Copyright © 2018 Patricia Ann Conte White | PACCAP
The loss of my sister, Maria, continues to be one of the most painful experiences of my life. She was my best friend, and I miss her beyond explanation. After her stroke, I prayed for a miracle – not just for myself, but so that my family, (especially my mother who had already lost 3 other daughters) would not have to endure life without her. My prayers were not answered. God did not grant the miracle, and my faith was greatly tested. I doubted the existence of God. I couldn’t feel Him. I felt utterly alone.
The night she died, I stayed by her side until she took her last breath. The details of the night I can recall as though I’m still sitting beside her – one of which is this: God gave me the strength to see her through this journey from earthly to eternal life. I know only His love gave me the strength to be there.
I know I’m not alone; we are all subject to loss and pain, but perhaps it’s an opportunity to strengthen our faith. If this story helps someone else to have faith, then I pray you encounter this message. It’s my story, and I’m happy to share it with everyone.
Blossoms of Faith
by Patricia White
Twenty-three days before her wedding, Betsy MacLean loses her sister to a stroke. The bride-to-be will not walk down the aisle until she’s restored her faith in God.
My wedding is in 23 days.
I raise my arms to permit the dressing attendant to lift the silken taffeta over my red locks that cascade and brush against the hook of my undergarment. My fingers escape the sleeve and breathe the air. My palms are wet with perspiration, and my heart races like a thoroughbred’s.
Wiggling and wriggling, I contort my waist, sucking in my tummy, twisting this and turning that.
“It fits!” I squeal.
Clasping my hands, I exhale both a sigh of relief and utter joy. The silhouette of my figure in the mirror -head on, left side, right side.
“I look like a bride,” I think.
My smile beams so that my nose crinkles. I bounce, leap and throw my arms about the neck of the seamstress squeezing her and pressing her into my gown of gleamy white.
In a thick Italian accent, the seamstress says, “It is a beautiful.” She wears a black dress, bulky brogans, and a measuring tape is strewn across her shoulders. I am entertained by her eye glasses that hang on a metal link chain, dangling and dancing with each bend, touch, and scrutinizing adjustment made to my dress.
What a relief. “I can’t wait for Arthur to see.”
No longer a widow, but a new family of four- my two children, Arthur and me!
I waited for her to open it.
“Hi Betsy,” she would say to me. The *basa of her ankle-length red jacket would swish as she strode through the door. I imagine her say, “Poor Betsy.”
But she is not there. No cup of tea or words of compassion or empathy for the plight of this full-time working mother of two.
The door stays shut.
“Touch my face, Maria,” I think. “I want to feel your hand on mine.”
I lift the jacket in an attempt to envelop myself in her scent. I can smell the earthy herbs from her garden – some catmint perhaps, with a touch of rosemary.
I sob myself to sleep.
*basa – a Japanese word meaning the sound of light fabric rubbing against itself.
The call came at midnight.
It was my mother.
In a thick Italian accent, she panicked, “Maria! Maria’s had a stroke.”
“What?” I was so confused.
Is this a dream?
My dear friend, Father Tom, called my cell on the way to the hospital.
I beg Father Tom, “Is God with me? I’ve been praying the whole way. How come I can’t hear Him?”
“Yes, He’s there,” he assures me.
I am losing my faith.
I stood in the queue and waited to pass through hospital security. I felt an unfamiliar strength as I headed towards the elevators and waited for one of the doors to open.
I couldn’t help but notice one girl who stood out in the elevator. She was wearing a pink sweatshirt and a red and white checkerboard skirt that looked as if it were stolen off a table from some Italian café. She was about thirteen with fair skin and soft hazel eyes, above which were barely discernible faint shadows that were once her brows. Similar to a Puritan’s, her simple ivory cap adorned her bald head, giving a glow of odd brightness in a grey elevator.
This girl had a stuffed dog wedged under one arm. She had scooped her hand and forearm under its chest so that the plush pup could view the world at three feet. It was the size of a small lap dog, a disproportionate beige lab with ears too big for its head. A folded piece of paper was wedged under its collar.
