MY CONVERSION STORY

I’m a daily Mass Catholic. I guess it’s a habit I picked up in the five months leading up to my birth. Actually, it was a requirement of all the girls at Our Lady of Victory home for unwed mothers, and I went along for the ride. It would be thirty years before I took up the habit of my own free will.

My parents promised to raise me Catholic, and they dutifully took me to church every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. I have a distinct memory of sitting on a hard wooden pew, gazing with wonder at the huge crucifix, with Latin ringing in my ears. (My mom says I must have been two at the time, because shortly after that, the Mass changed over to English). I remember my First Communion, and the hazy, peaceful after-glow. I didn’t want that day to ever end.

Then, Bobby Kennedy’s death closed a door in my soul.

I was spending a week with my grandparents, and their couch served as my temporary bed. Lying in the dark, under the light of the flickering television screen, the image of his family touched my ten year old heart. So many children! I prayed myself to sleep.

“Please let him live. Those kids need their Daddy. Please let him live.” I prayed earnestly and insistently until a fitful sleep carried me away.

As soon as my eyes opened the next morning, I asked my grandmother what happened.

“He died, honey.”

I could only conclude that prayer didn’t work. It never even occurred to me to ask anyone about it. I guess I’ve always drawn my own conclusions.

There was a brief time in my teen years when I felt a strong attraction to the Virgin Mary. I fell in love with a necklace, a miraculous medal embedded in a ceramic heart, and my parents gave it to me on my birthday. I’ve never cared that much for jewelry, or possessions in general, but I treasured that necklace. I lost it one night, making out with some boy in the park. I knew for sure that it wasn’t an accident. Obviously, if I was going to act like that, she wasn’t going to hang around with me.

As my senior year of high school roared to a close, I distinctly heard a call to my vocation. I started thinking, “I have to BE something. What will I BE?” A still, small voice said, “Be a nurse.” I thought, “I could never be a nurse, but maybe I could be…” fill in the blank. I researched every non-nursing health care field, but none of them struck my fancy. The whole time, I kept hearing that call, “Be a nurse.”

I wasn’t praying for direction, and if I had any faith at the time it was buried deep. But I applied to nursing school, promptly receiving acceptance, despite the fact that my grades were in the crapper. Never once did I consider that God was guiding my life!

I prayed, in spite of myself, during each of my pregnancies. And as a nurse, I always prayed during a medical crisis. When things went well, I thought, “That was lucky.”

My belief system was a fairly tangled, mixed bag, consisting mostly of what I didn’t believe. I couldn’t see the point of going to church every Sunday. My poor husband didn’t know what to do with me. Every weekend became a struggle; sometimes I won, and sometimes he did. Over time, he got tired of the fight and pretty much gave up. At one point, we only went to church during weekend visits with his parents. They were front row, daily Mass Catholics, so we pretended that we were also regular church goers.

That is, until we got busted by our two year old. Leaving church one Sunday morning, he looked up at a larger than life statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus. In a voice that echoed through the nearly empty space, he said, “Why is that lady holding a monkey?”  My in-laws gasped in horror. If you are pretending to be a devout Catholic and your child doesn’t recognize baby Jesus or mother Mary, the jig is up.

Lacking a belief system caused me mild dis-ease during my twenties, but it rolled into a full-blown crisis as I approached thirty, which for some reason was a huge milestone for me. I fretted about it for months. The morning of my birthday I called my mother. “I can’t believe I’m thirty years old!”  I wailed.

She said, “But you’re only twenty nine!”

I guess my anxiety made me jump ahead a year. Momentarily delighted, it seemed like I’d gotten a bonus year, and I planned to make the most of it. During those twelve months, I questioned everything.

PART II

During the first months of my thirtieth year, I came to the conclusion that the kind of work I did seemed to affect the kind of person I was becoming.

For years I’d worked as a part-time nursing supervisor, which suited me because I didn’t like direct patient contact. There was a nurse, Dodie, who worked in the Intensive Care Unit. I used to watch her and marvel at her gentleness and compassion, qualities that were totally foreign to me. My goal, every shift, was to avoid touching an actual patient.  It got worse and worse over the years, until one night I suffered a total melt-down.

