“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, love is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” — 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
A week before Christmas, in the midst of moving my daughter out of her Manhattan apartment, I received a phone call. My beloved Aunt Therese was rushed to the hospital. She had a heart attack as she climbed the steps of the Baltimore Basilica near her home. The fact she was attending Sunday mass in one of the holiest places in America did not protect her from the inevitable risks associated with human existence.
The rest of the day was a blur as my husband and I carried boxes and furniture around the busy city block to the closest parking space we could find. The hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers were oblivious to my intense worry as I balanced a cell phone to my ear while juggling a lamp in one hand and a box labeled “kitchen items” in the other. I was frantic for information. I did not know if my auntie had survived.
Aunt Therese is my mother’s twin. It’s a special thing when your mother has a twin. It’s like having another mother who is fun. She loves you just as much as your mom does, but she doesn’t tell you to clean your room or not to date “that boy.” My earliest favorite memories of Aunt Therese’s ways are still the qualities I hold dear today — her warm, loving hugs and her infectious, joyful laugh.
What is most impressive is her deep faith in God. Aunt Therese has experienced the worst kinds of grief and loss. She has lost her husband and two of her sons. Her surviving son, Michael, endures multiple disabilities. Despite all of this, my aunt not only still sees joy in life, she spreads it, and her faith in God does not waver. In fact, her belief seems to get stronger with each new struggle, and her sense of humor is unmatched.
One time my aunt said to me, “You know, I really don’t care for St. Therese.”
This took me completely by surprise. How could such a deeply Catholic woman not only say she did not care for a saint, but say it about a saint for whom she was named? St. Therese, a.k.a. “The Little Flower,” was canonized in 1925, just a year before the twins were born. For a few years that followed, countless baby girls became this saint’s namesake.
I asked her, “Auntie, why would you say that?” and then she shared a vivid childhood memory:
“I remember being very little. My parents had an iron-framed bed in the livingroom because there weren’t enough bedrooms with seven children. This was a difficult time during the depression, and we had not had food in the house for three days. My mother knelt every day praying to the portrait of St. Therese hanging over the head of the bed. On the third day, as I, too, knelt praying a novena with her, my mother suddenly stood, pulled the portrait off the wall and smashed it on the iron bed. I’ll never forget how she cried, ‘I am not praying for me! I am praying for my children!’ A second later, the door bell rang. The Salvation Army was on the doorstep with milk and bread.”
I had a lump in my throat as I thought about my grandmother begging an inanimate picture for milk for her hungry babies. Although the vision of my grandmother’s suffering was intense, at that moment I was mostly overwhelmed with curiosity.
“If St. Therese answered Memé’s prayers by sending The Salvation Army, why don’t you like her?”
“Because,” my aunt said, “why did she make us wait three days?!”
Later, on that cold December afternoon, I received a call from a friend who was at my aunt’s hospital bedside. He handed her his phone enabling her to talk to me.
“Dottie,” she said in her confident voice, “the priest came out of the Basilica and gave me the Last Rites so don’t worry. I’m all set.”
“Well, I’m not!” I cried, while she continued to insist that I should not worry.
Just days later she had by-pass surgery. The surgeon was positive that, although Therese was advanced in years, her heart was strong enough to endure such a major surgery. He was right.
Aunt Therese has spent the last five and a half weeks in a rehabilitation center in Baltimore. A couple of weeks ago, I traveled down and was able to visit her every day for six days. Each time I walked into her room, she told me I was beautiful. She loves my new haircut, the way I wore a scarf, or the way my earrings so nicely matched my sweater. She is always full of compliments and has the nicest way of saying things. She can even
make me feel good about my ‘thunder’ thighs. “You can’t help them,” she’d say, “they run in the family.”
My intention was to help her days go more smoothly and to cheer her on through the difficult physical therapy. As usual, she was the one who helped me. Every day she lifted my spirits and enhanced my mood. At times she said, “God still wants me here for some reason, but I don’t know why.”
Auntie, this is what I absolutely believe to be true. You are here for the rest of us. You inspire everyone who crosses your path with your moving stories, your beautiful smile, your melodic singing, and especially, the way you live your life. Hearing your laughter is like feeling the warm sunshine peer through a cloud-filled sky. Most of all, you perfectly demonstrate the true meaning of love, thereby giving us the gift of God’s example of how it’s supposed to be done. That’s your job and the Boss is not ready to hand you retirement papers just yet!
Aunt Therese is going home tomorrow to her apartment near the Baltimore Basilica. Thank you, Lord!