Pauline Saves

Pauline comes down the stairs from her bedroom each morning, wraps her robe around her thin frame, and starts making coffee. At the tippy kitchen table, she reads a worn Bible until it’s ready. Always, the plastic counters gleam in her kitchen. Fortified by the coffee and the Bible, she goes down another flight of steps to the basement, where her son lives.

The basement is Damian’s kingdom, with a huge flat screen tv, always on. The dark wood paneling and big, squashy sofa and chairs seem like a different world from the light, spotless kitchen upstairs. More removed from the world, more manly. Damian is in his twenties, and he seems both younger and older. Younger because he lives at home, where his mother cooks his meals, and watches over his day. Compared to other men his age, with jobs and kids, his life is easy. But the awareness of his illness makes him seem older.

After a lifetime of coddling, Damian is dying now, but Pauline won’t talk about it. Not to me, her hospice chaplain, not to her family, not to our nurse. He has lived a long time with an inherited disease, and she is sure he can keep going. Her life is about caring for him, and Pauline insists that he’ll be fine.

Grief guru Alan Wolfeldt says he doesn’t like the term “denial.” He likes to think of it as “resting.” We’re resting from what’s too hard, too awful, too painful to think about. That feels right. Pauline is resting from the knowledge that she’s about to lose her third son.

Her oldest son carried the family stresses until they became too much for him, and he turned to drugs. He died of an overdose a few years ago. Her second son was killed in a shooting. She doesn’t say much more about it, and I don’t ask, but I know that a mother’s grief is no less or more even when a child makes poor choices.

Her third son seemed safe from all of that, with the illness that kept him at home.

Now she is resting fiercely from the knowledge that Damian is dying.

She sorts it out in her own way. “We don’t need to know why,” she says. “We don’t ask God why things happen. We just trust.”

Her daughter Francie, a mother herself, pulls up in her van between trips to drive her kids home from school and on to football practice. Francie knows how tired her mother is, and she begs her to take a break, but she seems to know it’s impossible. Her mother won’t let go of Damian.

I wonder if Pauline keeps moving to keep her grief away. If she sits down, it all comes back.

I understand because I do the same thing. I can’t seem to sit still, except when I’m at work, hearing someone’s story. I can’t read anymore – it doesn’t hold my attention. No one else’s drama on the page can compare to the drama in my head. I think I must be hard to be around, but no one is brave enough to complain.

My work as a chaplain for this hospice started ten days after my brother took his life.

I wouldn’t recommend this, except that it saved me.

It was already planned, and I was too tired with grief to call and quit. Oddly, going to work with dying people seemed easier than calling a normal person to tell my story.

I had been to orientation, given an employee badge, and shown to my new desk, covered with a big pile of folders, full of people who needed visits. Then I left for an already planned vacation. It didn’t turn out quite the way I’d planned.

I came home from the funeral, and went to work.

Out in the suburbs, I would have gotten lost in my own story. Self-pity would have taken me over. Driving around Detroit, it was hard to feel sorry myself when so many stories were just like mine, or worse.

The mothers of Detroit become my teachers. The woman whose son went out with friends one night, and was beaten up, left with a head injury so severe he can’t work. The mother and sisters who visit the woman in a nursing home bed, unresponsive for six years, after an attack one night. The mothers of men paralyzed in shootings. They feel fortunate, compared to the sorority of women who’ve been to funerals and trials and only have framed pictures of their brothers and sons.

“We don’t need to know why,” they all tell me, in one way or another.

“But I want to know why,” I wail silently in response, but never say out loud. I want to know why. All I want is to know why.

Slowly, the truth of what they’re saying sinks in. Why doesn’t help. There’s no solace there. The truth is still the truth. Grief is still grief.

I never tell them my story, but I wonder if they see it in my eyes. Slowly, my teachers save me, and, in the silence, I hope they hear the power in their stories, too.


  1. So very powerful, Mary. WOW.

  2. Avatar Julie Madden says

    All I can think to say is – Thank you for this part of your story.

  3. “Resting”…that’s a kind, thoughtful way to put it. This is a beautiful story, Mary, and I’m sure they do see it in your eyes.

    • Mary Austin Mary Austin says

      Thanks. I like his idea of “resting” too — so much less judgmental than saying someone’s “in denial.” Hope you and the kids and the lovely husband are doing well!

  4. As always, every word has value.

  5. Mary A, So far away and you still can move me to tears. I am so sorry to hear about your brother. I won’t be a hospice nurse nor think of you as a hospice chaplain or indeed even think of you as a minister. This way I can say from my own experience that some day, some way, some where, the reason for your brother’s having left you, you will get a sign or some form of reason. I know this because the reason for my dear husband’s early death became known to me about five years after he died. Thank you for sharing your blog. I look forward to every entry. Know that you have many friends back here in NJ.

  6. Avatar Jennifer Warner says

    Beautiful Mary. Love your writing. (& you!)

  7. Avatar lucille donahue says

    RESTING FEELS BETTER TO ME TO. I WILL SHARE THAT WITH OTHERS. Grief is grief, no matter how many losses I have, I am no better at grief. Each loss has a jounery I must take to the other side. I hold you and your family in my prayers. Thank you for sharing your writings, they are wonderful. Take care lucille

    • Mary Austin Mary Austin says

      I love that — each loss is its own journey…so right. We never get “better” at it. Take care!

  8. Mary,
    Oh how Mary P and I miss you and the perspective you bring to our work! So good to hear your words again and feel a part of what you are doing. Perhaps the answer to the “Why?” question is as simple as….so that you can take your grief and turn it into compassion in caring for others who feel pain. All part of God’s great “pay it forward” plan!
    Sue (Gilman) Gatton

    • Mary Austin Mary Austin says

      Sue! I love to think about you and Mary bringing your wisdom and clarity to the people you meet at the hospital, and how goodness and grace ripple out from all that you’re doing. You’re definitely in the pay-it-forward business, too.

  9. Avatar Kay Turner says

    mary, this is kay in brooklyn. loved this story about the valiance and faith of a Detroit mother.

  10. Finally read this. It is good. And a gift. Thanks.

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