It started with a phone call from the Emergency Department. “We need some help. There’s a man down her hemorrhaging from his umbilicus.”

“What?”

“He’s bleeding from his belly button.”

“I know what an umbilicus is, but why is he bleeding from it?”

“Don’t know.  He’s a long-term alcoholic, so he’s liable to bleed from anywhere. Are you coming or not?”

When I met the patient in question, I understood immediately why the nurses wanted me to take over his care. This man was blind drunk and looked like he’d been that way for quite some time. His name, according to his driver’s license, was Toad. (What kind of a mother would look at a baby and say, “Let’s name him Toad”? With a name like that, what else could you be but a drunk?) Intermittently, he fought to free himself from the restraints that kept him secure on the stretcher. The ER doctor wanted him transferred to the veteran’s hospital over a hundred miles away, which sounded like an excellent idea.

But there was a hitch. The ambulance guys would only transport Toad if a registered nurse accompanied them, which was a tall order at 2 a.m. I made a few phone calls, waking up nurses and begging them to take a joy ride on their night off. Then I heard a commotion coming from Toad’s room. He’d gotten loose from the stretcher, pulled out his IV and removed the pressure dressing from his belly button. I found him rummaging through his pants pockets, spurting blood everywhere, and ranting about needing his money.

Did I mention that I was nine months pregnant with my fourth child? Despite my condition, somehow I managed to wrestle him back on the stretcher, apply another pressure bandage and re-start his I.V. Then it was back to the phones for me.

This routine repeated at least three times, leaving me completely exhausted, with blood on my shoes and a burning rage towards Toad. Finally, with everything in place, the paramedics loaded him up and headed toward the ambulance.

“Wait a minute!” the patient cried, when he finally realized our plan.  “You can put on that paper, ‘Toad ain’t a-going.’”

That’s when I had my meltdown. I marched up to Toad, and screamed, “Look at me!”  (I’m ashamed to admit that I actually shook my pregnant belly in his face.) “I’ve worked for hours to get you this ride, and you’re going.”

Poor Toad looked terrified. “O.K., O.K., O.K.!” he said, and they rolled him out the door.

The Emergency Department crew gave me a standing ovation. I slipped into the stairwell, sat down on the steps and cried. I had screamed at a patient! If that’s the kind of nurse I’d become, then I couldn’t be a nurse anymore.

I quit my job and became a full time mom in search of the truth. It seemed to me that you should have some things figured out by age thirty. Thirty meant you were grown up. Grown ups know for sure what they believe.

PART III

During my search for the Truth, I didn’t believe in much, but I did believe in the public library. I planned to spend my bonus year systematically studying every world religion, and converting to the one that most closely matched my personal version of The Truth. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find one. I knew I didn’t want to be Catholic anymore, but nothing else really attracted me.

The year rolled to a close. My thirtieth birthday came and went with no progress toward a belief system I could own. “O.K.”, I thought. “I guess I’m doomed to Catholicism.”  The trouble was my inability to go along with 90% of the Church’s teachings. I settled into cafeteria Catholicism, picking and choosing what I would believe and just ignoring the rest.

Then I ran across the craziest story in the newspaper. A prayer group in Lubbock, Texas announced that they’d been receiving messages from the Virgin Mary.  Supposedly, she gave them instructions to invite one and all to the feast of the Assumption, August 15th, to attend an outdoor mass where miracles and healings would occur. I knew these people were nuts, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. My dear friend Dodie, the compassionate I.C.U. nurse, had just called me with terrible news. Her breast cancer had recurred. Feeling absolutely insane, especially since she was Protestant, I called and told her about the invitation.

She laughed, as I’d expected. Then she said, “Somebody called right before
you, telling me about some moss in Spain with healing properties. Lubbock, Texas is so much closer than Spain. I’m in!”

Since I no longer had a job, money was tight, but somehow I convinced my husband that I really needed to go on this pilgrimage. My parents, God love them, agreed to watch all four of my children for the week-end.

This was my crazy idea, so I told Dodie I’d pay for everything. Armed with a gas credit card and about forty dollars cash, we took off across the Texas plains. Every time we stopped for fuel, I’d wave the credit card and tell Dodie, “The sky’s the limit!  All the pink snowballs and peanuts you can eat, my dear.”

