On the way to visit our daughter and grandkids a few weeks ago, my husband and I stopped to visit his 92-year-old cousin, Sister Petra, a retired Catholic nun, with a laugh-out-loud sense of humor and a feisty personality.
Before she moved to North Carolina to spend her retirement years with a friend, who is also a nun, she was a teacher at a Catholic School in Washington, DC. Only two hours away, we’d often visit with her when we went up to DC for one thing or another. We’d go to breakfast or lunch with her, catch up on what the rest of the extended family was up to and listened to stories about her life, like Bill’s grandfather’s attempt to bribe her to keep her from entering the convent. She was always a show-stopper in her crisp black and white habit, young and old always smiling in adoration when they stopped to exchange a greeting. We spent our time together laughing and in a fun way, she’d tease us about our lack of religious beliefs: “I pray for you everyday, because you’re not doing it and nobody else will.” When it was time for us to part, she always expressed her love and gratitude for our visit. Although I’m what many may call a “Recovering Catholic,” I have always felt a deep connection with her. Simply put, I absolutely adore her.
Sr. Petra has had heart problems and developed macular degeneration over the years. Reading is out of the question, and moving about isn’t easy without a walker or another person for her to lean on. We last saw her after she moved, just before last Christmas. She was as cheerful, happy and as animated as ever. But she seemed tired, had slowed down, and was aging before our eyes. We had lunch together, promising to be back on our next trip to see our kids.
On our most recent visit last month, she appeared to be having some difficulty with memory. “I’m not senile and do not have Alzheimers. I just forget a few things now and then,” she cajoled. But what was notable, was the bit of anger beginning to seep through her usual happy demeanor. It seems that Sr. Kathy, her old friend and caretaker, will be needing some serious back surgery in the near future. For everyone’s benefit, Sr. Petra will need to move to the Mother House in Indiana, where she will have daily care and support. She was interested in going, but also denied her plight, claiming she didn’t need any care at all, and could get along just fine staying where she was. She’s quickly losing her independence. It must be terrifying, to have others making decisions for you about the details of your life, regardless of how much faith you have.
That day with Sr. Petra, brought to mind my mother in the last few years of her life. By then, suffering from lung cancer and emphysema, she needed oxygen. She continued to smoke, seeming to take angry vengeance on the circumstances that had brought her to this state. In my clan, stubbornness is our mantra. I suffer from it as well.
Once very active, mom now spent her days in front of the television, taking in political talk shows and golf tournaments. She loved the outdoors, and continuously created spectacular meals, that only a mother can make. At Christmas she’d gather greens from the woods and put together a Christmas wreath for the front door. She was a quilter and loved making greeting cards for every occasion from the papers and found objects she collected.
But things had changed, as all things must. When dents began to appear with regularity on her car, I asked her to give up her car keys. I checked in on her frequently, to make sure she was taking her meds on time and correctly. I balanced her checkbook and took over the other day-to-day tasks that she could no longer manage. I imagine she saw me as the devil incarnate.
Unable to do the things she loved the most, she grew more and more negative, criticizing and complaining about the state of the world, or the sweater I was wearing. If I opened a door for her, she’d make it clear that she could do it herself. If I asked her a question, she’d answer sarcastically, calling me,“Mommy.” As her anger grew, mine did as well, and the battle between us became a full-fledged war. She was abusive. I fought back. We were caught up in a dysfunctional family trap, unable to hear or understand each other.
I knew that she was filled with fear, mourning the loss of her life. But when I tried to talk to her about being afraid, she denied it.The compassion I felt for her, quickly became clouded over by my own anger and self-hatred for being inept at being able to care for her. I remembered and reacted to long forgotten chapters in our past together. There was nothing I could do to make either one of us happy. Watching my mother die, I was heartbroken, and imagined what might be in store for me when my own life draws to a close.
During this last visit with Sr. Petra, I found that my self-torture and anger had melted away. In her struggle I saw my mother’s suffering and understood her pain. I’d been caught up in creating my own story, never questioning the truth of it, playing the victim, sure that my mother hated me. She’s been gone four years now and I miss her. It has taken me this long to understand how much she did care for me: that she was a product of her own life story; that she was experiencing loss of control, and was terrified by what might be waiting in the darkness around the next corner.
I’ve been told that it is often this way with adult children who choose to take over the care of a dying parent. It’s a hard job and one that can break the strongest of people. I chose to do it because I couldn’t allow her to be in a nursing home. Despite our differences, I loved her. Would I do it again? I can say that I would, but knowing what I know now, I’d like to say I’d do it very differently.
My eyes have been opened by the suffering of a dear friend. I will remain forever grateful to Sr. Petra for her courage and tenacity, and for unknowingly helping me to understand what forgiveness is all about.