I enter Dorothy’s life in media res, holding a lasagna and wearing a crucifix. I hop the railing and jump down the 3-foot wall to the door of her basement apartment, entering to a scene set in quiet motion. The steady breath of sleep wafts from a cot in the corner, a portable television mutely flashes the Redskins game, a couple sleeps on the floor with heads propped against the wall. A few renegade sun rays dance into the otherwise dark room.
"Dot?" my friend Lauren inquires down the hallway. "It's Lauren and Mary-Kate." A woman walks out of the back bed room. She is an imposing character: six feet tall, solidly built, with high cheek bones and mahogany skin.
Dorothy’s life is, itself, 53 years in media res. She grew up in rural North Carolina before her large family moved to DC and continued to grow. Her current apartment is the most recent successor in a long line of project housing, and many people wander in and out of its doors. Three are her children. Another is Robby, her long-time boyfriend whom she calls her husband (she has an actual husband, whom she calls Big Greg). The exposition of Dorothy’s life is typical of Southeast DC’s poverty narrative — with two exceptions. The first is the sunglasses she has worn, even in her dim apartment, since a rare disease robbed her of her sight three years ago. The second is her faith. Once when I visited, her eyes were infected, her house had bedbugs, and her toilet was overflowing. We prayed together, and she made no petitions. She only thanked God for waking her up that morning.
I have known Dorothy for a few months when she asks for a ride to the hospital to visit Robby, who has pneumonia. She meets me outside, and I guide her from the apartment to our car.
“Want a cookie?” she asks. From a plastic bag, she pulls out a package of six peanut butter cookies and rips it open. By the time I decline, she has chomped down a third of the packet. The 30-minute drive is punctuated by car horns and underlain by constant munching.
- 5th Annual Young Alumni Essay Contest
- 1st Place: “The lookout,” Austin Hagwood '15
- 2nd Place: “River town,” John DiTillo '08, '15M.A.
- 2nd Place: “Between these walls,” Erin Ramsey-Tooher '09
- 2nd Place: “Snow, rock and flesh,” Steven Salido Fisher '16
- 2nd Place: “The foolish father,” William Kearney '08
- HM: "Narratives," Mary-Kate Burns '16
- HM: "The last letter," Grace Chiarella '14
At the hospital, we search the labyrinth of hallways for Robby’s room, where we find him lying in bed watching TV. Five subcutaneous tubes surround his body like motion-triggered laser beams. Dorothy makes the approach for a hug (imagine a heist executed by a blind criminal), and BEEP BEEP BEEP — Robby’s monitors sound an alarm.
“Uhh, Dot...,” we all begin.
“What?” she asks. When she straightens up, the beeps stop. She tries again. Robby looks tense as Dorothy hovers a foot over the bed. BEEP BEEP BEEP. The peaks on his heart rate monitor spike. We all bear grins when a nurse comes in then hesitatingly leaves. Dorothy, determined, plows straight through the beeps to deliver a blind embrace, then backs away satisfied. The room releases a collectively held breath, and the peaks and valleys of Robby's heart rate return to normal.
“I brought you cookies,” Dorothy tells Robby. She produces the last remaining package of the half-dozen she started the trip with, packs one through five having been handily consumed in transit.
“No thanks, Dot.” She shrugs and takes a seat atop the radiator. A brief rustling of plastic is followed by a fresh crunch and, minutes later, silence. Cookies 31 through 36 are gone.
“So Robby,” I ask, “when are you breaking out of this place?”
“They won’t let me go until my blood pressure goes down,” he says. I imagine he will go home in a couple days (willfully ignoring the greasy carry-out container on his bedside table), but Dorothy cannot be consoled. She cries and moans when it comes times to leave. Robby reaches for her searching hand. My heart aches at the tenderness of these two hardened souls. A couple days is a long time to miss the person you love.
I lead Dorothy three steps toward the door.
“Bye, Robby,” she cries. We take three more steps before she turns back. "Bye, Robby."
"Dorothy, you gotta go," Robby tells her. At the door she stops again.
"I’ll miss you, Robby."