The sea of people gathered on the church grounds in Lubbock represented a cross-section of humanity, from little old Mexican grandmas to motorcycle gangsters, and every kind of person in between. We snapped our lawn chairs open and joined in the festivities. I hadn’t prayed a rosary in over twenty years, and of course Dodie had no experience at all. On a break, while browsing the snack carts, she said, “After five or six hours you kind of get the hang of this Hail Mary business.”

A couple of hot dogs and thousands of Hail Mary’s later, the announcement came over a loudspeaker that Mass would begin shortly, and those where were sick should gather in the courtyard. Dodie and I made our way down there and plopped down on the edge of a fountain. So far, there was nothing unusual as far as I could see.

I remember looking at the people around us. “Dodie, isn’t this sad?” I asked. “All these people, waiting for a miracle, and the miracle is right in front of us. It’s a miracle that so many people have gathered to pray. It’s a miracle that I’m praying!” Just then, people started pointing to the sky. I looked up, and saw a black circle covering the sun, and it started spinning and bobbling. I looked around at the people, and they were all covered with a golden light. Some were staring, enraptured, at the sky, while others seemed bored and uninterested. Later, I heard scores of different stories about what people had seen. Some had seen nothing, and believed the others were victims of mass hysteria.  “They expected a miracle, so they invented one.”

But I know better, because I expected to see nothing. And what I saw in the sky was nothing compared to what I felt in my heart. It seemed to me that time stood still as I was completely engulfed in unconditional love. Suddenly, I had the gift of faith. Just like that. “It’s all true,” I whispered to Dodie. “I don’t get to draw my own conclusions.”

After some time, the priest resumed the Mass. They passed around baskets for
the offering and the priest said, “If you have money to share, please do so. If you don’t have enough money to get back home, take whatever you need.” Between us, Dodie and I could only come up with twenty bucks. I felt so embarrassed! Here I’d been given the gift of faith on a silver platter, and I only had twenty bucks to show my thanks.

“When I get home, I’m going to mail a check for a hundred dollars to the church,” I told Dodie.

I left her to gather our lawn chairs because it was time to go home. As I made my way through the gigantic crowd, it seemed that finding our chairs was a lost cause. Over and over, I told God, and myself, about my intention to send a check for a hundred dollars.  An interior voice said, “You’ll get home and forget all about this.” I argued with that voice and searched for our chairs.

In the distance, I saw a beautiful young girl, dressed in a long white gown with a cowl hood. Even though her clothing seemed out of place, especially on a brutally hot August day, I guessed that she was very wealthy, wearing the cutting edge of fashion. I looked down, arguing with myself and looking for the chairs, and moments later, she stood directly in my path. She took my hand and laid something in my palm.

“The spirit of our Lord has moved me to give this to you,” she said.

“Thank you.” Sure that she’d handed me a religious tract from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I thought, “Can’t these people leave us alone for one day?”

Then I looked to see what she’d given me. It was a white envelope with the initials JMJ on the outside. Ripping it open, I found a crisp, new one hundred dollar bill. I looked up and the beautiful girl had vanished.

When I caught up with Dodie again, I was breathless and waving the money at her. “You won’t believe what just happened!”

“You’re impossible,” she said with a grin.  “Turn you loose on a crowd like this, and you fall into prostitution?”

“This is serious stuff!” I told her.  “Help me find one of those baskets.”  I ditched that money at the first opportunity, before I could have second thoughts.

Dodie immediately fell asleep, exhausted, in the back of the van. I drove for six hours, stopping only for gas, with my hair standing on end as I muttered to myself, “I’ve got to change my way of living.”

A few weeks later, Dodie called me and said, “I’m not sure what happened in Lubbock. Actually, I’m not sure anything happened.” The only thing she saw was that hundred dollar bill, and she thought there might be a logical explanation for that. How ironic that I had made that crazy pilgrimage out of love for her, and I’m the one who got the miracle. All of my friends were sure I’d gone stark raving mad, but for once in my life, I didn’t care what anyone thought.

