As her parents aged and developed medical problems, Noreen Madden McInnes felt called to care for them as much as possible, even though she lived in San Diego, while they resided in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania. That became even more difficult after her mom Joan was killed in a car accident and her father Frank still needed help. It was Noreen’s Catholic faith that guided her through those dark days and which continues to strengthen her today. She has now written a memoir called, “Keep at It, Riley! Accompanying My Father Through Death into Life,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below).
Noreen’s first experience of caregiving occurred when she was a little girl and would accompany her grandfather to visit his elderly, widowed sisters. Seeing him perform “these Christian works of mercy and care,” she recalled, “planted a seed within me that this is how we treat the elderly, with love and respect, and you spend time with them.”
In addition, Noreen’s grandmother modeled God’s unconditional love to her, praying for her at all times, including when she had a test or was traveling. Noreen said, “She was like my angel, praying for me, caring for me, and loving me in all facets of my life…Then as I got older, I lived far from her but…whenever I got back to Pennsylvania to visit, she was always waiting for me with a ham sandwich. And I think, ‘That’s our Lord. He is always there, always waiting for us to call on Him, always ready with a ham sandwich.'”
Noreen treasures the education she got in the Catholic faith growing up, and it even worked its way into her career, as she is the Director of Liturgy & Spirituality for the Diocese of San Diego. But even more important have been the role models of faith in her life. She notes, “We are formed, shaped with, united with the heart of God in liturgy, in the encounter with the real presence of Christ. But that’s not the end. That is how we are shaped to be sent from the liturgy to serve, to be Christ to others. I witnessed it with my grandparents and my parents and how they met the world, and that shaped my vision. As I’m called now to be Christ for others, it was nice to have that strong witness.”
When her parents began experiencing medical problems, Noreen would regularly fly in from California to visit them. This gave her a more adult perspective on their faith, especially when it came to her mother. Noreen described her mom as always looking at life “through rose colored glasses,” and admitted that could get annoying at times. But as Noreen accompanied Joan to Mass every morning at St. Jude’s Church – and prayed next to her as she lit her candles and said her novenas – she saw things in a new light. Noreen said, “All of a sudden, I was able to see [my mother’s] complete trust in the Lord, her deep faith that God was truly with her in every moment, no matter how bad things got.”
And things did get bad. While Frank was in the hospital, Joan was killed in a car accident while driving over to visit him. This was a devastating blow for their whole family, so Noreen felt grateful for the extra time she had been able to spend with her mom. She said, “[Mom] lived every day as if she was ready to go home to the Lord, so I think that when we celebrated her funeral mass, it was tragic and painful. My father was in a wheelchair and sick. But all of a sudden this great joy came to me. I was flooded with this tremendous grace that I knew my mom had. She was in heaven and [I knew] that we need to celebrate that and not focus on our loss, but on the joy for her. I feel like that grace carried me through the days of accompanying my dad through all his sickness.”
Another thing that carried Noreen through her father’s illness was their family motto, “Keep at it, Riley!” Though nobody in their Irish Catholic clan was actually named Riley, the phrase had been passed from generation to generation as a way to say, “You never give up, you never give in, and you just give it to the Lord. And what seems as an annoyance or as a problem, it’s really a blessing.”
It was the motto by which her father Frank lived his life to the fullest. Noreen described him as a people person whose warm and friendly personality remained with him through all his health struggles. For instance, the grocery store at which Frank shopped had a Helping Hands program, in which a young employee would be assigned to help an older customer. Frank saw this as an opportunity to get to know his helper and give him advice on how to live a good life.
Even when Frank was in the hospital, he embodied a buoyant spirit that drew out the best in others. Noreen recalled taking her dad to a rehab session filled with patients in wheelchairs. He was placed next to a very sickly-looking man. Suddenly, this man happily began exclaiming, “Frank!”
With a big smile, Frank greeted him, saying,”Well, hello, Donald. How are you today?”
“You could see this gentleman was so happy to see my dad,” said Noreen. “The nurse leans in and says to me, ‘Donald’s been here for three months and he’s only said one word: Frank.'”
“In just those few minutes,” continued Noreen, “I’m like, look at this poor person that’s sick and he didn’t have any family there with him. But just a smile and a greeting [from my dad], and you see the dignity that he too is made in the image and likeness of God, regardless of his suffering, sickness and illness. That’s how we are to look at the face of everyone. So I was so grateful for those few minutes with my dad, to see him work his magic.”
On the topic of dignity, Noreen added: “Keep at It, Riley! explains what dying with dignity is, where you are surrounded with love and care – and Christ is our accompaniment… Interestingly, in physician assisted suicide, the predominant reason for choosing that is that people feel that they do not want to be a burden on their loved ones, and so they think this is the way to opt out of it. In describing my father, that’s how much of a gift he was to me and all those around him in his last days. He wasn’t a burden, he was a gift. So this is in response to those that feel that they’ll be a burden on others: they can still be a gift, even though they’re sick. They can witness their faith. So many today don’t have that same strong faith in the Lord, so if they’re in their last days, ask for the sacraments, ask for anointing the sick, ask for communion, witness their strong faith. What better gift can you give than that?”
Though Noreen still sheds tears talking about the loss of her father, she also expresses deep gratitude that she was able to serve him in his final months as an “anam cara,” which is an Irish term for a spiritual midwife who accompanies the dying from this life into their “eternal reward in heaven.” And again, her family’s faith played the key role.
Noreen said, “At the end of our life…you see what appears is a downward spiral [in the aging]. Every day they’re more sick and frail. But in reality, it’s a spiral upwards towards Heaven. They’re being called home to God…To accompany someone in that time is such a gift. You’re waiting for the angels to come and carry them home to God… What a gift that relationship is because in reality, it’s the Lord that is accompanying us. Our Lord is our anam cara, accompanying us…[I knew that my father would] be called home to the Lord, and I would meet him again one day. As sad as I am for myself without him here, I know he has his eternal reward.”
(To listen to my full interview with Noreen Madden McInnes, click on the podcast links):