A good death: Witnessing the final days of a Kansas nun BY JUDITH VALENTE



I have always had a terrible fear of death. Perhaps it comes from having parents who were middle-aged when I was born and looked more like my friends’ grandparents. Grandparents had the unfortunate habit of dying. I feared my parents would do the same, leaving me bereft. As it turned out, both of them survived well into old age, my mother dying at 86, my father at 97.

That still didn’t stop me, many nights, from waking in a cold terror at the thought that one day I, too, am going to die. I remember watching Guy Lombardo’s orchestra one New Year’s Eve and weeping uncontrollably to the lyrics of “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” certain the song’s message was directed at me. I was 4 years old at the time.

For most of my adult life, I was able to remain antiseptically removed from death. Both my parents died suddenly, while I was living in another city. I am still young enough not to have lost any friends my own age. I never had to sit at a dying person’s bedside. I had never watched the frame-by-frame unfolding of the death gurgle, the skin’s mottling, the final gasp for breath.

That changed when I began making regular visits to Mount St. Scholastica monastery in Atchison, Kan.

I first went to “the Mount” in 2007 to give a presentation with my husband on “Touching the Sacred Through Poetry” at the retreat center there. We stayed for five days, speaking as well to classes at nearby Benedictine College. It was the first time I’d spent any length of time in a monastic setting.

Something about the way the sisters eased through their days intrigued me. They approached even minor tasks with a mindfulness that was unmistakable. They seemed to have an innate sense for the right thing at the right time.

One of the first friends I made was 90-year-old Sister Lillian Harrington. One day I asked Sister Lillian if, at her age, she thought often about death. She looked at me as if I didn’t understand old people at all. Then she drilled her pale blue eyes into mine and said something I’ve never forgotten: “I don’t think about dying,” she said, “I think about living.”

I began to sense these sisters had something to teach a modern, married, professional woman like me that I wouldn’t find in the self-help books lining the shelves of Barnes & Noble. I asked if I could return to the Mount and spend some time interviewing the sisters. I wanted to know how they dealt with conflict, loss, disappointment and growing older.

Mostly I wanted to know if they could help me deal with the fear of death that marched through my days.

The Mount in mid-autumn is a study in splendor. The feather reed grasses sway like long styluses in the wind. The cooler weather paints the trees on the Missouri River bluffs into an artist’s palette. Cockscombs, with their red, cabbage-sized blossoms, add flashes of fire to the monastery gardens. The air is pungent with the scent of burning wood and dry leaves. And yet, this world is slowly dying.

A parallel story played out as I arrived for a visit in October 2009. A member of the monastery lay close to death. The community had begun “sitting with” Sister Phyllis.

It is a longstanding ritual. Whenever a community member is dying, the sisters keep a 24-hour vigil at her bedside. Unless someone is stricken suddenly or away from the community, no one in the monastery dies alone.

I did not know Sister Phyllis well. But I remembered her from a night shift I’d observed in the monastery’s nursing care wing on a prior visit. Frozen in dementia, Sister Phyllis wouldn’t — or couldn’t — respond when spoken to. She refused her medication. It was as if she had expended her last coins on life and wasn’t about to throw any more good money after bad.

A few days after my first encounter with her, I was browsing in the monastery gift shop. A photograph on a greeting card caught my eye. The photographer had captured the precise moment in a sunset when the sky turns from mango to berry blue. Mottled clouds hovered over a black, mysterious shoreline.

It was a photograph of considerable artistic depth. I flipped the card over. On the backside it said, “Photo by Phyllis Dye, OSB.”

I bought it. For some reason I didn’t quite understand, every time I came to the Mount for months afterward, I kept Sister Phyllis’ photograph displayed on my writing desk. It was difficult to reconcile the vibrant, keen-eyed photographer who captured that sunset with the shell of a woman I’d seen at the Dooley Center, the nursing care wing.