The elevator door opened. Arthur and I stepped out. I knew I was not alone, but I felt isolated and lonely.
We entered Maria’s room, and I spoke briefly with her husband.
I began to pray for a miracle.
I didn’t get one.
Twenty-six hours later, Maria lies on the hospital bed. Her shaven head had a ladder of staples holding her flesh together. Her skin color was a radiant desert sand beige, not the sickly pallor one might expect, particularly when the left side of her skull had been removed. A piece of tape was slapped on like an office Post-it reading, “NO SKULL.”
I hold Maria’s hand, her nails a scarlet red from the fresh manicure. So unlike her. The flower farm usually kept them rustic – encrusted with earth – and nature herself grew ferns and grasses and hollyhock and strawberries within the wrinkled rows of her skin.
I run my fingers over her the back of Maria’s hand, her knuckles, her fingers, and then I hold her soft, pretty hand.
A catastrophic coma. That’s what the doctor called it. “She has less than a one percent chance of recovery.”
Less than one percent?
Just say zero.
If her brain were a tree, the blood clot severed not a branch or stem or leaf, but the entire trunk.
Sway and swell. Such pretty words, diction to describe a lovely waltz while wearing a Lily Pulitzer – not my sister’s left and right brain.
I think of her at night mostly.
Maria is standing in her garden, inside the open fence. In her azure blue apron, she bends to her beans and pulls a green little gift full of promise and love, and she offers it to my daughter, who bites it with intention – intention to live and grow and breathe the air and cleave to her life.
My son enjoys a juicy strawberry. He bites into the sweet red fruit with the passion of a selfish child.
Lifting her arm, Maria beckons me to come; she invites me into her garden, but I stay at the gate. I dare not cross the threshold of here to there as my nose receives a waft of molecules from whatever is growing that I cannot name.
I do not want to go in. I choose not to go in because I am not ready –
I had a dream last night.
I’m standing on top of a wound that is a huge gaping tear of flesh with only the red fibrous muscle exposed. Under my feet lies the woven red basket of contracting and expanding fibers. Like Shawshank prisoners, the company around me strike with their scythe, sickle, pick, hoe, and awl. We search not for Andy’s rocks. No. We pillage and plunder – a hurricane of destruction further penetrating the canopy of a bloody, dermal forest.
Why did God take her from me?
After three days of utter despair and questions and CAT scans and frustration, we took Maria off life support at 6:30 p.m. The doctors said it could take minutes for her to pass. At first, we stood around her bed, holding her hands and touching her and talking to her.
She kept breathing, deep and strong from her abdomen and each exhale echoed as though death were not at all possible.
Two hours later, her breathing changed. Slowly, each breath seemed to take a moment longer (not a moment one would notice if not seeking to notice it). My brother and I chatted and kept her company and watched her breathe.
The moments in between the breaths grew obvious.
I know she meant well, but she felt like an intruder burglarizing my privacy. A minister came in to Maria’s room and asked me if I wanted to pray. It was around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. I let her say a prayer. I had other things to think about. She asked me where everyone had gone. I explained that I didn’t know why all of her visitors had left. Probably because some had a long ride home, one had patients in the morning, and some were just exhausted from being there for almost three days straight. My mother didn’t need to stay to watch yet another of her children die. My brother went home. It was getting late, and he needed to be near his own wife and young son.
Maria always made it easy for me. Whenever I got sick or when my babies were born or when a crisis emerged, Maria made climbing Mt. Everest barefoot feel like hopscotch.
Always. Not sometimes.
She would change my kids’ diapers, play pirates, bring them to her farm for the weekend where they would pick apples and make omelets and be nurtured by their most loving Auntie Maria.
When I was a child, she made me wash my hands and brush my teeth. She was the Tooth Fairy and the Sand Man. She also ate the cookies and drank the milk I had left for Santa, and I became suspicious when this group of childhood fantasy friends all appeared to have the same penmanship.
