We're excited to bring this novel by CatholicMom.com contributing author Sherry Boas to our readers, one chapter at a time. Each Sunday at 9 AM Pacific, a new chapter in Until Lily will be posted. We thank Sherry for her generosity in sharing this book here and encourage you to check out the other books in the Lily series.
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Not everyone around here gets a memorial, but Father Fitz is holding one for Agnes in the chapel today after daily Mass. Agnes’ children have flown her body home to Wisconsin. She died in her sleep early Sunday morning. Heart attack. I still can’t believe she’s gone. I don’t know why I always assumed I would die before her, even though she was five years older. I never considered that I might be in this place without her.
The memorial is simple. Father Fitz says some prayers and talks about how he was told by all the deacons that she sat in the front row of that chapel every day. He tells how he first came to the Manor House because he was filling in for a deacon who was sick and couldn’t make it out to preside over the Communion service.
“After Mass that day,” Father tells the small gathering of patients and nurses, “this tiny lady, wearing a white shawl that reminded me of sheep’s fleece, wheeled herself up to me and pressed a prayer card of St. Therese in my hand and said she was going to offer all her sufferings for my priesthood. On the prayer card was this quote from St. Therese:
'All shall be for Him, all! And even when I have nothing to offer Him I will give Him that nothing.’”
Father Fitz says, on that day, his destiny changed. He had gone into seminary with great hopes of someday being a bishop, or who knows, maybe even a cardinal. After he met Agnes, he no longer saw the priesthood as a career, but as a calling to win souls for God, one at a time in quiet humility. He became a devotee to the cloistered Carmelite nun, who had lived her life in obscurity.
Lily got the morning off from work to attend the memorial. She wept so hard when I told her Agnes had passed away, it scares me to think about how she will suffer when I die. They say adolescents and adults with Down syndrome are at a higher risk for depression than other people, especially after someone dies. I believe that’s because they feel so deeply. The bigger the love, the more profound the loss. Like a child, Lily is pure, raw, unedited emotion. I ache for what lies in her future and wish she could form a deep attachment to another human being before I go. Thanks to Terry, there might be a chance of that.
When Father Fitz asks the rest of us to share memories of Agnes, Lily is the first to raise her hand. Father smiles at her and motions her to the lectern. As she stands, talking into the microphone, I think back to when she was a little girl of 5 or 6 and couldn’t say more than twenty words, most of which were unintelligible. I never would have believed back then that I would be hearing that child give a public address. But there she is telling about how Agnes always had a smile for her and gave her a blessing as she left every night.
“She was a real nice lady,” she says. I’m not sure how many people understand what she is saying, given her speech impediment, sinuses full of tears and a mouth far too close to the microphone, but there wasn’t a dry eye in the room just the same. “She always made my heart happy,” she says of Agnes. “I love her. And I can’t wait to see her in Heaven.”
If there is a Heaven, Agnes and Lily are well-fit for it. And then there is me. I don’t know if it is the grief of losing Agnes or the anxiety of almost losing Lily, but the thought of never seeing the two of them again – or Terry or Jimmy – suddenly becomes too much to bear. I am in anguish, sunk deep into a bottomless loss with no way up. And not just a loss of Agnes, but a loss of every other person I’ve ever loved, because one day, most likely one day in the next year, I will no longer be here. So I sit here and wonder, if there is a God, will I get points for raising Lily? Could agreeing to lay down my life for her get me into Heaven? Or would I have so many penalties for yelling at her that it will be a wash?
Lily returns to her seat, and I give her a tissue from one of the many Kleenex boxes somebody has placed on the seats throughout the small chapel. She blows her nose loud.
When it is my turn to talk about Agnes, I recount the tale of how she befriended me. I was quite depressed at having just lost my home and the privilege of living with my daughter. I had decided I wasn’t ever going to come out of my room. So, the second day I was here, I hear this little knock on the door. It was Agnes, coming by to welcome me. She told me she had come about two weeks prior and that the place was shaping up to be exactly the hell-hole she had imagined. She had a remedy, she said, but I would have to follow her to her room. I told her I’d have to take a rain check because I was just so beat from the move.
“What did you bring with you,” she asked, “if you don’t mind my being nosey.”
Well, I didn’t mind, but I thought it was odd. I told her I’d brought some shirts and slacks, some lipstick and blush, a hair dryer and brush and a box of books.”
“What kind of books?” she asked.
“Over there in the corner,” I motioned, “if you’d like to look through them.”
I had brought them with me more for the sight and the feel of them than I did for the words inside because I couldn’t do much reading anymore and they were above Lily’s reading level. “Oh, I love Dickens,” Agnes said peering down into the box. “Have you read Oliver Twist?”