Sister Anne Shepard, the Mount’s prioress, accompanied me to Sister Phyllis’ bedside. Sister Phyllis wore a flowered nightgown and looked as if she had shrunk several sizes since I’d last seen her. She lay on her side. A scapular — a stamp-sized square of brown cloth with an image of Jesus’ heart — fell across her chest. I asked one of the sisters about the scapular. “We wear them to remind us of God’s protection, especially in the hour of death,” Sister Thomasita Homan told me.

The nurses had placed a moist washcloth over Sister Phyllis’ forehead. Oxygen tubes extended from her nostrils. The breathing mechanism made a tss tss sound like a metronome. It competed with the low gurgle coming from Sister Phyllis’ throat. I thought, So this is dying.

“There’s going to be great fishing in heaven,” Sister Thomasita said softly, rubbing Sister Phyllis’ hand. Sister Phyllis had been an avid fisher.

“Pa is waiting for you, Phyllis,” Sister Thomasita said, recalling the name Sister Phyllis used to call her father.

An autographed photograph of the Foggy River Boys in red tuxedo jackets was tacked to Sister Phyllis’ closet door, just as it was the last time I’d been in this room. Only now, in these circumstances, the picture looked ridiculously out of place.

Sister Anne lifted the dying woman’s hand. “Mottling is setting in,” she said loudly enough that I feared Sister Phyllis could hear her. It meant Sister Phyllis’ blood flow was slowing, turning the skin of her hands and feet a brownish-yellow color. It meant death was near.

“There’ll be no more pain when you get to heaven,” Sister Anne said.

“The sooner the better,” another sister chimed in.

Why are they saying these things? I thought. If hearing is the last sense to go, then Sister Phyllis probably heard all this. Why didn’t they tell her to keep fighting, hold on to life?

Together the sisters prayed an “Our Father.” I did not join in. Occasionally Sister Phyllis grimaced. Her eyes, when she opened them, appeared moist. Was she weeping because she was touched by the prayers or because she realized she was dying? Or perhaps she wasn’t crying at all.

I visited Sister Phyllis again the following day. She had a favorite cat among the monastery’s strays called Ebony. The nurses placed Callie, another of the cats, at the foot of Sister Phyllis’ bed after determining that Ebony probably was too wild to let inside.

By now, Sister Phyllis’ breathing had become more labored: only six breaths a minute, followed by 45 seconds of apnea, or not breathing. Every hour, Sister Mary Collins, head of pastoral care at the Dooley Center, checked in on her.

“I was with Sister Phyllis when her father was dying,” Sister Mary told me. “He went the same way, holding on. You wonder why.”

At a quarter to 5 the next morning, the phone rang in my guest room. It was Sister Anne, the prioress, telling me that Sister Phyllis had died. Sister Mary Rae Schrick, a physician’s assistant from the community, had recorded the death just 15 minutes prior.

Each of the sisters was informed as they awakened. One by one, they made their way to Sister Phyllis’ room to pay their respects. Sister Anne invited me to do the same.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to see someone who had been dead only a matter of minutes. I wondered if the sisters would be overcome with emotion. Would I be able to keep my own emotions in check?

Sister Phyllis lay face up on her bed in a paisley nightgown, the cloth square of her scapular still on her chest. Her eyelids were not quite closed. She looked like someone who had drifted into the first moments of sleep. Her lips were parted ever so slightly. I could see some silver bridgework on her bottom left molars.

But what a stunning transformation! Her skin was practically luminous now. Her face, no longer grimaced in pain, looked smooth as a much younger woman’s. The room was so quiet I could hear my own breathing. The quietude of death, I thought.

Dying is ugly. But death, death has a certain beauty. It reminded me of how one season spills into another, sometimes imperceptibly. Death in that context seemed to flow naturally from life, like the crossing from the womb into this world.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Schweiger, the monastery’s sub-prioress, was already in the room when I arrived, making sure Sister Phyllis’ clothing, eyeglasses and rosary would be ready when the undertakers came.

“Do you have your ring, Phyllis?” Sister Mary Liz asked, gently lifting a stiff hand from beneath a blanket to see if Sister Phyllis was wearing the Benedictine ring she had received the day she took her final vows. It was still on her left ring finger. The nurses hadn’t removed it.

