On July 4th of this year I attended a real nice gathering of my wife’s family. Like the party the year before, which we had also attended, there was good food, lots of laughter, and all the pleasantries associated with a simple holiday party. Concurrent to the house party and about two hours away in Camp Hill, PA, my second cousin, Jean Gehret, also known for most of her life as Sister Florita of the Sisters of Christian Charity, was quietly though actively (I am told) celebrating her milestone birthday of ninety years. She had pulled through a bout of pneumonia and was on the mend. I was aware of Jean’s birthday, (not that it was her ninetieth to be fair), since a person’s birthday that falls on Independence Day is easy to remember, but I had absentmindedly prioritized my own fun at the party over calling her for a few minutes on her special day. I have known Jean my entire life. She has lived in my house for weeks at a time when she was home in Reading, PA visiting her family and friends. I’ve never known life without her presence in some way. I would call her tomorrow when I wasn’t busy, when I would have more time to talk to her uninterrupted, when I had decided what I wanted to say to her.
The next day came and went; and the next. I never placed the birthday call. I was never ‘not busy’. John Adams is constantly underfoot and in need of attention, I told myself. There is always housework to be done. Then there was the guilt of not calling on her birthday which only fueled the procrastination further. I really need to call her, I hounded myself further. She’s never met John Adams. She’ll want to know how he’s doing. I should call when I get a chance. The days stretched on for a week. Every day I reminded myself of the obligation. Every day I put it off till the next day, convinced by my self-serving logic that given my schedule I was doing the right thing. No harm done.
On Saturday, July 11 as I was preparing to go to the 40th Anniversary Gala for Upper Darby Summer Stage – a night of celebration – I received a voicemail from another nun, a well-meaning colleague of Sister Florita’s. Sister, Jean, had died. In the days that followed her birthday party her pneumonia had reemerged. She had stopped eating and started bleeding internally. Her last week was not kind to her. She had suffered and was eventually put on extreme pain medication of unknown name that most likely hastened her passing even as it provided her some measure of peace. The nun felt certain that Jean had hung on long enough to celebrate her special day but had been privately aware of her declining health. I had been called because the nuns were instructed to go through her cell phone and alert everyone who was saved in her address book. I was in the book. I got a call. Seven days after Jean’s birthday the nuns had beaten me to the punch. Sister Florita was dead. There were to be no more “Happy Birthdays,” no more “I Love yous,” no more “We’ll try to come visits.” There was just a conversation with a stranger about funeral arrangements for a dead relative that I hadn’t made time for on her big day, and lots of guilt and regret.
As I prepare to go to her funeral on Thursday it occurs to me how ridiculous and asinine our priorities often are. Since her death I’ve been determined to get to her funeral at all costs, but I couldn’t take five minutes out of a relatively relaxed day to speak to her while she was alive. Is attending the funeral now a mark of respect to her, or is it an attempt to assuage the guilt I feel for not having been there for her at the end of her life? Even now, is the priority really about Sister Florita, or is it about me? I’m just not sure, but I suspect I don’t want to delve too deeply in search of the answer. What I do know is that this is a regular pattern in not only my life but in many people’s, and it is one that inevitably brings about regret and guilt. I have done this before with other loved ones who I thought would live forever, and it never turns out to my credit. It’s a hard lesson, but the message is so easy and clear: if you love someone, don’t be a stranger, make time for them, and never fail to show them at each opportunity how much you care about them. For each of us there will come a day when there is no “next time.”
As for myself, I need to remember her and this failure and do better. Jean, Sister Florita, deserved better. And just who was she? Well, she was my mother’s first cousin, and a regular houseguest, babysitter of mine, and influence during much of my early life. She drove my father crazy, ate us out of house and home, and frequently monopolized our television viewing. She was effervescently cheerful, chatty, and social, a folk guitarist, English teacher, and lover of both Sister Act and Nunsense . She was kind, simple, and a bit demanding, but she also bankrolled large portions of my higher education at Kutztown University and the National Shakespeare Conservatory with a private account that she kept through my mother despite having taken a vow of poverty. (Apparently she was also pragmatic.)She was a lover of God and Christ and yet knew less about the Bible than almost anyone I know. When I asked her about this once she laughed innocently, “I’m a nun. We don’t read the Bible much. I just say my prayers.” Nuns, like lay people, I suppose have the right to be complex. And every story I have to share about Jean is the same way: sweet, silly, a bit batty and nonsensical, and filled with a lot of love. And that’s how I’m going to choose to remember her when I go to the funeral on Thursday. A teacher for most of her life, in death she had one more lesson to impart to me on her way out and up. I hope I don’t miss the lesson this time.
Now that said, I hope you’ll excuse me. I think I’ll go call my mother.
I would suggest you all do the same.
RIP Sister Florita aka Jean Gehret and God Be With You