“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Such was the case in late 2016 when I was in the Medical Mission Sisters’ chapel. After the service, upon leaving the chapel, the tiniest little whiff of a nun, Sister Gertrude, was suddenly standing before me.
I’m about 5’ 1” and she was several inches shorter.
Sometimes when I see pictures of myself in the weeks and months after Ron left, I can barely stand the pain in my eyes, even if the photo shows me smiling. That may sometimes be true even now, even though I rarely display grief in public.
Seeing me across the chapel, she sensed the depth of my grief, as it was coming close to a year since Ron left. Sister Gertrude was hunched over due to broken bones in her back. (As I understood it, her painful condition was a side-effect of medication she took some years earlier to save her eyesight.) Placing her hands on my face and looking into my eyes, she said, “Oh my dear, I don’t know how you bear such grief.” As she gently pulled my face down to hers, she reached her arms around my neck. When I lifted my face, her tears were on my cheek, a water blessing from her own body.
From the time of that encounter in 2016, Sister Gertrude held a special place in my heart because she received my grief in a profound, tangible way, unusual for someone who has never had a child or lost one.
In the years that followed, Sister Gertrude’s health deteriorated and she came to chapel less often and I missed seeing her. Then, in mid-October, 2019, she arrived in Pathways, the nursing home part of the Philadelphia Protestant Home (PPH) where Tom and I live. The day after she arrived, I visited her, unsure as to whether she would remember me. I was so happy she did, looking into my eyes and inquiring about my grief. During that first visit, I said, “Sister Gertrude, I am so sorry you need to be here (hospice care). I know this is a hard time for you, but I want you to know that you are exactly who I need to have in my life right now.” So began my regular visits which were usually pure delight.
Now and then, in the early evening, I would slip into her room, sit near the window and watch her sleep. I considered those quiet times of meditation to be night prayers. One night I opened my eyes and, looking across the room, I thought I saw a soft white light around her. I have never been one to see auras or energy fields and so I thought I was probably imagining. But as I watched, I felt more certain I could see her bathed in a white light. Unsure of myself, I pulled out my phone and googled, “Do auras come in white?” What I read there was, “The meaning of a white aura is so special that when it is seen, it is typically that of a very young child or someone close to death.”
Sister Gertrude told me of her life on the farm in Wisconsin, of her parents and siblings, of her gratitude for the sabbatical from the community that gave her eleven years to care for her dying parents. She spoke wistfully of her years as a young missionary in Pakistan where she served as a midwife and administrator of a nursing school. She would sometimes have soft exchanges in Urdu (the official language of Pakistan), with one of her Pakistani nurses, even praying The Lord’s Prayer together in that language. Sister Gertrude had a wonderful sense of humor and a beautiful smile. Those who knew her well called her Gert. I did not know her well enough for such intimacy. I only got to be with her for such a short time of her life and mine. Besides, I was in such awe of her, I could only call her Sister Gertrude.
Approaching the anniversary of Ron’s death, December 25, the time from Thanksgiving through Christmas, with all its merriment, is a hard season for me. Even so, I do not turn away from the joy but hold it along with my grief. It’s a tricky balance indeed. And so in times of sorrow, I would slip into Sister Gertrude’s room so I could be in her soft energy and come away comforted. She never mentioned her own pain, but sometimes I noticed her wince when she had to move but only once did I hear her cry out. Sometimes I would ask if I might rub her feet. Allowing me, she would murmur, “That is so very comforting, Marge.” Such a privilege to massage her tiny feet. She also loved to be hugged and held.
One afternoon, in the middle of a conversation, one of her teeth fell out right into her hand. She said, “Now, what do you know? My tooth!” I asked if she’d like for me to take it; she placed it in my hand and asked that I give it Sister Pat. (I think she was confused enough to think maybe a dentist would be able to place it back in her mouth, but by the next day she had forgotten). When I brought her tooth back to our apartment and showed it to Tom, I said, “Look. This is the relic of a saint. I wish I could keep it but I promised Sister Gertrude I’d give it to Pat”. And so I did but must admit, in retrospect, I sort of regret. After all, cathedrals have been built around relics of people far less holy than Sister Gertrude, and a tooth has her DNA. How I wish I had kept it for my altar.
There was an evening in December when I was home alone all day and felt overwhelmed by my grief, bordering on despair. While it seemed unfair that I should be bringing my problems to her, who was so vulnerable and close to the end of her life, I fled to her side, even if just to sit while she slept. She was in her bed, lying on her side with her eyes softly closed but not sleeping. I always asked if she felt up to having me visit. Only once did she say she was not. I pulled a chair over to her bed and, through choking sobs, told her how sad, broken and despairing I felt and how much I missed my Ron. The tears would just not stop. My face was just a few inches from hers and, as I cried, my hair fell down in front of my eyes. Gently pushing my hair back behind my ears and brushing my tears away with her hands, she softly murmured, “I know. I know. No, I do not know. But I know I see how much you are suffering.” Then she said “How I wish I could bring you into this bed with me and just hold you.” We remained there quietly until my grief subsided. I said, “In your own way, you did hold me to yourself.” Together we prayed The Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Before leaving, I asked for her blessing. She placed her tiny hand on my head and softly whispered sweet words of blessing for my healing, for my family and friends, for my health and happiness, and for Ron. Every visit’s blessing was slightly different from every other as she would say sacred words she knew so well, words she had gathered from a lifetime of holiness. Receiving her blessing, I would close my eyes as she would usually trace a cross on my forehead.
On the day Sister Gertrude died, I received a call that she had just passed and so I went over to her room. Jane, another associate of the Medical Mission Sisters community, was already there stroking her hair and whispering words of love and gratitude for all she gave to the world. I played the Ave Maria on my phone while Jane and I waited for the funeral director to come.
As we sat, I noticed her bedroom slippers on the floor as though she had just stepped out of them. I was so tempted to take them (another relic, I thought) but I was afraid of getting caught and having to explain. Now, in retrospect, as with the tooth, I wish I’d slipped out of the room with them. (Most people don’t regret the things they didn’t steal, I know.)
Sister Gertrude was born on March 8, 1928. She traveled from Wisconsin to Philadelphia. She served in Jordan, England and Pakistan, returned again to Pakistan after the death of her parents and returned to Philadelphia in 1998 for health reasons. She lived a dynamic life, especially for such a tiny being. When I think of all the twists and turns of her beautiful life and of my own, it will always be a wonder to me that the last four months of her life were here near me in my home. She had a delightful laugh and a sparkle in her eyes. I will be ever grateful for her most unusual of gifts: the ability to fully receive the sorrow of a grieving mother, really receive it with her whole self and pure presence. Sister Gertrude arrived at PPH just before the winter holiday season began and remained to die on Tom’s birthday, quietly slipping away on January 21.
Sister Pat gave me a small, very old medallion of Saint Gertrude The Great from Sister Gertrude’s belongings. Turning to Google once again, I searched Saint Gertrude and discovered that Ron shares her birthday. St. Gertrude was born on January 6, 1256, 712 years before Ron! Saint Gertrude was a mystic and Doctor of the Church.
As word circulated that Sister Gertrude died in her sleep, Helen, one of the Medical Mission Sisters associates, captured it this way: Her death was like a soft bent tree branch letting go of its last leaf, slowly and soundlessly drifting to the ground. I will always remember how beautiful and peaceful she looked at her wake. After her funeral mass, Sister Lucy turned to me and said, “Just think, she is with Ron now.” I then visualized her taking the tears she wiped from my face and reaching to place them in Ron’s hands for him to hold until we meet again on the other side where there will be no more tears.
Godspeed, dear Sister Gertrude.