My great aunt, Sister Dominic, sat in her chair in her room in the hospice ward of the convent. She was watching Mass on TV. It hadn’t even occurred to me that someone would televise Mass. But there she was, arguably too infirm to attend in person, so she watched Mass from her chair while I waited awkwardly, patiently, to talk to her.
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a year now since she passed away.
I didn’t know if she would know who I was. “Louie’s son” was about all I hoped for in terms of recognition. Senility comes quick with age in my family. I don’t expect to have too much in the way of memory or cognition in my eighties.
Sister D lived in a convent in Iowa, more than a thousand miles away from the rest of us, and she had cancer, and she was going to die. I was on tour to support an anarchist prisoner, and I timed my travels around visiting a convent. A kind of sweet irony, I figured.
I’d driven up to the convent and thrown on the crumpled suit I keep in a bag in my van. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more conscious of not owning deodorant.
I walked in. They’d been expecting me. Sister Dominic had been telling everyone I was coming for days. She knew who I was.
It’s easy to say I’ve always loved Sister D. After all, she was my great aunt—she was family. Of course I loved her. But still, I’ve always loved Sister D.
When my grandmother, Sister D’s sister-in-law, died in 2004, I was living without a cell phone in a squatted tenement in NYC. It’s pure luck I’d called my family in time to learn about the funeral, and I made it to the viewing without time to borrow proper clothes. It’s awkward to be a crust punk at a Catholic wake.
Sister D stood in the corner with me, though, her in her full habit, me in patched up pants and some filthy, sleeveless shirt.
“Everyone’s staring at us,” I said.
“I think it’s because we’re the only people dressed weird,” I said.
I grew up Catholic, sort of. My dad took me to Mass until I was maybe eleven or twelve. “Do you want to keep going to church?” he asked.
Of course I didn’t.
There was no judgement from him, no pressure. I stopped having to go to church.
My mom never went. I always thought it was because she was an atheist. In my twenties, she told me she was Catholic, but she didn’t go to mass because she didn’t want to hear someone tell her that it’s bad to be a woman.
After I stopped going to church, I mostly just stopped thinking about religion aside from its (largely-negative) political role in society. Maybe I went agnostic, inasmuch as one can convert to agnosticism.
My cousin came out to our large Irish Catholic family as a transwoman one year and came to Christmas presenting as a woman. I was sitting next to Sister D when my cousin came in.
“Now who’s that?” Sister D asked me.
“That’s Dani,” I told her. “She’s a woman now.” (If you’ll pardon my imperfect use of “now.”)
“Oh,” said Sister D, the elderly nun, “I bet she’s always felt that way.”
When the Christian Right really started coming into its own in this country during the Bush years (as far as I can figure), it really pissed me off. The war against women, the war against science, in the name of Jesus.
My great aunt was (is?) married to Jesus and she taught science and math her entire career. There was no contradiction between evolution and creation, in her mind. It literally just wasn’t even worth considering.
My early thirties have been hard, soul-searching years for me. Years of travel and anxiety and PTSD and poverty and heartbreak had been sort of piling up by the time I went to visit Sister D, and I honestly don’t know what I expected. I wonder if I was looking to connect with my family. I wonder if I was looking for absolution. I wonder if I was looking for God.
Instead I found my aunt. She was just a person. She was polite and tired and sick and senile and I don’t believe she thought she had too much in the way of wisdom to impart.
The only decoration on her wall was a muslim prayer rug. I asked her about it. “Everyone looks for God however they will,” she told me.
We went to dinner together in the cafeteria. No one cared how I poorly I was dressed, so long as I remembered to take my hat off for dinner. Her friends—she’d been friends with them longer than I or my father have been alive—came and sat with her. “Are you the handsome young man who shows up on his motorcycle?” one of them asked.
“That’s my dad,” I told them. My 61-year-old handsome-young-man dad. Since I showed up in a van instead of on a bike, I also have to recognize that my dad is cooler than me.
I’d been mistaken for my dad. Oh, I thought. I’m a grown man. This might seem obvious, from the outside. I was thirty at the time. But I’ve also never grown up, not how society sees it. I dress like I did ten years ago. I travel, I live in a van. I wear my hair funny and I’ve never bought furniture and I’ve never been married and my resume is pretty much a plain white piece of paper with my name scrawled across the top. (I freelance, instead of holding regular jobs.)
I asked Sister D a lot that day, mostly about her life. Whenever I asked her anything about her past, her friends answered for her. She’d become a nun because she wanted to teach and she didn’t want to get married and she cared about God. That’s what I remember the clearest.
We went on a walk in the garden. It wasn’t a dramatic place, just a small courtyard with some flowers and a decent view of some trees and the low Iowan city.
I asked her about death. Death has been on my mind these past few years.
She told me what I’d expected to hear: she wasn’t afraid of dying at all. She wasn’t in a hurry, but she knew what death meant and it didn’t phase her in the slightest.
That’s what I wanted, I realized. I wanted to be okay with dying. I wasn’t. I’m still not. I don’t have faith, not like she had.
After the walk, we went back to her room, and I opened up to her. It caught me off guard, but it didn’t confuse her at all.
“I don’t know that I believe in God,” I told her. To anyone else, or even to her a year prior, I think I would have phrased it “I don’t believe in God,” because frankly I don’t. I told her I don’t go to church and that I don’t know what I believe.
She thought about it for a moment, then replied.
“That’s fine,” she said. She thought a moment longer. “Just don’t have kids out of wedlock.”
I’ll take that to mean “don’t have kids you’re not going to be there to support,” and I’ll do my best, Sister D.
Evening came, I said my goodbyes to my aunt, and I left. She died a few months later. I was the last person in the family to visit. Most everyone else had come months before.
I didn’t really know her, not like how her friends knew her, not like how other people in my family knew her. Maybe I didn’t even know her like how her students knew her. But she was dear to me.
I think that death and divinity go hand-in-hand, and it might be I can’t think about the one with the other.
And I think about her prayer rug, and the pagans I’ve known, and Mjölnir, and I think that maybe asking what religion someone is is like asking what metaphor they prefer. The metaphor is not the thing itself, it is indicative of the thing. The problems start when people get hung up on which metaphors to use.
And maybe that’s obvious and not an epiphany to anyone. But I wanted to talk about Sister Dominic, and this is how it made sense to me to do so.