A few days after I turned in my last column I boarded a plane, destined for a southern city, to visit my ailing mom and give my dad a break for a few days. Things did not go as expected.

When I arrived I was surprised at the change since I had last seen her. Dad had prepared me, but I think there is little you can do to prepare someone for the slow deterioration of one who is so dearly loved. Mom had been fighting a cold and her breathing was a little labored. As the day wore on I became concerned as her breathing became more shallow and I convinced Dad that we should take her to the emergency room and just get her checked.

I fully expected to be sent home with the news that she had a bad cold or a little bronchitis. I was not prepared to hear the words, “she is unlikely to live through the night,” delivered by a young, overworked ER doctor who, only after he uttered them, seemed to realize the effect they might have.

A staph infection and pneumonia were going to claim my mom’s life. However it was not to happen that night; what happened that night was the beginning of the vigil. Many people have lived this vigil; the one that begins with the news that a life is drawing to a close and the time to say goodbye is now. We, my dad and I, did what Catholics do naturally in this situation, we tracked down the parish priest and asked him to come immediately. And being a good priest, he came immediately, because that is what good priests do. When Extreme Unction had been given and the grace of the sacrament was still upon us we sat and we held her hand and we prayed.

The vigil continued. My dad and I did what people do in these situations. We called family. We called friends. We cried and begged prayers and made arrangements and then we sat and we held her hands and we told her all she needed to know. She was a beautiful woman, always. Even now in this extreme circumstance her beauty reflected in the gaze of my father as he steadfastly sat next to her and whispered the words that 46 years together bring out in a man. Forty six years of loving and living, of fighting and making up, of a faith lived out in every moment and a connection born of a grace filled moment on a sunny October day in 1965 when two became one and God smiled upon the union.

And the vigil continued in an ICU room with caring nurses and family sitting with us, with her sinking fast and rallying yet again. With so many tears and stories shared around her. “She can hear you,” they told us and so we remembered. We laughed and joked and told the tale of a life lived for her family. Her moments of silliness and joy, her deep love of my brother and me only to become even stronger with the addition of each of her twelve grandchildren. Her soft side and her temper were remembered. Yes, a temper too. She was after all a good Irish mom married to a good Irish cop with two smart-aleck kids; a temper was a survival skill.

The vigil continued into a hospice room with nurses experienced in these matters. After a short time they looked at mom and said, “very soon,” and the family came once again to say goodbye, and then to leave and prepare for the chores that come when a life ends. And there we were; my dad, my brother and I waiting. My prayer book, one she gave me when I became a mom, opened to the prayer for a happy death, my brother and dad sitting on either side holding her and waiting.

The vigil ended that way, Dad’s hand on her heart and the two of us each holding her hand. The hands that cradled us as infants, comforted us, taught us, gave us the occasional swat and when we were ready, sent us out into the world. Those beautiful hands. Her last breath came and my father let her go, softly speaking words just for her, and I prayed that the purgatory she had lived these last few years be enough and that she be welcomed into the arms of God forevermore.