Kathleen Kilbane – In the Presence of a Holy Child

This is the story of Kathleen Kilbane and a brief account of how she spent the year previous to her death at the early age of 13 years. It is a sad story, but the sad stories of this world are often times the best. Kathleen was born in the industrial town of Perth in Scotland on September 8th, 1933. She was baptised 3 weeks later at St John the Baptist Church in the same town. Her parents had emigrated from Achill Island on the western coast of Mayo. She was two years old when her mother died from Tuberculosis and the father left the child in an orphanage in Lanark, Scotland. Hidden in the heart of the child were those long years of loneliness, with no one to care for her except Nuns, and as she expressed it on one occasion, “You know I could not talk to them and tell them when I was sick, like I could tell my own Mammy.” However, the annual holiday-time was the hardest when she saw the other children preparing to go home while she had no home to which she could go to except the enclosure bounded by four high grey walls of the convent. She still had no experience of the world, she did not know what sin was and in this way she kept her soul in its childhood purity. Ten long years passed as her twelfth birthday approached it was noticed that she had been ailing for some time, so the Nuns arranged to send her to her grandmother who lived at Cloughmore on Achill Island on the west coast of Ireland. It was hoped that the country air and the sea breezes would improve her health. The time which she spent at her grandmother’s cottage by the sea were a pleasant memory to her, a memory which helped her afterwards through long weary months of suffering. Her health did not improve, and after a thorough examination and an X-ray test, it was discovered that she had fallen victim to Tuberculosis of an advanced type. and she was admitted to Saint Teresa’s Sanatorium, Creagh, Ballinrobe on July 3rd, 1946. Modern remedies for this disease were then unknown and owing to the long waiting lists, patients were admitted when too late, few were ever cured, and it was a common saying that you were sent to Creagh to die. But strange as it may seem she liked the Sanatorium from the very start, she had more freedom than she had in the Convent and she had older girls and women with whom she could chat and talk. She was the only child there, and was like a ray of sunshine, sent to brighten the drab and monotonous lives of the patients who were confined to bed for months in the depressing atmosphere of a Sanatorium where cures were so few and death knocked so often. She went around each morning with the nurse in charge and helped to hand out the various medicines. She had a cheery smile and a word of encouragement for each patient. She was not tall for a child of twelve, but rather slim, her hair was dark brown and not too long, her face oval and of an ivory pallor which looked beautiful in the early stages of TB. Her eyes were dark brown and her teeth were small and pearly white. She looked really pretty when a smile started at each corner of her mouth and spread over her features until her dark brown eyes bubbled over with merriment. But the most remarkable part of her features were two dimples one on each cheek. The long days of summer went slowly by and while many people enjoyed a walk or a rest by the seaside, Kathleen spent her days with the sick and dying. Soon Autumn came with its sighing winds and falling leaves, and still no visible signs of the dreaded disease appeared on her features, except the ivory pallor and a persistent cough. On Halloween night 1946. Those who could get up were allowed to do so and they assembled in the common sitting room. They enjoyed themselves in music and song. The merriest and most lively that evening was Kathleen. When I called in that night for a visit she was the first to see me and she came over to me with outstretched arms. That night she danced some Scottish dances and sang songs which she had learned at school, but her favourite song which she had learned from a gramophone record in the Sanatorium was; “Did your Mother Come From Ireland” Nobody could have imagined that evening that within the year she would be dead. Christmas came and for the first time in her short life, she received presents. When the schoolboys heard about her they contributed generously towards sending her gifts and some things nice to eat. It was a generous offering to a lonely child who was to spend Christmas day in bed in a Sanatorium. On Christmas Eve her presents were brought to her. As each was opened and laid beside her on the bed her eyes sparkled with delight, but soon the eyes grew dim and tears rolled down her cheeks in spite of the two fists which she pressed into them. They were not tears of sadness, but of happiness. The fact that people had thought of her and been so kind, affected her. The games, storybooks, and bricks to build houses which she had got as presents helped to pass the long winter days for her. She also passed the time by writing to companions who were with her in the Convent schools and to relatives whom she had never met, but I don’t believe she got any replies. A great many people are nervous about getting a letter from a girl in a Sanatorium. The cold bleak winds of March affected her, she got paler and thinner and her cough became more persistent. She began to lose her energy and she spent most of her time in bed, except for some time on Saturday evenings when she