The International Writers Magazine: Life and Death Issues
Jeannine M. Pitas
To live with the knowledge that you are going to die a violent death. To have the news come not in a dream that can later be dismissed, but a waking vision just a few days before Palm Sunday, when the early spring air is crisp with expectation, when the first tulips have just started to sprout. It comes in the early morning, after you have awakened and brushed your teeth, just as you’re preparing for morning Mass. To see it there before you- the chair in your room overturned, the drawers pulled out and dumped open, the body – your body, mangled and hardly recognizable- lying on its side like a knocked-over tree. To stand there trembling, then fall to the cold linoleum floor, struggling to say a fast prayer for peace. To open your eyes and find the room restored, the walls white and clean, the carpet unstained, everything as before. To stand up, take a breath, straighten your habit, and pick up your prayer book, trying to forget what you have seen.
After Sister Karen died, the whole city held a candlelight vigil. She’d already been encouraging people in the community to put up lawn signs bearing messages of peace. Some of them bore the image of a dove floating over bold letters: “Nonviolence begins with me.” Others displayed a set of footprints with the cute but challenging caption, “I leave peace prints.” Now, the streets were filled with these signs; everyone was praying for this courageous nun who cared for recovering drug addicts in the halfway house which she had founded. Her work was tough, but so was she. The fact that big, burly twenty-year-old men could respect a petite fifty-year-old nun like her was remarkable, but she knew that it was only because of her faith. In a time when her way of life was becoming rarer and rarer, she’d entered the convent with the conviction that it was her true vocation. She did not even think about what she’d be missing out on by taking up this life. She was destined to live simply, to help those in need, to teach the message of peace by example. Of course there were days when she questioned it, when she wished she could put down her rosary and remove the veil and get in her car and drive far, far away from this dull city with its abandoned houses and gang wars. But, she didn’t. She continued to get up at five each morning, to kneel in prayer beside her bed, to get up and go down to the cafeteria where the cook was preparing breakfast. At seven, when they came down for breakfast, she greeted the twenty or so men who lived there with a smile. From there, her day was divided between administrative work and counseling the patients, to be just what her titled stated- their sister. She was the companion who was their to advise, to guide, but most of all, to listen.
People sometimes asked her how she did it- how could she live and work with ex-convicts out on parole; how could she keep herself from judging them. But such a question made little sense to her. No one wants to grow up poor and maybe abused- if not by one’s own family, then by the system and society at large. No one wants to become an addict. No one wants to drop out of school at sixteen. And no one wants to live in a world where one day flows into the next, where years of using go by so that you look thirty-five when you’re only twenty-one.
When C came, she developed a special affection for him immediately. Even though he was new to the house, she could tell that he had a deep faith and spirituality that not all of them have. His past offences were not that bad; he was in jail for stealing cars. He spoke of a future- of an education, a job, a family. Sister Karen was sure that in six months he’d be free and clear and on his way to a new life.
And then, just a little more than a week after his arrival, C had a relapse. When Sister Karen came home he was in her room waiting for her, completely stoned as he reached out for her cell phone. When she tried to resist he hit her over the head, beat her and strangled her, took her phone and ran. By the time the ambulance came, she was already dead.
Death is not supposed to come this way. But then, how is it supposed to come? Is it even possible to go through death without experiencing pain and fear?
We all hope to grow old, to die in a warm bed with our family and friends around us, with weeks to say goodbye. It should not come unexpectedly. But even then it still does. Even when you’ve been visiting the old lady every day in the hospital and she no longer even wakes up when you come in, she no longer knows who you are should she happen to open her eyes, and the doctors tell you that there’s nothing else they can do…Even then it comes as a shock. One way or another, every death is a violent one.
