It was a sunny Friday morning in the Midwest Heartland. I was reading the newspaper's upcoming regional Christmas events when the phone rang. I looked at the clock. It was 9:20. I picked up the phone. It was my brother on Long Island, with bad news. Aunt Grace, a Sister of Saint Joseph, who had been suffering with liver cancer, wasn't expected to live through the weekend. In the course of our conversation, he assured me that the other Sisters in the convent were taking excellent care of her, making her as comfortable as possible, and she was taking pain killers. He said he would call if the situation changed.
After I hung up the phone, I returned to the newspaper, but couldn't get back into it. This was Aunt Grace's second bout with cancer. She had gone through breast cancer treatments, but this time she chose not to go through that ordeal. I pictured in my mind Aunt Grace when she worn her beautiful, flowing habit with the high white crown and veil. She looked almost regal to me. She was very accomplished. She had earned a PhD in Fine Arts. During childhood, my dad took me to visit her every now and then at the Brooklyn high school where she taught. But most of the time, she joined us at family gatherings in our grandparents' home in Queens. "Grace" was the perfect name for her because she was so gracious. When she entered a room, our eyes would turn to her, almost in awe. When my younger cousins got too noisy, she looked in on us, and they piped down instantly, even if she didn't say a word to them. She enjoyed playing table games with us and, as I recalled the fun we had, the sound of her laughter echoed in my ears. When my father died just before my high school graduation, Aunt Grace came to me, gave me emotional support, and offered her shoulder whenever I needed it.
Tears welled up a bit, and as I wiped them away, I asked God, in the Name of Christ, to be with Aunt Grace; and since I was so far away and couldn't be any real help, I asked God for something I remembered from Faith formation: the real possibility of pain transference. So I asked: should the pain killers not work, allow me to take the pain for Aunt Grace so she can have the dignity of a peaceful death. I was very sad, but I knew Aunt Grace was about to join God for Eternity, and the joy in this alleviated emotional distress.
I decided to throw in a load of laundry. I headed for the hamper in the bathroom, and as I passed through the doorway, I was suddenly hit with sharp pains in the back of my eyes and down my neck, and the sides of my head felt like they were in a vise that kept squeezing tighter and tighter. The pain was so sudden and intense, my stomach turned like a vicious maelstrom, my head began to throb like it was going to explode, and the daylight coming through the bathroom window intensified the wicked, stabbing pain in my eyes. This wasn't me, at all. I hardly got even mild headaches. I took aspirin and covered my eyes with my hands; but after 20 minutes, the throbbing pain didn't subside.
I reclined on the living room couch and placed a cold, wet kitchen towel across my eyes, hoping the pain would go away. After 30 minutes, there was no change. I felt I needed to rest. I covered the bedroom windows with dark blankets to block out the daylight. I tried to sleep, but the throbbing pain kept pulling me back out of even the lightest doze. I couldn't eat. The only thing I could hold down was water. I remained in bed. As the hours dragged on the rest of that day and night, and all Saturday and Sunday, every now and then I looked at the clock next to the phone on the table beside the bed. The last time I looked at the clock was around 11:40 Sunday night.
Monday morning, the phone rang. It woke me up, and I realized I had drifted into a sound sleep after the last time I looked at the clock. All the pain was gone. I felt great. It was as if the strange ordeal never happened. I answered the phone. It was my brother. Sadly, Aunt Grace passed away sometime late Sunday night, and he said he didn't understand something. He said, liver cancer is one of the most painful cancers and yet, starting sometime on Friday, Aunt Grace told the other Sisters she didn't need the pain killers, so she refused to take them, and she passed away peacefully.
Tina Irene Williams
From ©WilliamsScript, the author's private collection of writings.
Copyright © Tina Irene Williams 2014 All Rights Reserved
No part of this document may be reproduced without Tina Irene Williams' written consent.
Thank you Tina!
Aunt Grace was a favorite of mine. I remember her always wearing a smile. I have a picture of her riding on the back of my cousin's motorcycle. She is waving to us as she passes by. A beam of sunlight connects with her hand. The picture was taken before she got very sick and it fully captures her spirit.