Before bed, I felt her breath on my cheek when she sang,
“Lullaby and goodnight.
Close your eyes now, and sleep tight.
Close your eyes, and start to yawn –
Pleasant dreams until the dawn.
When the sun, starts to rise.
You will wake feeling spry.
Start the day, with a smile.
Life is really worth while.”
If I rose up my pointing finger, indicating a plea to sing again, she would oblige until I drifted off to wherever children go when they slumber. The place of dancing bears and foil wrapped candy . . .
I told that minister that everything was exactly as it should be. Now it was my turn to do something for Maria. I would stay.
The minister left, and I felt happy.
I tried to turn on the TV, but the remote didn’t work, so I decided to try and rest.
Pulling up two chairs I made a makeshift bed. I placed a few of those hospital, one-side plastic, one-side cotton, barriers on my body to act as a blanket.
I turned this way and that way. I sat up. I held her hand. I caressed her face. I spoke to her.
I felt God telling me to tell her that it was time to go, so I stood up and whispered so in her ear.
But she did not go. She lingered for reasons I’ll never know.
I waited for angels or some ethereal out-of-body phantasm experience, but that did not happen either.
Her breathing moved from her diaphragm to her lungs.
I sort of feel asleep, my body but a foot from hers. She looked cozy and warm.
A technician barged in and told me I had to go into the hallway because he had to X-ray the patient next door. I waited outside. He took the image on a portable scanning device, and I returned to Maria.
I accepted this was happening. My sister was dying.
I sat back down in my makeshift bed and waited.
As I started to drift off, I noticed her breathing had moved from her lungs to her mouth. The breaths were shallow.
I fell asleep.
At 4:12 a.m. God woke me and told me it was time.
I roused quickly, almost tipping over the red amaryllis. The hearty bloom was stubborn and would not blossom for two years. But two days ago her husband had walked into the room with it, and it represented Maria. It sat by her bed boasting its vitality, giving us all hope . . .
Its natural beauty now sharply contrasted with the nauseating pattern of the plastic curtain that hid her corpse from the alley of doctors and nurses and charts and chatter and medicines and the minutiae of man.
I bent and put my face near hers. She never opened her eyes, but I know she saw me. There were tears in her eyes. Her soul was a part of mine for a moment. There was only peace.
I had given her all I could, and once again, she had made it easy.
Easy to be her sister; easy to be her friend.
I am much stronger than I ever knew I was.
The baby of seven is now the matriarch.
My mother has now lost her fourth daughter.
She had lost one to kidney failure, the second to a horse accident, the third to Lou Gehrig’s, and now a fourth to a stroke – a catastrophic one.
God is not just.
The nurse came in and told me Maria was dead.
Then the doctor made me leave so she could confirm death.
I had no choice. The doctor’s determination was stronger than mine. Besides, I knew she was only doing her job.
I had no purpose in remaining, but I didn’t know how to go about leaving.
Then Maria said, “Go. Go live,” so I turned around and did not look back.
We spent the next two days preparing her service. We arranged for food and music, and the reverend helped us make a program that people could follow during the service. It’s always nice to have something to look at that is socially acceptable during a funeral service.
Her remains were cremated and sealed in a pretty jar painted in a pattern of alternating large and small flowers in bright red and bold blue. The urn looked like china from my gift registry, not a tomb.
There were tissues and tears, songs and silence, weight and woe. My brother’s words touched me. He read eloquently from his prepared speech:
One of the last times I visited with my sister, Maria, was at her home in Milton.
Maria would always offer me something to eat. She would always have some special homemade breads, quiches, and pies. Maria made these tasty treats from her own special recipe. She would use many wholesome healthy ingredients, and blend them together just right. The only place on Earth you could find these particular special treats was in Maria’s kitchen – no where else. I would bring some home and everyone would enjoy them.