I have come close to death only a few times. When I was twenty I had a car accident. Times slowed to a standstill as my eyes wandered off the road and I heard my friend’s voice yelling at me to stop, as my foot slammed on the brakes and I slid toward the car that had stopped in front of me, as the airbags puffed out to meet us as we jolted toward the dashboard. And even as I hit the gas and managed to pull the car into a parking lot, it took me quite a while to understand that we had not been killed or even hurt, that we were both perfectly fine.
Three years after this I was driving through Bolivia on a trip with friends. At ever turn there was a cross to commemorate some unfortunate bus that had slipped off the road and fallen down the hill, killing all passengers on board. This is a normal part of life in the Andes. We passed the roadside accidents, the remains of a bus that just one week earlier had gone flying. Our own hadn’t.
A while after this, while living in Nicaragua I was robbed while walking down a deserted path to the NGO where I worked. The thieves came up to me from behind with a knife, demanding that I give them my bag, which I did. I ran forward, only to find two more hiding in the bushes. They grabbed my arms and started to pull me toward a nearby grove of trees. I screamed and ran. Later, by a miracle, all my things were returned to me; a neighbor heard my scream and found them dumped in a nearby field. Once again, I got lucky.
But how much longer will I have before my luck runs out?
My parents started bringing me to family wakes when I was about four. It seemed that there was always some elderly relative or another dying. I only remember men in those coffins. Never women, it seemed. By the age of four I understood some simple truths. I know that there was an all-powerful person called God who lived I the sky and had made the world. I knew that even though I couldn’t see him, he could see me, and he loved me very much. I knew that there was a place called heaven filled with angels, and that if I were good, I would go there someday. Without anyone telling me, I began to understand what these dead bodies were doing: they were awaiting passage to heaven. I came to believe that this strange ritual of our final goodbye was just a sign, that at night this motionless man would awaken like a toy from The Nutcracker, sit up in his coffin, yawn and take off flying for the higher realm. This was the only way I could imagine it being – that is, until my mother just had to lean over and whisper in my ear and ruin all of it.
“That man went to heaven,” my mother explained. I looked at her in confusion. How could he be in heaven if he were lying right there in front of us? At four years of age I had no concept of a division between body and soul. I was a true materialist; reality was only what I could see and touch; God was beyond the clouds, and if I were to fly in an airplane, maybe I would see him. But now, right in front of me, there was a challenge to my view of the world. How could this man have gone to heaven when he was lying right here in front of me? All of a sudden, I felt a strange fear that gripped my stomach, that later kept me awake at night. And all these years later, that fear is still with me, a virus that occasionally becomes dormant but never really goes away.
Fifteen years before she died, Sister Karen wrote a letter of forgiveness to her killer. The local newspaper printed the excerpt from her journal: Brother, I forgive you for what you have done and I will always watch over you, help you in whatever way I can. . . . Continue living always mindful of His Presence, His Love and His Joy as sources of life itself — then my life will have been worth being changed through you. All who read these words were simply amazed at this woman’s compassion and spiritual strength. Somehow she knew what was going to happen to her, and yet she continued in her chosen life, helping those whom society had rejected to find their own strength and dignity. But how did she do it? How did she get out of bed every day with the knowledge that maybe she wouldn’t be getting back into it at night? How could she eat breakfast every morning knowing that maybe this is the day, maybe this is the last chance to sip at her coffee and read the newspaper, to open the window and let the fresh air come in, to greet the young men as they filed in for their breakfast.
They said that she was a lively woman who just radiated joy and compassion, who over the years had guided hundreds of young men toward healing. Maybe this is the only way to live once you’ve received such a message. And the truth is that maybe all of us have received such a message. Of course we probably weren’t listening; no one wants to hear such news. Maybe are too preoccupied with building a new house or writing a PhD thesis; maybe we are just too frightened to hear. Because it’s hard to walk around smiling and speaking out against wars and telling people to leave “peace prints.” And it’s even harder to keep on believing that the dead really do rise up in the night, that they still will get their chance to fly.
© Jeannine Pitas April 2010
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