Sister Tommie says when she walks with her friend Wally she never steps on the sidewalk grates because Wally is afraid she’ll fall in. But when Sister Tommie and I walk together, we forget, and walk across the sidewalk grates, hardly noticing. She buys me a challah bread roll today on our stroll. We mail all her Christmas letters. She has them rubber banded by state, to "make it easier for the Post Office people.”
We walk along 15th Street and find ourselves in the middle of hundreds of protesters marching from the United Nations to Union Square. It is an anti-Bush rally. Sister Tommie waves to everyone, shouting, “I’m going to pray for all you people!” The crowd chants as they pass, “Impeach! Impeach! Now more than ever!” Sister Tommie chants along, “A peach! A peach! Now and forever!”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Sister Tommie says of all the people, a twinkle in her eye. Her words are as pure as her smooth, Italian, Dove soap complexion.
Sister Tommie is 76 years old. In her old age, despite her dementia (or more likely, because of it), she is beaming with youth and innocence. She doesn’t know why the people are walking or why they are angry, nor does she care — she simply loves people and feels it’s her vocation to pray for everyone she meets.
“I’ll pray for you three times a day. My mass, my communion and my rosary are for you,” she says.
She says the same thing to everyone. She says it to me, at least daily. She stops strangers on the street, and tells them as she pokes them with her cane. She tells my friends, my family, the mail carrier, babies (how she loves babies!). Sister Tommie, the senile evangelist. It’s that paradoxical disability — power, made perfect in weakness. After a lifetime of missionary service, prayer is Sister Tommie’s final and everlasting vocation. She can no longer advocate for children in Philadelphia’s Family Court. She can no longer teach. She can no longer remember how to tie her shoes. But she can pray for you and I.
When we come home we watch “The Donut Man” on the Catholic channel. The show consists of a puppet donut, a handful of bubbly children, and an older dimpled jolly man clad in overalls and a tweed cap. They sing songs about Jesus and Jeremiah, Daniel and the lion. “Life without Jesus is like a donut, ‘cause there’s a hole in the middle of your heart,” goes the theme song. Sister Tommie is totally enthralled, smiling, tapping her feet to the music.
And yet time is an unforgiving companion to us all. “The old gray mare I ain’t what I used to be,” she sings. Her feet are swollen and callused. She’s worn the same shoes for nine years and refuses to let me buy her another pair. Our compromise is footbaths. Sister Tommie takes out her teeth and takes off her stockings and puts on a nightgown. I bring a bucket of warm sudsy water to her bedside. We wash her feet. It’s cleansing and calming. It’s a rite of sorts. It’s an anointing.
The day is done. It’s been a typical day for Sister Tommie. Eat, pray, walk. Eat, pray, watch TV. Eat, pray, go to bed. Show me your habits and I’ll show you who you are, as my mom likes to say.
Or like Thomas Merton wrote,
“It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode,
with one’s hunger and sleep,
one’s cold and warmth,
rising and going to bed.
Putting on blankets and taking them off,
making coffee and then drinking it.
Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying.
I live as my fathers have lived on this earth, until eventually I die.
Years pass. I reflect on the year after graduation I spent with Sister Tommie. I was a guest in her convent, there to help the community of religious nuns to “age in place” using money I was awarded by a grant, its name laden with great expectations — the Fellowship for Noble Purpose.
My ultimate purpose was lofty and full of fresh post-grad idealism — to transform the way we view and treat the elderly, the aging and death. Why, I had wondered since I was 10 and visiting my grandmother in her nursing home, why have we created a long-term care system that isolates and dehumanizes our elders, those who bear us, give us life, teach us what it means to live and how it will be to die?
I had so much to learn. In pursuit of my lofty dream, I began with those who knew infinitely more than me about the being old, about aging and about dying.
I had heard from a friend that there were ten elderly religious women struggling with the effects of old age. I rang their doorbell and told them, I want to be a geriatric nurse. I want to know your stories, listen to your needs, and with your help, respond in any way that I’m able.
For a year I attempted to help the sisters renovate their convent, a four-story Italianate landmarked building in the Stuyvesant Square historic district of New York City. Our shared hope was for the sisters to remain together, in community, rather than disperse one by one to nursing homes as disease and disability struck.
It was a noble purpose indeed. We collaborated with a pro-bono architect and submitted our plans to The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
And then we waited.
While waiting, I went for walks with Sister Tommie. I cooked dinner. I ate. I prayed. I watched The Donut Man.
Then I enrolled in nursing school. Then Sister Tommie’s mind wandered and never came back. She became so confused that the sisters sent her to a nursing home in Dobbs Ferry, a 45-minute train ride north of the city. Then we heard from the LPC that our architectural plans contained 16 building violations. Then I moved out of the convent. I got married. I moved to Washington D.C. and had two children and became a hospice nurse. Then Sister Tommie died.
Years passed. I reflect on that year I spent with the nuns.
I feel like my 6-year-old nephew, who, upon reaching the top of a mountain (after weeks of anticipation and the eventual arduous climb), looked around at the expansive sky, the drifting clouds, the distant hills and said — “Well, what was that all about?”
What was that all about?
A lofty dream and a deflated noble purpose? Failure? It’s an easy answer when the basic facts of the equation are computed. Noble plans proposed. Noble plans attempted. Noble plans failed. It’s the answer I’ve believed since moving out of the convent.
But, “It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode…”. Again, Merton.
Why is it easy to apply his prayer to Sister Tommie’s simple, habitual, prayerful life, but so difficult to apply it to my own?
Perhaps my attitude belies the meaning in the experience. “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” T.S. Eliot wrote. “And approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form.”
It was not only enough for Sister Tommie to live and be in ordinary human mode but it was — and is — enough for me too. The meaning of life need not be noble. The meaning in my experience could be quiet and humble, born of God’s inscrutable design.
The friendship I found in Sister Tommie was perhaps meaning enough. The countless people she met on our walks and prayed for three times a day, for every day after that, until death, perhaps that was meaning enough. And all Sister Tommie taught me about how to be young, how to live, how to grow old and how to die, all this that perennially informs my practice as a mother, a wife and a nurse, today, tomorrow, and for all my days henceforth, perhaps that is meaning enough.
Yes, that is enough. Ordinary is enough.
Cassie Herman Kralovec lives in Washington D.C. with her husband, Peter James Kralovec ’06, and two children. She is a hospice nurse.