Tuesday, 01 January 2013
By Joyce Benedict
The operation completed, I awoke with my right arm encased in a thick cast from shoulder to hand. It was Christmas 1952. The second of three orthopedic operations was performed due to polio contracted when four.
I cried quietly each night from pain, pity and loneliness. I wanted to be partying. I was just a junior in high school.
Four days passed. A nurse informed me that a nun, a Sister Mary Josephine, also had surgery by my doctor and occupied the room across from mine. Why not visit her?
“Why,” I thought, “would I want to visit a nun?” I was not Catholic. With their starched, white mantles binding their faces, black robes, nuns appeared more like specters of death than joyful, loving brides of Christ.
Wasn’t my stay in the hospital horrible enough? However, following a few more nights of pity and loneliness, I found myself drifting towards her room. There, laying on her back in a white gown, head wrapped in the usual white mantle, lay not a specter of death, but Mrs. Santa Claus in the flesh.
She had rosy, shiny cheeks, a round face and bright, electric blue eyes. She beckoned me to come closer. Her radiant smile filled the room. I felt instantly warm and loved.
I told her my name. She inquired of my operation. I told her we shared the same doctor.
Several disks surrounding her spine had disintegrated resulting in intense pain and threatened paralysis. Our doctor was executing a series of bone grafts from her leg sculpturing new disks to surround the spine. She had been on her back for more than a year. She had another six months to go.
I could not imagine how she could lie there, smile and be joyous. I began to feel ashamed that I had cried each evening to sleep missing holiday parties and feeling sorry for myself. Her burden a thousand times greater than mine.
We became instant friends. I visited her daily, spoke of my family, asked her questions about her life.
Since she was a little girl she wanted to be a nun. She had wanted to be a nun! It had been a choice, not an imposed sentence. My prejudices were fading fast.
New Year’s Eve arrived. I was to go home a few days later. “Joyce, darlin,” she said that morning, “I have a little surprise for both of us tonight. Come over after dinner.”
I did. We chatted gaily. My anticipation grew. Around 11:30PM Sister Jo, as I had come to call her affectionately, suddenly lowered her voice. “Joyce darlin’, go out to the hall and tell me whether you see anyone.”
I did. It was devoid of any activity.
“Are you sure?” she asked with some urgency.
“Yes,” I whispered as I entered into the suspense of the moment.
She gestured that I pull the chair closer to her bed. Her hand disappeared under her pillow pulling out a large, flat bottle. “Joyce darlin’, it’s blackberry brandy and we’re going to have us a whopping New Year’s Eve celebration!”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. She unscrewed the cap and poured hefty amounts of the dark, forbidden fluid into two, plain hospital water glasses. We drank every drop.
I had no recollection of making it across the hall to my bed. I slept very late. I awoke to a headache and a cold breakfast tray beside my bed.
Sister Josephine and I corresponded with one another well into my last year in college.
One day I received a note, her picture, a prayer card. “Joyce darlin,’” the familiar address always warmed me. “I write to tell you that from this day on you will never hear from me again. I begin a vow of perpetual silence. I will have no further contact with you, anyone, nor from the outside world. You will be in my prayers, always. I love you, as does God.”
She had become one of the most dear, loving people in my life. I cried for several days. I never heard from her again.
The ritual passages of human events, births, deaths, marriages, betrayals,
In her own unimaginable suffering, having radiated limitless joy and abundant love, she shared blackberry brandy with a lonely little girl on a lonely night in a small, simple, lonely hospital room long ago.
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