I didn’t like my sister very much, but I didn’t mean to kill her.
It happened this way. The garage of my Back Bay townhouse was too narrow for a passenger to get into my old Mercedes, so I told Nancy to stand in the driveway by the viburnum. She was at an angle I couldn’t see, but I trusted that she’d be where I told her to go. She wasn’t. I backed out faster than I’d intended, heard a dull thud, ran out of the car, and found her splayed on the ground with her skirt up over her knees, the back of her neck on a granite paving stone. She was dazed, said her head hurt, but there was no blood. Nevertheless, I was worried, so I insisted that we drive to Mass. General. By the time I guided her into the emergency room she was wobbly. The nurse took one look, whisked her off for tests, and left me standing alone in a sterile waiting room to fidget and fill out forms.
Hours later, the ER doctor found me in the hospital chapel, praying for her recovery. He said she’d had a massive brain hemorrhage and the prognosis was not good. She was dead by nightfall. It happened that fast. My prayers had evaporated into the air like ether. My first impulse was to call and tell her about the tragedy, but she was the center of it, and it was my fault.
Five days later, on a cold gray February Monday, her ashes were placed with those of our parents in the family mausoleum at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. The urn was slender and golden, just like her.
My uncle wanted to avoid tawdry family publicity about her death. Our family lawyer, who had dealt with all three of my Nancy’s divorces, handled the case with masterful efficiency. So it was an accident in the eyes of the law.
My internal judge rendered a different verdict. I spent days at home in solitary confinement, slept a lot. When I wasn’t sleeping, I watched Netflix, ordered Chinese take-out, and gained seven pounds, though it probably was water weight from all that Chinese food. Yet if I’m totally honest, the heaping bowls of ice cream I consumed couldn’t have helped, either.
I was AWOL from my volunteer commitments, as well. For years I had worked at Abundant Life, a center run by a religious order, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, for at-risk middle school girls. My specialty was expressive arts. I loved encouraging the kids to get their feelings out by painting, drawing, and collage. I was awed by their creativity. The staff knew, vaguely, what had happened, and said to return as soon as I was able.
Two weeks later the phone rang. The volunteer coordinator had cut me some slack, but now she came on strong. “I know this has been traumatic,” she said, “but if you don’t stop wallowing, you’ll work yourself into the psych unit at McLean. The girls have been asking for you. They miss you. We miss you. Please come back.”
So I did. Still, the memory of that thump ricocheted around my brain in an endless loop. Why did I back out of the garage so quickly? How many times, in the secret supplications of my heart, had I wished my sister out of existence? Was it really an accident?
Three months after the funeral I declared myself dead. Dead to the world, that is. A fundamental change was called for, so on June 1st I approached the Sisters of the Good Shepherd about joining their order. Over the years, I’d been to their spiritual days of recollection. I was attracted to their simple lifestyle and social outreach, felt nourished by their meditations, was drawn to the majesty of their liturgies, and loved their little chapel with its stained glass windows. What really tipped the scales, however, was a retreat I had attended with the theme of “metanoia,” a radical change of heart. I hoped becoming part of the Sisters’ community would metanoia me.
So I gave my suits to an organization that helps disadvantaged women job seekers, donated my Cezanne still life and Degas pastel to the Museum of Fine Arts, and mothballed my townhouse. My cousins, Unitarians all, said they would understand better if I were going to Kathmandu on a retreat with a Buddhist monk. I viewed it as what I hoped would be a natural transition in keeping with my volunteer work.
The Sisters of the Good Shepherd consisted of eleven women who lived in a rambling, drafty old house in Belmont, left to them in a generous bequest. Their mission at Abundant Life had come to rely increasingly on paid professional staff and volunteers like me, because, as was the case with so many religious orders, their average age was seventy-five. Thus, at forty-seven, I embodied youth and promise. When I walked into their sitting room for the first time, the sisters received me with cautious optimism. Would I continue to be interested, their studied looks suggested, when I realized that the community, although allegedly among the active, had slid toward the contemplative because of creaking joints and failing memories?