“Death is such a mystery,” Sister Mary Liz said. “As many sisters as we’ve seen die over the years, we still really don’t know what takes place. When my mother was dying, my sister Martha and I were with her. But I have another sister who was coming in from California. We didn’t know if she would get there in time. So my sister said, ‘Tell her if I’m not there yet, it’s OK for her to go. She doesn’t have to wait for me. If she can get into heaven one minute sooner, she should do it.’

“So I told that to my mother. Now, my mother had been hard of hearing since the age of 18. But not 20 minutes after I said that, she died.”

Sister Mary Liz’s eyes filled with tears. “In that moment, I believe my mother could hear again.”

Some sisters die peacefully, Sister Mary Liz said. Some struggle quite a bit. “One kept stretching her hands out in front of her, for whatever reason. Another would bless every person who came into the room.”

Sisters began streaming into Sister Phyllis’ room to offer a final goodbye. “She’s the first one of our class to go,” said Sister Bernelda Nanneman, a small, jovial sister with a shock of short white hair.

“Whenever she came home with me, she’d say, ‘Tell your mother to make that chopped suey stuff,’ ” recalled Sister Rosemary Bertels, another of her classmates.

No one cried. Except me. I was so moved by the affection the sisters showed for the friend they had lost. At Morning Praise later that morning, we sang the words of Psalm 1, “Happy are they who hope in the Lord.” I thought of Sister Phyllis.

I wanted to know more about her past in the monastery. From the sisters’ memories, a portrait emerged, in stages, the way a photographic image grows gradually sharper in a basin of darkroom chemicals.

Sister Phyllis wasn’t a scholar or a sought-after speaker. She taught reading to children in schools across Kansas and Missouri. And when she retired, she asked to return home to the monastery to do “quiet, plain work.” She tended the gardens, made flower arrangements for the dining room tables and preserved fruits and vegetables in the canning house. Quiet, plain work.

A brother had died before she was born. Then her mother died when she was quite young. Her father, who served in the military, often left her in the care of relatives. Though her family was Protestant, she attended a boarding school the sisters ran at the Mount. With what must have taken considerable courage, she informed her Baptist relatives in her sophomore year of college that she was converting to Catholicism. Two years later, she joined the monastic community.

A cousin, Florida journalist Ann Hyman, had written about Sister Phyllis in a memoir. Sister Phyllis had lived with the Hyman family briefly when she was 13 and Hyman was 7. One morning, Hyman woke to find Phyllis gone. She had been whisked away to yet another relative’s house.

“I just remember, afterward,” Hyman wrote, “wandering around the house and the yard and the neighborhood looking for her, and knowing that she was gone, and looking for her anyway.”

The two lost touch for many years. But one summer in the mid-1990s, Hyman decided to visit the Mount. She expected her cousin to be like the sisters in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” The person she encountered was more like Huck Finn. Sister Phyllis took Hyman fishing on the Mississippi.

Passing tall rows of ripening corn, Sister Phyllis told her cousin, “If you stand quietly in the middle of a field, you can hear the corn grow.”

With Sister Phyllis’ death, the normally quiet atmosphere inside the monastery felt slightly more subdued. Still, business went on as usual.

The community met for prayers at the appointed times. Some of the sisters participated in a walk to raise money for cancer. Others watched a DVD of the dog flick “Marley & Me.” One tended to a parakeet with an injured wing.

When my mother died, she was all I could think about. I didn’t want to talk. Laughter offended me.

My mother died two days before the terrorist attacks in 2001. While the rest of the country remained transfixed, I watched next to nothing of the news coverage. Like the rest of the nation, I spent those days ensconced in a personal shell of shock and grief, but mine was over a single person who died in a hospital half a country away from any of those attacks.

The routine at the Mount surprised and puzzled me.

“When I first came into the community and someone died, I couldn’t understand why people weren’t crying,” Sister Thomasita later told me. “But after seeing many deaths here, I realized why. Death is what everyone works toward. Death is our earthly culmination.”

