Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Flaw in a Missioner's Contract

Courtney and Kris, Emer's oldest friends, with me, at
Emer's wedding. Courtney entered the convent 2 days later. 
When I was home for some 33 days in June and July, Joel and I gave an extemporaneous talk to a group of novitiates at the Dominican Motherhouse, St. Cecilia congregation, in Nashville, Tennessee. One of my daughter Emer's dearest and oldest friends, Courtney, had joined the novitiate class and had issued us a special invitation to talk with her new sisters about mission in Bolivia. As I surveyed the group of bright, attentive women before me, I realized that they had given up family and friends to embrace their new lives as Dominican sisters. Just minutes before, as our family walked with Courtney, now Sister Courtney--Emer, her new husband, Alin, Joel and I--Courtney had been explaining that while she herself had agreed to the tenets of her life as a sister, other members of her family had been forced to accept a set of new rules, or a contract that they had not agreed to. Her mother, for example, would never have desired to sign a contract that would keep her from seeing her own daughter except on special days. The next year would bring even more isolation, as their lives became more cloistered, from their loved ones.

As I glanced at my own daughter, I realized that she had not wanted to sign this mission contract of ours, the one that her father and I had signed, that we would move to Bolivia for three years, to return only for major family events: a death in the family, a wedding, or the birth of a grandchild. We were able to take one vacation midway through our service, which was why we were walking with her in Nashville, Tennessee, at this moment Still, she had given us her blessing when we left, a blessing that is easier to give in the abstract than to maintain on a daily basis.

It had been six months ago that I had returned, in December 2010 to be with one of my dearest friends, Perle Dumas, whose physical condition was so dire that it was said that she would not live beyond that Christmas. At the age of eighty-four, she was recovering from a stroke that had paralyzed her right side. Still, when I saw her in the rehabilitation home in Crestview, Florida, she was sitting up in her wheelhair, waiting for me. She had determined that she would be sitting up, not lying down in bed, when I arrived. We talked as usual, although she tired easily. During my visit, she was able to come to her son's home and in addition eat at two of her favorite seafood restaurants in town. Except for the fact that she was tired, both mentally and physically, our visit went well. A couple of weeks later, I returned to see her with Emer and Alin. She gave Emer her Christmas present, and met Emer's new husband for the first time. She had not been able to attend the wedding because her stroke occurred just a month before.

I was unable to talk with her on the phone when I returned to Bolivia, though, because she was nearly deaf, and communication was possible only when I was in her physical presence. I felt that I was locked away from her, unable to communicate orally. All I could do was send her letters, and those were rare.

After my return to Bolivia, I heard that life had improved for Perle: her medication had been changed, and due to this change, thanks to the vigilance of her son, she was able to think clearly again. She had a serious love interest, and he was included in those nights away from the rehabilitation center when she dined out with her son and daughter-in-law. I was beginning to think that Perle would be there when I returned from Bolivia. She had even told me that she would be waiting for me.

Norbert, Perle, me, and Joel, waiting for Emer
after  Baccalaureate services

Both of us were wrong. She died on July 20th, and I have been trying to absorb this fact ever since. My daughter, her husband, and her friend Mike, who had met Perle at Emer and his graduation from Harvard, attended the memorial service.

Perle has been one of my major financial supporters while I am on mission. Like Joel and me, she felt strongly that we had been called to go to Bolivia. She has accompanied me nearly all of my life as a mentor and friend. Missioner contracts by definition entail separation from one's friends and family. This is the flaw, despite email, MagicJack, and Skype, and the fact that new friends fill our lives in our new country.  Still, one of the last things that Perle told me--Perle, who had come with our family to England and to Cambridge, Massachusettes, for Emer's graduation--was that she just didn't think that she would be able to make it to Bolivia. But on these sunny mornings when I walk to work, looking at the snow-covered peak of Tunari in the dawning day, I can believe that she has made it to Bolivia.

Tunari in the distance

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