My faults and flaws leave cracks on the stained-glass image of God that is on my soul. Yet… His beauty… and His truth… remain.
“Veronica, you cannot think about it in those terms… equating two lives against one life …and why does the one life have more ‘value’, to use your word, than the two? That only feeds a guilt that you have carried for far too long… a guilt that is not yours. The ordeal you suffered through was not of your doing.
You were not meant to die that day, Veronica. And you were not put on this Earth to do ‘ordinary’. But… I think that I do not have to tell you this, do I? And with all which that ordeal took away from you, from it you have gained a strength… you have gained a courage and a determination to fulfill the purpose God has for you.”
Sister Celine pauses for a moment and then continues in her French-accented English.
“The guilt that you still feel is not meant to make you suffer, but to keep you humble. Can you understand that?
God has forgiven you… you must believe that, Veronica. You must!”
“I know He has… I mean… I try to believe…”, my voice grows tremulous. “ I want to… I just..” Pressing my lips tight to hold back the sob rising in my throat, I turn my head away from Sister Celine, not wanting her to see the tears threatening to spill over. After a few moments, she reaches out… the weight of her hand on my shoulder, light as a feather, is reassuring. Turning back to face her…
“I fear my faith is not as strong as yours, Sister Celine.”
With the echo of my confession hanging in the crisp mid-morning air, I watch her face, waiting for her measure of what I have just said.
In all the weeks that I have been here at the abbey, this is the first occasion Sister Celine and I have had to talk to one another. But despite the fact that we’ve really only just met, I feel that the sister knows so much about me. It’s as if she has known me for a long, long time. I feel a connection with her, some common bond I am as yet unaware of. And, she understands me. It is very comforting talking to her here now.
“I would disagree. Your faith is strong, Veronica, I sense that… I see it. And please… I wish you no offense… but I think that you tend at times to over-intellectualize it… your faith. I think that as adults, we all do that. It is not wrong… it is just…” A small frown flits across Sister Celine’s face as she searches for the right word. “… non nécessaire?
Listen to your heart, Veronica. Listen to it with the faith of a child. And know that our Father loves you as He loves all of His children. Beyond measure.”
I stare down at my hands resting in my lap, the silver infinity ring a reminder of the life I have left behind. I think about what Sister Celine has said. I can feel the weight of her gaze on me, watching… waiting. But, uncharacteristically for me, no words will come.
Gradually, I become aware of a sensation… a feeling, but not… something that I haven’t experienced for a long time. And there is something else… just at the edge of that awareness. I think I have…
“Sister, do you thi…?” My voice falters as I look up. The space on the bench beside me is empty, save for the small bunch of winter flowers Sister Celine had been holding. I stand up and look around the abbey courtyard. She is gone.
“Sister? Sister Celine!” I call out, forgetting in the moment a cardinal rule at the abbey… ‘quiet voices’. A familiar shiver courses down my spine.
A chill has settled over the courtyard again, seeping through the heavy fabric of the novice’s habit I have worn since arriving at the abbey. More rain is on the way; one can smell it in the air. I hurry back inside. I have kitchen duty this week and the lunch hour will soon be upon us.
That evening at dinner I do not see Sister Celine in the dining hall. When I ask Sister Catherine, seated next to me, about Sister Celine, recounting our earlier conversation in the courtyard, the room goes completely still, the soft murmur of many voices fades to silence, and everyone’s eyes rest on me. It is several long moments before I can speak.
“I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong?” I cast a worried look at the abbess, who is seated at the head of the long table. She turns to Sister Abigail and says something I can’t quite make out. The sister stands and leaves the room. Abbess turns back to me. Her voice is gentle, but firm.
“Come here, child… sit with me.”
Silence hangs over the room as we wait. Sister Abigail returns shortly and places a large hand-stitched binder on the table in front of the abbess.
After what seems an eternity, the silence in the room punctuated only by the soft swish of turning pages and the rustle of old paper, Abbess stops and removes a small square of paper from one of the pages. She places the piece of paper on the table’s smooth, worn surface and slides it in front of me. It is a black and white photograph… a very, very old one… of a young woman in a nun’s habit. The woman in the photograph is Sister Celine. I turn to the abbess, my eyes holding the question that my lips cannot seem to form.
“This is the woman you saw today… the woman you spoke with… in the courtyard?” Abbess says the words very carefully.
“Yes, Abbess, it is. But… this picture is very old. I do not understand.”
“Turn the photograph over, child.”
Turning the small square over, I see that there is writing on the back… very faded, barely legible, the ink brown with age. I look up. Abbess’ head moves in a slight nod. I have to squint to read the notation.