would get up in order to sit with me in the sitting room. For the first part of each Saturday afternoon, I would sit at her bedside, play games with her, and tell her stories, all of which had to have a happy ending. All around us, the other patients slept and we liked this. We wanted nobody to interfere with us and we lived in a world of our own. But no sooner was tea announced than she told the nurse in charge that she would drink it in the sitting room with the other patients who were allowed to get up. After eating a slice of buttered bread and drinking a cup of tea she would get up from the table and she would come and sit beside me and rest her dark brown head against my shoulder. I knew that when she was dead, I would always remember those evenings together. I also felt that during that time I was close to a very holy child. She was always fond of prayer and the Rosary was her favourite. With the beads under the bedclothes, her eyes closed and her lips moving silently, she said Rosary after Rosary so that the other patients in the ward with her acknowledged that they could not count how many Rosaries she said each day. In Scotland, she was a daily communicant and one of her worries in Creagh was the fact that only on fine and warm Sundays was she allowed to attend Mass. On other Sundays, it was thought better not to allow her to leave the heated ward and go to the colder chapel which was a short distance from the main building. But on these Sundays, while Mass was being said, she sat propped up in bed and with a simple prayer book in her hands she tried to follow as well as she could the various parts. I knew all about this and while Kathleen sat beside me I felt that I was close to a Saint, a little Saint who liked to play games, to get letters and presents and loved to nestle close to anybody who was fond of her. When the other patients had finished their tea they left to do various jobs in their wards and we were left alone with no sound to break the silence in the home of the sick and the dying, while the trees outside began to lose their shapes in the gathering dusk of a Spring evening. On these occasions, we seldom spoke. There was no need. She seemed to be quite happy as she nestled close to me staring into the fire. This seems to be a characteristic of those who die young to be dreaming and thoughtful the next world seems to be calling them. Sometimes as she nestled close I could see only the top of her dark brown head with the blue ribbon tied in a large bow. Whenever her blue ribbon got worn she asked me to get her another. “Wide and blue,” she would advise me, “and,” she added on one occasion, “blue is the Blessed Virgin’s colour.” Then I understood that this was her tribute to the Blessed Virgin, so that during the last weeks of her life when her pain and depression became so intense that he could no longer say the Rosary, she always wore her blue ribbon as a continued and silent prayer to the Mother of God. Every Saturday before leaving I had to promise her that I would call to see her on the following Saturday I did not realise how much my visits meant to her until one Saturday I was unable to go out and I sent her a note to that effect, but through an oversight, the note had not been given to her until the following morning. All that Saturday evening she sat up in bed watching…. watching the long pathway that leads to the Sanatorium until finally, she cried herself to sleep. But when she got my note, she understood and then I got my first letter from her to say that she expected me out on the following Saturday. That my note was one of the few that she got since coming to the Sanatorium. That gave me an idea, so I wrote a long letter and posted it to her and on the following Saturday a patient called me aside and said, “You will never understand what you have done for her. We pitied her every morning watching the nurse handing out letters and no letters for her until she got yours.” From then on I sent a letter every week and with that and a visit every Saturday she was a very happy little girl because she got more letters than the other patients did. April of that year turned out to be very warm and sunny so that Kathleen was able to be up more often than usual and thus it happened that we had our first and only walk together. When we came to the boundary beyond which patients were not allowed to pass, we sat in a sheltered sunny spot and she talked of the wonderful things she would do in the future. When the Summer would come we would ask permission of the Matron so that I could take her into town and show her what a town looked like because she had never seen one. I could introduce her to a family so that she could see what family life was like and how meals were cooked in a kitchen. She had wonderful dreams of our days together when the Summer would come, but alas, when the Summer came she was lying on her bed of pain. Towards the end of that April 1947, she got the first inkling that she was going to die. Nurse Hoye told her to be prepared for the worst and not to be too hopeful of being cured and then she left both of us together. It is a hard thing to tell a child of thirteen that she is to die and Kathleen was more sensitive than other children of the same age. Her fingers nervously gripped the top of the bed sheet and she stared through the window far into the distance. The truth had dawned on her that she was to go all alone into the long valley of eternity to that land beyond the grave. I asked her if she