She was 16 years old and living in a nursing home.
You know the type place – where the smell of stale bodies and crumbling memories meets you when you walk through the door, where the cries of lost hope and discarded dreams echo through the hallways.
That type nursing home. Smelling of mustiness and mothballs, of dried food and forgotten flowers.
A 16 year old innocent with the most severe form of muscular dystrophy. Lisa couldn’t talk (but she could grunt), couldn’t walk (but her limbs jerked with uncontrolled movement when she was excited or agitated), couldn’t see (blind since birth), but had about 60% hearing in one ear. Her days were spent in bed, alone, waiting…
Waiting for a family who never came, who was too poor to properly take care of her and who couldn’t deal with the heartache when visiting their daughter. So they stayed away…
Who am I to judge? I had no idea what I would be able to do for her by visiting her once a week, but I do know that after each visit, I needed to shake off the sadness that I wore like a heavy cloak when I walked outside the door. But at least I could leave…
Her caregivers in the nursing home took care of Lisa like she was their daughter. Her bed linens were fresh, her clothes clean, her hair smelling of roses…and there was always music playing, since that seemed to keep her calm. And she loved to hear prayers recited at any hour of the day or night, especially ones that spoke of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When I first met Lisa, she was half sitting up in her bed, enjoying some crackers as a snack. Even though more crumbs were on her lap and the bed, she seemed determined to get her spasmodic hand movements under control enough to aim for her mouth. She made it more times than not; she kept trying until she succeeded.The nurse’s aide explained my presence in a soothing voice, and cleaned off Lisa’s hands and face so we could visit. I sat still while her hands shook their way across my face, studying my features intently the only way she knew how. Satisfied, she sat back and I told her a bit about myself.
In later visits, through trial and error, I found that singing the “Hail Mary” prayer to Lisa in a soft voice, sitting on the side of her bed where she had her good ear, quieted her agitation. She would lay down and close her eyes, grunting occasionally while I sang off-key.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
By sheer luck, I found that Lisa also loved “Hail Holy Queen.” I had my Trappist monk friends to thank for knowing how to sing that prayer, since it was part of their Compline Office each evening when I was on retreat with them at Holy Cross Abbey (Berryville, VA).
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve:
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.
One spring day, I arrived at the nursing home in a thunderstorm, the torrential downpour and gray skies matching my mood. I ran inside, repeating Chaplain Susan’s reminder to me (“She Who Hears the Cries of the World“): “Theresa, you are their light; Theresa, you are their light.”
The staff told me that Lisa had a rough night, her restlessness almost unmanageable, and that she was finally asleep. I thought I would look in on her anyway, since the loud thunder might have awakened her since the last bed check. But when I stood at the side of Lisa’s bed, she was fast asleep, her thumb in her mouth, hugging her favorite blanket.
As I sang the Hail Mary prayer and carefully pushed back the hair on her damp forehead, suddenly a beam of sunlight pierced the near-by window and settled on Lisa’s face.
Sunlight – not lightning – where you could even see dust motes in its beam as it traveled across the room to illuminate her peaceful face.
She smiled, as if aware of what was taking place while she slept. Her skin literally glowed.
In the middle of a thunderstorm, the rain pounding on the windows, a shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom just long enough to recognize Lisa’s soul – beautiful, healthy, vibrant, singing.
Just like that, the light disappeared.
I looked around her room for the source – nothing. No flashlight, no lamp, no one popping their head into the room wielding a camera. We were alone.
Then again, maybe we weren’t…
Circles of Grace.
A communion of light filling a lost soul who was not lost, but rather, found.
Never doubt that you are blessed, dear Lisa. You were anointed in the midst of a raging storm. Be at peace.
You are beautiful. And you are loved…