May 2018


My brother's hard-won sense of grace

Saturday, May 26, 2018  by Maura Casey

The man we mourn today had many names: Jim, Casey, Dad Cat to Rachel and Papa to grandson Aiden.  Yet his brothers and sisters always called him Seamus, Gaelic for James, the family name our mother gave him at birth.  Seamus, as the oldest of six kids born in seven and a half years, presided at the dawn of all of our childhood memories. And at times, he was the family hero.

He confronted our father when Dad’s drinking got out of hand. He gave our mother money to pay the bills. He took his role as the oldest seriously, particularly in his emotional support of our sister Ellen, in and out of the hospital for kidney disease. Yet during one particularly long hospitalization, even Seamus’ sense of humor couldn’t lift her 13-year-old spirit. Every day, Ellen became more ill.

Seamus knew that what she needed wasn’t a matter of medicine. He asked the nurses late one night to bring Ellen to the first-floor lobby. When she appeared, gaunt and in a wheelchair, she was utterly mystified as Seamus offered her a laundry basket draped in a blanket. Ellen pulled off the cover and a puppy, soft as down, squirmed out and licked her face, which lost its gray pallor and lit up like Christmas morning.  “She’s yours, Ellie,” Seamus said, “But you have to get out of here to take care of her.”  Ellen was home in a week.

Seamus also kept an eye on Tim, his brother and Irish twin whose births were bookends to 1950, Seamus in January and Tim in December. They went through school together, Tim, always the youngest in the class and Seamus the oldest. They were best friends, both athletes, attending high school and college together and rowing crew. They had very different temperaments but shared experiences and friendships, some lasting many decades.

Fellow oarsman and neighbor John Bennett, described Seamus as his “best and truest friend.” They worked out together during winters in Buffalo’s Auditorium, running up the stairs to keep in shape, then rewarding themselves by hiding until the Sabres’ games started in the evening and watching from the balcony.  John was touched decades later when, after he had a minor stroke, Seamus offered to live with him to help as he recovered.  Similarly, Joe Clore, a high school classmate, had long moved out of Buffalo when he returned home in 2012 for his mother’s funeral, but called on Seamus to be a pallbearer. Seamus was happy to do so in part because helping people came naturally to him.

Because that was true, it was unsurprising that he worked as a Food Stamps examiner for more than 30 years. He was often assigned the most difficult people to interview because of his sizable physical presence. Yet although he sometimes waxed cynical about his job, Seamus never lost the spark of idealism that made him want to help people who were down on his luck. And, during a really difficult day, he had his pals with him and he could always look forward to grabbing a bear on his break – which I have on good authority would last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and a half.

It was while he worked for the county that Seamus met Carol, and soon after, she became his one and only.  Carol was good for him and he was her rock. They married on Leap Year Day in 1980 and had Rachel, their adored daughter, a few years later. Carol, like Seamus, worked full time and they made a good life for their family. They traveled when they could; up to Maine, down to Florida, and a number of cruises, particularly when both retired in their 50s. And thank God they retired early. Seamus lived to escort Rachel down the aisle to marry a great guy, Rick Bartalotta, and both he and Carol were  thrilled when they had grandson Aiden.

Family came first. When Carol’s mother needed a place to live in her 90s, Seamus didn’t hesitate to welcome her in their house, and she lived to be 100 in no small part because of the wonderful care that Carol gave her. It was a precursor to the care Carol would soon give to her husband.  

ALS is cruel. It took away Seamus’ cherished ability to tell jokes and stories, and it long since robbed him of the ability to hoist a few cold ones with friends – two things he enjoyed the most. He faced it with courage. It helped that he had a loving and supportive partner, who never forgot the meaning of “till death do we part.”   Carol’s caring, kindness, humor and tireless compassion as Seamus fought this disease gave him a good life even as the illness limited him a little more every day.

 No matter how exhausted Carol was, she never complained. Seamus, only half humorously, began to refer to her as “St. Carol,” and so did the rest of us, as she lived out the truth of that title.  It was Carol who both comforted Seamus and made it possible for him to stay home. It was Carol who made him feel loved and continue to experience joy.  The disease gave them no good options, but they faced them honestly, and faced them together.

Carol gave Seamus the same gift Seamus had given Ellen that day in the hospital all those years before. She gave him hope – not for a cure, but hope that he could live out his life in dignity and peace, with the assurance that she would never leave, not for a moment. And through that searing experience, their marriage became an example to us all.

When I visited Seamus this past winter, I saw how Seamus’ face lit up when Rachel stopped by with Aiden, with Aiden running to him, arms outstretched, yelling, Papa! Papa!  Later, when Carol went to bed and with Seamus and I staying up late, he  asked me in his slurred voice to bring him a bag from a hiding place in the closet. It was a gift and a Valentine’s day card for Carol, covered in red hearts. With me holding the card, and with the little strength and control he had left in his right hand, he wrote, slowly and carefully, “Your husband.” He wasn’t being formal. It had become his joy and comfort, and what enabled him to face the end with unblinking courage and a hard-won sense of grace.

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