minded and she turned two frightened eyes towards me as she replied, “I do mind. I want to get well and go back to my granny.” Canon Fergus, who about this time was being transferred from Ballinrobe to become Bishop of Achonry had promised to give her something before he left. He bought her a large pious picture and on the following Saturday she showed it to me. “But,” she added, “It is too good for this place. I will send it to my Granny.” She had written a message on the back, ‘To my Granny, keep this in memory of me when I am dead. Kathleen’ “So you know,” I said, looking at her. “Yes, I know,” she replied, “I know for certain I cannot be cured.” “And when I am dead I will be dressed in white, with white shoes, and I will have a wreath on my head.” “I know because Granny sent them.” During the month of July and for a part of August I would be away in Cork city, but I did not tell her this until the last moment and then a look of dismay came into her face. “And you will be away for six long weeks.” She said. I told her that I would write to her frequently while I was away. “But that isn’t the same as having you come out to see me.” She replied. From Cork, I wrote to her frequently and received many letters in reply. To my dearest Brother, I got your very nice letter today. I was delighted to hear from you and I keep reading it over and over again. I have just finished reading your book. I loved it. I think it was the nicest book I ever read. I like “Pat” the little black pig the best of all. I was crying all that day after you left to go to Cork. I cried so much that there were no more tears left in my eyes. Your letter was the only one I got because nobody writes to me. Nobody is so kind to me as you are. I always say a lot of prayers for you. God bless you always for being so good to me. Well, Brother, all the patients are asking for you. I am very tired and I cannot write much. Goodbye and God bless you. From your own loving child, Kathleen. On one occasion when I called to see her she produced a half-crown from under the pillow and asked if that was a lot of money. Somebody had given her the half-crown and as she had no experience of
money she did not know what its value was. I told her it was a lot of money for a little girl to have, and then she handed it to me and compelled me to take it. “You have given me a lot of things,” she said, “and I have given you nothing. “You must take this money, and don’t buy me anything with it. Buy something for yourself.” This was just one example of her generous heart. Whenever she gave anything she gave all and held nothing back. When I was in Cork I put a little more money with it and bought her a green coloured fountain pen and posted it to her. She had seen some of the other patients writing with fountain pens, and I knew that it was one of the things she wanted most for herself. Kathleen was a neat writer, and I noticed that as the weeks went by her handwriting had become uneven But it was only when I saw her again after six weeks absence that I realised how difficult it must have been for her to hold a pen in her hands, let alone write even a short note. The disease had now got a firm grip on her. Her brown sparkling eyes had become sunken, the skin on her face was drawn and almost transparent, her arms had become frail with scarcely any flesh on them, and her legs were so thin and weak that she could no longer stand on them and was confined to bed. On one occasion she was given a small dose of morphine and a short time afterwards when the nurse was about to give her another injection, Kathleen refused. The nurse reasoned with her and told her she would sleep and have no pain and in spite of herself Kathleen blurted out, “But I don’t mind pain. I want to suffer for Our Lord.” Then she blushed when too late she realised that she had revealed her secret, to suffer pain if God willed it. One evening Kathleen said to me, “I cannot eat the food now. It makes me sick.” “Could you bring me some jelly in a jar? I am often hungry.” I had seen many sad things in the life of Kathleen, but this was the saddest of all, to see the pleading look in the eyes of a hungry child. That evening, the jelly which a woman in town had made, was sent to Kathleen and that eased her hunger for the time being. I remember one night coming home from the Sanatorium as the sky overhead suddenly darkened with clouds. Soon the rain was falling in torrents and darkness set in earlier than usual. From the top of a hill, I could see in the distance the lights of the Sanatorium glittering through the falling rain. There was a mysterious silence around the place the silence that is felt in a room where a person is dying. The path through the woods was darker than usual and the driving wind howled through the trees. The rain fell in such torrents that soon I was drenched. Earlier that evening I had seen two patients at the point of death and in the darkness around me imagined I could see their staring eyes, while the rasping of the tree branches against each other resembled the death rattle in their throats. But one felt no fear either from the darkness or from the drenching rain, for I carried an empty jam jar. That jar had once held some jelly and I was bringing it back to get it refilled. Yes, there was warm comfort in that empty jam jar which had contained jelly to ease the hunger pains of a sick child. When she got seriously ill she often enquired about her father and if I could find out where he was. “My daddy never cared about