We never kept score, but we strictly adhered to the rules. We’d begin by flipping a tile to see who would go first. The board swiveled, so we used the motion as a way to signal the next person’s turn. Questionable words had to be checked in the large-print dictionary. Once, she tried to play “Pax,” and we had to discuss whether or not Latin words were acceptable.
At that point, Sister Norma got back on the phone. “Maryann, she can hear you. I can tell she’s focusing.”
I talked about our Scrabble games and the photo albums she had shown me. I talked about all she’d taught me about Marie of the Incarnation, to trust in God’s time and His plan. I told her I would continue to knock on doors, as she’d told me, until the right one opens.
Sister Norma got back on the phone. “She heard you. She has tears in the corners of her eyes.”
“Sister Julia is awake and would love to talk with you!”
She put her on the phone, and even though her breathing treatments made it difficult for me to understand her, I heard her say, “Hi, Maryann!” Not knowing what else to say, I wished her a good day, and we said goodbye to each other.
She passed away at 2:30 that afternoon.
I wrote an ekphrastic poem based on one of his prints, Working Horses. As I read in her brother’s notes, the silk screen print had faded because of poor-quality paint. When Sister Julia had her copy framed, the worker gazed into the blurred face of the man and said, “He could be anyone.” The blank spaces on the paper left room for mystery.
I also told Sister Julia how I had been teaching my students to write poetry. As a class, we’d written renga (or “collaborative”) poetry based on an image of a forested path, with each student contributing one line.
“Will you teach me how to write poetry?” she asked, and when I looked up at her, she added, “I’m serious! No one’s ever taught me.”
I never did get to teach her how to write poetry, but when I was asked to write a poem for her memorial service, I wanted it to be a collaborative. We’d write it together.
I sifted through the transcript of the interview I’d conducted with her this past summer, searching for poetry. With each verse that I wrote, I wove in her words. I chose the phrase “One day out of the blue sky,” for the title. She’d used it in reference to her deliberation about which community to join, the Ursuline Sisters in Youngstown or the Saint Joseph Sisters in Cleveland. After personal reflection and insight from her friends, though, she felt at peace with her decision.
I asked not to have my name on the poem when it was included in the memorial video. I was only one among many voices.
I prayed about it before bed each night, and I’d wake up during the moonlit hours with the question on my mind. I laid in bed reading my Bible or writing in my journal. I listened to “Litany of the Saints” and cried.
“It would be great to have you here with us, but you know Sister Julia would be the first to tell you that you have work to do,” Mary, the health care aide at the Motherhouse, reminded me over the phone. Sister Julia was proud of me for being in graduate school and teaching, as she had been a teacher, too.
I also wrote a message to Sister Therese Ann about my dilemma. “You can be with us in spirit,” she wrote back. “Julia knows you are torn…and she will be with you as well.” The words settled on my heart as gently as Sister Julia’s hand against my forehead each time she blessed me before my journeys home.
I understood: if I was seeking Sister Julia’s memorial, all I had to do was look around me. Her spirit was in my friends here in West Virginia who supported me, offering me encouraging words and hugs that kept me from falling apart. Her spirit was in my friends in the MFA program who helped me compose her memorial poem and this reflection. Her spirit was in the phone calls and messages I received from the sisters and other members of the Ursuline community, and the friends who supported me from back home, whose love I felt here, present with me. Her spirit was in the smiles of the kids who came to our Trunk or Treat table on Halloween and in my students that I would teach on Thursday. Her spirit was here with me. This was her memorial.
I remembered the time I gave communion to the sisters in health care, carrying the host dish up the stairs to the balcony. “The body of Christ,” I said, placing the host in Sister Julia’s cupped hands, and she whispered, “Amen.”