Being quarantined, locked in, sheltering in place can have consequences. Fears that we can risk only brief trips outside the safety of our homes, and then do so only when gloved and masked might shake us up enough to erode certainties. Dread of infection and death make our vulnerabilities painfully present each time we look up the rising number of cases in our county. All of these can coalesce and tear away our carefully constructed images of our world and ourselves.
If you talk with writers about the primary source of their inspirations-aside from the research, most will answer that it comes from outside them. And so it is with me.
You’re about to read a story- a true story- about a commission I received from God over six years ago. Years later, His words come crashing back…along with this pressing sense to tell this story to you.
“Who was that Lin? Who was calling?” Unsaid was, “at the ungodly hour of four in the morning?” My private line on the phone in my home office had been ringing incessantly until finally I woke up, got up out of bed and stumbled into the office to pick up the receiver.
“Terri, Patty’s oldest daughter.” I looked at my husband John, dry-eyed. “She’s dead, Patty’s dead, Tommy- her son-found her body on the floor of her bedroom.” For many years, I had been expecting this kind of call about my older sister, Patty.
Staring at my husband, I said, “Terri kept asking the same thing over and over, ”My mother’s dead, where is she?…Can you tell me where she is, Lin?” John knew well the tragic history of my sister and her oldest daughter, both addicted to drugs and alcohol, mother and daughter both trapped in the horror of insatiable need.
At mass, I tried to concentrate and pray for her and her three children but knew I was mostly going through the motions. I felt hollowed out. I was disgusted with myself because the grief from the sudden death of my Dobie three weeks before still felt like glass shards in my heart. But for my sister? I shed not a single tear.
During the priest’s homily, my niece’s staccato question about the whereabouts of her mother whispered in my head and distracted me. Looking at my watch, I realized that I had to leave although the final prayers had not been said. Quietly, I rose from the pew and walked down the aisle, about to exit when, on impulse, I turned back to the altar and the crucifix and knelt on the floor. And heard, “Patty is with me. Go and tell them how much I love them.”
The words were as clear as if someone had been standing right beside me.
My sister Patty belonged to one of the many hundreds of thousands of folks who dislike, at times hate, the Catholic Church. She had been shocked at my abrupt conversion to Catholicism and never did understand how her youngest sister’s atheism got swept away like dust motes under a bed.
As far as I knew, Patty never went to church, any church. That she had married a Catholic and agreed to bring up her children as Catholics, rankled and as the years passed, grew into resentment. There was no end to the list of her grudges which began and ended with our father. Of the three of us, Patty was the one who should have moved to the other side to the other side of the country, but she lived out her life ten miles away from the house she’d been born in.
For I have heard Him before. Not often, but enough to know this was real and not something I conjured up…as if I-even with my wildly vivid imagination-could have conjured up that!
What He was telling Terri-and me- although I did not realize I was asking, was that my sister Patty was a saint. She was with Him-Jesus- in Heaven.After the funeral, that next Friday, the Unitarian minister Patty’s two daughters had found to celebrate the funeral on short notice, finished the ceremony and then looked out at the assembled seventy or eighty of us seated in the hall. “Does anyone have anything they would like to say?”
My ninety-five year old uncle and I stood up at the same time. Uncle Phil’s bright blue eyes twinkled at me as he made his way up to the front of the room. I could hear his thoughts as he walked by…”age before beauty.”
I and everyone else there grinned back as Uncle Phil smiled at us. Then he spoke at leisure about the life of his niece Patty, his memories of her and our oldest sister Lee, who sat beside me with tears running down her face. Carefree summers spent with the two girls and my mother and father. I had not yet arrived.
And then it was my turn.
I looked at the faces politely looking up at me, and said, “Some of you I’ve not seen for many years, others of you I have never met but we all thank you for coming…” The perfunctory things one says at gatherings like this. And then got into the heart of my message.
the youngest of Patty’s three children, had assembled and affixed to a poster board, I pointed to the one where my sister’s smile was wide, bright and genuine, her big bright- blue eyes vibrant and alive.
Then I looked over at Tracy, seated in the first row. “This is my favorite of all the pictures of her, Tracy. It’s the way I would like to remember her. The way we all would like to remember Patty: alive, excited…happy.”
Then I glanced at Terri, who was seated next to her sister and did my best to overlook the fact that she was drunk, high or both.
“Terri, when you called early last Monday morning to tell me that Patty had died, you kept asking me where she was, do you remember saying that?” My niece nodded. Although I’m not sure she was really there.
After briefly explaining my years of atheism and then conversion, I explained what I heard upon leaving mass. And my absolute wholehearted conviction that I had heard the voice of God when He had answered Terri’s question.
Patty is with me. Go and tell them how much I love them.
We love our images of saints, don’t we? Men and women who lived perfect lives-who somehow manage to float above the banal sins of daily life.
And I think of a comment made by a priest friend, “If we make it to Heaven, I think we are going to be very surprised when we get there.”
Indeed, Fr. Jorge Herrara, indeed.