me,” she said, “But if he hears I am sick he might come to me.” But it was impossible to discover his address and after a while, she ceased to ask for him. But a new and a stronger longing came to her a mother’s embrace before she would die. Some memory of her babyhood days came to her and a picture of herself in her mother’s arms, which had been dormant in her subconscious mind, came to life, a longing for a mother’s embrace became so strong that she asked if the woman who made the jelly would come out to see her. Shortly afterwards we arrived and the woman, who was a young mother stood at the foot of the bed and smiled at Kathleen. The child’s eyes opened in wonder that a mother could be so young. She had associated the picture of a mother with that of her grandmother who was old and feeble. Kathleen was propped up in bed and the mother sat on the bed near her and allowed the child to do the rest. She slowly came nearer and nearer, laid her hands on the arms of the mother, feeling them, rubbing them, caressing them and then in an instant they were in each other’s arms. The mother spoke softly, soothingly to her and rocked her to and fro. The other patients left the ward with tears in their eyes. For a long time, they remained thus and the child was once more back through the years when she was a small baby in her own home with her mother’s arms around her and her craving for a mother’s embrace was satisfied. One day she expressed to me a wish to be buried in Ballinrobe. “When I am dead, will you get me and bury me in Ballinrobe.” “Then you could come to me and talk to me.” “The boys would come also because they were always so good to me.” “You know,” she added wistfully. “It is very lonely in the grave when nobody comes to visit you.” On another occasion, after being silent and thoughtful for some time she laid her frail hand on mine and said, “When I am dead will you often talk to me just like you used to talk to me here?” I promised her I would if she would be listening, To which she replied. “I will. I will always be listening and I don’t mind dying now that I know you will often talk to me.” I said to her on one occasion. “When you go to heaven you will be a very busy girl helping people just like you used to help the patients here.” Her face lit up with pleasure as she replied, “That is what I would always like to do, helping others.” “If people asked you for some big favour what would you do?” I asked. She thought for a while. “Well if it was something big I would ask the Blessed Virgin and she would ask God.” She lingered on through September and for the first days of October, but when I went out on the evening of October 6th a nurse came over to me and said, “It is well that you came out this evening because Kathleen is dying.” Although I had been expecting it, still it came as a shock to hear these simple words, “Kathleen is dying.” I was in a quandary about what I should do. Should I go into the ward and witness the dying agony of a child whose lungs were practically eaten away by disease, or should I keep in my mind a picture of her as the gay merry child who came to the Sanatorium more than a year ago? Then I remembered that I had been always with her and that I should not leave her now when perhaps she needed me most. I entered the ward and I was glad that I did so. It was calm and peaceful and yet so lonely. The weather was mild and warm and the other three patients in the ward had their beds moved out on the verandah where they intended to sleep that night. They did not like to see the October moon shining through the glass walls lighting up the face of the dying child they loved. So she was all alone in a corner of the ward a lonely child during life and a lonely child at death. Her lovely dark hair lay tossed all over the pillow and for the first time, it had no blue ribbon. The blue ribbon lay thrown across the locker and that really was the most pathetic thing with regard to the child, that blue ribbon pulled off by one of the nurses and thrown so carelessly across the top of the locker. Her eyes slowly opened and she stared at me in a strange kind of way. “Do you know me?” I asked I bent closer to hear her. “Of course I do,” she replied. “I have been waiting for you.” “Are you in much pain tonight?” I asked. “I am in pain all day,” she replied “My legs are the worst. Will you lift the clothes off them.” When the bedclothes were lifted she tried to pull up her feet but could not. Then tears rolled down her cheeks and she began to cry. On a few occasions I had seen her cry with disappointment, but this was the first time I had seen her crying with pain. “Bear the pain a little longer,” I encouraged her. “You will not feel it when the end comes.” “You will go straight to heaven.” I remembered what a wonderful opportunity it was to make an arrangement with her which I knew she would keep. “When you go to Heaven,” I said. “I want you to be waiting for me.” Her eyes stared at me. “You need not worry about that. I will be waiting for you. That’s why I want to be buried in Ballinrobe because I want you to be with me in the grave also.” I did not speak much to her because listening would be too much of a strain on her, but she seemed to be quite satisfied that I was near and sometimes her eyes turned sideways to make sure that I was still there. Eventually her eyes began slowly to close, and she fell back to sleep. I stood a long time looking down at her. I knew that I would never again see her alive. Then I slipped quietly