By Sister Judith Ann Zielinski, OSF
Mary. I have counted her as a friend for 30-some years. She is part of a circle of people that came together in my high-school teaching days and just never bothered to dissolve. We share crazy, funny, long-standing experiences of birthday parties, scavenger hunts, and summer cottage excursions as well as milestones noted as we’ve negotiated the passage from young adulthood to middle age and beyond: marriages, divorces, retirements, and deaths; cross-country moves, buying and selling homes, job changes; cancer scares (including Mary’s own,) hospitalizations and surgeries. Mary was one of us—and without warning, her life shifted to a status none of us, especially Mary, ever saw coming.
Mary was a hoot. Sweet, somewhat shy and quick to giggle, she was always late to every party ever held. Not 30-minutes-late—usually two-hours-or-more-late. She could never explain why. Once, she arrived just as everyone else was collecting their coats and casserole pans to leave!
A high-school foreign language teacher, Mary worked for a while at the US Post Office when she left education and then retired from that too. She was single, lived in her own home with her beloved cat, adored Lucille Ball and could recall every episode of “I Love Lucy.” She served as the group’s “official memory” and could recall detailed trivia from every party– who hosted, who was there, who wasn’t, and even what people wore to the event!
Mary was one of the last living persons on earth to connect to the internet not via wireless service but on AOL via a phone line modem — a la 1990. (She resented paying for internet and cable—she watched TV via a roof antenna!) She was also an intrepid traveler who didn’t hesitate to sign up for excursions to India and China all by herself, saying “No problem. I’ll make friends on the tour”—which she did!
In 2016, about a week after one of our typical potluck parties, Mary suffered a massive stroke. Home alone, she collapsed on the kitchen floor and lay there for three days before a concerned friend went to check and found her.
Mary moved into a care facility and lived first in the rehab wing where she underwent intensive speech and physical therapy sessions. Eventually, she moved into an apartment in the residential wing with 24-hour nursing care. Her speech, though slower and somewhat slurred, is understandable, but her left side, including her leg and weakened arm, is limp and paralyzed. She cannot transfer to or from her wheelchair to her bed or the toilet. More than likely, with her home now sold, Mary will live here for the rest of her life.
I try to visit Mary when I get back to Toledo. We sit in her apartment and share news and laughs. Mary depends on her friends and family to help her get out; she attends family events, has come to some of our parties and even joined me for my 50th jubilee celebration last spring. But her life now—and in her senior years ahead—is not what she ever imagined.
Last Christmas a card from Mary arrived in the mail with my name and address hand-written on the envelope. It was a meditation in its own right: all the struggle, determination, and love that went into the usually simple act of writing a name and address moved me to tears. But so did the larger mystery of our human condition—the changes and challenges and curveballs that arrive to rock us from complacency and stability to a stepping-off-the-cliff-and-landing-somewhere new: waking up in a world where everything is alien and we must remember who we are, what we believe, and how we will live. Mary has had to negotiate that and continues to do so with grace and goodwill.
I look at her envelope from time to time to reflect on her journey, my journey, our journey, and all the mysteries surrounding us. I pray that I can continue to adapt and be transformed by the changes already occurring (and those yet to come) in my own life. Do I live in grace now? Do I believe that my journey in grace continues, whatever will happen? Can I remember that the One who loves me is holding me through everything? I hope so. Only then will I be able to write envelopes with such amazing grace in my own moment.