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“Click!” sounded the front door as it was pushed open, the gutter still dripping from the early morning squall. She shook her umbrella and stepped inside.

It was her smooth chocolate hands—hands unflinchingly willing to serve—that first quickened my heart to her inner riches, warmed by a bright smile.

I first experienced her caring hands, three years ago, while convalescing from multiple fractures. She supported my daily efforts toward independence and knew when to step back as I regained more responsibility over my affairs. In subsequent years, we remained friends as more of her story emerged.

Widowed with three little ones, grandmother, decades of caring for patients in hospitals and skilled nursing homes: all have gentled her hands, with when to touch and when to let go. In private homes, no housework was too much: cleaning, washing, scrubbing, cooking, mopping. No errands slighted. Transportation to doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and rehab also supported her patients. Informing the work of her hands has been the lifelong study of the bible with its ancillary materials.

However, due to my terminal illness with its weakness and shortness of breath, she has returned to my home: This time, to watch and support my gradual decline as I move toward my transition. She has also lined up additional caregivers when my needs increase. Handy with the hose, she presently keeps my grass watered and the marigolds pruned.

I remain in good hands and I’m grateful. She has become the black sister I never had.

Her name is Tracy McNeil. (618-975-1001)

Summer’s brazenness fleshes out in marigolds—reds, oranges, golds, and yellows—drought-resistant annuals that have brightened my front garden for years. With proper care, a single bloom can last for several days boasting in the sun; its inevitable shriveling and browning slows down its gossip until silenced by pruning shears: Snip-snip-snip. Within a few days, more buds jostle in breezes until full flowering picks up July’s chuckles and their chatter resumes.

Taught by gardeners to angle my shears for strategic cuts, I snipped away, summer after summer, tingling with creative energy as new shapes appeared among the plants, soon to plump out with buds. But my present circumstances have led me to put away my shears and let another help with the marigolds. I’m grateful.

My own pruning is well underway, and I live within the shorn limits of my eighty-four years; within them, I continue flourishing, not without occasional squalls of fear: eruption of new symptoms from Dexamethasone, the correction of dark dreams, episodes of nausea, spills, and so much more—all of which prompt me to ask for help, critical for the continuing effectiveness of the pruning. How else learn about humility?

Such deepens my faith in the Master Gardiner who reminds us in John 15:2 that Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.

It is for this fruit that I yearn.

 

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” I fidgeted with the laminated card containing the vow formula—almost dropped it on my lap as I struggled to regain awareness of what I was doing. I was twenty-nine years old.

It was July 22, 1965, feast day of St. Mary Magdalen, a steamy morning in the fan-cooled Gothic chapel of the Motherhouse in Rome, Italy. Perspiration filmed sallow cheeks within my frilled cap, hunger scoured my innards, and skirts of my Sunday habit covered my polished Oxfords. Behind us, knelt families and friends gathered to witness our final profession of poverty, chastity, and obedience, until death, in our community.

Despite worsening stiffness in my knees and generalized malaise, I had completed five months of probation, the final formation and testing before taking this step. Conferences on the Rule and Constitutions—although in French, the universal language of the community—long hours of prayer and reflection, and direction with the Superior had spirited me toward this oblation, I perceived as God’s will.

Yet, emptiness smacked within the fissures of my psyche as I continued reading the vow formula. Where was my heart? Did I ever have one or had I been pretending all along? Who was this inner stranger, scowling at me? I was supposed to be happy.

As it turned out, seventeen years later I left the community to search for my heart, an arduous process more austere than practiced as a nun.

In the midst of another formation, this time in hospice, I’m preparing for another oblation that will jettison me from all forms of death into the arms of my Beloved. To Him, I’ll offer my scarred, but graced, heart. This is working out…

 

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