Pamela York Klainer
Sister Joan said two critically important things before she died. Woven together in Loretta’s mind, they created a fragile lifeline and a tentative path forward. First, Sister Joan said she trusted that the story of Loretta and God was not yet finished. Second, she saw in Loretta a poet’s voice, and knew that voice longed to be developed.
Sister Joan’s belief, more than anything, kept Loretta from giving up and leaving then and there.
Father Leon reached out to Loretta after Joan’s funeral, knowing how hard death falls upon the young. Loretta was, to anyone who could see beneath her brusque veneer, in a fragile and confused state. The elderly were expected to die, like Loretta’s beloved grandmother. That death was hard. But Sister Joan’s death was incomprehensible, and nothing Loretta heard at the funeral about blessed Sister Joan being called to the Lord made it any better. Loretta struggled mightily, as Sister Joan knew she would, over whether to stay for the long term. Prayer was not consoling. Sister Claire’s counsel that all should rejoice that God chose Sister Joan to come to Him was infuriating. The pious Mary Magdalene, overheard saying to the rest of their group that they weren’t supposed to have Particular Friendships anyway and so why did Sister Joan’s death matter so much, almost sent Loretta over the edge.
“Lasting in this place more than a week”, Loretta said to her friend Katie, “will be a miracle”.
The very next day Father Leon requested Sister Claire’s permission to have Loretta accompany him on a pastoral call to the bed of a dying child. He’d be bringing the relic, a small vial containing a sliver of knuckle bone belonging to a saint of the Church, that was entrusted to his religious community. The deeply devout family believed the relic had powerful spiritual qualities open to those whose faith was strong enough. The child, a little girl of six suffering from an aggressive leukemia, badly needed God’s intervention.
Sister Claire was ambivalent. Loretta, it seemed to her, was being singled out in a way not conducive to becoming a humble member of the Order. First came Sister Joan, making it seem as if Loretta had special gifts and extra promise. Now Father Leon was asking that a young and unformed Sister participate in a pastoral call, which struck Sister Claire as ridiculous. The Order had Sisters with social work degrees, and counseling training, and nurses. Any one of them would bring more to such a difficult visit than Sister Loretta. But Sister Claire wasn’t a cruel woman, and Loretta’s grief was unbearable to watch. Perhaps time with Father Leon would help. Beyond that Sister Claire was a deferential nun, used to responding without argument to the request of a priest.
Reluctantly, ambivalently, Sister Claire gave her consent. Sister Claire didn’t give Loretta a choice. Sister Claire simply said Father Leon wanted her help on a pastoral call he’d be making to a child with leukemia. Father Leon would pick her up at 2p.m. on Saturday. Loretta should be ready precisely on time and not keep Father waiting.
Loretta was silent as she followed Father Leon to the car, not knowing exactly what to make of a pastoral call, or what role she would play. Father Leon, getting behind the wheel, asked her to hold the relic but said little about the child they were going to visit. Loretta felt reluctant to be so close to death again, especially in a child younger than her brothers. The very thought was upsetting. Father Leon was silent too, making no attempts to initiate conversation. Loretta sensed that he was gathering himself for what was to come. She tried to quiet her racing mind, and to prepare herself as Father Leon seemed to be doing. Father Leon might have been praying. Loretta thought of the ocean.
She hoped he wouldn’t ask her about Sister Joan’s death, or wonder aloud how she was coping with the loss. Not even her friend Katie was able to penetrate Loretta’s silent grief, or draw her out. Loretta would not talk about Sister Joan with anyone.
Traveling without even the sound of the car radio to break the silence, Loretta looked down at the clear glass vial in her hand. The vial held a small, dessicated sliver of something. Knuckle bone indeed. It could have been a chip of plaster, or a bone fragment from a small animal, or anything at all. If the thing was from a holy person how had it and the rest of the body gotten separated from each other? Did someone chip a piece off his hand before they buried him? Morbid, thought Loretta, really morbid. And who was in charge of collecting the bone piece? The whole idea of a relic sounded spooky. This was not a part of religious faith that she believed in, and she was sure Sister Joan didn’t either.
“I don’t believe in this.” Loretta blurted out suddenly.
“Don’t believe in what?” Father Leon sounded curious.
“Knuckle bones having magical powers. I think it’s morbid, and creepy, and old fashioned. Maybe people a long time ago ran around with bone chips in their pockets to visit the sick, but who does that now?”
Father Leon focused on his driving. “Let’s wait until after our visit to talk about it. Is that alright, Loretta? Can you wait?”
Loretta liked Father Leon. She could imagine what Sister Claire would have said if she’d called a relic morbid. Probably Sister Claire would have thrown her out then and there as incorrigible, hopeless material for being turned into a nun.
“I can wait. But I’m not going to believe in hocus pocus after the visit either.”
The family was gathered in the living room as Father Leon and Sister Loretta entered, the little girl’s grandmother and father and even younger siblings. The child’s mother was by her bedside, in a small finished porch just off the living room with lots of windows and sunlight. There were vases of flowers, and a small army of pristine, untouched teddy bears.There were Get Well cards adored with balloons. There were flickering votive candles and statues of the Virgin Mary. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, because Father was coming. The house was unnaturally silent, with no toys scattered and no sounds of children playing.
The grandmother offered coffee, which Father Leon declined for both himself and Loretta. He asked to see the child.
Loretta all but groaned out loud. The little girl had the same sunken look, the same pale, translucent skin as Sister Joan. The child lay still, her eyes open, her mother holding her hand. Loretta knew that if she grasped the child’s other hand the fingers would be ice cold.
Quietly, Father Leon asked Loretta for the vial. He placed it on the child’s forehead, and began to pray. He prayed that the child not suffer. He said that God was weeping along with her family. He prayed for understanding, for acceptance of God’s mysterious ways, for all of them to trust in God’s love. Then he bent down and whispered in the ear of the child, a message that only he and the child could hear.
The little girl’s mother asked if Father Leon would lead them in saying the Rosary, and for what seemed to Loretta like an interminable time, she and Father Leon prayed with the family in unison and out loud.
Hail Mary full of grace …
Father Leon and Loretta barely made it back to the car before Loretta began to sob. She hadn’t been able to cry for Sister Joan, but she cried uncontrollably for the small, bedridden stranger.
Father Leon began to speak, his voice drained from the emotion of the visit. “Loretta, it isn’t about whether we believe in the relic or not. It’s about whether the family believes, and they do. Our visit brought them comfort. They can’t see God, but they can see us, and we remind them that God has not abandoned any of them, even their very sick little girl. That’s what religious life is all about, this thing you and I and Sister Joan are called to do. It’s about giving people hope that God does not abandon us.”
Father Leon took the long way back to the convent so that Loretta could compose herself and not be vulnerable in front of the curious Sister Claire.
The child died but Loretta decided more firmly to trust Sister Joan and stick it out long enough to see if she and God did have a story, which was something of a miracle.