ENFIELD – Saint Peter sank when he tried to walk on water because he lacked faith. Saint Thomas the Apostle doubted that Jesus rose from the dead. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux struggled with faith even as she lay dying.
They’re saints, anyway. And that gives us hope, especially when the unexpected death of a loved one leaves us feeling abandoned by the God in whom we have placed our faith.
Laura B. Hayden, author of Staying Alive: A Love Story, lost her 49-year-old husband, Larry, to a post-surgery blood clot in 1998. Laura and Larry had been active in their parish, Holy Family in Enfield, since its founding in 1965. "I was a eucharistic minister. He ran the engaged couples program, and he started an unemployment support group in the ’80s," she said.
Life was good. Laura was a teacher. Larry worked for the state. They had two children, Emily and Conor. And then, the world turned upside-down.
"I never expected my husband to die," she told the Transcript. "We had a good family. We were happy. He went for surgery as a preventative measure. It was an anomaly two weeks after the surgery that he died from."
She had no time for anger. "I tried to stay away from it because I had two young kids. I had to think of them first. The people who were angry were asking why and they couldn’t get an answer, and I, to be honest with you, stopped asking why because it’s a nonanswerable question."
What she did instead was to bring Larry back to life.
Early in her memoir, she tells of how she felt Larry’s presence when a bright red cardinal landed near her during a camping trip, just as "their song," "Ooh Child," came on the radio, with the lyrics, "things are gonna get easier." She writes: "At that moment I realize there is no more than a hairline and no less than an eternity between him and me."
But she brings him to life for the reader as well, not just for herself. She recalls watching him kicking a soccer ball in the backyard with the 7-year-old Conor, who suddenly asks his dad, "Who’s your favorite painter?"
"Sherwin Williams," Larry says.
Then, pursuing the painting theme, Conor asks, "Who’s your favorite impressionist?"
"Rich Little," says Larry.
Funny guy. We feel like we know him. He comes alive for us, which is the triumph of this book.
Playing a major role in the book is Father Francis T. Kerwan, who, at age 95, is still pastor of Holy Family Parish, which he founded 47 years ago. When Larry died, even this man of God was shaken.
"This ... this I do not understand," the author quotes Father Kerwan as saying. She writes that this reveals "that doubt is the cornerstone of faith. Belief, by its nature, belies certainty. ... If Larry’s death baffled Father, I wasn’t going to be the one to figure it out."
Father Kerwan told the Transcript that he remembers Larry’s telling him in the hospital that he expected to be just fine. "I left him, and I said, ‘Great!’ [When he died,] I was very surprised. I felt so sorry for Laura and the family situation, because he had told them also about the good news of his [expected] recovery."
When Larry died, Father Kerwan immediately went to visit Laura. "She was very distraught," he said, "but she had the faith and she still does." About the book, he said, "It’s sad and strong. And oh, dear, yes, it’s very humorous. The human nature of the individuals comes across and the beauty of love and the sadness of death. It’s got a lot of depth to it."
The beauty of Laura Hayden’s writing should come as no surprise to people who have read her essays in The Hartford Courant, Northeast magazine, the Journal Inquirer, Connecticut Parent, Hartford Woman and other publications – including, some years ago, The Catholic Transcript. Life-affirming themes fill the 132 pages of a book that deals honestly with death.
In a chapter called "Nesting," she creates an astonishing metaphor. She recalls a mourning dove’s collision with a plate glass window, leaving a pink splotch on the glass and a senseless bird on the patio. When she finally goes outside to remove the body, it is gone. "It must have only stunned itself on impact, revived, and flown away."
At Larry’s funeral, a golden-hued dog appears from nowhere and paces back and forth behind the hearse, as if guarding it. She wonders if the dog’s presence is "divine or divined." Just as mysteriously, the dog disappears. Eventually, she interprets this as a sign of Larry’s resurrection, that he will always be with her.
While the book is about faith, it is also about how not to be fooled into false faith. When Laura’s doctor finds a tumor on her kidney, Laura’s friend tries to cure it with a New Age remedy called consegrity, which supposedly removes energy blockages within the body. Two days before the scheduled surgery, her friend tells her the tumor is gone, the operation unnecessary.
Her friend is wrong.
"I wasn’t in the market for a miracle," the author states. "Just a surgeon I could trust." The surgeon removes a kidney and an eight-ounce tumor, malignant but encapsulated. Her recovery is apparently complete.
When discussing plans for the book with her advisor in a master’s degree program, the 5-foot-tall author described herself as "a short essay writer." Her advisor said, "Well, if you’re describing yourself in your physical appearance ‘a short essay writer,’ fine, but you’re going to be an essay writer. The essays are going to be longer, creative nonfiction."
Be prepared to be entertained with insightful images throughout this poignant memoir. There is sweetness and sadness, joy and hope. In the final chapter, "Grounded," the author chooses for her metaphor a salad of crisp, succulent lettuce and bitter dandelion greens, a mixture of flavors imitating life’s varied emotions.
"Over time I’ve developed a taste for the bitter green," she writes.
Staying Alive: A Love Story
For information on upcoming readings, go to the author’s Web site, www.LauraBHayden.com. To request general audience readings, or readings for the medical community, contact the author at email@example.com.(Signalman Publishing, 2011, 132 pp.) is available at The Catholic Book Store, 467 Bloomfield Ave., Bloomfield, as well as bookstores in Enfield and through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble’s bn.com. It is also available as an e-book through Kindle and Nook.