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Marty’s Novena
by Juli Loesch Wiley

I never liked Uncle Marty, not at all; and that's a fact.

He was on odd, reclusive old guy, my father's brother. He lived with my parents for as long as I can remember. The door to his little room slammed behind him and his TV went on immediately when he came home from work; and after he retired from the telephone company, it blared from six in the morning til midnight.

Fat and pale, he would squint from side to side at the dinner table (the only time I ever saw him, when I was growing up); and if he wanted the butter dish, he lunged for it: he never asked.

I never heard him thank my mother for her innumerable small kindnesses to him: for doing his laundry, buying him socks, sewing a button on his shirt.

And he was a penny-pincher. He bought a pizza, once, when the Scout troop was selling them; and then he sold it to my parents so they all could have it one night for dinner. Lived with my parents, ate at my parents' table for over 40 years, and wouldn't even spring for a pizza! Although he made a comfortable income when he was working --- four times my father's paycheck, I would guess--- he paid my parents a mere pittance for room and board.

Marty, like all his siblings, has been baptized as an infant and educated in Catholic schools, which represented a to-the-bone sacrifice on the part of their parents: grandfather Michael Loesch was a foundry worker who was cut back to two days a week during the Depression. Still, Marty called himself an atheist. I guess you could say that tipped the balance in our household over to the side of unbelief: Marty the atheist, my father the agnostic, my brother Jim the "lapsed Catholic" (there's your majority, three out of five.) As the Mass-going Catholic minority, though, my mother and I always made sure the meal prayers were said: quickly, all in one breath, but out loud.

My father folded his hands respectfully. Marty buttered his bread.

Marty rarely made conversation of any sort, but he did disparage the Church when he had the opportunity. That offended my mother, my patient, button-sewing, butter-passing mother, my rosary-saying mother (every day of her life, until the died); and what offended my mother, offended me.

In my high school days, though, I would have been more offended by a political disagreement. I was an ardent, moralistic leftist. But I never figured out what my uncle's political preferences were. Conservative Truman Social Security Democrat, most likely. Whatever that means.

When did it occur to us that he was homosexual? Hard to say.

He never married, and never dated that I know of, but that doesn't prove anything.

Very rarely, someone would make a glancing remark. "Well, how's Marty doing, the old bugger?" my uncle Rudy--- Mother's brother--- once said with a slight, sarcastic lisp. Rudy didn't like him, either.

Marty did have photographs of young boys all over his room. Photographs he himself had taken, during the years and years when he was an assistant Scoutmaster and shutterbug. But they weren't nude or obscenely posed: just boys in their Scour uniforms or their swim trunks, smiling up into the camera's Cyclops eye in a way that made them seem artlessly charming and vulnerable, many of them: and there were many of them. Hundreds, covering every inch of the wall space, and even paper clipped to the window shades (which were always pulled down) and even a few stuck with loops of tape on the ceiling.

Odd, you might say. But that doesn't prove anything, either.

It got a little more pointed, though, when the cleaning lady mentioned something. Mrs. Maizlish was the pious, somewhat sentimental parish lady my parents hired to do housework once a week after my father went blind and my mother was disabled by a series of strokes. It's hard to find somebody as conscientious and as inexpensive as Mrs. Maizlish; my parents didn't want to lose her.

Mrs. Maizlish said she didn't want to go in and straighten Marty's room anymore because of what she'd seen on his night table. In fact, she was thinking of quitting because…. and it got vague after that.

I was home visiting at the time; and when Marty went out, I had to go in and investigate. It was a pornographic homosexual video. There were lots of videos apparently dedicated to exploring the same theme, crowding his bookshelves.

So that's his own business, right? But if it scares away the cleaning lady, it becomes out business. My mother wasn't going to say anything. And my blind, unsuspecting father? He was not to be told. And I sure didn’t want to confront Marty about his video preferences.

So my brother Jim was deputized to talk to him. "We don't care what you watch. But you want your linens changed? You want your carpet vacuumed? Then don't leave pornography lying about where the cleaning lady can see it, OK?" Jim says Marty acted hurt and huffy. But there weren't any problems after that.

As the years went on, my mother and father became more and more disabled, and it became more and more urgent for them to move down here to Tennessee where my husband and I could look after them. My mother was eager, almost desperate to come. But my father didn't want to move unless Marty came with them. And Marty was dragging his feet. So that stalled them up in Pennsylvania for years.

When the three of them finally did come, my mother was already dying. She died, in fact, one month exactly after moving into our house. That gave me a secret anger in my heart: anger at Marty for staling until it was almost too late, and anger at my father for letting Marty control the situation.

But within a year, Marty himself was in a state of serious decline. He'd suffered from severe diabetes for years, with the typical, awful complications (amputation, congestive heart condition), and now his circulatory system was in a state of total, slow-motion collapse.

