We lost our Mom a few months back and this is the first Mother's Day, for me and my seven siblings, where we don't have our Mom to call or visit. My brother Tom wrote a wonderful piece for her funeral, and graciously allowed me to post it here.
MARION BYRNE NEEDHAM
At The Kitchen Table of Heaven
1933 – 2015
A wonderful woman has left us … a kind, thoughtful, funny and interesting woman. Everyone who was blessed to know Marion was touched and helped by her, in ways that may have been large or small, but that were always very real. She lived as long as she could, and did as much as she could, as well as she could – and did so with a big generous heart that was forever looking for ways to help others.
Like all people, Marion had her interests and there was much in this world that brought her joy – what she most enjoyed in life were the simplest and purest pleasures. She found joy in so many everyday things that most of us take for granted, and this accounts for her love of life and this love did not dim or fade even when she struggled at the end of her years with a terrible disease:
- the company of her family & friends, and funny stories about all that was going on in the world;
- a hamburger at Hackney’s on Harms, a glass of Bailey’s Irish Cream;
- her beloved Chicago Blackhawks;
- knitting, and coffee, and flowers, and baking, and desserts – desserts after every dinner every day of the year, but desserts with lunch and for breakfast too;
- cool dry weather, and all the holidays, but especially Christmas Eve, because that’s when children are most excited and happy, and nothing made Marion happier than a happy child.
More than anything else, Marion loved children: her own children, and other mother’s children too; but mostly and with all of her large heart, her 16 grandchildren: Patrick, Jack, Owen, Emily, Katie, Gracie, Maggie, Helen, Jimmy, Brenna, Maeve, Joey, Meggie, Fiona, Cody, and Bailey. All 16 of them know how much she enjoyed their company, and all of them felt her love. And even when they were not there with her, Grandma Needham loved them so, and just the mention of their names, and any news about what was happening in their lives would make her light up with joy just as if they had walked into the room and hugged her.
Marion was born and raised a Roman Catholic, and she had a deep and profound faith and an active prayer life. She loved the Mass, and the Rosary, and Mary the Mother of Jesus. This faith never seemed to fade or falter, although there were times during the ups & downs of her 80 years when it would have been understandable if it had.
All of us will die. One of the certainties of Marion’s faith was this: All of us will be judged when we die – every one of us, and everyone we love. Marion Byrne Needham knew this, and she did not flinch. She made a very interesting comment to one of her daughters several weeks before she left us: “Do you think I’ll be O.K. in heaven?” She was told, of course, that “you’ll be awesome in heaven.”
But what a fascinating, wise and wonderful question to ask: Not, “do you think I’ll make it to heaven?” and not “I sure hope that there is a heaven.” No, she knew there was a heaven, and she knew too, that she’d make it there – she plowed ahead to her judgment day with a holy boldness that made her, when she arrived there, the envy of most of the saints that had arrived there first.
Now, the legends of our faith, and even the sacred scriptures, have given us an image of the scene on our day of judgment that features God, seated above us in a glorious throne. But it seems more likely, and more in keeping with Jesus’ life and words, that instead we will be welcomed not to a room with a throne, but into His kitchen. And there at the kitchen table will be Jesus, and Mary, His Blessed Mother. There will be coffee at the kitchen table. And cookies too.
And there at the kitchen table of heaven, Jesus has said to Marion, “my Father gave you 80 years of life … what did you do with this gift?”
Now, Marion was never one to brag or even talk very much about herself on any topic. But on the other hand, she was a blunt and plain-spoken woman. And so it’s a good bet she said to Jesus and Mary, “I chose a life of service to others.”
Yes, she did:
Marion decided when she was just a girl that she wanted to be a nurse, and care for the sick. So after graduating from Saint Scholastica high school, she asked her father if she could go to nursing school. Now, her father Amby Byrne was a wonderful man in many ways. But he was surely “old school,” and he told Marion “No.” He didn’t like that idea. The tuition was $200 per semester. Marion had an aunt who thought Amby was wrong on this, and this aunt paid for nursing school, and she became a nurse. There was no such thing as feminism in the early 1950s, but Marion knew that she was not going to let a man, even one she loved, stand in her way of being what she wanted to be in this world.
Marion met a young policeman, Pat Needham, fell in love with him, and they were married on September 1, 1955, at St. Ita’s Church on Broadway. Seven children followed in the next 11 years.
It is difficult for us now, in this generation of much smaller families, to imagine how she ran that household. She did a lot with a little, and so in spite of all the financial stresses, and limits on the time there is in a day, it never seemed that corners were cut or that her family wanted for anything. Ski trips, camping trips, skating lessons and hockey games, track meets, vacations, school projects, high school dances, visits to colleges, teaching seven teenagers to drive. How was all this possible?
