A week before Christmas, we’ll put the weird Mexican angel my mother gave us up on top of the Christmas tree again, where it will preside over our home once again.
But my mother won’t be here.
We celebrated Christmas early this year — right after Thanksgiving dinner was done, as a matter of fact. My brother hit the piano and we belted out Christmas carols even before we started on the pie.
My mom even gave us our Christmas gifts: a $100 bill each for my wife and myself. She typed out an explanation into the speaking device that has provided her only voice for two years:
“I won’t be alive at Christmas,” she said.
She was right. She wouldn’t even be alive a week later.
Maria Segura Hoopes — my mom — was a Mexican immigrant from a colorful, intellectual family. She had two master’s degrees and one book to her credit. For 12 years, she sat at the central reference desk of the University of Arizona library.
My first political acts were done at her instruction. She was on Democratic mailing lists, and got mailings from pro-abortion groups. She would have me find heavy objects to put in the return envelopes and send them back, postage due.
But late in life, she got ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease robs you of muscle functions, one by one until it kills you. The great blessing (and curse) of it is that it leaves your intellectual faculties untouched.
My mother was quick-witted, lucid, and smart to the end. She just couldn’t talk. Or swallow. Or cough. Or blow her nose. Or use her hands fully. Or walk very far. In the end, she couldn’t even sleep lying down.
But she could smile. And her perpetual smile is what people chiefly remember about her final months.
My Dad once asked her the question so many people asked him — how could she smile when she had lost so much? She typed back: “Whining is a bad exit strategy.”
When I visited for Thanksgiving with my wife and six children, she was as caustic as ever, typing: “I guess it would be tacky to die with all these little kids around.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t tacky.
At Sunday Mass the day before, the priest embarrassed her by praising how she suffered “with dignity, and even with joy.” Then he gave her the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
On the day she died, April and I took the kids to my mom’s childhood town, and took pictures of them at all her old haunts. When we got home, my mom was praying her Rosary. It was Monday, so she was probably praying the Joyful Mysteries — contemplating Christmas.
After dinner, we showed her the day’s pictures. Her last hours on earth were spent smiling at her grandchildren. At 8:30, she was dead.
This Christmas, the one that started before pie on Thanksgiving will be filled with the glow and profound mystery of that smile.
My ten-year-old, Olivia, wrote an essay about it a few hours before she died, and called it “All for Suzette.” As one final Christmas present to my mom, I started AllfForSuzette.org. With it I hope to help my mom finally see a church built on the ground that is already consecrated for it in little Sonoita, Ariz.
The Church’s name seems a fitting tribute to my mother’s grace and joy. It’s called Our Lady of the Angels.
– Tom Hoopes is editor of The National Catholic Register.