My husband had asked him, tactfully and gently, several times, whether he ever thought about eternity. No. Whether he wanted us to pray for him. No. Whether he wanted a Catholic funeral when he died. No. Whether he wanted to see a priest. No way.

"Why have I suffered so much in my life? I didn't do anything wrong. I never did anything that would deserve going to hell. Besides, I don't believe there is a God. But if there is," he added, squinting from side to side, "He has a lot of explaining to do."

When the old bugger was put into Intensive Care, my son Ben, was four at the time, would ride with me on the city bus to the hospital 3 or 4 times a week so I could pray at his bedside. Ben and I did real well on the Litanies: I would say the "Sacred Heart of Jesus" or whatever, and Ben would insert the "Have mercy on us."

Sometimes after a little poke: but Ben didn't mind, and Marty, sick and silent, didn't seem to mind either.

Still, I was stunned breathless when my pastor, Fr. Tamburello, phoned me on the second day of Lent to report that Marty had phoned the church the night before-- on Ash Wednesday--- and asked for a priest! Fr. Tamburello waited patiently while I exclaimed, "Oh, my God! Really? Thank God! We never thought--- of course, we'd been hoping and praying---" and then he added, "Yes, he made a good Confession, received Communion, and I anointed him, too. He wanted you to know he wants to get out of the damn hospital. He wants you to come and get him."

Well, there are some things you don't think about. You don't need a "discernment process." You just do it.. We rearranged th downstairs bedroom as a sickroom, with a hospital bed, an oxygen machine and the rest; we made arrangements for around-th-clock home health attendant care; and we brought him home.

I didn't quite catch what he wheezed at me that night, something about "breathing," so I asked, "Are you having a hard time breathing?" Do you need more oxygen?"

"No, no," he shook his head disgustedly. "I said, "Why am I still breathing?"" He was ready. He wanted to die.

What followed was nine wild days, with im in and out of his right mind, squinting at people who were there, and people who weren't (like his sister Catherine, who died years ago, and his twin Maurie, who died when they were infants: "Is there two of me, or is there jus tone of me? Maurie? Is that you?")

Nine days of mixed daylight and darkness, of consolation and chaos. He'd sometimes eat a little, and sometimes refuse to eat; sometimes shove his oxygen cannula up one nostril, and sometimes rip it off and fling it across the room. It bothered him to have to wear a diaper: one time, yelling and hallucinating, he flung that, too.

The health attendants were good-humored, competent gals: I suppose they've seen everything. Marty proposed marriage two of them, two nights in succession. And a third he engaged in a midnight conversation about God: "I now there's a God. There's nature. The sun. The trees. Somebody made Nature. Made all the good. So there's God, right?"

Little Ben sometimes visited Marty's bedside over this nine-day period, and tried to comfort him. He gave him a little plush rabbit named Lovey to keep in bed with him, and he gave him sips of his banana shake. And Marty whispered, "Thank you. Oh, thank you. It's so good."

But the old man's frame of mind during this final novena was intermittently agitated and delusional, and I'm sure Ben was exposed to some disturbing scenes. I remember seeing Ben standing at the doorway watching as Marty kicked off his covers and his clothes, trying to pitch himself over the railing of his bed. He got his amputated stump over the side, and then his other leg, which was now necrotic, discolored, and covered with large sores. "I don't want to live," he groaned aloud. And then: "I don't want to die!"

But on the eighth morning Marty begged to see "the priest" again, and Fr. Tamburello was there within minutes--- God bless him-- to give him Holy Communion.

Marty didn't mind my coming in to say the Rosary. He became noticeably calmer, more attentive. Sometimes his lips formed the words silently. Once he grasped my hand and kissed it. "Thank you so much, " he sighed, tears starting in his eyes, and he pressed my hand to his cheek: "Thank you all."

And the next time he started to pitch from side to side in the bed, he was groaning, in a voice surprisingly loud for a man of such diminished strength, "HOLY MARY, MOTHER OF GOOD, PRAY FOR US SINNERS! NOW! HOLY MARY, MOTHER OF GOD, PRAY FOR US! US SINNERS! NOW!"

On the ninth say, one of the nursing attendants came to me quietly in the kitchen and said, "Please come to the bedroom. I think your uncle has expired."

Sure enough. He'd been asleep. He just stopped breathing. He was still warm, but turned cold rapidly; and the color of his face turned, as I watched, to a pale tan gray. It's true what the Bible says, I thought. He's turning back to clay.

Well, Uncle, I think you made it. Yeah, you made it, you lucky old bugger. You tipped the balance back.

When you come finally to the Light, pray for the rest of the family, OK? Pray for me. Now, and at the hour of my death. I should die so well.


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