We talked a bit about favorite authors. I was tempted to tell her she could borrow some books, but I was afraid I’d never see them again. They were the last remnants of my vast library, which Terry and Jimmy divided between them and, I’m sure, immediately stowed in their respective attics, sealing the fate of their pages to jaundice by neglect and humidity.
Agnes asked what my last name was. When I told her she said, “Oh, as in Horace Greeley, the newspaper man who said, 'Go West, young man.’”
Dang, I thought. This woman is sharp as tacks. How old is she?
I asked her last name and when she told me I said, “Oh, as in billionaire Leonardo Del Vecchio, the eyewear magnate.” Agnes looked at me like I was nuts and then chuckled.
“Now how on earth do you know that?”
“I read – well, used to read – Forbes.”
“Well, his name stuck in my head because his mother sent him away to an orphanage when he was seven because she couldn’t afford five children. So I just always wondered what that must be like for a mother, who was so desperately poor, to have the son she gave up become a billionaire. I mean, did he resolve right then and there, the day she left him at the orphanage, never to be poor because it’s just too darned painful?”
Agnes shook her head and looked half disgusted and half amazed. “Del Vecchio is my husband’s name. I don’t think there’s any relation to Leonardo. My Joey’s family is from Italy, though – Naples.”
“Did you ever go?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Plenty.”
“I’ve always wanted to go,” I said.
“Uh-huh, nice place,” Agnes nodded. “But I never understood the Italians. The first thing they say when they see you is how fat you’ve gotten. The second thing they tell you is to sit down and eat. Speaking of which, Beverly, I’ve got to run and get ready for dinner.”
She impressed upon me the necessity to come visit her. Room 122, second from the end of the hall.
“I’ll see you in the dining room in a few minutes,” she said cheerfully as she wheeled herself out. I didn’t tell her I had directed staff to bring me my meals in bed. The next day she showed up around two in the afternoon at my door, with a large wooden box on her lap. It was a smooth mahogany with a fancy brass clasp.
“Well,” she said, “since you didn’t come to my place, I had to bring a little piece of sanity to yours.” She opened the box to reveal the largest selection of tea bags I have ever seen. There must have been three dozen different varieties. The way they were arranged in the box was artistic – linear, symmetrical and colorful, like a piece of modern art you’d see hanging over an armless black leather couch imported from Copenhagen. She reached behind her, unhooked the bag hanging to her wheelchair and set my rolling bed table with a small electric tea kettle, two crimson Fiestaware mugs and a bag of Walkers Scottish shortbread. “High tea,” she said smiling. “I figure we could read a little and sip a little and read a little more.”
I told her I couldn’t read very well because of the Parkinson’s. It would be like trying to read during an earthquake. That was one of my biggest sorrows.
“Lily tries to help me out by reading to me sometimes,” I said. “But she has Down syndrome, so Magic Tree House is about as lofty as it gets.”
Agnes told me she’d be happy to read to me in the afternoons while we had our tea. I never did have the heart to tell her that, since I have no sense of taste, I couldn’t tell an Oolong from an Earl Grey. Or from a piping hot cup of steeped gym socks, for that matter.
Agnes was so deeply good. It would be obvious to anyone why someone would befriend her. But I didn’t. It was the other way around. To this day, I don’t know why she singled me out as her best friend.
After the memorial I see Father Fitz out the windows of the double French doors. He is in the garden with his head down, elbows resting on his knees, rosary dangling from his clasped hands. I wonder if this is the last time I will see him, since he came mainly to see Agnes. I make my way out to him.
He looks up from his Rosary. “I’m ready to lose my hair,” I say.
A smile creeps across his face. “Praise God.”
He stands up, puts an arm around me and eases me onto the bench. He sits beside me, makes the sign of the cross and says a short prayer I’ve never heard before and don’t remember now.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I say, my faint voice shaking in rhythm with my hands. “It’s been 62 years since my last confession.”
Join us next Sunday for the next chapter!
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Copyright 2017 Sherry Boas
About the Author
Sherry Boas is author of the Lily Series, which has grown into a beloved collection of novels whose characters’ lives are unpredictably transformed by a woman with Down syndrome. The former newspaper reporter and special needs adoptive mother of four is also author of A Mother's Bouquet: Rosary Meditations for Moms, Billowtail, Victoria's Sparrows, Little Maximus Myers, Archangela's Horse, and Wing Tip. She runs Caritas Press from her home office in stolen moments between over-cooking the pasta and forgetting to dust the chandelier. Find her work at CaritasPress.org.