Decades ago, three adults, the surviving siblings of our parents, boarded an Aer Lingus flight to Carrickone in County Tyrone: Bill, SJ to celebrate the Funeral Mass at St. Columba’s in Donneyloop, County Donegal, with Peggy and me to join him to honor our Aunt Maggie.
As we settled into adult seats, I suspect we all shared the sense that we were somehow out of place. Shouldn’t we have been in the seats reserved for children? But no. As the last of her line of McGee-Dohertys, Aunt Maggie had been for us the final barrier between us and mortality. She was the last voice to speak to us in the cadences of our mother. And so, want to or not, we became, officially “the grown-ups.” As the surprising postscript to my own family I have had the privilege of experiencing a rich succession of generations.
Last week, In the early hours between May 2 and 3, I saw my own Nephew Patrick and his remarkably supportive sister and brothers, “Aunt Meagen and Uncles Ed and Chris,” take on the role their mother and uncle and aunt had been called to those many years before. With the death of Patrick’s son McKenna Doherty Fay, they were unexpectedly called to occupy the “grown up seats.” And they did it with such grace!
Waking to a text sent at 3AM I learned that McKenna, third of Nephew Patrick’s six adoptive children, had died after living not quite a quarter century. In that very week, Patrick’s siblings had, on Tuesday May 1, brought him with them in spirit to carry my Sister Peggy’s cremains to their final resting place at the side of her husband James the Great and their firstborn, James Russell Fay, Jr.
By no coincidence, McKenna was given the Doherty name when he was baptized here New York City in the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer. I like to think that when, two days after his death, the Church celebrated 100 years since its dedication on May 5, 1918, he was able to draw all the Dohertys and Fays and Cunninghams and namesake Sara McKenna, the Nanny from Scotland who had cared for earlier generations, to join him to celebrate Jubilee. It is my hope and my confidence, that at that moment he was witness to the fact that the life that had begun at that place in Baptism was then changed but not ended.
But what of those who remain to give witness in the land of the living?
From what I have been privileged to observe in just these few days of their newly acquired “seniority” I am grateful to report that the designation “grown-ups” is in very good hands. And in both the lead actors and the cast-in-waiting led by the likes of William Charles Cunningham Fay “Liam” and his Ohio cousin Colleen Doherty Bedell, names and a heritage are carried forward. In the best of hands and of hearts.
May I advise those who call them Aunt or Uncle to look to the newly minted “grown-ups” to see what grace under pressure looks like. What I observe is that it means remarkable resilience in the face of life’s surprises, fast balls and puzzling poignancies. Once, the great preacher/orator Fulton Sheen reminded his listeners that in a fully notated musical composition a wrong note, once sounded, cannot be corrected. So what alternative did he identify? Take that note and reinvent it. Make it the first note of a new composition. And let that be the invention that brings irreplaceable beauty to the lives of all who hear it.
By most estimates, McKenna’s death may have been sad, discordant, untimely. His Aunt Meagen sensitively described him as the “beautiful soul” that came innocently and unexpectedly into our family. Wishing that we could all have known him more she rejoiced that “he now exists completely in the love and support of his Originator. A masterpiece.”
Simultaneously Patrick weighed the request of the medical community’s organ donation professionals. They speak for one profoundly in need of a donor and explain that the decision to donate must be made within 12 hours of death. Patrick recognized the deep-seated dream McKenna had to protect and feed and shelter those with whom he lived. Now a person he never knew in this life will, with McKenna’s beautiful eyes, begin a newly sighted life.
It is unquestionably a luxury to have known that I could trust “the grown-ups” in my life. How grateful I am to observe that that luxury will continue for the generations yet to move up from the “children’s seats.”