Immediately after I arrived, I was ushered into the office of Mother Agatha. She lifted herself out of her chair, came around her big mahogany desk, took my cold hands in her warm ones in a gesture of welcome. A plain silver cross was perched atop her ample bosom. She wore a simple black veil with a white band that circled her forehead and covered her ears, thereby emphasizing her strong black eyebrows, as black as her habit. The Mother Superior, for that was her title, was a mother in every way. I liked her. I felt safe with her—so safe that I found myself telling her about the trauma that led to my spiritual quest. By the time I got to the part about the emergency room, my voice had grown so soft that she had to ask me to repeat myself twice.
“The tragedy could have been avoided if my sister hadn’t insisted on going with me to return a suit she said made me look like a well fed admiral.”
Her left eyebrow arched ever so slightly.
“Though I’ll admit,” I hastened to add, “finding suitable attire is a challenge.” I paused for confirmation, or at least identification. I weighed in at a hundred and seventy-five pounds, and Mother Agatha probably topped me by twenty. “And my sister, who was five feet two, had exquisite taste. Even so, I present well, that’s what Mother used to say.” I straightened my shoulders. “‘Your sister’s the beauty,’ she said, ‘but you present well, if only you’d improve your posture. You don’t walk. You lurk.’”
Twenty-eight years later, her words still stung, and Nancy still was a beauty. I had a higher IQ, but life isn’t a college aptitude test, and in that sphere, she outshone me every time. She would have looked elegant in a burlap sack. She used her looks to get what she wanted, and I wanted to get what her looks produced. At least I used to, although when I think about how she ping-ponged from one man to another, she couldn’t have been happy, either.
Mother Agatha leaned back in her swivel chair, rested one arm across her generous waist, and covered her mouth with her hand. The chair squeaked whenever she moved. I wasn’t used to being listened to. The experience was unnerving.
“After that remark,” I said, “my shoulders slumped even more, but I could see her point. It was around the time Daddy started an affair with one of his operating room nurses.” Maybe this was over-sharing, but I babbled on. “He’d always been my shining star; distant, but enchanting. And I was his good girl. When his light was on me, which wasn’t often, I glowed. I understand now. He had a typical mid-life crisis. But what did I know of men? I was a sophomore in college. I coped by eating pints of ice cream and plunging deeper into my studies, although to tell the truth, I was depressed. I fell asleep whenever I opened a book. It’s a wonder I emerged with a 3.9 average and a prize from the art history department. I was so self-absorbed, it never occurred to me that Nancy, home where Mother’s agita was on full display, might be suffering, too. By the time Daddy came to his senses, the damage was done.”
“And what damage was that?”
I surveyed the room– a prie-dieu for private prayer, bookcase to my left, framed reproduction of Raphael’s Madonna and Child to my right, big wooden cross on the wall, and a threadbare oriental rug beneath my feet. The rug was a Heriz with tattered fringe in blue and red geometric shapes. If they sent it to Gregorian’s, it could have been restored to its former glory.
“Trust” I said. “I was afraid to trust.”
“You walked through this door,” she said. “That, in itself, is an act of trust. Trust in God, trust in us. You’ve been on retreats here. You’ve met the sisters. You know our mission. You’ve been part of it for years. We’re like a large family, just an average bunch of women who are trying to be faithful by caring for each other and the world around us, praying for God’s guidance as we grope our way forward. That’s the way it works.”
Now she was smiling—a gentle smile that enfolded me.
“Saint Benedict said, ‘Never lose hope in God’s mercy.’ Perhaps,” she said, “as you deepen your life of prayer, the burdens you carry will be lifted from those shoulders.”
I nodded assent, even though I didn’t really understand what she was saying. But she gave me hope. I grabbed onto it like a patient being offered an experimental cure for an intractable illness.
Mother Agatha said that a momentous decision like the one I was contemplating should not be made on the spur of the moment. She recommended that I live with them for six months to “test my vocation,” and explained that I would be entering into a period of discernment involving choices on my part and on the part of the whole community. I was eager to get on with it, but Mother counseled caution. Since eventually I would take vows of poverty (left unclear; should I put my possessions in a revocable trust for cousins I hardly knew?), celibacy (which hadn’t been a problem for years), and obedience (probably the greatest obstacle), I had to live with her conditions.
