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By Jane McCafferty

Emmanuel Falque is the philosopher and theologian who some say is the theological mind most akin to Pope Francis. Falque, a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of Paris, believes in the crucial work of connecting to nonbelievers, or “the nones” as they’ve been called. We find solidarity, he argues, by emphasizing our bodily plight and putting what he calls our finitude at the center of our consciousness. We live in an age where some billionaires believe they will soon be able to “upload” themselves onto computers and live indefinitely. In some circles, humans are seen as blueprints for robots. And already, thousands of corpses have been cryogenically frozen, their bodies stored with the hope that new technologies can deliver them back to life.

Who wants to think about their finitude — our ultimate state of being a finite, limited, bounded creature? Even those who believe in the importance of meditating on mortality don’t often get close to the reality. Faith does not release us from the anguish, any more than it released Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

My mother died during COVID. She lived out her final days at Sunrise, an assisted living place that I wish I’d been able to better appreciate than I did at the time. But I was threatened by the blatant illustrations of finitude. The place was “nice”: usually clean with walls adorned with photos of nature, employees mostly devoted and kind and deserving of far more pay and recognition than they’d ever receive. And the scent of urine was not as overpowering as in other places I’ve visited. Still, the residents often looked so abandoned; it was hard not to feel a sense of heartbreak.

But what a great place it was to remind us of where we were ultimately headed — even if we win the lottery, live to play pickleball into our 90s and die at home. This was finitude writ large.

I steeled myself against it, resisting this new version of my mother; she had changed dramatically with her diagnosis of dementia. I was haunted by the memory of who she’d been for most of her life — a person in control who liked standing tall in her dignity. A beautiful teacher, librarian, storyteller and singer, whose many friendships had roots going back to grade school. My mother would have been horrified to see this new person she’d become, even while being wildly popular at Sunrise. She still had high spirits and could often be found serenading someone, one rosary around her neck, another clutched in her hand.

She told me she loved praying all day long: “That’s all I’m good for now.” She especially loved prayer requests, and we all ended up believing her prayers were powerful. Why wouldn’t they be? She now had an innocence about her one can only see in the truly powerless. She’d become a channel; along with the physical ailments and the loss of memory, there had been enough emptying of self for the Holy Spirit to shine through as never before.

Still, I’d have to take some serious deep breaths before entering into the place each month, after driving from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, always accompanied by my husband, who loved my mother. He is the only person I ever knew who liked the atmosphere of Sunrise. He helped me enormously, more than I can say, by entering the place with a love devoid of dread. When I asked why he seemed to like being there, he said, “Everyone’s given up striving, competing, judging. They’re just here, and there’s no artifice in the place.” Not that he didn’t also recognize the sadness of it all. Nobody would choose to end up here, old and away from loved ones. But he seemed to soak up the beauty he saw nonetheless.

Sometimes, under his influence, my fears disappeared. It was true that every interaction we had with my mother and the other residents had a kind of purity to it. Nobody was vying to be impressive, to be smarter than the next guy. You were off the hook, free to engage without worrying how you were seen, how you were measuring up. I could understand it as a respite, an invitation to just be present.

I think of my mother sitting at the table where she ate meals with the same small group of people. Her legs were riddled with skin cancer, the daily treatment of which was excruciating. She had back pain and was bruised from a bad fall. But she emanated in her bodily plight a great spirit of absolute acceptance. Maybe this is why her presence was magnetic. Why so many of the residents had a similarly oddly arresting presence.

Emmanuel Falque’s notion of sin rests in the refusal to accept the condition of our finitude and the limits it gives us. Without an embrace of our mortal bodies — that which most intimately connects us with all living beings — we can easily grow arrogant. Without even knowing it, we begin to imagine we might, with enough privilege, escape the inevitable human trajectory.

My husband’s years spent in monasteries no doubt influenced how he saw Sunrise, but he was still amazed at how my mother managed. “How do you stay happy?” he asked her one day before we left. “Blessed Mother Mary does everything for me,” she said without a moment of hesitation. He and I both were shocked and moved by how fluidly and immediately she’d answered the question.

We often quote her, even though I don’t have the same depth of her faith, or her embrace of what is. But it seemed only fair that someone long devoted to Mary would be accompanied by her at the end of her life. A Mary who we too often forget was a body on earth, complete with all the body’s humbling betrayals and vulnerabilities, a woman who’d known intimately not only the finitude of herself, but of a beloved son hanging on a cross.

Jane McCafferty lives in Pittsburgh and writes fiction, essays and poems. Her work has received The Drue Heinz prize, a National Endowment for the Arts award, two Pushcarts and other awards. She is author of two novels (HarperCollins), two collections of short stories (HarperCollins and U of Pitt press) and a book of poems, “The Sea Lion Who Saved the Boy Who Jumped From the Golden Gate,” just published by Saddle Road Press. She has taught writing for decades at Carnegie Mellon and Carlow’s Madwomen in the Attic program and in the community.

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