I went to her funeral because I wanted to say “thank you” for her teaching me something for which I’ll forever be grateful. I didn’t know her well; our paths had only crossed a handful of times. She was one of those special souls, however, with whom it didn’t take more than a brief encounter to connect. One look into her eyes and you could literally feel the warmth emanating from her heart to yours. There was a gentleness about her unmatched by any other person I’ve known.
To me, she was like a narrator in a play, stepping briefly into my story to explain something that it was crucial I didn’t miss. Much like the narrator’s lines pull together all the pieces of the story and provide clarity unable to be portrayed by the other characters, her role in my story was unique and one I am most thankful she played. Her name was Sister Elizabeth Anne, and she was one of only three nuns that formed the order of The Little Sisters of Saint Francis here in New Hampshire. Three powerhouse brides of Jesus that have touched countless hearts in our community.
Our lives intersected one afternoon when I had the great fortune to sit with her in a meeting of sorts. She knew I was the mother of the cute little three-year-old she often saw in church, our sweet Mary-Rose. She asked me how she was doing and, before I knew it, casual conversation turned into a life lesson. I can still picture perfectly the way she looked me right in the eyes, and, in her gentle and humble way, explained that Mary, having been born with Down Syndrome, was “incapable of sin,” I sat and listened to her explain that this little girl of ours has a heart unlike that of any other.
My eyes filled with tears as I tried to absorb her words. My heart wanted so much to understand, but, truth be told, there was a big part of me that wanted to inquire, “Dear Sister, have you checked your facts on this matter? Forgive me for questioning your divine providence, but I am quite certain that this little girl whom you claim is incapable of sin just this morning threw her cup and plate on the floor when she was done eating and then pulled several more strands of hair from my head as I bent over to clean up the mess she had made. Perhaps, sweet Sister, you are simply transfixed by her over-the-top cuteness and are failing to recognize the deep dark circles under my eyes due to my daughter’s sleep avoidance habits, or the extra white hairs gracing my head which could be a result of any number of things; the number of times I’ve caught her with her chubby little hands in the toilet, her uncanny ability to drop to the floor like a wet noodle whenever we have somewhere to go, or perhaps even the time two police officers arrived at our front door because ‘someone’ had called 911.”
While my mind was reliving some of my daughter’s more trying moments, my heart was truly pierced by the trusting eyes of Sister Elizabeth Anne. I knew, looking at the depth of love in those eyes, that I wouldn’t be able to offer any of my daughter’s offenses that would change her assurance of the sinless nature of this little gem we have been blessed with. I departed from her knowing I had just received a gift of knowledge, but not yet being able to make sense of it all.
The priest who spoke at Sister Elizabeth Anne’s funeral presented the question that he knew must have crossed the hearts of all those who loved her so dearly. “Why were our prayers for healing left unanswered?” His answer was unexpected and left me thanking Sister Elizabeth Anne once again for a lesson I will cling to. “I believe” he said, “she did receive healing, and I believe she gave it away. She emptied herself.” He went on to say that her fellow Sisters would report to him that each time they were at the hospital with Sister Elizabeth Anne, they would hear of a family getting good news or another patient receiving healing. He believes it was a result of Sister Elizabeth Anne emptying herself, sacrificing her own healing for the benefit of another.
When I look into the beautiful almond-shaped brown eyes of my daughter, I realize she deserves nothing less than an “empty” mother at the end of the day. This is no different than what our two sons deserve as well, than what each and every child that graces this earth deserves. However, any parent of a child with special needs understands there is, in a sense, a whole other level of “emptiness” sometimes required, when you’ve given all you think you can and find so much more is asked of you. If it takes every ounce of my patience to teach her not to put her hands in the toilet or every ounce of my strength to peel her off the floor when she has assumed wet-noodle-form, well then, that is what is asked of me and that is what she deserves. It is the intentions of her precious heart that are pure and I see that again and again when I catch her in that sweet and unassuming wide-eyed, open-mouthed gaze of hers that screams, “I’m innocent, just love me.”
I understand I’m not meant to look past her mischievous ways. I am here to teach her right from wrong and know she is more than capable of discerning between the two. What God asks of me is the understanding that, when she chooses the latter, her heart, her intentions remain pure and she is left unmarked by sin. What God asks of me is nothing less than what He offers me each and every day; an open, forgiving and understanding heart.
True to her Franciscan spirit, Sister Elizabeth Anne’s greetings often included the phrase, “Pax et bonum. Peace, and all good.” Thank you sweet Sister, for the lessons you have taught me, for helping me be at peace in the emptiness and for realizing it is in fact, all good.
Copyright 2015 Nicole Johnson
Photo copyright 2015 Nichole Johnson. All rights reserved.