I believe that when God created my sister, Maria, He also had His own special recipe. God used all the best ingredients. He made Maria a beautiful woman with a selfless soul and a heart eager to help everyone she knew.
My mother has often told me that out of her seven children, Maria possessed the most angelic attributes. My mother would say that from the day she was born, there was never a problem from Maria.
Although Maria did not have children of her own, she was the mother hen of our
family. She always was concerned about everyone in our family, and her friends as well. She was always willing to do what she could to help and wished she could do more.
Maria was truly one of God’s special recipes.
We all now know how fortunate we were to have Maria in our lives.
There is no other place on Earth where another Maria can be found.
I know that somewhere in God’s kitchen, there is a mother hen named Maria.
She is watching over all of us, and she will have special sweets ready for us when we meet her again.
There is no God.
The following Sunday, I went to Mass out of habit. I brought the flowers from her service and placed them before the altar. I performed a perfunctory genuflect in case anyone was paying attention.
The organ droned. When they passed the collection basket, I normally put $20 in a pre-addressed parishioner envelope. Today, choosing to remain anonymous, I tossed in two singles.
I sat, I stood, I kneeled, I listened, and I took communion, but I didn’t pray.
He doesn’t listen anyway.
“You, O’ God, are my refuge,” said Father Someone.
“My eye,” I murmured.
“Merciful shepherd . . .”
I stood up and marched out.
I did not bless myself with holy water as I was leaving.
At some point the bridal store called.
“Hello, Betsy. This is Ms. Dianni from Bridal Journeys. I’m calling to inform you that your dress is ready. I see here your wedding is in 12 days, so please call me back to arrange an appointment for your final fitting and pick up. Congratulations on behalf of all of us at Bridal Journeys.”
I deleted the message.
How am I going to tell Arthur? I practiced saying what I want to say. “Arthur, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to marry you. Do you think I could go before an invisible God who tortures human beings?”
I can hear Arthur rationalize, “We can postpone. You need more time.”
Then I would argue. “Why should I love you and bring you into my children’s lives only to feel the pain of losing you? What is point of that? It is a big lie and a colossal joke! I am convinced in my soul there is no God!”
He would ask, “How can you say that?”
I would say, “Because it hurts.”
I forgot the plant. It’s funny how when you’re irrational, a plant takes priority over informing a fiancé of canceled nuptials. But it did.
A nurse on Maria’s floor told me the plant was probably brought to the recreation room.
The drive back to the hospital seemed longer now that she was not there. I was going back to get that amaryllis that stood perched precariously on her sink stand when she was alive. It was the imperfect friend who kept me company as I witnessed her death.
The recreation room was bright with soft yellow walls of summer pastel. Pictures and photographs hung like velvet drapes adorning the walls. This room, a museum of sorts, exhibits a collection that includes an oil on canvas with daisies and black-eyed Susans living side-by-side, a red crayon drawing of a child on a swing keeping company with a black dog, autographed by Charlie, age 7. My senses were in frenzy. There was some jazz; some Kermit Ruffins’ bayou blues was swinging in the background. There were potted plants and wooden chairs, the smell of acrylic paint and glue and papier-mâché crafts, like summer camp.
I felt dizzy, but I smiled to be in such a microcosm of life.
There she was again. The pretty girl with the ivory hat and pink sweat-shirt, only today, she was not wearing the tablecloth. Today she wore purple leggings and black ballet flats. She sat poised at a table – an easel erected in front of her. Upon it leaned a canvas of creativity.
She smiled at me, and I re-grew my smile for her. She saw me and peered around her canvas. “Do you need help?” she asked almost cheerily.
“I’m looking for a plant that belonged to my sister. They told me it’s probably in here.”
“The plants are along the windowsill,” her head nod indicating the area.
I retorted a sheepish, “Thanks.” She made me feel inadequate, insecure. I don’t know why. Maybe I just felt awkward. I assume she had cancer. Maybe that idea alone just made me feel plain uncomfortable. Sick grown-ups are one thing . . .
