The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Endings and Beginnings, Life and Death

Today, June 28, is my mother's birthday. Martha Catherine McCarthy, née Cavanaugh, was born 105 years ago in Fairfield, Connecticut. She died far too young at the age of 67 and is buried on Cape Cod next to my father, John McCarthy, and my brother, Jeff, in Chatham, Massachusetts. Mom was a wonderful, faith-filled woman, a woman of tremendous patience and empathy who always seemed to know exactly what to say and do to ease the hurts and pain of others. The youngest of eight children, she hadn't yet entered her teens when her mother died, leaving her, until her father remarried, as the "woman of the house." I suspect she grew up quickly. Mom went on to graduate from nursing school and worked as an RN for several years before she and my father married on July 4, 1935. No day passes when I don't think of her. She is always with me, reminding me in her quiet way of what is right. Sometimes I actually listen.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie
Back when I was in high school, I came home one afternoon all excited about a fact I had come across in my tenth-grade World History class: "Hey, Mom, did you know that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on your birthday?"

"Yes," she said, "I'm well aware of that. I was just a little girl at the time, only five"

"Do you remember it?"

"Just vaguely. I remember my father saying something about the 'stupid Europeans' but I don't think he or many others thought it would lead to war."

So ended the conversation. Both of my maternal grandparents had immigrated from Ireland and I expect they were happy to forget about all things European.

Memory's an interesting thing. Because of its connection to my mother's birthday, I've always known the date of that fateful event that occurred in 1914, one-hundred years ago today. The assassination of the archduke and his wife, Sophie, in faraway Sarajevo meant far more than the tragic deaths of two of Europe's royals. It not only put into motion the chain of events that led to World War One, but also precipitated the global insanity that made the 20th century the bloodiest in human history. Hitler's National Socialism, Mussolini's odd brand of Italian fascism, and the Communist slavery of Lenin and Stalin all grew out of this horrendous war. And yes, "the war to end all wars," the war that would "make the world safe for democracy," did neither but instead gave us an even more horrendous global war. 

Interestingly, although that first war ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918 -- at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month -- it wasn't officially over until the grossly irresponsible Treaty of Versailles was signed, interestingly on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the Sarajevo assassination. This was also my mom's tenth birthday, a day I'm sure she remembered more clearly than the earlier date.

Yes, life and death often coincide on the calendar. Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who assassinated the archduke and his wife, was born on July 25, 1894, exactly 105 years before the birth of my eldest grandchild, Pedro Santa Ana, who will celebrate his 13th birthday in a few weeks. The young assassin -- He was only 19 at the time -- died in prison of tuberculosis several months before the end of the war brought about by his actions.

Noor Inayat Khan
About 20 years ago, maybe a little more, I came across a book in a used book store in Norfolk, Virginia. Tucked away on a shelf labeled "Military History", it bore the intriguing but cryptic title, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan (Madeline). After flipping through its pages, I bought the book for all of three dollars. Once I began reading I couldn't put it down and finally finished it late that evening. 

I was captivated by the subject of this true story about a remarkably brave young woman. It was the story of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian-born, Sufi Muslim who volunteered as an undercover agent for the British Special Operations Executive during World War Two. In June of 1943 she was flown to a secret landing site in France. For the next four months she worked with the French resistance radioing critical information back to London. While in Paris, she was betrayed to the Germans and captured in October 1943. She underwent a month of vicious interrogation during which she revealed nothing. Labeled an "extremely dangerous prisoner," she was sent to Germany where she was imprisoned for months in solitary confinement with her hands and feet shackled. Eventually Noor was sent to Dachau and summarily executed along with three other female undercover agents captured by the Germans: Yolande Beekman, Elaine Plewman and Madeleine Damerment.Their bodies were burned in the camp's crematorium.

Crematoria at Dachau
It was then I discovered that all four women were executed on the day I was born, September 13, 1944. I found this particularly interesting since I had actually visited Dachau with my family in the fall of 1951. Although I was just seven years old at the time, that visit made a lasting impression on me, especially the crematoria. Now, years later, I can't celebrate a birthday without thinking of this brave woman and her three companions whose lives ended just as mine was beginning.

Life and death, beginnings and endings -- every ending, every death brings a new beginning, new life. 

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