A 'cappuccino' in Rieti with Sister Mary Rambo
After my 1988 near-death experience with a bad oyster, Susan and I make numerous visits to our Pastor Fr. Foley and to Fr. Murray, my Franciscan spiritual advisor from high school. Our question is always the same: “Now what? Where do we find these suffering people Jesus was talking about? And what do we do for them?”
In answer, our spiritual advisors agree that we would benefit from a study-pilgrimage focusing on two people who lived almost a millennium ago. A study-pilgrimage will be a great experience for both of us, but not together. A married couple cannot take five children, ages one to fourteen, on a study-pilgrimage with forty-eight nuns and priests. Susan will go first while I tend to the children.
Susan leaves for Assisi and Rome, Italy in August of 1988, to spend sixteen days in prayer and study of the lives of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. They were two lay people who sought to live the literal Gospel in their place, in their circumstances, and in their time, the early-thirteenth century. Francis did not want to be ordained. Clare did not want to be secluded in a cloistered convent. At heart and in spirit, they were both lay people who wanted to live a life that made no sense unless the Gospels are true. Yet, in obedience, they ended up accepting religious vocations in order to fit into the Church of that time.
In June of 1989, it is my turn. Susan and the children will stay with family at my dad’s house in Detroit while I attend the 30-day version of the study-pilgrimage in Assisi and Rome. My pilgrimage starts out in Rome and Assisi. After Assisi we move to the town of Rieti, which sits in the geographic center of the Italian peninsula and whose town square features a spot known as the belly button of Italy. More significantly, it is the locus of many important events in the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare. After almost three weeks of study, prayer and visitation of holy and historic sites in Rome and Assisi, Rieti is where our group will pause to pray and reflect on how the pilgrimage is challenging our life.
The night before we are set to begin three days of silence at the mountaintop monastery of St. Michael the Archangel, high above Rieti, I am having a cappuccino at an outdoor café with one of the Franciscan nuns in our group. She is a quiet, gentle lady. I am impressed with her holiness and the presence that arrives with her in every situation. I was rendered speechless by her quote in an open discussion of the words of St. Augustine: So long as there are people who lack necessities, a person who has more than he needs is holding the goods of another. Tonight is finally an opportunity to become better acquainted.
Our discussion turns to the Vietnam War era. I am stunned rigid in amazement as she matter-of-factly describes her Vietnam experiences as a missionary tending to orphans in war zones. The stereotypes I have laid on her diminutive size and self-effacing manner are demolished as she relates her experiences evacuating small children to planes and choppers under live mortar and machine gun fire during the last days of the American evacuation.
“Well…” I finally break the silence that punctuates the end of her story, feebly clearing my throat. “Ah…what do you… ah…. do now?”
“I work with AIDS patients in a Brooklyn Hospital.” Her response is as level and unruffled as her voice relating stories about dodging bullets in Southeast Asia.
I respond instinctively with a question that is truly fearful, a question rooted in my false sense of moral self-righteousness. This little Sister Mary Rambo looks me straight in the eye and says softly, “Who of us wants to face the worst possible consequences of our smallest mistake?”
Who wants to face the worst possible consequences of their smallest mistake?
What a question! No room for arrogance or self-righteousness in the face of that question. I know the deeper meaning of her thought. But for the grace of God, there go I. I’m told that is the oft-quoted statement of St. Francis of Assisi when asked about his fleshly opinion of those who have done wrong. It is only by God’s grace, he implies, that we ourselves do not face the worst possible consequence of our smallest mistake, let alone our worst.
I know what she means, and she knows I know what she means. I stare into my diminutive Italian coffee cup for a long time, unable to look into her eyes for the rest of the evening.
By the beginning of 1990, Susan and I have both completed our volunteer training at Tallahassee’s non-profit regional service provider for people with AIDS. Susan is trained to provide support for the caregivers. I am trained in death and dying to be a buddy for those dying of AIDS.
No sooner have I completed the training than I receive my first call for help. Less than a half-hour later, I am inside the tilt-wall constructed office and cubicles of Tallahassee’s regional AIDS service provider. The carpet, chairs and desks all smack of state government surplus, vintage 1970s.
“Thank you for getting here so quickly.” The director is a young woman in her late twenties, with highly polished skills for both gentle one-on-one support to the dying and the gladiator skirmishes over funding in the Legislature. “I have the feeling that this new client is really going to need your spiritual guidance.”
“In what way?” My voice betrays the fact that I am not feeling qualified to dispense any advice to the dying.
“He showed up here yesterday, somewhat distraught. Then he said, ‘I’m a veteran; I have AIDS and a gun, and if you don’t give me a friend, I will kill myself.’ I immediately thought of you as the best person to care for him.”
“Really?” Hopefully, my thin mock question is masking my surge of outright panic.
“Absolutely.” She sounds very confident to me. “He needs spirituality more than anything. We can make sure he has medicine and social services. But he needs spirituality.”
“Because…” I invite her to finish the sequence.
“Because his spirit is dying from loneliness. I don’t think he has a single friend in the world, only his mother.
“And you want me to be his friend?”
“That’s why you’re here.” She makes a hint of a shrug at the obvious. “But he is going to be a challenge, and I think you are the best one to handle him.”
His apartment is first floor in a low-end project. A freshly painted brown wheelchair ramp has been hastily installed in anticipation of the inevitable. My banging on the door triggers a less-than-enthusiastic response.
“Who the heck is it?”
“I’m here from the Center. They said you need a friend.”
“So, get in here already!”
