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“I don’t believe in miracles. I depend on them,” reads one of my buttons. The miracle of gratitude is my favorite one of all. Oh, and humor.

A year after she started chemo, I found myself with my Mom at her oncologist’s office. The newest round of quarterly scans were finished and we were there for the report. The report was fine, in that the cancer hadn’t grown since she started her three weeks on, one week off, regimen. Asking him what would likely happen next, he reminded us that he is not God (and he knows it.) He continued to say that likely the cancer in her abdomen would one day metastasize to her lungs or her brain. Not missing a beat she says, “I’ll take lungs.” He smiled and so did I: chuckling as he noted it wouldn’t, finally, be up to her.

“Brain scan.” A couple of months ago, we started noticing some changes in Mom’s balance and vision. Time to talk to Dr. Cohen about it, we said. We, her hope-filled children, thought, maybe she just needs new glasses, but Dr. Cohen is not messing around when it comes to neurological issues. So brain scan it is.

Early on, I went with Mom to one of her Wednesday appointments. After the blood work was drawn, we sat in the comfortable waiting room. We were discussing her recent dramatic increase in fatigue. “It’s three things,” she quoted Dr. Cohen’s explanation, “the chemo, the steroids…. Ummm, what’s the third thing? I can’t remember.”

“Let’s see… what could it be? Hmmm…. could it be the Cancer?” I asked drawing it out like the Church Lady of Saturday Night Life fame.

Don’t think that joke hasn’t come back again and again: she forgot that she has cancer even as we we’re sitting in the oncologist’s waiting room. Awaiting the harsh chemical treatment that robs her energy but provides time. “Drug induced aphasia” we tease as she continues to once in a while forget things.

When she was diagnosed about two years ago, they said it was pancreatic cancer. Talk about devastation. Not much medically minded, even I knew that pancreatic cancer is commonly heard as a rapid death sentence. My sister and I stood in the hospital corridor and for the first time I can ever remember cried together, helplessly looking into each other’s eyes.

A day later, same sister, Jeanne, comes dashing into Mom’s hospital room where my brother and I are keeping vigil with our drugged and sleepy mother. In a rush she told us she’d run into Mom’s surgeon in the cafeteria. Lunch tray in hand, he’d blurted out to her that they’d been wrong. Not pancreatic cancer, after all. But breast cancer that had metastasized to her abdomen.

Woo Hoo!, we shouted. The happiness, the miracle – like she’d been given a “life sentence” to counteract that deadly one of a day before. We hugged one another and were so grateful, knowing as we rejoiced: how ironic. “Yay! Mom has breast cancer!”

I always thought that the roller coaster metaphor for life was a corny one – feelings aren’t like a roller coaster – except that they are. For the last two years, we’d coast along, the chemo for three months when scans to see if the cancer cells had grown or spread. Then whoosh, the fast exhilarating descent hands out over our heads in joy that it hadn’t. Then three months more chugging up the hill toward the next round of scans. A few sharp sudden turns in the midst – the blood clot that meant no more long distance travel. The change in the cocktail of pumped in poisons. The family side trips towards despair then the whipping back or the gradual gaining of the momentum of encouragement.

So, “brain scan.” What’s that going to do to the whole ride? My niece, living in Mexico City at the time of diagnosis, says she went to her local parish and prayed to St. Jude. And the next day, Mom, her grandmother, got the breast cancer reprieve. Did St. Jude intercede? We all felt the miracle of the change in diagnosis. And the rush of gratitude that follows awareness of God’s gentle work in our lives or the world.

The too many to count miracles: two years of them. Some honest conversations six children and one adult grandchild have had with each other and our Mom. A family website that connects us from all the points of the world we’ve scattered.. Visits from an estranged child. Reconciliation, peace and moments of great fun and laughter in Mom’s presence. The calm of a morning after a night of despair. And the humor.

Brain scan? So what. From one day to the next a life sentence can be converted. Can be extended to a real life. Time to live it and know it and best of all to make fun of it. And time to be grateful. And time to laugh about it.

This time the brain scan came back negative and the best response comes from Mom’s favorite nurse at the chemo center, “So, um, congratulations. Your brain scan came back negative,” she teased, “you don’t have a brain.”

There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Expect a mackerel.” And I do.

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“There I was, there I was there I was… in the Congo.” It was the first thing my friend Vinci blurted out after, “Hello!” at our recent reunion. About ten years ago we were roommates and “There I was, there I was, there I was…” was the sound byte we picked up from a cheesy commercial. An avalanche of images came rushing back when Vinci greeted me with that two-second sound byte. Words have such a power to bring back images and ideas.

During my visit we discussed the phrase “Father what-a-waste,” someone had recently used about her Jesuit boss. I know it’s only meant as a joke, but, really, you wouldn’t call your best friend’s husband, “Mr. What-a-waste” would you? As if being a priest when one is good looking is some waste of a perfectly good human being. If only unattractive people became priests how would we ever believe in the beauty of God’s call for each of us? Linguistic political correctness came about for good reasons. Our words do reveal underlying thoughts and feelings.

Introducing me to her coworkers she’d say, “This is Christine. Being roommates with me drove her to the convent.” And I’d protest, squirms in my stomach cranking up a level. What bothered me so much? It was just a joke, right?

On the plane ride home I put two and two together. Her saying she “drove me to the convent” tells like the same joke. As if entering the convent is some a negative response to a difficult world or relationships. Like religious life is where one goes to get away from real life. That someone could “drive” another to it – like someone “drives” another to drink. While I know she doesn’t really feel this way me, the words reveal a way of thinking about sisters and religious life that is common in today’s world.

But, my choice, my response to God’s invitation to be a sister, is a choice for life. As a sister I’m becoming more the woman God created me to be. I’m becoming, I hope, more loving, more patient, more hopeful. I’ve become more aware of the world and other peoples’ needs. I see this happening to my committed friends too. They are growing in the same ways in their experiences as spouses and parents. Their choice enlivens them just as mine enlivens me.

And I’m not alone in making this choice. Last year I attended a conference of younger and newer sisters. Four hundred of us gathered in Chicago for a long weekend. The place was packed; the registration had closed two months ahead of the deadline, there were so many.

I suppose I’m stinging from the perception that, in the words of one current scholar, “our convents are empty.” That religious life is in danger of extinction, just a relic of some other era viewed as outdated and obsolete. This has not been my experience at all. If you compare the numbers of sisters today to the numbers in the forties, fifties and early nineteen-sixties, then yes, here in the U.S. there are fewer newer sisters. If you compare the numbers to the other 1700 years of it’s existence, not so much. In fact, there are more sisters today than there ever have been. The convents are not so empty.

Still, a woman asked me recently why I don’t go “the whole way and get a habit.” When I shared with her that many religious, responding to the Pope’s call to renew their communities in the spirit of their founders, have chosen to wear “street clothes” because that’s what the people with whom they serve wear, she wasn’t convinced.

I am going the whole way in this religious life. In my novitiate class there were a couple of us who commented, “Look, a ‘real’ nun!” when someone in habit walked by. One of our twelve would later share how offensive the joke was to her. “What’s that make us,” she’d ask, “chopped liver? Fake nuns? I don’t know about you, Christine,” she continued, “but this is my real life” And eventually I got it. She was right.

This past April I made my permanent commitment with the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael. Like those who came before me I don’t know where this call will lead. Like my married friends who don’t know where life together will take them, I’m committed to finding out. So, “Here I am, here I am, here I am… in the convent!”

November 2003
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