One of my favorite Mount sisters is 94-year-old Sister Kathleen Egan. Sister Kathleen lives in the Dooley Center nursing care wing. I visited with her on the afternoon Sister Phyllis died. As always, Sister Kathleen was impeccably dressed: navy blue skirt and matching blazer, pale blue blouse. I inquired about what she’d been up to lately.

“People ask me what I do with my days. I tell them it doesn’t matter to me what I do. Every day is wonderful, because I don’t have many more left,” she said. “I love every day because it might be my last.

“Look at those lovely roses,” she said, interrupting herself to point to a garden beyond the large picture windows of the nursing care center. “Look at that tall one! Can you see it?” She motioned to a single red bloom that had sprouted above the others. I hadn’t noticed it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful roses than the ones this year,” she said.

Sister Kathleen has a theory. It is that our lives on Earth are merely an interlude. “That’s not to denigrate this life,” she said. “This life is a gift. But it’s a gift we’re given between the life we left behind when we were born and the life we’re returning to.”

That afternoon, I watched from a window as three squirrels romped among a cluster of spruce trees. I watched them for a long time. The day before, I probably would not have paused. I would not have noticed.

I felt grateful to be still among the living, an inhabitant of this world Sister Kathleen calls an interlude between two destinations.

When the hearse carrying Sister Phyllis’ coffin arrived at the monastery, the sisters were lined up at the entrance to meet it.

It was an overcast day, a fine mist falling. The yellow leaves of a Cleveland pear tree just outside the doorway shone like patches of light in the mist. The sisters stood at attention as bells tolled in the monastery tower. I had seen the dead received with such solemnity only at state funerals or military interments at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sister Anne dipped a fern branch in a glass bowl filled with water and sprinkled the plain silver coffin. Beside it, one of the sisters stood holding a framed copy of the handwritten vows Sister Phyllis had signed on Jan. 1, 1956, the day she made her permanent commitment to the Mount community.

Another sister read from the Rule of St. Benedict: “Never swerving from God’s instructions, then, but faithfully observing God’s teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his glory.”

I thought about the day I might have to stand in this entranceway to say goodbye to the sisters who have become my close friends and mentors: Sister Lillian, Sister Thomasita, Sister Kathleen and so many others. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

With the casket in front of us, we marched down a long corridor to St. Lucy’s Chapel, where Sister Phyllis attended daily Mass in the last years of her life. Two by two, in silence, we approached the casket to pay our respects.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I looked inside that coffin. But what I saw astounded me. The person lying there, in a white blouse and simple black blazer, was nothing like the woman I had seen moments after her death. That woman was peaceful, almost radiant. The body in the casket seemed little more than a carcass, dull and hard as clay.

I remembered something my mother’s undertaker had told me after her wake.

Before becoming a funeral director, Whit Sloane had trained to be a Presbyterian minister. After my mother died, I felt compelled to learn all I could about what the various faith traditions have to say about the soul and an afterlife. I’d interviewed Sloan for a series I reported for Chicago Public Radio called “In Search of the Soul.”

“This work brings you to a clear understanding that there is something beyond this life,” Sloan had told me. “As undertakers, we are agents of change, of that transfer, that crossing over. We are servants of a great mystery. I don’t know any funeral directors or embalmers who don’t believe there is something more than the body, who don’t believe in the soul.”

When I asked Sloan to tell me the most striking thing he had learned about death, he spoke of the transformation he sees in the body. He used an interesting term to describe it. He said it is as if the body’s “essential spark” has moved elsewhere. All that remains is “organic matter.” I didn’t know what he meant until I stared into Sister Phyllis’ coffin and saw how much had changed since those first moments after her death.

Sister Thomasita once told me she’s come to view the moment of death as a time of “release.” Yes, I thought, release. That’s a good word for it.

We gathered again the next morning for Sister Phyllis’ funeral. The chapel was dimly lit. Outside a light rain fell.

“I know that my Redeemer lives,” the sisters sang, “and on that last day I shall rise again. In my body I will look on God my savior.”

I know that my Redeemer lives. They sang the words with such conviction. It was as if they were singing to convince those of us who still fear and doubt.

