Facing Terminal Illness with Mercy, Part I
January 9, 2015
By Catherine Walsh, Northeast Communications Specialist
This is the first in a series of profiles of sisters living with serious illness. Read the entire series.
Sister Patricia F. was sent home from the hospital to die in early August. She had metastatic ovarian cancer compounded by bowel and stomach blockages and opted for hospice over chemotherapy and other invasive treatments. The local funeral director and three priests came to see her to help her prepare for her final journey.
But then something happened. Sister Pat had no sooner made peace with her illness and surrendered to the God with whom she has walked in Mercy for 63 years, when she began to feel better.
(Blog continues below)
Four weeks after she left the hospital, Sister Pat walked into her surgeon’s office for a follow-up appointment and watched him do a double-take. “He kept saying, ‘Look at you! Look at you! What’s happening with you?’” recalls Sister Pat with a laugh. “He said, ‘Even though I was born and brought up Catholic, I’m not a very good one at this point. But this looks to me like this could be divine intervention.’”
Sister Pat’s first reaction to her newfound wellness was to celebrate her 80th birthday with friends at two elegant luncheons and a three-day trip to Ogunquit, Maine. So what if she had to eat pureed food at first and depend on others for her care? “When I first came home from the hospital, I thought it was my responsibility to prepare to die, and that’s what I did for about three weeks,” she muses. “Then when I realized that death wasn’t imminent, I decided to engage myself in living.”
Her doctor’s new instruction to her—“Keep doing whatever it is you’re doing!” —was one she took to heart. When friends offered to treat her and Sister Chris, her roommate and friend, to a trip to Bruges, Belgium, in October, she accepted and had a wonderful time. Since then, she’s tried to do one new, out-of-the-ordinary activity a month, including going to plays in Boston, Massachusetts, and New York City, New York, and going on a retreat at Mercy Center in Madison, Connecticut.
Sister Chris, who is 20 years younger than Sister Pat, credits Sister Pat for helping her to become a Sister of Mercy and making her “a better Sister of Mercy” over the years. Sister Pat’s faith-filled response to her illness inspires her. “You wonder when you get really sick, will your faith be able to carry you through? Will it really be there for you?” asks Sister Chris. “It has been such a privilege to see how Pat’s faith continues to carry her every day.”
Although Sister Pat doesn’t know how long her wellness will last, she says that being immersed in Mercy helps her prepare for death while living as fully as possible. “I feel very blessed that I didn’t die when I went into the hospital,” says Sister Pat. “To not to have known that I was coming close to the end of my life would have been a great privation.” After a lifetime of being Mercy for others, Sister Pat says receiving it from friends and caregivers “is humbling and powerful.” She adds, “I think Mercy is a two-way street. My circumstances right now give me the impetus to allow other people to be merciful to me.”
This receiving and giving of Mercy takes concrete form in the 849 cards (and counting!) that cover the walls of Sister Chris’s dining room—a room that has been turned into Sister Pat’s bedroom—in a great “wall of love,” as a social worker called it. “Probably 75 percent of these cards are from Sisters of Mercy,” says Sister Pat. “I am overwhelmed by the many people that are praying for me. Overwhelmed!”
The cards’ handwritten notes tell her what a gift she has been to those who love her and how she was there for them during difficult times in their lives. “People are saying things in these cards that we don’t usually hear about ourselves, things that they would say at your wake or funeral,” reflects Sister Pat. “It’s very powerful to me that people are free enough to tell me why I matter in their lives.” The “circle of Mercy” that has enveloped her since her illness began enables her to live with uncertainty, she says.
In what now seems preordained to her, she participated in a retreat in California last spring whose theme was “praying lucidly, living lucidly, dying lucidly.” More recently, a friend encouraged her to decide who she wanted to help her “cross over” when the time comes. Sister Pat chose her father and Jesus. “They are the ‘midwives’ who will bring me to a safe birth into eternity,” she says with a soft smile. “What I’ll be crossing over to is a bigger, deeper, stronger life. I feel very confident in that.”