"Take care of her," Robby says, this time directed at me.
"Don't worry," I say. "I will."
I wait outside with Dorothy while Lauren gets the car. She searches her pockets for a carton of cigarettes, pulls one out, and sticks it between her lips.
"Do you have a light?" she asks me.
"Sorry, Dot," I say. "I don't think you're supposed to smoke on the hospital grounds." She is undeterred. Every time the automatic door opens, she yells in its general direction: "Do you have a light?" Some people mutter an apology. Others don't respond. A young doctor looks shocked when she unknowingly yells directly in his face. An old man with a white beard and ponytail, appearing appropriately grizzled, stutters over on his cane.
"I'll give you a light if you give me a cigarette." They light them in front of the hospital. A woman in a wheelchair inhales from her oxygen tank nearby. I wince. Not 30 seconds later, a nurse comes outside.
"Excuse me, you can't smoke that here," she says. Dorothy takes a long drag and tosses the butt on the ground. We get in the car and drive home.
A week later I get a voicemail from Dorothy’s mom. Robby is dead. He died the day before Thanksgiving. Dorothy later told me that he died in her lap.
In the hospital, Dorothy’s life seemed like a comedy of errors. Now it is a tragedy. The narrative arc seems unfair. The hardships pile one atop another — the action always rising — as I wait for a turning point that never comes. Peeling back one layer of suffering just reveals another. Death, illness, poverty: How much suffering can a human life bear?
Dorothy’s mourning is a dense weight that must be laid down, but the world is too full to accept the load. Its one proper place is at the foot of the cross, that intersection of Heaven and Earth where Jesus opens wide his arms to say, “Come to me. I suffer, too.” At Mass shortly after Robby’s death, I join the Communion line and make pilgrimage with the faithful toward the image of Christ’s crucifixion. I hope to find consolation in His shared suffering, and instead encounter His living flesh.
The celebration ends with a sending-forth hymn. "Holy God, we praise thy name," I sing with the congregation, and as the organ resounds against the crypt walls, my voice catches — not because the lyrics ring false or ring true, but simply because they ring. This sound is the earthly manifestation of the heavenly chorus, its notes burning with a godly fire. Yet in all their brightness, they are only the pinpoints of dying embers. How unbearably beautiful Heaven must be. I entered Church wondering how much suffering a person can bear, and leave filled beyond my own capacity for beauty. It wells up over the brim of my eyes, and spills down my cheeks.
We are ravaged by beauty and suffering alike, experiences that have different forms but a shared weight. We cannot stand under the crosses of either. Lightness and darkness have the same effect: In extremes of both, we lose the ability to see. Funeral hymns and odes to joy both move us to tears.
Perhaps there's never been a less likely trio than Dorothy, Robby and myself. But if we read more closely our different stories — Robby's tragedy, Dorothy's misadventure, my drama — we see they share the unmistakable mark of mankind. Our humanity is our tragic flaw. It is the reason for our tears and, ultimately, our demise. Our mortal lives end in death – narratives fated to be tragedies. So why do we boldly stake our claim to the role of tragic hero?
I think again of the image of Christ crucified. Surely when He died that day, everyone thought the story had ended. The curtain did not fall, but it was torn. The stone rolled darkness across the final scene. It is finished. Then came humanity’s finest plot twist. Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, rose from the dead. He spoke to Mary outside the tomb and encountered travelers on the road to Emmaus. He did not meet them again at the cross. A suffering Christ commiserates with us; a resurrected Christ redeems us. Our humanity is our flaw, but it is also our salvation. When it seems like the story is over, our narratives break outside of time. We are still blind, but with the radiant light of grace. We are still poor, but with the poverty of spirit. We still die, but are born into eternity. And our voices do not falter. We live this miracle every day, when every day we stumble and die small deaths, and every morning we rise again. Like Dorothy, we pray to thank God for miraculously, unfailingly waking us up.
Mary-Kate Burns’ essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2017 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Burns is a full-time missionary at A Simple House of Sts. Francis and Alphonsus in Southeast Washington, D.C., where she serves the poor through friendship evangelization.