“Sister Marie Celine D’Cambrille… born 23 August, eighteen….”
My voice trails off and I feel my heart catch in my chest. I look up at the abbess. There is a shadow of sadness in her grey-blue eyes when she speaks.
“… eighteen eighty-three.” A pause… a sigh as she recites from memory.
“Died 17 May, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and seven.”
Tears well up in my eyes as the full import of the day’s events settles in my brain. A dervish of thoughts and emotions swirl around inside my head… it’s too much to process. I am only dimly aware of Abbess helping me up from the table and leading me out of the dining hall.
The soft glow of candlelight and the warm, comforting scents of the chapel bring back the earlier peace I had felt… a peace that had gradually, over the weeks that I have been here at the abbey, settled over me. Abbess is seated next to me in the front pew, her gnarled, yet surprisingly gentle fingers finding comfort in the string of rosary beads as she prays with me. My own slender fingers have warmed the amber beads of Mama’s rosary as I offer my own prayer to God, seeking His wisdom and His comfort to calm the turmoil in my mind.
Time is of little consequence, its passage marked only by the shortening length of the chapel candles and the small ache in my backside from sitting on the hard wood of the ancient chestnut pews.
“I first saw Sister Celine when I was just a few years younger than you are now.”
The soft contralto of Abbess’ voice breaks the silence of the chapel. I look up at her as she turns her gaze from the altar to face me. She continues.
I’m not going to recount Abbess’ story here; it would not be right. Abbess shared something deeply personal with me. Something for which I am grateful, in Sister Celine’s words… “beyond measure.”
At one point in her narrative, Abbess stopped. She looked up at the statue of the Virgin Mary. After a few moments, a peacefulness settled back over her face.
“Heart and head could not seem to reconcile. You know that of which I speak, do you not, child?”
I nod slowly. Abbess reaches out and takes my hands in hers.
“When Sister Celine came to me that day…”
By the time Abbess is finished, the candles have lost more of their length. The echo of her words fades away and silence falls over the chapel once more, broken only by the occasional sputter of a candle. She takes my hands for a moment more and then she stands.
“I will leave you now, child, to your meditations. I hope that you have…” she stops. A gentle smile crosses her face.
“Good night, Veronica. Bless you, child.”
“Good night, Abbess. Thank you. For everything.”
The next morning…
The woman in the mirror has a new look in her eyes. The woman looking out from the depths of the ancient looking-glass is not the same woman who first gazed out of that silvered surface all that time ago. The woman looking out now has lost something… something she carried for a long time. She has let it go… left it behind. The woman whose gaze now holds mine through the centuries-old glass has found something that she lost a long time ago. The woman looking back at me this morning has reached the end of one journey. The woman in the mirror has…
Sitting across from Abbess, I am struck once again at the gentleness that radiates from her. To look in the depths of her soft grey-blue eyes, one would not guess at the turmoil and strife that once had hold of her life, as it did mine. There is a serenity reflected back that speaks more eloquently than any words possibly could, of the peace and purpose she has found here at the abbey, this gentle servant of God.
“So…?” She leaves the question unfinished, the corner of her mouth turning up into a tiny smile. Abbess knows, without having to ask, the reason for my early morning visit to her office.
I hesitate, not because I am uncertain of the words I am about to speak, but because I have waited for… and searched for… so long… the answers that I have found here, and I am still a bit disbelieving that I have finally reached journey’s end. My hesitation now is not one of uncertainty, but a moment of reflection.
The moment passes.
“I’m ready to go home now, Abbess.”
It is with no small amount of sadness that I close the abbey gate, the sisters’ final ‘good-byes’ still ringing in my ears.
Time to go home.
Time to return to my life… and my wife.
Time to return to the purpose God has given me.
“Keep them safe, Father.”
I look heavenward once more and then begin walking down the long graveled path to the main road where the car service will be waiting for me.
My journey back to America has begun.
Leaving the arrivals lounge, my only baggage the large carry-on slung over my shoulder, I make my way across the concourse toward the taxi stands outside the terminal entrance. Even though I’ve already been through three international airports and a train station, I still find myself a little disoriented at everything around me. Life was so simple back at the abbey. Unhurried… uncrowded… uncomplicated… peaceful.
But… for better or for worse, this is my world.
I see her… across the concourse, scanning the crowd, and for a moment I am frozen in place.
A myriad of thoughts swirl in my head… “She’s here! She came for me… my soul mate and my forever!” And on top of that thought… “I’m not ready… I thought I had another 3,000 miles… I don’t know what to say… it’s been so long… what if she is mad at me for being gone so long… what if…how do I…what… I… ?” And for one mad moment, I consider bolting.
