Pamela York Klainer
In a terse voice Sister Claire told Loretta she could visit Sister Joan the following Saturday, not in the hospital but in the nursing home run by the Order. Loretta could hardly contain her relief.
“That means she’s coming home, then, or almost home? She’s well enough to get out of the hospital and come home? I was so worried.”
Sister Claire’s expression was pinched, her tone a little angry. This was not a conversation she sought, but one forced on her by Sister Joan and Loretta. Clearly Loretta didn’t know people were released from the hospital to die when there was no more medical intervention that made sense. Well, now she would know, and it would be Sister Claire left to deal with the emotional fallout. Sister Claire thought death should happen in private. Left to her own judgment, Sister Claire would simply have told Loretta, the day after, that Sister Joan passed quietly from this world into the arms of a loving God. Such a tranquil image, reverent and spiritual, was best for young and impressionable minds. But the option of managing that image was taken from Sister Claire by the willfulness of her dying colleague and the brashness of the young woman in front of her.
Sister Claire involuntarily gripped the sides of her desk, not realizing as she did so that her annoyance became tangible. “Sister Joan is being released from the hospital and sent to the Villa, where she will be cared for by our Sisters. You should not expect your visit to be long. When you return, I ask that you respect Sister Joan’s privacy and not share word of her condition with the others. At the appropriate time I will talk about Sister Joan with everyone.”
Sister Claire stood dismissively, and so did Loretta, who was puzzled by Sister Claire’s ire. The old battle-ax. Crabby just because she didn’t get her way. When Sister Joan was better they’d laugh about it. Loretta could see Sister Joan now, trying to maintain decorum and telling Loretta she had to respect Sister Claire but with the sides of her mouth crinkling into a smile. Sister Claire getting her nose out of joint was too silly, and all because Loretta and Sister Joan won out over such a simple thing as a visit between two friends.
Loretta said, “Of course, Sister Claire.” She was on dangerous ground, with nothing deferential in her tone or posture. Then, thinking of her friend, Loretta softened. “Thank you for doing this. I just have to see Sister Joan with my own eyes, to know that she’s all right.”
Loretta always saw Sister Joan in her religious habit, which made Joan look older than she was, taller and more physically substantial. Sister Joan was actually slender, and with the weight loss from her illness even slight. The surgery, futile though it was, took an enormous toll. Weakness made her features slack. In a white nightgown, against white sheets, Sister Joan looked as insubstantial as a ghost. When she saw Loretta in the doorway of her room she lifted her hand with great effort and reached out. “Loretta.”
Loretta was still breathing hard. Too excited to wait for the elevator, she ran up the stairs to the third floor and then down the hall. There was a small, discreet note on the outside of Sister Joan’s door, something about close friends and family only, but Loretta barely gave it a glance. Now she stood in the portal, confused for a moment by the unfamiliar figure in the bed. Did she have the wrong room? But no, she was hearing Sister Joan’s voice. Loretta forced herself to move slowly forward, responding to the outstretched hand. “Sister Joan. What’s the matter? Are you all right?”
Sister Joan’s skin had the translucent tone of the very ill, and her fingers reaching to grasp Loretta’s hand were cold. Her voice was uncharacteristically soft, almost a whisper. “I’m not all right, am I? I know you can see that.”
Loretta nodded, biting her lip in an unsuccessful effort not to cry. She sat next to the bed, in a straight-backed chair.
Sister Joan paused, gathering her energy to speak again.
“Did Sister Claire tell you I have cancer? The surgery was not successful. There’s no other treatment, so I’m here. I’m going to die soon, Loretta. But not today. Not now. You and I are sharing a visit, just as we always do. I’m so glad you came.”
Tears poured down Loretta’s face. She could have said anything. But she blurted out the worry that lingered from their last visit. “You know I wasn’t really mad at you about Particular Friendships, don’t you? And I didn’t mean to turn my back and walk away. I’m so sorry.”
Sister Joan shook her head, again pausing to gather strength. “I know. It’s not important. What’s important is that you’re here.”
Loretta felt her entire body shaking, unnerved by the proximity of death. “Are you afraid?”
Sister Joan took a deep breath, as deep as her weakened chest muscles would allow. “I’m afraid of being in pain. I’m not afraid of dying, because God is real to me.”
Loretta had so much she wanted to ask, but she sensed Sister Joan’s waning energy. Loretta, not wanting the visit to be foreshortened, simply sat holding her friend’s hand.
“Loretta, I’m cold. Is there another blanket on the bed? Can you put it over me?”
Loretta did, unfolding the blanket at the bottom of the bed and draping it softly over Sister Joan, who again appeared to be dozing.
Loretta thought she would sit there forever holding onto Sister Joan, and getting her a blanket or water or whatever she needed. Loretta would just sit there, and even if Sister Joan couldn’t speak or didn’t want anything she would know Loretta hadn’t gone away. And as long as Loretta stayed the terrible moment might never come.
Magical thinking. If she were awake, Sister Joan would not allow Loretta magical thinking.
Loretta sat quietly until Sister Joan’s eyes opened. “I have something for you. It’s the closet.”
Loretta went and opened the closet door, finding Sister Joan’s leather bag with an envelope in the outside pocket. Loretta returned to the bedside and opened the note, written earlier in Sister Joan’s firm, familiar handwriting.
“Dearest Loretta. I wanted us to be special friends for a very long time, but God has a different idea for me. I want you to know that just as God is always with you, I will be too. I want you to have my bag, which is something I love. The bag has carried my deepest thoughts, my poems, my books, and indeed the poems you share with me. There’s nothing inside the bag right now, because you’re going to fill it with the writings of your own life. The thought of that gives me great joy. I so wanted to see you develop as a poet. Loretta, will you do something for me? Please don’t make a decision about religious life right now. I know my death will be hard for you. But this life is about you and God, not you and me. And I think the story of you and God is not yet clear. Loretta, I love you. I want you to carry that love with you. I wish, more than you can imagine, that I didn’t have to leave.”
Sister Joan was asleep again, having drifted off while Loretta was reading her letter. Loretta grasped the bag tightly in her lap, folding one arm around its soft leather and inhaling that distinctive leathery smell. She slid the chair even closer to the bed. Reaching for Sister Joan’s motionless hand, Loretta settled in to wait.