Against the wishes of her sisters, I was to see her again. She was so special to me, even my wife did not contest our relationship.
Eight years had passed since our last meeting. Now responding to her cryptic letter and a two weeks emotional juggernaut, I found myself on United Flight 410 flying eastward to Philadelphia.
Upon arrival, my phone conversation with her sister hardly exhibited enthusiasm a welcomed visitor receives. After recovering, she assiduously directed me to a convenient pick-up-point.
Eventually she arrived. Her greeting was friendly then she reiterated her feelings about my presence.
After a short period of polite chatter, my driver released the devastating words; “She has been in a coma for a week.”
Then she momentarily flashed annoyance. Her face seemed to project: “Who do you think you are?” and “Do you have supernatural powers?”
We arrived at St. Monica’s Hospital. Then we began the walk down a long half-lit corridor towards her room. A nurse at the far end of the hall spotted my polite but cautious guide. She conjectured, I was the man from California. My persistent phone calls during the week had made me an item at the hospital. As we arrived within speaking distance, she had summoned her colleagues and student nurses for a look.
The gazes of these nurses reflected looks only Hollywood could produce in such a setting. Each made an effort to visually touch me as she cast a comforting smile in my direction. I was being treated like a conquering hero.
Two doors away; comatose; lay the reason for being in this strange land. Each step towards her room unpeeled the confidence the nurses had lavishly adorned upon me a few moments earlier. Finally we were arrived.
I was so uncomfortable, I paused in the doorway. Her sister entered the room, went to her bedside, sadly looked upon her; turned to me frozen in the doorway and said, “Come in. Please come.” Her character had changed. I felt she was glad I had come.
Suddenly the hospital smells became pronounced: the sterile air, the psychological smells of illness, suffering and death. There, she laid; amidst the sounds orchestrated by technology. Each apparatus signaled its function to forestall the inevitable.
Shhhhhhh—, beep, beep, beep chanted the duet of her respirator and the microchip I.V.
My heart fell!
This beautiful lady who gave me so much over my past 20 years was lying before me motionless; stripped of her dignity. Her sister said, “I’ll leave you. Talk to her.”
“What does one say to a comatose person?”
Having never been in a hospice setting, I was bewildered. Quickly, as I regained awareness of time and place, a concealed speaker seemed to begin to massage the room with a slow rendition of my college alma mater:
In a Lou-i–si-ana Val- ley,
In a tall pine-ee grove,
Stood our …..“
In my mind’s eye I could see her in full glory. She was always logical, cogent and so in control. With a quick gasp behind me, I began to tell her about our mutual friends.
I gave her the latest news about Creighton. At their first meeting, he weighted only120 pounds. I told her he had ballooned to 259 pounds. Her left eye opened. Always having been thin but now 210 pounds, I told her my weight. Her right eye opened and smile began to inch across her face.
A nurse entered for a routine check. She saw the smile on her face and asked, “What is your relation to her?”
To which I responded, ” She is the mother of my academic life.” This apparently pleased her; for her eyes twinkled and she pained to enlarge the smile on her face. Then slowly her eyes closed to rest. I promised her I would return.
She died three hours before my scheduled return.
Lying before me was Sister Mary Charles, my college mentor. Her family heritage is Irish, but she was a child of humanity. She was concluding her earthly sojourn. The last 44 years of it she spent teaching in Louisiana. Her legacy is immense.
She taught me the foundational skills of my field and more. Always an example of a teacher, she was more than a dispenser of knowledge; she kindled the best from her students; the spiritual best, the intellectual best, and the social best.
Thank you, Sister Mary Charles. What I learned from you brought form to my life. When chaos abound, they brings peace. When the clouds of life form, they provide prospective through which I see a bright tomorrow.
Rest in peace.