It was often chaotic, and there was never much privacy, and there was always a big dog, and it seemed that stuff was always broken in that house. On the other hand, there were always cookies and cupcakes and brownies, and if any neighborhood kid wanted any of these treats they didn’t have to ask. The kids all knew they could just help themselves. There was an energy and a love in this home – this was because Marion Needham made it so.
When Marion’s parents got older, they had a problem: Amby’s wife, Marion’s mother, became afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. Amby could not care for her on his own. Fortunately for him, he had a daughter who was a nurse. So Marion’s parents moved in with her. Now there were 11 people in this home, and Marion loved and took care of all of them.
Marion’s husband Pat Needham had some wonderful qualities: he was smart and had a sense of humor. He could be kind, and friendly and enjoyed doing favors for people. Pat Needham loved Marion as best he could. But it is a sad fact that he loved whisky too. And the whisky grabbed hold of him, and would not let go, even though Marion did everything she could to pull him back. The whisky took him from Marion in 1984. She was fifty years old.
She was a young widow, and so of course she grieved. But Marion worried about the future too. There was no time for counseling or support groups. There was a mortgage and tuition bills and many other bills. There was work to be done. Marion kept her nurse’s license active during all the years she was raising a large family, and so she was able to find a job. After 20 plus years away from the nurse’s profession, this transition must have been quite a challenge – but Marion didn’t seem fazed by it. She was grateful that she had a way to support her family. And after all, nursing was really about taking care of others, and she had never stopped doing this.
The doctors she worked for liked her, and so did the other nurses. But the patients loved her and she loved them right back. Nursing was really a perfect career for Marion, because it brought her into contact with so many different people. She just loved meeting people. Marion thought everyone she met was interesting. She was curious about everyone’s life, and so upon meeting someone new a barrage of questions would start. Within 10 minutes or so, Marion would know about the person’s parents, what school they went to, where they lived … all the essentials to start a friendship. God of course is deeply interested in all of us, and created us in His image. So this feature of Marion’s personality was really the grace of God shining through her.
Marion retired from nursing when she was 70 years old. But she kept taking care of people, and she continued to grow in faith. She became a Eucharistic minister at St Mary’s Church in Des Plaines, so she could bring Jesus to parishioners unable to get to Mass. She joined a Bible study group. She took knitting classes, and became quite accomplished at this – she loved knitting, because it allowed her to make hats and scarves and mittens, and give them to people as gifts. Marion loved to give gifts to people. Mostly Marion was a full-time grandmother.
Marion’s greatness reached its highest and most profound level as she fought to cope with the disease that attacked her relentlessly in her final years. This disease knows no cure – it does not stop or go into remission, it drags its victims forward. But Marion dug her heels in, and was pulled forward by the disease kicking & screaming. She would not quit. There was too much about her life that she loved for her to ever despair. Marion knew, too, that Jesus assured us that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:30) And so she did not complain or bother with self-pity. She was frustrated, to be sure …. but only because the disease stopped her from going out in the world to enjoy its simple pleasures and more importantly, it cruelly tried to stop her from helping others.
Jesus of course already knows of Marion’s wonderful life, but when He hears her talk of it, sitting at the kitchen table of heaven, I suspect that He will smile knowingly, for He knows what it is to serve others. He knows that Marion did what He calls all of us to do: love your neighbor without end. Personal and professional accomplishments mean nothing to Jesus if one’s life is not based firmly on the Gospel. Marion’s surely was. And He knows of her suffering too, having Himself suffered in sweat and blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and in fear at His trial and scourging. And, finally, in the despair and panic on the cross at Calvary, Jesus could not breathe. Marion could not breathe at the end and suffered and probably despaired too. Jesus and His mother Mary were there with Marion when she struggled to breath in the last days of her life. And it’s likely that this is something they will talk about at the kitchen table of heaven.
So, yes … Marion will be just awesome in heaven.
Now she can rest, and sleep through the night. And the air is clear and cool and clean, and Marion is taking deep breaths. There are healthy, happy children all over in heaven. They will need hats and mittens, and baked goods too. She can take care of that.
Marion will wait for us all there. And if we learn the lessons of her life, and live each day in the service of others, loving every child that we can, the ones we know, and the ones we do not, with all our hearts, well then in the fullness of time and if the Lord is willing, we can be with her again. Until that day, let’s try to remember this great woman, and how kind, and wise and tough and brave she was from the beginning of her life to the very end.
Thanks to Tom Needham for letting me post this piece.
May 7, 2015