She pulled a sheet of paper from her desk drawer, wrote down a passage of Scripture, and handed it to me. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us . . . 1 John 1:8-9a.”
“Pray over this,” she said, “before you go to bed and when you get up. And now, Sister Monica will show you to your room and help you get settled. She took her final vows last October, so unlike most of us, she’s relatively new.”
Mother Agatha pushed a button on the edge of the desk and Sister Monica appeared. She couldn’t have been over five feet two in sensible shoes. She had fair skin with just a hint of freckles scattered below her green cat’s eyes. She looked like a doll playing nun. She might have been younger than I, an anomaly in that place. She walked briskly down a long corridor with heavy brown doors on either side and names in little brass holders. Mine was at the end.
The room was smaller than the closet in my townhouse. It had a twin bed, a nightstand with lamp, a desk, a chair, a washstand, and a narrow wardrobe. All had dents and scrapes suggesting years of use. The contrast with my townhouse was an affirmation of my intentions. I liked it.
The Order followed what’s known as the Benedictine rule: work, pray, and study. I, who previously had relied on a retinue of cleaning ladies, threw myself into the work part. I still went to Abundant Life on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. In addition, however, on the principle that no task, however menial, is insignificant in the sight of God, I gave the toilets, which previously had been cleaned weekly by Sister Charity, daily attention. I scrubbed the copper kitchen pots until they shone. Sister Monica said they hadn’t been that clean in years, though after two weeks of earnest scouring, she put her hand on my arm and said, “The pots are beautiful, but kitchen duty is not a competition. Remember the counsel of St. Benedict: ‘all things in moderation.’”
I entered morning, noon, evening, and night prayers with enthusiasm. I especially liked the part about “Cleansing the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit…”, although it was much easier to clean the pots. Halfway through the recitation of the Psalms, my attention would drift to a spray of yellow silk carnations in a slender brass vase on a table near the altar. That darned vase was like a magnet. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. All I could think of was Nancy in that cold mausoleum.
Even at age forty, my sister could blink her long, dark eyelashes at a guy and he’d invite her to his weekend hideaway in Anguilla before they’d finished their second martini. If she’d offered lessons, I would have been the first one to sign up. The eyelash flutters worked through three divorces and multiple boyfriends, whereas I rarely made it out of the starting gate. I never mastered the art of amiable banter. I may have minored in English at Radcliffe, but in social settings with the opposite sex my vocabulary devolved into that of a seven-year old who’d just been outfitted with braces. A fellow would size me up and flee before his second cup of coffee. The one time I did take a risk, I ended up collateral damage.
Envy is a besetting sin. It causes all kinds of grief. And I envied Nancy. Strange thing, though. She once told me she envied me. She’d called me from Boca Raton, where she was visiting friends. She was good that way. And I’d started to cry, something I rarely, if ever, did. “What’s wrong, hon?” she said.
“You have so much fun, and I’m stuck in Boston in sub-zero temperatures, slogging through snow drifts that come up to my knees.”
“I invited you here, but you said you couldn’t leave your ‘girls.’ They could do without you for a couple weeks. Get on Jet Blue, come on down. Live a little.”
“I can’t. They’re finishing up an exhibition of their artwork. It’s a big deal for them. The Mayor’s coming, and afterwards, the MFA is presenting all the participants with a life-time membership in the Museum.”
She was silent. “I tease you about your volunteer work,” she said, “but you know what? It means something. Sometimes I think you’ve got the better idea.”
I felt a nudge at my elbow. Sister Monica, who stood to my right, was tugging my arm. I had lost my place during the Canticle of Mary. While the sisters were singing about “casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly,” I was wool-gathering. It wasn’t the first time, but why did Sister Monica have to be the one to call me on it? Was she little miss perfect?
