The earliest specific date indelibly linked in my memory, as distinct from learning a date from others, is 3 February. On this date 58 years ago my Auntie Madge (Margaret Collins), a younger sister of my mother, died from rheumatic fever. She was only 26, still single, and a beautiful person in every way. I was a few months short of seven at the time but still miss her all these years later. My father was with her when she died. My mother and the rest of the Collins family had been taking care of her around the clock at home, helped by the brothers-in-law.
I'm the third eldest among our generation of first-cousins, all on my mother's side - my father was an only child. My mother brought me to the wake, the first time I was in the presence of a deceased person. I'm very grateful to her for that. Some parents in the western world try to hide the reality of death from their children. Indeed, some people try to hide the reality of death, period. I remember the experience vividly. But the memories I have of Madge are of my living 'Auntie Madge', someone who loved her nieces and nephews.
I have one particularly fond Christmas memory. I'm not sure if it was the December before she died or the previous December. She took Billy, Joan and me, three first-cousins born in the same year, to Pims (or Pyms), a department store in South Great George's Street, just off Dame Street in the heart of Dublin. (People just called it 'George's St' but on the other side of the Liffey a street named after one of the King Georges was always called by its full name, 'North Great George's Street'). She took us for a ride on the 'train' in the toy section of the store, where we experienced the rocking of the 'train' and watched the 'scenery' as it passed by. The 'train', of course, wasn't going anywhere and the 'scenery' was simply a painted canvas being turned around on a frame. Being five or six we thought we were on a real train and a on real journey. In a sense we were - on a precious short journey with a dear aunt who would go ahead of us on her final journey before very long.
Though I still miss Auntie Madge, I feel blessed by my memories of her and feel sorry for my younger cousins who never knew her. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, No 48, Pope Benedict writes: The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? I can not only pray for Auntie Madge but I can also say 'Thank you' to her, knowing that she hears me. So 'Thank you, dear Auntie Madge!'
Madge is buried with my maternal grandparents, William Patrick and Annie, and one of her brothers, my Uncle Mick, in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, near the grave of my parents. Each time I visit those graves I pass that of Liam ('Billy' as he was called in England) Whelan of Manchester United, who died in the Munich Air Disaster 50 years ago on 6 February aged only 22. I'll come back to that in a later post. But when I was praying this morning I couldn't but think of Liam and the image that kept coming to me was that of Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus who was around the same age as this brilliant young footballer still at the beginning of his career.
May all of these rest in peace.