Sprawled out in coach, I settled next to my husband as he rooted through his stack of unread New Yorkers. Contemplating the tiny bottles of chardonnay coming my way, I had just been assured by the flight attendant how lucky I was to have no one seated to the other side of me. A few moments later she returned, pulled me aside and whispered, “I’m so sorry but you’ll have to move over. Someone needs this seat.” I sighed and began to shift my belongings. Great, I thought. Of all the open seats on this plane, why did they have to put this person next to me?
The flight attendant continued. “This woman was kind enough to offer up her first class seat to a boy who has been separated from his family.” I brooded. She gave up a first class seat in order to reunite a family? I thought, It’s official. I’m a selfish bitch.
It was when I came face to face with this woman that my heart softened. She was quite a bit older than me, and needed a cane to help her walk. Still secured by my seatbelt I attempted to rise. Instead I stood there—in limbo—as she snickered. Then we both burst out laughing.
As we introduced ourselves, Patricia caught sight of the Ireland map, which I had placed on my fold-down tray. She squinted over her glasses and asked me to help her pinpoint the town of Macroom, County Cork, her destination and where she had grown up.
Once Patricia and I began our conversation, it was as if we were best friends or sisters attempting to catch up on the latest news—in this case, a lifetime of news while being transported across the Atlantic overnight. It reminded me of how my own sister and I would talk through the night as teenagers.
It turned out that Patricia had once been a sister with the Daughters of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns. I didn’t know this at first, of course, but the tell-tale traces were apparent in her attire. The tailored poly-blend blazer, practical oxford shoes, black handbag, and gold crucifix on a thin chain around her neck, and her short, simple hairstyle were features my amateur eye identifies with ex-nuns particularly of Patricia’s generation. Yet her inclination for a cocktail and drag from the Salem Lights sticking out of her purse implied she no longer lived according to strict convent rules.
We had both purchased mini-bottles of wine from the flight attendant. As we settled into each other’s company, I twisted off the caps and poured for both of us. I also introduced her to my husband, Charlie, while I had the chance as he has a knack for falling asleep before take-off.
Patricia confided she had joined the convent in 1960. She had been assigned to help the sick and poor of Calcutta. I asked if she had worked with “her,” meaning Mother Teresa. She nodded yes, eyebrows arched in acknowledgement.
Mother Teresa has always been my hero, her name my answer to the philosophical question asked at cocktail parties, “Who would you want to have lunch with if you could choose anyone at any time in history?”
As a child I wanted to be a sister like my Catholic school teachers. This was, no doubt, a response to my music instructor Sister Loretta’s urging that I consider the convent. I wanted to imitate Sister’s sweetness and purity. I had even chosen my convent name: Sister Cecelia, patron saint of music.
The convent seemed a genuinely appealing and respectable life path with its potential for solitude, purposeful days, and opportunity to work with children, as well as a way to help others while pleasing my parents and God. The convent would be my first brave step toward independence. Although this life would mean I must forego many freedoms and ordinary desires such as marriage and family, the concepts of meaningful sacrifice and unique experiences overruled the idea of mainstream expectations.
I believed I would thrive in an African village, living like a free-spirited Peace Corps volunteer. Okay, I would wear a habit and wimple and there would be no guys, but my innocence cancelled out these concerns.
I would teach English and Religion, not that I felt an urgency to spread my faith; but it seemed of immense importance to provide basic human rights to those who might not otherwise experience them. I was convinced this work would be noble and worthwhile. I imagined myself walking gently among children as I cared for them, immune from stress or disease. I was certain God would protect me because my intentions were pure.
But pure intentions did not save Patricia. She had gone to Calcutta, and while there, fell ill with Hodgkin’s disease. She was forced to abandon the children and convent she loved so she could seek treatment for her cancer. She ultimately went into permanent remission, but she never returned to the convent. Instead, she took a clerical position at Watergate Condominiums in Washington D.C. She befriended high profile people such as Senator Ted Kennedy. It’s no surprise an Irish nun from County Cork would connect with a Kennedy. My mother’s mother was a Kennedy, and I fancied they might all have been distant cousins.
Patricia had apparently impressed her employer. After he died, she learned he had bequeathed her his manor home in Arlington, Virginia. Patricia’s alliance with the Daughters of Charity’s mission prompted her to donate the home to further the order’s good work. It was converted it into an AIDS orphanage, now owned and operated by Patricia, the sisters, and lay volunteers.
The day before our flight Patricia had attended a private audience and blessing in D.C. with the Pope. She showed me her bruised hands and arms, a longtime side effect from radiation therapy, which had cured the Hodgkin’s. But subsequent physical problems arose from this treatment, which necessitated that Patricia receive weekly blood transfusions in order to stay alive. She wore bandages on her arms, which supported her veins and arteries and staved off pain.
For most of the journey my husband rested, but during dinner he shared some of my conversation with Patricia. Upon landing at Shannon we collected our belongings and bid Patricia goodbye. She invited me to stop in Macroom during our travels around the country. Her delightful brogue, compassionate nature and resilience resonated with me. We vowed to stay in touch and exchanged contact information. I watched her with a twinge of sadness as she moved through the passport line in a wheelchair for I realized I would probably never see her again.
I had ignored my husband for Patricia during a good portion of the flight. In usual form, he had graciously allowed me my time with a new friend, but he, too, was intrigued by her.
Several nights later, as Charlie and I lay next to each other in our hotel room on the shores of western Ireland, I told him how deeply Patricia’s life story affected me. We were both Catholic and of Irish heritage, but it was more than that. A bond existed between us as if we were spirit sisters. My childhood desires had been reawakened as she spoke of her hospice work with children from a faraway land. My dream of becoming a nun had faded once I grew up and realized I would rather raise a family of my own.
I questioned whether a universal plan brought Patricia and me together, and I sensed she felt a connection to me, too. Soon after my return from Ireland, I would call her on the phone one afternoon hoping she remembered me. She would answer:
“Of course I remember you! I get a bit bored here sometimes, but you know, a little sherry helps. In fact, my brother and I are having a glass right now.” Patricia would thank me for calling and say, “You know, there’s something special about you, I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
I suggested to my husband that perhaps Patricia and I had been destined to meet. I wondered if perhaps she might consider me a suitable heiress, one who could take over the responsibility of her orphanage. My husband, surprisingly, did not think my musings daft or greedy. We agreed that the prospect of throwing off our preoccupation with mortgage payments and Dish satellite bills seemed liberating. I would discard my penchant for fine dining, gourmet chocolate and entertaining. Instead, I considered the privilege of caring for children with AIDS as I carried on Patricia’s mission, and achieved my childhood aspiration to live as selfless humanitarian.
During my plane ride home to Vermont, I thought of Patricia. I left her behind, confident she was in the care of her brother and sister while she enjoyed her days in Macroom. I wondered how long she would live for although she seemed in good spirits and fully engaged in life, she was fragile and I knew she suffered.
My husband watched the in-flight movie and napped intermittently. I daydreamed of Ireland’s castles, pubs and green countryside. I perused the Country Living magazine I had purchased at the airport newsstand. I wondered if our house sitter had fed our cats and cleaned their litter like he promised he would. I had missed them, excited to be returning home.
I considered where Charlie and I might have dinner while waiting at JFK for our connecting flight to Burlington. I hoped our layover in New York wouldn’t be prolonged or uncomfortable, and I prayed for gentle re-entry into life as I knew it.
Eileen Brunetto earned her MFA from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where she studied nonfiction and memoir. Her writing has been featured in The MacGuffin Literary Magazine and The Pitkin Review. She lives with her husband in Addison County, Vermont.