PART IV

After receiving a wack between the eyes by a spiritual two by four, I returned to the library. Over the next few months I devoured everything I could get my hands on about Catholicism. I read all the spiritual classics, learned how to pray, and fretted about what I should do next. Nursing was my career, but I’d pretty much failed at that.

Dodie and I kept in touch, and she started hounding me about my career. “I think you’d be a really good hospice nurse,” she said one day.

“Right. Except I think it requires compassion, which I don’t have, remember?”

But she wouldn’t let up. I went so far as to agree that I should probably return to nursing. Surely it wasn’t a mistake that I had the training. Now that I wanted to serve the Lord, it seemed like a pretty good way. So I compromised. “I’ll go to work at the county hospital, serving the least of my brothers.”

But the least of my brothers, according to the county hospital, had no use for me. I filled out the application, and they said, “Come back Tuesday.” Then, “Come back Thursday.” This went on and on until I gave up.

At the same time, strangers started chatting me up in line at the grocery store. Three different times, the conversation went like this:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a nurse, but I don’t work anymore.”

“Have you ever thought of being a hospice nurse? I’m a volunteer, and they really need nurses.”

Between Dodie and the grocery store ladies, I finally admitted that perhaps I was getting a call. One day I just dropped in at the only hospice in town and talked to the director.  My availability was limited, because of my mothering obligations, so I asked if they needed an after-hours nurse to take emergency calls. They hired me on the spot, gave me two days of orientation and sent me out into the wild.

At least every other visit left me wondering, “What the heck am I doing?” I just wasn’t the warm, fuzzy type, and it didn’t seem to me that I brought much comfort to the situation. Besides that, it was depressing. Most of the time I went on death calls, which involved chit-chatting with the family while we waited for the funeral home to come.

One particular night, an ancient woman kept saying, “He’s so cold!” She ducked out of the room and returned with a pair of flannel pajamas. “Would you put these on him, dear?”  Putting flannel p.j.’s on a dead guy is no easy task, and nothing I learned in nursing school prepared me for wrestling with a corpse. I distinctly remember thinking, “What kind of job is this?”

Dodie continued to encourage me. Then one day she asked, “When it’s my time, will you be my hospice nurse?” I tried to jolly her out of such talk, but she wouldn’t budge. She made me promise, but I crossed my fingers behind my back. I knew that if it ever came to that, there was no way I could do it.

During those first months I attended the hospice team meetings every other week, but my internal jury was still out regarding this particular career path. Then one day at the team meeting, a nurse said, “I’ve just admitted a new patient. Thirty year old female with breast cancer. I don’t think she has very long.”  She looked at me and spoke Dodie’s name.

I left the meeting and went straight to her house. After taking one look at her, I knew her time was short. Dodie read my eyes. “I won’t be needing your services,” she announced.  “I have no intention of dying, thank you very much.”

“I am here as the midwife for your soul,” I said, with the kind of momentary confidence that only comes from the Holy Spirit. “You are not dying; you are giving birth, and I’m not leaving.” (I would never make such a bold promise today, because at her age, this could have gone on for over a month!)

Her family and friends popped in and out, and I mostly sat on my hands, feeling entirely inadequate for this task. I managed to give her medicine, re-position her in the bed from time to time, and moisten her lips. Also, I prayed. A lot.

Just before midnight, she sat straight up in bed, her face the picture of awe and reverence, looking at something beyond our sight. Then she fell back on the pillows.  Dodie was gone.

My parting words? “You beat me to Europe and you beat me to Heaven. What a show off!”

Leaving her house, I felt profound sadness and a weariness down to my bones.
I didn’t notice a change right away. But other people did.

“You really have a gift for this work,” the hospice patients and their families started telling me, almost immediately. “You are so compassionate.”

I’d never wondered what happened to spiritual treasures when the owner couldn’t use them anymore. But remember when Elijah was taken up to heaven in the fiery chariot?  His disciple, Elisha, begged God to give him a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and that prayer was granted. I didn’t even think to ask, but I have no doubt that Dodie willed her compassion to me.

The great thing about acquired gifts as opposed to the inborn kind is the knowledge that they are undeserved treasures. I think I know the gratitude of transplant recipients, because I feel as if I’m walking around with Dodie’s heart.

May I always put her compassion to good use, and please, God, pass it on to another needy soul when I go.

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