Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lessons from a departed sister

On July 9 I got one of those phone calls from overseas we always fear: My sister Maggie, a member of the Sisters of Charity, was very sick. The next day my wife Alice and I were on that long flight across the dark Pacific with plenty of time for somber self-centered thinking. Irish pessimism told me Maggie was dead, though we didn’t know for sure. I was alone now, I realized. All the others I grew up with—brothers, Maggie, parents, cousins—all were gone. If there was no one left to talk to about those days, would the memories themselves pass away? I also realized I had lost the best sister any man ever had.

I learned many things in the days after Maggie’s death. I had, for example, a small glimpse of God’s care of his aged followers; I learned of incidents in our family history that may have influenced what I have wound up doing in life: I recalled special memories of Maggie here in the Philippines, when we visited the Mangyan in their village outside Calapan, Mindoro. And I realized once again that the kindnesses we show people remain in their memories long after all other memories of us have faded.

At my sister’s funeral Mass about 200 Sisters of Charity attended. Nearly all are retired. The youngest nuns are in their 50s; only 10 percent of the nuns can put in a full day’s work. As an institution, the Sisters of Charity of New York are comparable to a retired person close to God after long years of loyal service. During the Mass I watched the older nuns prepare the ciboria and other vessels for Holy Communion. They were like sisters (small “s”) in their mother’s kitchen preparing a meal. They were so at ease, so at home there at the altar, so close to one another that God, who is mother and father, was clearly among them, chatting with them and helping shoulder to shoulder. God has a special love for the poor, the Church teaches. He has an equally special love for the old people who have served Him loyally all their lives. I was very happy Maggie was with the Sisters.

Cousins told me our great grandfather was evicted by England in the 1800s from the small farm he had outside Cork City, Ireland. The Murphys walked into the city without land or money and became what we now call “urban poor.” I’ve often wondered how I wound up in life working with urban poor people in Manila, especially those in danger of eviction. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the branch.

I remembered the day we went with Maggie to visit the Mangyan outside Calapan. We knew the Holy Spirit nuns who worked there, especially Sisters Magdalena and Victricia. The Mangyan gathered after dinner to greet the visitors. They sang and danced and told stories of their past. When Maggie’s turn came, she talked about the people of New York City and their tall buildings, crowded and noisy streets, and subways. She described how people went underground in the morning to get a train to work and came up at the end of the day. As she talked we noticed the people were troubled.

Much later Sister Victricia told me the Mangyan understood that New Yorkers lived underground like snakes and other wild animals. They felt so sorry for New Yorkers that every Sunday they prayed for them at Mass. Politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg may take credit for the progress that city has made in recent years, but maybe it was really due to the prayers of the Mangyan people.

In dealing with the illnesses of old people, Maggie, like most doctors and nurses, had her own bag of tricks. Kindness and street smarts are needed. In the last conversation we had by phone only a week before the fateful July 9 call, she told me about Henry, 87, who was a regular patient at her clinic for old people in Richmond University Medical Center, Staten Island  (the old St. Vincent’s Hospital). Henry complained of fits of sneezing. My sister examined him but could find nothing wrong. She did notice that every time he touched his chest, he started sneezing. She finished the examination, then told him in a very serious tone of voice:

 “Henry, you must not touch your chest ever again. Can you do that?”

“Yes, Sister.”

“Promise me now, you won’t touch your chest.”

“Yes, Sister.”

He returned a few months later. The sneezing had stopped and he said he had never again touched his chest.

All the people I talked with about Maggie—patients, colleagues, fellow sisters, friends and relatives—mentioned her unfailing kindness. The people we most admire in life are those who show kindness to all.

Meanwhile in the United States, columnist Charles M. Blow wrote in the New York Times (Aug. 10) of signs that Americans are becoming a people without pity or kindness. A cross section of Americans was asked, “What factor was most responsible for the continuing poverty in the country?” The respondents were given a list of possible causes. The cause singled out by most people interviewed was: “Too much welfare prevents initiative.”

To these people, poverty wasn’t due to a lack of education or of opportunities to work. Instead, they made the victims the guilty party. The poor are guilty because they are poor. The same results might be found here if such a test were administered. The Philippines cannot compete with other powerful countries if it relies solely on the skills of the capitalist world. It can compete and find its own appropriate mix of capitalism and culture if it remains a country of kindness and pity. Each people must moderate capitalism in their own way.

One more anecdote. My sister attended a community organization meeting in Lucena, Quezon, in 1982. One morning, instead of attending the sessions, Maggie, Fr. Tom Steinbugler and myself went to a nearby beach to swim. Suddenly there was a cry of shock and pain from Tom. He was bent over in the water. We got him up on shore and saw he had been bitten or stung by a jellyfish across his stomach. He had a hard time breathing.

My sister told him to bend over and breathe deeply. She told me later she didn’t know what to do. Tom later told me he feared he might die, and might have to go to confession to me. I thought we should urinate on the wound, but no man can pee on his own stomach, and I knew he’d rather die than have me pee on him. There was all this confusion, and then a woman from a fisherman’s shack farther up the beach came running with the traditional cure, vinegar. We put some on the red ugly wound and soon the crisis was over. The woman had seen our problems and knew right away what to do.

We were three very well educated persons there, but none of us knew what every adult and child in that area must know—that vinegar is the cure for a jellyfish sting. They also knew it was foolish to go in the water in the jellyfish season.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (urbanpoorassociates@ymail.com).

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