The Pieta 

by Kerry L. Malawista

A year after my eighteen-year-old daughter died, my husband and I went to see the literary adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s, The Testament of Mary. While I hadn’t yet read Tóibín’s work, I didn’t want to miss seeing the brilliant actor, Fiona Shaw, alone on the stage. The novella I could read later.

Raised Catholic, I was well-schooled in the narrative of Jesus and Mary, a sweeping one, and if imagined at all, it ran more like a Charlton Heston film. It never occurred to me that I was going to watch the earthly story, simply a play about a mother who loses her child. 

Sitting in my red velvet seat, center mid-orchestra of the Walter Kerr Theater, I watched a mother, twenty years after her son’s death, raging at what she has lost. Mary is grieving the death not of a savior but of her own flesh-and-blood son. She never utters his name, Jesus; she refers to him only as “my son.” She thunders at having to sit quietly and watch him act in ways that she knew would lead to his death. And like any loving mother, with a child taking reckless chances with his life, she begs him to stop these “miracles.” She could care less about him turning water into wine, she just wants her son back—alive. Trying not to disturb nearby theatergoers, fearful if I let go I’d loudly wail and make a scene of my own, I put my face into my husband’s shirt sleeve and wept.

After the play, despite the pummeling of grief, I picked up Tóibín’s novella, both drawn and apprehensive to once again hear the voice of a mother yearning for her dead child. 

Reading Tóibín’s poetic words, I was cast back years earlier, before my daughter’s death, when I visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and was enthralled with Michelangelo’s Pieta—the calm beauty of a mother cradling her adult son. Mary holds Jesus in her lap, reminding us that he is still her child, her baby. I marveled at how this contemplative form arose from a single block of marble. 

The Pieta by Michelangelo. Marble, 1498–1499. Photo courtesy of the author.

With mallet and chisel Michelangelo created a mild Mary, one who meekly and obediently sacrifices her son for Christianity—so that we each may live. She pays homage to what she and her son have sacrificed for us. This is not a mother pummeled by grief. The Pieta, means pity or compassion. Is Michelangelo saying we should have compassion for this mother?

The Testament of Mary allowed me to witness an entirely different Mary—a human Mary, a woman who has lost a child. Michelangelo’s Mary holds none of the raging grief of Tóibín’s mother, anger at not being able to protect or save her son. I understand this mother; she cares nothing for him being a savior or offering mankind eternal life. Tóibín’s Mary says, “I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it.” 

Mary rails against the myth the Apostles have created about her son. She reprimands their “earnest need for foolish anecdotes and sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us.” 

A mother who has lost a child would care nothing for his miracles; the only one she’d yearn for is to be able to go back in time. But she knows, no matter how much she would like her son to rise up from the dead, he is gone. 

This is the Mary I know.

Kerry Malawista is co-chair of the New Directions in Writing program. Her essays have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Account Magazine, Zone3, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for the Kraken Book Prize. She is the co-author of four psychology books and her novel, Meet the Moon, is in press for 2022.

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