The unlocked door opens to a dishevelled efficiency. The kitchen area to the left is piled high with dirty dishes and reeks from an abundance of trash avalanching from a plastic can that has long since given up the fight. The single bathroom is visible straight ahead. To the right, where one would normally expect a sofa, is a hospital-type bed with my new friend sitting upright toward a television, mindlessly surfing channels.
“So, how much are they paying you to be my friend?”
“I’m a volunteer. No pay.”
“Well, aren’t you special.”
“No. Just a volunteer.”
“Well, what do you know how to do, Mister Volunteer?”
“What do you need?”
The strange young man on the hospital bed lets the remote drop to his lap and stares into space.
“I don’t know.” He says without looking at me. “I don’t know what I need.”
“Then let’s start by getting you out of this place for a while. Can you walk?”
“Yeah. I’m not dead yet.”
“That’s a good sign. Let’s go to Lake Ella and feed the ducks. You know, the beautiful lake with a fountain surrounded by a walking path just north of downtown Tallahassee. There’s a ton of ducks there.”
“Why the heck would I wanna feed ducks?”
“I’ve always found that no matter what is bothering me, feeding ducks makes me feel better.
“If I call that stupid office and tell them I fired you, will they give me someone else?”
“Nope. I’m your only shot.”
“You and the friggen ducks!” He lets go with a blue streak of protest as I drag him into the car and to Lake Ella, where I retrieve several bags of expired bread from the trunk.
“What are you, a baker?” His cynicism is unreserved.
“No. It’s expired bread from the soup kitchen, too old to use for people.”
“So, you give expired bread to the ducks? What kind of a person are you?”
“The kind of person that is sitting here with you.”
We go to movies, attend FSU baseball games and feed ducks. As his ability to walk begins to falter, we take a wheelchair. Soon, even that is barely practical.
To the extent any cleaning has been done in his apartment, it has been done by his mother. Her husband, a stepfather to her son, has been the heavy lifter, literally. A Navy veteran himself, he is the one who has helped to bathe and lift her son. This stepfather is all man, and all compassion. I cannot help but wonder if St. Joseph, the earthly stepfather of Jesus, was not cut from the same cloth.
As for the mother, I consider the woman an absolute gem for Jesus. She is a solid Christian, a Southern Baptist with generations of religious roots. Her boy went off in the military and came back addicted to heroin and afflicted with AIDS. Since returning from overseas, her son has refused any interest in God or faith. She never complains and never condemns what God has allowed. She keeps her Bible close and her Savior closer. She keeps praying.
As the disease progresses, my friend is becoming bedridden. My assistance is now as much practical as spiritual. A male nurse is frequently on duty as diapers must be changed and medications monitored. It is a late-summer afternoon. I am standing at the kitchen sink in his apartment washing dishes and compressing trash. The odor of bleach hand wipes and latex gloves is so prevalent we no longer notice it. He is too debilitated to speak much. So, I am shocked when he summons the energy to yell out to me from his station in the hospital bed in the living room.
“I want to go to church.”
“I don’t believe you. Is this a ploy to get something from me?”
“Blast you.” He sums up a string of profanity. “I mean it. I want to go to church.”
“Great. I’ll call your mom, and she will be very happy to take you.”
“Not her church you ….” There is the profanity again. “I want to go to your church.”
“My church? You do not even know what faith I am. Why would you want to go to my church?”
“Because I want to understand why you would come here.”
“Well …” I pause to turn off the water before shaking my hands off over the sink. ” We know it’s not for the money.”
I refuse to take him to church without his mother’s approval. I will not allow him to use me as a weapon against her by feigning a new zeal for God. When I give her the news, she breaks down crying over the phone.
“Please, by all means. I’ve been praying for this for years. Get him to your church. Bring him to the Lord before it’s too late.”
Getting my friend to church will not be a small feat. He is diapered, wheelchair bound with an I.V. bag, and just weeks from the end. I cannot just wheel him into a packed Sunday service. Moreover, I will need the help of his nurse.
As we wheel into the side chapel for a weekday morning Mass, there are about fifty attendees standing in song to open the service. The priest immediately assesses the situation and responds with more grace than one could have dared to ask for.
“We have a special guest this morning.” He announces, motioning the folks in the front row to slide toward the end and remove two of the foldable seats on the aisle. “Please, come right up here in front.”
Then, as we settle into the front row, the priest comes to my friend, bends over his chair, and hugs him warmly.
“Welcome.” He says loudly enough for all fifty to hear. “Jesus has been waiting for you to get here.”
At the handshake of peace, just before Communion, every single person in the chapel comes to my friend and hugs him. Everyone is smiling, and there is not a dry eye in the place.
After the service, the nurse and I are wheeling my friend to the parking lot when three older ladies approach him.
“Here.” They shove a fistful of beautiful color prints into his hands. “These are pictures of the Gospel stories. You can look at them while you pray.”
“Thank you.” I nod on his behalf.
Those pictures hang over my friend’s bed from that day until the moment he dies. They are the only Gospel he reads; legible to his eyes that can no longer focus on print. When he is unable to speak without extreme difficulty, his eyes lock on those pictures for hours at a time. Often, he points to Jesus in the pictures and smiles.
Before he dies, he indeed comes to the Lord. And as he breathes his last, his head and shoulders are in my arms, his mother and stepfather are holding their arms around him from the other side of the bed, and the nurse is standing at the foot of his bed: all of us praying aloud together the Lord’s Prayer.
As his soul is leaving his body behind, I find myself reflecting on that special day when my friend came to church. The priest and the people who surrounded him with love and acceptance. And the women who showed up with the Gospel pictures he needed to understand God’s love and accept salvation. How far God will go to save us! I think in a moment of profound gratitude. Use me, Lord, for your saving work.