Editor’s note: In this blog, missioner Megan Hamilton welcomes readers into one of her ministries in Kingston, Jamaica, where she lives with the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany in their convent. As Megan reflects on the enduring personalities of the sisters in the infirmary, she invites readers to consider how other important things endure, even when age may limit one’s abilities.
The Infirmary Sisters have dementia and live on the floor above me. I go upstairs two or three times a week for play-dates.
My main mon (in Jamaica we all get called mon sometimes,) is teeny, tiny Sister Maria Goretti. Her white hair is razor straight. Her humped back is not. Her disease limits her speech to be as brief as she is short. In the old days she was a high-energy force of nature, frenetic as a bee, glinting with intelligence. Her friends loved her dry, take-no-prisoners one-liners so much they named them: Goretticisms. Her name is Sister Maria Goretti. She is boss of play-dates because she is NOT afraid to make a decision.
I come in and start fun-shouting at the ladies to wake everyone out of recliner stupor. Sr. Goretti focuses her wide-open eyes on me. “Sr. Goretti do you want to do some exercises?” I ask, leaning in to hear “Yes.” Now imagine if that “yes” is in the deep, gravely voice of a big, biker dude who smokes a super lot. Lighten the volume – et voila! That is Sr. Goretti’s voice coming out of all sixty-two pounds of her.
We do our “chair exercises” as I call them, or “dance parties” as one of the caregivers dubs them. One day I am worried my music will be flat – not fresh enough. But in a way dementia is liberating. These sisters, like me, forget so…it is all fresh! I put on my mission theme song.
“Rivers of Babylon” by Jamaica’s Melodians is a rock-steady classic from 1970, with lyrics pulled from two Psalms. I put it on loud on my trusty speaker, and yell “Arms up!” Sr. Goretti with slams her right arm up, and wallops herself back into her recliner. I wouldn’t say she is graceful but she has great velocity. Next to her, Sister Mags is graceful, really graceful. I don’t know how many dance floors Sister Mags has been on but she must’ve been a vision. Her arms fluidly echoing rhythms with flexing wrists, shimmering fingers picking out melodies, she watches her body with surprised elation.
Right of Mags is Sister Greta who I usually refer to as “not a joiner.” Her standard stance is slumped in her recliner, arms crossed over her chest, her eyes semi-closed in fake sleep. Sister Greta is the master of the elegant brush off. If you ask her to do anything she details a lengthy, obscure explanation as to why she can’t, all this in an elegant Jamaican accent, with a condescending tone clearly inferring you aren’t worthy of hanging out with anyway.
But today caregiver Claudette says “Sister Greta is singing!” And indeed, with her eyes still half-closed, quietly she does. What really slays me though is she punches out the rhythm with this super cool, twisty wrist, hipster hand gesture that says “I OWN this song, I understand this music better than any of you mortals.” She reminds me of an uber-informed, hard-core jazz fan.
The Sisters dance in their chairs. The caregivers and I dance on the floor. We play Rivers of Babylon AGAIN. Then we play Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and (as a Jamaican buddy refers to him) The Honorable Robert Nesta Marley. It is the best chair exercises EVER.
In the Infirmary so much is stripped away: our memories, our shared reality, our beauty, our mobility, much of our cognition and health. I respect the grieving that friends and family must do, the recurring angst I see in the Infirmary Sisters eyes. That which goes is what we tend to think of as the most important stuff. But in fact what is left IS the most important stuff: our souls, our humanity, those essential sparks flashing out from under the bushel basket that define who we are, who God made us to be. Sister Greta owns her music. Sister Mags is a brilliant dancer. Sister Goretti is still not afraid to make decisions and be in charge. With much gone the fundamentality of God’s graces stand in stark relief. It is pretty much all that is left, and in way, more easily for me no doubt since I didn’t know them when, it is a new kind of beautiful.
We’ve play so many songs we get behind schedule and have to make a decision. I ask “Sister Goretti should we play Speed-Adding Dominos or say a Rosary?” Gravel voiced returns: “Speed-Adding Dominos.” I think that rather nervy coming from a Sister. But she is especially good at Speed-Adding Dominos where we rapid-fire add the numbers on the domino, then multiply them. But she is also good at saying Rosaries.
One day, before Sister Greta started (semi) joining us, when Mags is at the doctor’s, Sister Goretti and I say a Rosary with just us.
In our usual format I say the Hail Marys with Sisters Mags and Greta, and Sister Goretti says the Amens. If she forgets, (not often,) I nudge her with my elbow. On this day I think what the heck. “Sister Goretti would you like to say a Hail Mary?” “Yes.” Then sotto voce, speedy as can be, barely but indeed audible, Sister Goretti pumps the complete prayer out of a deep, deep well of memory. So a decade or two later I ask, “Do your want to say an Our Father?” Again it comes. I am radiantly happy. Sister Goretti is digging it too. We are clear we are each doing what we are supposed to do to manifest God’s love on this island, in this country, in this convent, by this window in the steamy hot infirmary, with the view of the mountains framed by luminous blue sky, and electric red-orange poinciana trees. We are right with our God, and with each other, Sister Goretti and I.