the art of living; you could say; he loved life. I’m sure his greatest wish would be that his family pass that love on to their children and their children’s children.
But besides the art of living, Bill showed us another art these last months, and that was the art of dying. Today, some of the most difficult issues we face are end of life issues–medical decisions, decisions about health care. But at the heart of these issues is how we face death and how we leave this life.
As his health declined and his strength began to slip away, Bill had to know his life was coming to an end; it was plain to see. His weeks at St. Mary’s Home, for all the wonderful care he received, were not going to bring him home. He was going to another home.
And so he gave himself, with the little strength he had, to giving thanks, to everyone who came to see him, for everything that was done for him, the smallest thing– he gave them thanks. He left this world giving thanks. Giving thanks seems to be a key to the art of dying.
But Bill also left this world with faith, a faith that was underneath the way he lived and was with him in the way he died. Life was changing for him, not ending. What ever we saw as we watched his wasted body, his withdrawal and increasing silence, life was changing for him, not ending. That’s the great statement of faith. “I believe in life everylasting.”
His daughter Nancy told me her father said to Fr. Hart at the nursing home. “Do I have to say all these prayers?” He had one of his cousin’s prayer books on his night table. “No, you don’t have to say all those prayers,” Fr. Hart told him, “ just think about them.”
I’m sure that’s what he did. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Think of it: another world beyond this, another home whose doors are never closed, another family waiting for us, another life that will never end, a Father who loves us all. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said.
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Think about it: Now is the time to give thanks, to give and to love, and do it with all your heart. The hour of death is God’s time, the time to say “your will be done,” to accept God’s call and to go into the beautiful unknown.