At first, I fell into bed so tired at the end of a day that I didn’t even need to plod down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It didn’t take long, however, before I started dreaming. It was the same dream, stuck on replay. I wouldn’t call it a nightmare, but it was unsettling. I was huddled in a black parka on a cold granite bench in the mausoleum. Dust motes wafted in shafts of light filtered through dirty stained glass windows. I wanted to clean them but they were too high for me to reach. I would wake up cold, thirsty, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
In my next conference with Mother Agatha, when she asked me how I was adjusting to community life, I didn’t know how to answer.
“You’ve embraced the work part of our rule with enthusiasm,” she said. “You’re spending extra hours at Abundant Life. However, is it possible,” she said, “that you’ve been so busy that you haven’t made time to hear God’s still, small voice? You know, if we stop listening to what we find hard, we may pass God by without noticing.”
I stared into the empty silence at the Raphael. The chubby Jesus child with soft curls reached right out of the painting.
“I don’t know how to do this,” I said.
“Stop thinking about what I did.”
“I like to read about the lives of saints,” she said. “Not in heaven. I prefer the gritty stories of how they clawed their way out of whatever caused them to stumble, toward God’s great heart. When we’re asked to give our whole selves to God, that includes the messes. All of us need help. We can’t do it alone.”
Next Saturday I decided to give the chapel a good cleaning. Between morning and mid-day prayer, I gathered some equipment from a hall closet and tackled dust bunnies that had accumulated in the corners. I used a stepstool to reach the windows, wiped each one with glass cleaner until the place reeked with ammonia. I dusted all the niches of the choir stalls. I polished the brass vase until it sparkled.
Sister Monica walked in as I finished.
“You’ve cleaned the silk flowers,” she said. “They’ve needed a good dusting for a long time, but we never got around to it. Thank you.”
I felt like a kid who’d been discovered fingering her sister’s favorite sweater. I muttered a quick “You’re welcome”—I couldn’t get caught being ungracious—swooped up the cleaning implements, and left.
After that, sleep was fitful. I talked to Nancy in my dream. The golden urn morphed into a spray of yellow carnations. “You called me ‘Miss Responsibility,’” I said to the carnations, who had little faces like Nancy’s. “Maybe I was, and where did it get me? Before, that is, what I did to you, but of the seven deadly sins, you racked up at least four. And what you did to me was wrong. You know it.” For a change, she didn’t talk back.
When Sister Monica saw me in the hallway, she noted circles under my eyes. Nancy would have taken me to Saks and insisted I buy an array of total repair eye gels. All Sister Monica said was “Are you all right?” Perhaps she meant well, but she was getting under my skin.
Halfway through my probationary period in early September, during my weekly conference with Mother Agatha she said, “The Benedictine Rule is about a balanced life. You’re going to wear yourself out, and for what? Do you think you can cleanse your soul by scouring the pots? It doesn’t work that way. Never lose hope in God’s mercy, my daughter. God accepts you as you are. Can you accept yourself?”
She said I was in danger of scrupulosity.
My eyes reddened.
She handed me a tissue.
I slunk out of her office. I didn’t know what that meant, so I went to the library across from the chapel and looked it up in the OED. Scrupulosity: being “meticulously concerned with matters of morality and propriety.” I was disheartened.
How to cope with my guilt? I tried harder.
Every evening I visited Sister Teresa, who was sweetly sliding into dementia. I brought her hot chocolate and sugar cookies from the kitchen cupboard. That made her smile. Instead of arising at the customary hour of 6 a.m., I set my alarm for 5:00 so I could spend extra time in prayer and Bible study. If you read a chapter a day, I was told, you could complete the whole book in a year. Since my probationary period was six months, I revised my schedule upwards—three chapters a day. Leviticus and Numbers were tedious, but like the ancient Israelites wandering through the Sinai, I soldiered on.
My grievances against Sister Monica were adding up. I resented her oh, so gentle nudges in chapel. She was so quiet when she walked down the hall that you didn’t know she was there until she was on top of you. No matter how modest the proportions we were served at meals, she put her hand up to indicate that she wanted less, whereas I, who needed calories to support my substantial frame, was ravenous at every sitting.
The next day after evening prayer as I headed down the hallway toward the kitchen to pick up Sister Teresa’s snacks, I turned around and saw Sister Monica.
“Are you following me?” I said.