I saw Maria’s plant and scurried anxiously to retrieve it. The big, red bloom had wilted and withered and was no more. Now it was brown and shriveled and dead. That made me angry. I wanted to cut it – stem and all!
“Stupid plant.” I walked back towards the door.
She stopped me. “Do you want to see it?” She turned the easel to introduce her talent to me.
It was Gandhi. He was in a seated position wearing all white. He appeared to be floating off the canvas in a background of Della Robia blue. He looked relaxed and meditative.
“Today I’m going to finish it,” she declared.
“It’s really good,” I said, and it was. “It looks pretty done to me. What do you need to do to it?”
“I’m adding the words,” she said proudly.
“What’s your name?”
“Melissa. I saw you before. Are you a patient here?”
I explained “No, my sister had a stroke.”
“Is she gone?”asked Melissa.
“I’m sorry.” And she was.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Gandhi said, ‘There was never a prayer that God did not answer,’ or something very much like that. I liked what he said so much that I decided to paint it.”
I stared at her. “I used to have faith. But I don’t believe.”
Melissa peered into me. The hair on my neck stood up. With the confidence of wisdom she said, “I know.”
I changed the subject. “How do you keep yours?”
“You mean having Hodgkin’s lymphoma?”
Melissa reached for the stuffed dog and extracted the paper from its collar. It was a picture. Unfolding it, she passed it to me.
He was no older than my son. My throat tightened, and my chest grew heavy.
It was a child who had been a victim of bombing. His hands, his face, his arms, his legs were all intact. But the entire lower half of his back and his buttocks were gone. It was as though the devil himself bit down into the boy and thrashed him to and fro until his flesh and bones gave way – releasing him to escape the terror and be flung into the mercy of death.
My hands started to shake, and I folded and returned the indelible image. “How old are you?”
“Thirteen. The doctors told my mom there was ‘no further evidence of the disease,’ but it came back. I look at the picture because I’m not alone. He suffered more than me. Everyone’s going to die some time; I just know the hour.”
“I wish I were more like you,” I told her.
“Life’s a mystery. God loves us, and that’s the truth.”
“You are an angel, Melissa.” And then I said it. “God bless you.”
Melissa reached into her sweatshirt pocket and handed me a folded piece of paper. She said, “I wrote this when my cancer came back. Read it when you’re ready.” Then she smiled and turned back to Gandhi.
“God bless you.” Why did I say that?
I figured, “What does a kid know?” A brave, wise, smart, beautiful kid.
A creation of God.
A human being –
with a soul.
I wept silently the rest of the drive home.
I missed talking to my Best Friend.
I know she will not come back, yet I long to feel her touch my face.
My children enter the bedroom. From his own need to comprehend death, my son reminds me that Maria is not ever coming back. He reiterates that we can not see her or hear her or touch her. They cannot play pirates with her, and I have lost my dear friend.
How then how is it possible to get what I need?
In my heart’s anguish, I reach out and capture them. I seize their bodies, their warmth, their vitality.
Can this be? The supple firmness of their flesh had undergone a metamorphosis into the taut skin of my sister’s swollen cheek.
Maria is touching me through them.
I place my daughter’s hand to my cheek and mine to hers. I feel Maria and Maria feels me. Her soul touches me through my daughter and my son.
I know she feels my love.
That night I prayed.
My guests smile at me as I enter the church, beaming.
Arthur is crying.
Colors are brighter, and the air strengthens my being.
When the weight becomes too much to bear, God carries me down the aisle.
And on that piece of paper –
You Must Believe
The skies are so beautiful today.
The sun shines so lovely in the trees.
All is perfect and well.
The skies darken, and the wind kicks up.
The storm comes and destroys the trees, the houses.
It kills the people.
The skies clear.
Some trees have been knocked down,
But new ones will replace them.
And all will be well again.
We are all on loan – like library books.
God made the trees and the storm, too.
He made us in His image.
When we die, we simply go back home.
All is perfect and well again.
- Melissa Palm, Age 13