We grabbed our coats and headed out back behind the monastery where the cemetery slopes on a hill with row upon row of white tombstones. Every sister who has died since the Mount was founded in 1863 is buried there, all 600 of them. Perched atop earth movers, the gravediggers stared down on us from a hill. Their ample bellies flowed over their dungarees, their hooded red sweatshirts blazed under the gray sky. They were not at all like the pale, emaciated chess master in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” whose visit meant only one thing.

These were the real grim reapers. They were waiting for Sister Phyllis and, in a sense, for us all.

We formed a kind of procession with one of the sisters carrying a bronze crucifix and briskly leading the way. Behind her strode the monk from St. Benedict’s Abbey who had presided over the funeral Mass. He wore a worn leather jacket over his priest’s vestments and a wool cap. A pair of bad-fitting black work boots stuck out ridiculously from under his white robe. The sisters followed in their sensible shoes and simple clothes taken from the racks of their recycle store. They walked with such abandon to that gravesite. I thought, these must be the only truly free people in America.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has written: “We are of a nature to die. There is no way to escape death. … Our actions are our only true belongings. … Our actions are the ground on which we stand.”

I glanced at Sister Phyllis’ simple silver coffin ready to enter the earth, at Father Benjamin’s worn shoes, the sisters in their secondhand clothes. They knew the secret. Our actions are our only true belongings.

The week after I returned home from Sister Phyllis’ funeral, two stories in The New York Times caught my attention. One chronicled the troubles of the once-thriving Simmons Bedding Co., maker of the famous Beautyrest mattress. Simmons had been bought and sold several times, with each successive owner acquiring increasing amounts of debt. To cut costs, a thousand workers — a quarter of Simmons’ workforce — had been laid off. The current owners were Thomas H. Lee Partners of Boston. The Lee partners were considering placing the company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but not before they paid themselves hundreds of millions of dollars in special dividends and fees. The Times called what had happened to Simmons “a tale of these financial times.”

The second article was an obituary. Bruce Wasserstein, whom I remembered from my days as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, masterminded the kind of corporate takeovers that made billionaires of investment bankers, while costing thousands of workers their livelihood. He had died at age 61, apparently of heart failure.

The sisters have a tradition whenever a community member dies. The night before the burial, they gather for storytelling. A cousin told of taking Sister Phyllis home for a visit. Sister Phyllis was particularly fond of the woman who helped the family with housekeeping. When it was time to return to the Mount, the cousin noticed Sister Phyllis wasn’t wearing her coat. She had given it to the housekeeper.

“Phyllis, didn’t you say you just got that coat?” the cousin asked.

“That’s OK,” Sister Phyllis said. “I can get another one.”

I thought of Sister Phyllis and Bruce Wasserstein, how they had come to the same end. I thought of the Simmons mattress company owners and how they — all of us — are headed to that same end. Not a billion-dollar bank account or a single cent can change that. Yet it was Sister Phyllis — a woman who never had a personal account, who owned nothing except what she held in common with her monastic community — who felt rich enough and secure enough to give away her only coat.

Theologian Karl Rahner has written, “The only thing we take with us at the time of death is I myself, as I was in this life in the depths of my own heart. A heart that was either full of love or full of spite and hidden selfishness.”

Sister Phyllis didn’t know me. We never had a conversation; she was too ill for that by the time we met. But from her, and the Mount sisters, I learned something of what it means to have a good death.

They taught me that dying can be a painful process. But it doesn’t have to be lonely. They showed me that death is as natural as winter crossing into spring. We fear it because we don’t know where it leads, just as we didn’t know where we were headed when we journeyed from the womb into this life. But somehow, instinctively, we knew it was time to forge ahead.

I’m still not wild about the fact that one day I, too, am going to die. And so is everyone else I love. But as much as Sister Phyllis taught me about death, she taught me even more about life.

The only thing I can take from it is I, myself. Not my bank account, the books I love, my accomplishments, my awards, but my heart. A heart that will be either full of compassion or hidden selfishness.

I’m grateful to Sister Phyllis for removing some of the sting of death. I like to think that, because of her, I’d no longer be afraid to give away my only coat.

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