“I was just on my way to the library to return a book.”
I didn’t believe her.
She came close to me, invading my personal space, and said, “Have I offended you in some way? I’m just trying to help you adapt to community life. I had trouble adjusting at first. It isn’t easy.”
“Are you saying I don’t fit in?”
Her translucent skin turned pink, the freckles stood out. “Not at all. Please don’t misunderstand. If I’ve disturbed you in some way, I’m truly sorry.”
Next morning I woke up with red welts all over my arms. Hives. Mother Agatha said I should listen to what my body was telling me. She sent me to the doctor, who said my itchy skin was an allergic reaction to the cleaning products.
Then it all came to a sudden halt. Toward the end of the fourth month, during my weekly conference with Mother Agatha, she sat behind her desk, hands folded on a faded green blotter. My eyes were fixed on the golden headscarf covering the Madonna.
“Whenever you’re here, you stare at the Raphael. Do you like it?”
“I’ve always loved art. My family were patrons of the MFA.”
“Love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably linked, you know. The volunteer coordinator says that the girls adore you. And Sister Teresa says you make her laugh. That’s a rare quality we all treasure.”
Then, in a gentle but firm voice she told me that, although I may have thought God was calling me to join their order, I had more interior work to do. My time with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd was a way-station in a deeper quest. She said we should pray about it and talk again the next day.
Mother Agatha may have meant to be supportive, but I was devastated. I had renounced all (well, if I was honest, not all yet, but I did put my life, such as it was, on hold), and still, I was being rejected.
I went to the kitchen, intending to get hot chocolate for Sister Teresa, but instead, I poured a steaming mug for myself, snuck into the chapel, and slunk into a choir stall near the altar. I bent my shoulders in an attitude of prayer, but like a Chickadee skittering from branch to branch, my mind would not settle. I fingered a Rosary in my pocket, gazed at the large wooden Crucifix suspended from the ceiling behind the altar. Nothing worked. I had come to the Sisters to “test my vocation,” and I had failed. I couldn’t even pray.
Then all of a sudden, a force mightier than the wind overtook me.
“You stole the one real boyfriend I ever hoped to have,” I hissed. “How could you? You were only twenty-three. I was reaching my sell-by date. You went after him, seduced him while I watched. It was pathetic. He succumbed to your charms just like they all did. Then six months after you got him into your bed, you tossed him aside like a used Kleenex. You never apologized. All you said was, he wasn’t right for me in the first place. Do you remember? Of course you don’t. You’re dead.”
I threw my mug of hot chocolate at the yellow carnations and. collapsed on the cold stone floor.
I was the last kid to get picked in softball games at Windsor, but my throwing arm must have been better than I thought, because drops of the brown liquid hit the wall, splattered across the floor, dripped down the carnations onto the table beneath.
I didn’t recognize myself. I certainly wasn’t presenting well.
Then I felt someone cradling me in her arms.
“If we’d talked, really talked, could we have been friends?” I said.
She shushed me as if I were an infant.
“Why don’t we start by getting you back to your room? I’ll tell Mother Agatha that you’re indisposed. Don’t worry about the mess. I’ll clean it up before Compline.” She rubbed my back. “We don’t want you getting another rash.”
The fierce wind had subsided.
When I saw Mother Agatha the next morning she said, “Sometimes God speaks to us with a still, small voice.” She peered over her desk. “Sometimes, with the rush of a mighty wind. A sign of maturity is our ability to confront what we need to face. Now, if you wish, we’re ready to get down to work.”
We are still in discernment, but with a fresh perspective.
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. I see why it is so corrosive. It blinds you to the humanity of others, even to yourself. Nancy wasn’t a very nice person, but she, too, carried wounds. And in her own, strange way, she loved me. I had let her define me for too many years. It was time to give it up.
I told you I was dead. In a sense, that remains true. Like a scar that has faded but still pulls at the seam, I was responsible for my Nancy’s death. The accident, and I have come to accept that it really was an accident, was fraught with accretions of resentment. Acknowledging my anger, in Mother Agatha’s words, “by the grace of God,” has lightened the weight of it just enough. My shoulders no longer slump.