I felt stomach punched. Not with physical pain, but with the kind of hurt you feel from fear and sudden grief. Metastatic liver cancer had its roots in an earlier bout with breast cancer. I don’t remember who told me; maybe it was Sister Libby herself. But I knew I had to make the drive from Kentucky to the Elms, a Catholic convent in Akron, Ohio. I had to see her and ask the question.
Sister Libby, a Dominican nun, had moved back to the Elms in the mid-1990s. A long-time Liberation Theologist, she had briefly lived in Cleveland to do community work among migrants when she contracted breast cancer. I visited her there, in between working in Cambodia, to thank her for keeping me on the Nun’s prayer line. More importantly, I wanted to thank her for affirming me, a Jew, for giving last rites to a Scottish pilot who died from cerebral malaria in the jungle swamps of Cambodia.
This was not the first time that I had turned to Sister Libby for support. The convent, attached to a girl’s school, supported her activities in Akron’s flourishing women’s movement. She gave lectures in my Women Studies classes, supported our pro-choice coalitions, and took a leadership role in the local Women’s History Project. We were sisters in the struggle. When not supporting other women, she ministered to me through academic promotions, child rearing, and finally through my separation and divorce. I loved her.
I rang the bell outside the huge oak-paneled door of the convent, its deep sound echoing inside the old stone mansion. An elderly nun greeted me and asked me to wait in the vestibule. I marveled at the delicately carved, graceful mahogany paneling that covered the walls. Eventually, I heard footsteps on the stone floor, slow and deliberate. I turned to see Sister Libby, pale but smiling her greeting.
“Where would you like to go to dinner?” I asked. “Joe’s Steak House in the valley?”
“My favorite,” she beamed ,embracing me in a warm hug.
We chatted about her return to the convent in Akron, the spread of her cancer, and her election to the presidency of her order. She still had a lot of unfinished work: setting up a hospital wing for aging nuns, recruiting new novices, and modernizing the convent. This cancer thing was not going to stop her. “A year is all I need,” she said as she finished off a large medium-rare ribeye steak. She seemed so robust, so full of life and her usual passion. She was going to die; I knew that. But not now—not tonight.
She pressed her warm hand on mine. “You said when you called that you needed to ask me something. What is it?”
Color and heat rose from my neck to my face, and suddenly I felt suddenly very ashamed. What I wanted was not for her, but for me. I wanted her to address my fears and questions about death. Sister Libby was the same age as my dearest friend and mentor, Faye Dambrot. I lost Faye, my senior by a decade, to lung cancer in early 2000, just before I relocated to Kentucky to start a new position as Chair of a university’s Criminal Justice Department. Her death had devastated me, and now I was facing the loss of another dear friend and ally. Almost whispering, I said, “I want to know whether you believe in an afterlife.”
Shaking her head, she smiled and replied softly, “I can’t think about that now. I will call for you when the time is closer, and I will tell you.”
“I’m sorry I asked. Forgive me?”
“No need, but for now I have work to do, and I must save my strength to get it done.”
I returned her to the convent. I listened to her even and quiet breathing as we drove onto the grounds and up the long driveway. I feared saying a last goodbye but, at the same time, I was calmed by her assurances and insistence that God would give her this year. So, we didn’t say goodbye; we hugged and said goodnight.
For most of the next year, I sent postcards of angels, poems, letters, and small gifts as often as I remembered—at least twice a month. Occasionally, I would get a short thank you note back, assuring me that her work was going well. Then the call came. Sister Libby’s gravelly and weak voice said, “Carole, now is the time for you to come.”
This time, Sister Libby was sitting in the vestibule when the nun answered the bells. One of the sisters helped me take her to the car. “Joe’s Steak House?” I asked as lightly as I could manage, trying to keep my voice from cracking.
She smiled weakly and nodded her assent. At the restaurant, she ordered a bowl of soup, dismissing my urges to try a steak.
“We don’t have to talk about this. I came to see you, not to find answers to my silly questions,” I said, stroking her trembling hands.
“Yes, we do. You want to know what I believe about life after death. I don’t believe in all that silly heaven stuff, like angels and harps. It’s called cosmology.” Stopping to cough and sip a little soup, she went on. “We are all connected to each other, to the earth, to all sentient living beings; after death, our life’s energy goes back into that stream of consciousness.” A sip of soup, and then a little chuckle. “I just hope I don’t become part of a tree and wind up as a piece of furniture.”
Wide eyed, looking at my frail friend, her mostly uneaten bowl of soup in front of her, I felt enveloped by her love and affirmation. Cosmology, the connection of human consciousness, is what I believed but, until that moment, I had no name for it. All our times together flashed before me: teasing her about her orthopedic shoes, which I tauntingly called ‘nun-shoes’; her sitting at my Passover table, stunned that I put white bread on the Seder plate to signify the exclusion of women from Jewish tradition and ceremony. Libby was dying, and that was our last time together. The drive back to the Elms was silent, but her breathing was still steady, albeit weak. This time we embraced and said goodbye.
Sister Libby died the following month, on Christmas Eve. I later learned from the nuns that covering the walls of her tiny room were the postcards and pictures of angels that I had sent. My youngest granddaughter, Eliza Faye, is named for Sister Libby and for Faye. I hope some of their strength and goodness has passed to her, but more importantly, I know they are part of this world and the next.