Life and Death: Lessons My Mother Taught Me

Elderly holding hands

by Bonnie Finnerty, Education Director

On January 18, 2019, I eagerly accepted the position of Education Director at the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. My former career as a teacher coupled with my life-long advocacy of life issues led me to believe this was the job for which I had long been searching.  Part-time and close to home, I could still juggle the responsibilities of family life and volunteer work.  In addition, I was blessed to work with authentically kind, compassionate, and committed people with whom I felt an instant bond.

The overwhelming joy I felt at this new chapter in my life was tempered, however, just three days later, when we learned that my active 82 year-old mother had pancreatic cancer. Her doctor surmised that she might live until Easter. Suddenly, everything was re-prioritized.  How can I best spend these last precious months with my mom? How can I ease her pain? How can I help her and my dad, indeed all of our family, including her beloved 16 grandchildren prepare for her departure from this world?

As it turns out, my mom did not have a few months.  She had 18 days.  We were praying with her when she peacefully drew her last breath on February 8.  During her brief but intense illness, my mom endured excruciating pain, some from the cancer and some from the innumerable blood clots that riddled her entire body.  At times she called out in prayer, imploring God to take her, as her loved ones sat helplessly by, shedding tears as we stroked her face and held her hand.

When witnessing the slow but inevitable death of a loved one, there is a dark temptation to end their pain and hasten their journey home to God through doctor-prescribed suicide. But our family and its matriarch knew that was not our call.  While we sought the best palliative care for her, we knew there was a plan, a timetable, a moment long ago determined when she would transition into eternal life.  And as hard as her path was to get there, we could only love her on her way as best we could. During those 18 days, my mother gave us the ultimate pro-life witness: the peaceful surrender to life’s natural course, bravely bearing her suffering, giving US comfort with her courage, patience, and steadfast faith.

Such a testimony echoed a climactic moment 32 years earlier, when I returned home from college my freshman year to tell her I was pregnant. Seeing me crying in the kitchen, she became alarmed, thinking the very worst.  I could hardly speak the words, but when I did, she said, “Is that ALL?  I thought you were dying of cancer! A baby, we can deal with a baby!”  Having lost a 16 year-old daughter in a car accident many years earlier, my mother believed that the worst thing a parent can endure is the loss of a child.  My unexpected pregnancy was not an occasion for tears, but rather a chance to joyfully welcome new life.  Sadly, this lesson was reinforced all the more just a few weeks later when my brother and his wife lost their daughter, my mother’s first grandchild, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.   We grieved the loss of baby Ashley, while treasuring the life growing within my 18 year old body.

Is it any wonder that I now work for a pro-life organization, one whose mission is committed to promoting the dignity and value of human life from conception to natural death?  On my last outing with my mom, just days after learning of her terminal illness, I had the opportunity to show her where I would be working.  Pulling up in front of the office, I explained what I would be doing for the Federation.  She was happy for me, knowing that I was honored to do such important work with such good people. She didn’t mention it to me then, but I have since learned that my mother was a financial supporter of the PA Pro-Life Federation, dating back as early as 1990, when we were all still living in Scranton. She couldn’t have foreseen me working for the Federation, but now that I am, I feel sure she is blessing our good efforts from the other side.