away from the ward. However, she woke again two hours afterwards about 10 o’clock, got restless and asked a patient who was passing by to stay with her. “Rita will you stay with me,” she pleaded. “Hold my hand. I feel awfully queer.” Twenty-two year old Rita stayed with her for some time, and as she had been feverishly ill for some days and had not intended to remain long out of bed she begged to be excused after a while because she had a splitting headache. “Do Rita. Go back to bed again and take my hot water bottle with you.” As Rita had a high temperature a hot water bottle was the last thing she wanted and although Kathleen suffered from the cold of approaching death she thought of others before herself. Kathleen’s lips moved in prayer and then she looked at Rita and said, “I have just said a prayer for you and you’ll never again have a headache.” Rita is still alive, is married and has two in family, a boy and a girl and she acknowledges that although she used to suffer from bouts of splitting headaches from her childhood she never suffered one since the moment that Kathleen had assured her. From 1.30 a.m. a nurse was with Kathleen, who sometimes talked, but her voice was so indistinct that nobody could distinguish the words. At 2 o’clock on October 7th, the morning of the Feast of the Holy Rosary, her voice suddenly stopped, an expectant look came into her eyes, then her eyes stared open and glazed and a shiver passed through her body. Then her body stiffened and lay still. She was dead. Early that morning word was sent to me, I went out and found an air of desolation around the place. They had seen many deaths there, but the death of the child affected them more than any of the other deaths because she was so young and always cheerful. The patients who were allowed up were busy making wreaths to place on her coffin. I went into the ward and looked down at the empty bed. Her blue bedroom slippers were neatly arranged under the bed, her green fountain pen on the locker, but the pretty, smiling face was no longer there. She had been removed to the Mortuary Shed. Soon a maid would come along and throw all her games and other possessions onto the dump in the yard. Her blue ribbon lay folded neatly on the locker and I put it in my pocket. That at least would not be thrown out. The Matron asked me if I would like to see Kathleen. On our way to the mortuary shed the Matron suddenly stopped and uttered an exclamation, the Prayer Book! They had forgotten her prayer book it would be a pity to bury her without it. “It was the prayer book you gave her.” She added. She told me to go on ahead while she retrieved it. I made my way to the shed and when I switched on the electric light, I could see the white form lying on a stone slab. She looked exactly as she had described it on one occasion. “When I am dead I will be dressed all in white with white stockings and white shoes and I will have a wreath on my head.” Her frail hands were joined on her breast the blue beads entwined in her fingers. It was many a Rosary she had said on these beads. She must have seen some pleasant vision at the exact moment of death because she was caught in a smile which remained on her face. I talked to her and I knew she was listening as she had promised. It was hard to realise that the child I had known, had played games with and who had so often sat on my knees had already gone on that long journey into eternity, had seen God and now knew what Heaven was like. When the Matron returned we placed the prayer book on the child’s breast Hearing that the door was open a large number of the patients came from the wards and after saying a short prayer, they rose and touched her hands or her forehead with their beads or prayer books or holy pictures, which they treasured afterwards as relics. Afterwards as we made our way back to the Sanatorium the Matron stopped suddenly for in front of us we saw a large white rose one single rose growing on a bush against the wall. The Matron and the nursing staff acknowledged that no rose as far as they could remember had ever grown on that rose bush before. It was evident that the rose was meant for Kathleen so we plucked it and retraced our steps. We fixed it firmly between her fingers to prevent it from falling off no matter what shaking the coffin would get on its journey. We had given her many presents during her lifetime with us, but this was the greatest present of all a white rose of purity and innocence. A road leads from Achill Sound, through Dooega and on to Keel. It is called the Atlantic Drive, and is much frequented by tourists. Just before one comes to Cloughmore the graveyard of Kildownet lies to the right of the road. In the centre of this graveyard Kathleen is buried. The cottage where her grandmother lived is only three fields away, and the strand on which she played is in the vicinity. She is buried in the only part of the world she knew outside the convent. Her grandmother or ’gwanny’, as she called her, lies by her side. But the real Kathleen, She is alive in Heaven. While you were watching this film she was with you, anxious to know if you liked her, and if you did like her you have made her
happier. And If you did like her, tell her so, and remember the promise she made, a promise she will faithfully keep: “If anybody hears about me and likes me, I will help them also, and will help them to be always good.” Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die.

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