And then, as if an invisible force were suddenly at work, the space between the two of us clears of other travelers and it is only she and I standing across the broad expanse of the concourse from each other.
Our eyes meet.
And time stands still.
I feel the measured beat of my heart… each exhalation of air from my lungs… as I begin to slowly walk toward her, the tempo rising as each step brings me nearer to my inamorata. After perhaps half a dozen steps, my brain gives up any pretext at proper comportment – surrendering to the heart – and I break into a run, the carry-on sliding off my shoulder and falling to the floor. The yards separating the two of us disappear in a blur.
And then… I am in her arms and like the ocean surf, the wave of emotions that has been building crashes over me and all the words that I wanted to say are washed away.
“Me segurar… me segurar… me segurar…. eu te amo… eu te amo… eu te amo… eu te amo…”
I don’t know how long the two of us stood there – again, time is of no consequence; it simply exists. We stand, arms around one another, locked in embrace, two hearts beating against each other… two hearts beating as one heart… with a rhythm, that like the snowflakes of winter, is unmatched anywhere else in the entire universe.
I finally notice the large overnight bag Tina has slung over her shoulder. I step back.
“You’re going somewhere?” I try to keep the disappointment out of my voice, but don’t quite succeed. Only a very cruel God would reunite me with my ‘forever’ and then take her away so soon. In the next moment however, my fears are banished.
“We are, baby girl!” Tina emphasizes the “we” and that smile I know so well lights up my honey’s face.
“We are?” My heartbeat does a little sprint. I am thrilled, but more than a little curious, having expected only to return home and not leave our condo for several days. Except perhaps for more food or wine.
“I wanted to give you something, Roni. I thought and thought and thought… we have been apart for so long… eternities, it seems… I thought… what can I do to show you how very much I love you? Something, perhaps, that you have not had since you were a little girl? “ Tina reaches in her purse and rummages around for a moment, then pulls out a small object and holds it out to me.
For several moments I can only stare at it, seeing but not comprehending. The object is familiar.
I look up at her.
“Are those the keys to the beach house my parents had when I was a little girl?” Mama and I had been back only a couple of times after Papa left us. The memories then had been too painful… too bright.
“I don’t understand… I thought… how did you…?”
Tina smiles and reaches out, pressing two perfectly-manicured fingers gently against my lips.
“Time enough for questions later, baby girl… we’ve got a sunrise to catch!”
Less than thirty minutes later, the charter pilot receives final clearance from the tower and the Cessna 400 begins to roll, the runway lights flashing by faster and faster as the nimble aircraft reaches for take-off speed.
Moments after that, I feel that familiar little flutter in my tummy and we are ‘wings up’!
An almost imperceptible lightening of the sky on the far horizon signals the breaking dawn of a new day, the thin line of scattering clouds a promise of the glorious sunrise to follow.
We walk hand-in-hand – oh, how I have missed this; the simple act of holding hands – across the expanse of deserted beach, the cool, dry sand shifting beneath our bare feet as we make our way toward the ever-moving edge of the incoming tide.
A lone gull flies overhead, its single ‘caw’ a protest over the invasion of humans at this early hour.
I rest into Tina’s comforting warmth, wrapping my arms around her slender waist and tilting my head against her shoulder. She leans down and I feel her lips brush across the top of my head. Drawing in a deep breath, I let it out slowly, enveloped by the calming scents of my inamorata and the ocean.
We cast our gaze to the east… and wait.
The sun – that golden orb of life to this big blue spinning marble in space called Earth – is not yet half above the horizon when a flock of seagulls swoops down low over the waves in front of us, catching their wings in the first rays of the sun’s warmth. The scene before my eyes is so breathtaking I half expect a Max Richter or Hans Zimmer orchestral to rise up in the background.
Overwhelmed, I can only look up at the woman I love with all my heart and soul. A hundred thoughts, a thousand thoughts… ten thousand… swirl around my brain. All the things I want to say to her… everything she means to me. I want to say those three words that have never… not for one single second… left my heart. I want to say “I love you!”, but the lump in my throat will let no sound escape and I cannot seem to swallow it away.
Tina looks back at me with her beautiful hazel eyes… with the little flecks of gold… those eyes I drown in over and over and over… and her perfect coral pink lips curve into a smile that melts my heart every time.
She says two words.
Two words only.
Two words that say everything.
Two words that mean every thing to me.
Veronica Marie Lewis-Shaw
29 May 2014
(Writing under a large mushroom, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest)