Marilyn W. Stringer, July 29, 1941 — December 11, 2022
We knew we had limited time when 12 days ago Mom told us that she had decided to stop treatment and transition to home hospice care. So last Saturday, we all congregated at her house to celebrate an early Christmas of sorts, since it was always such an important holiday to her. I spent the day putting up a tree and decorating the room for her while she watched some of her favorite silver screen Christmas movies. Shortly before midnight she called us all together — my three siblings, her sister, my three cousins and me — because she was finally ready to drink the spring water I had brought her from Lourdes and she wanted us all to be there when she did.
Mom had told me about Lourdes for as long as I can remember — my birthday happens to be on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th. She has always said that devotion to Mary was one of the things that helped her feel connected to her faith — she said she liked that the Catholic church showed such reverence to a woman and a mother. Because of this, she was always drawn to the stories of appearances of Mary, especially those made to children such as Our Lady of Fatima and, above all, Our Lady of Lourdes. And, for anyone who knows my mom, it certainly didn’t hurt that there was an Academy Award winning movie version of the story, The Song of Bernadette, and even a moving Andy Williams ballad: “The Village of St. Bernadette.”
For those of you who don’t know the story, very briefly, Bernadette Soubirous, a poor, uneducated fourteen year old of a small town in southern France was out gathering firewood near a grotto on February 11th, 1858 when she was struck with a vision of a beautiful young woman. Bernadette returned again and again to see and listen to the lady who spoke sweetly to her and gave her hope and faith. And although her family, the town, and the church all doubted her at first, eventually, after a fresh spring developed in the grotto and people began to report miraculous healings from its waters, Bernadette’s story was accepted and the small village of Lourdes grew into an important site of pilgrimage. First a chapel and later a large sanctuary were constructed on the spot, and nowadays millions of pilgrims come to Lourdes each year in search of faith and healing. Bernadette herself, always of delicate health and weary of the constant attention, soon joined a convent where she spent the rest of her relatively short life dedicated to the physical and spiritual healing of others and she was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1933.
Mom and I had talked about going to Lourdes many times, but as she got older she was increasingly hesitant to travel and the timing just never worked out. However, last summer I was in southern France visiting some good friends who live only a few hours from Lourdes. And even though at the time she had not yet been diagnosed, mom’s health had noticeably begun to decline before I left. So, recognizing that I might not have many more opportunities to do so while she was still with us and I could tell her about it, I decided to make the trip for her. In preparation for my visit, I watched The Song of Bernadette, which, though mom had told me about for years, I had never seen. On July 3rd, I bought a train ticket to visit Lourdes on July 5th. The very next day, the night of July 4th, I got a call telling me mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. When she and I spoke later that evening, I could hear the fear in her voice, but also how much she was heartened by the idea that I would be going to Lourdes.
I spent that next day wandering around the town by myself — I saw the grotto where Mary had supposedly first appeared and the massive shrine built above it and even Bernadette’s childhood home, now a museum. Though I admit I was there more as an agnostic cultural historian, a Latin teacher, and a tourist, I did my best to take it all in as best I could for mom and see it through her eyes. I lit candles in her name and dutifully collected two small vials of the healing water (small enough to take on the plane) to bring home to Mom.
Upon my return from France, I spent three weeks in August at home with mom, it was just two of us for much of it, so we spent most of the time talking, watching classic films, and going to see various doctors. At every single appointment of the many I took her to, she made a point of telling each doctor, nurse, and technician about St. Bernadette and my trip to Lourdes. But surprisingly, she didn’t drink the water right away as I thought she would. Rather, she told me she’d wait until the doctors told her there was no other hope, so that if it worked, I would know it was a miracle — she was seemingly more concerned about healing my spirit than her own body.
Just five months later, a week ago today, as we stood in a half moon around her hospital bed in the living room, Mom expressed her gratitude for the blessings of her life, especially her family, and then thanked us each individually, addressing us one by one. She told me how proud she was of me and once again thanked me for making the trip to Lourdes for her. When she had finished her acknowledgements to all, she quickly imbibed the small vial of spring water, thanked us all one last time for being there and indulging her, and then quietly returned to watching tv. I said goodnight, kissed her on the forehead, told her I’d see her tomorrow and returned with my brother to our hotel across town, completely unaware I was speaking to her for the last time.
I wasn’t there when Mom passed suddenly and unexpectedly early the next morning, but my cousin who was with her in those last moments told me that there were prayers to God, Mary, and Jesus on her lips as she departed this life. A life lived, like that of Bernadette, as a humble servant of the God she fervently believed in, forever devoted to the nourishment of the material and spiritual well being of others. So while I don’t know if this qualifies as a miracle, it would seem to be at least a small grace of God, perhaps through the intercession of St. Bernadette, afforded to my mom — to die in peace and without pain, at home, full of faith and surrounded by love — perhaps the best any of us can hope for.
Gratias tibi ago, Bernadetta, et ave atque vale, Mater.
This text is a slightly edited version of the eulogy I delivered during my mom’s funeral mass on Saturday, December 17, 2022.
My mom led a mental health self-help group for Recovery International for 36 years and it was the work of which she was most proud. Donations in her name can be made here: https://www.recoveryinternational.org/
Thank you to my brother Peter F. Stringer for his help writing this.