There was so much more to my second grade year than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Back in the seventies, we non-parochial students who were Catholic had the option to attend weekly after-school Catechism class (CCD, as we called it) at our parish, St. Lawrence Church. As teenagers, my siblings and I would fuss about having to attend. My devout and passionate Catholic mom didn’t give one iota. She’d sign us up anyway, knowing good and well that her intention would keep my siblings and me in tune with our faith as well as guarantee spots to receive our Holy Sacraments. Little did Mom realize how one day at CCD would forever change the heart of her eight-year-old baby girl.
“Stay in line!” The wind carried Sister Carmen’s words all the way towards the back of our long staggered line of students.
One thing about Sister Carmen is that when she talked, we all knew we’d better listen. Don’t get me wrong– she wasn’t the “hit-your-hand-with-a ruler-kind-of- nun.” It was more so her stern and direct presence built into her short stature that kept me and many other kids on our toes. So when she told us to get in line, a few friends and I wasted no time skipping our way to the end to take our places as the giddy cabooses. I can still see Sister Carmen’s black and white habit and veil flowing in the wind as she directed her rowdy group of second graders like a traffic controller through the middle of that empty church parking lot as we headed towards the chapel.
We had almost reached the sidewalk when I looked over at my caboose buddy and blurted: “I HATE spinach.”
Don’t ask me what prompted such an odd, random comment. Maybe I was subconsciously anticipating having Mom’s gourmet canned spinach for supper that night or experiencing the post-traumatic effects of when Dad used to make me sit at the dinner table until I ate all my spinach (the mere thought of this while I write still makes me sick to my stomach). Who knows. I just said it.
Anyways, God must have blessed Sister Carmen with some serious bionic ears and legs because before I could elaborate on my disgust over the smelly slimy greens, she was standing directly in front of me with her finger right in my face.
“You should never use the word hate. Instead, you say: ‘I don’t like.’ The only thing you should hate is the devil!”
She sure put me in my place. Stunned and confused, I stood there silent and wide-eyed, nodding my head in agreement. Holding back the tears, I wondered, What did I do wrong? Am I in trouble? Is she gonna tell Mom?
Thank goodness the mischievous boys in the front of the line caught Sister Carmen’s attention. She abruptly left, never to mention it again. From that moment on, I tried my best to live up to Sister Carmen’s deep-rooted philosophy by dodging the word from my vocabulary. Weird– any time the word hate was on the tip of my tongue, whether it be about food, a movie, song– or yes, even a person, I’d hear Sister Carmen’s stern instructions echo in my mind.
I’m not going to lie, I had my share of slip-ups with the H word over the years, but never ever did I use it on an intentional level– until 2008.
It happened on a day when Mom and Dad were receiving their chemo treatment down the hall from each other. That whole week was particularly rough. Bombarded with fatigue, chemo side effects and worry over pending lab results and CT scans, my poor parents were pretty maxed out. Who could blame them? At first, tending to them back and forth was almost like playing an upbeat human version of the game Pong. But the distraction quickly faded, and it was only a matter of an hour or so before my game ran out of batteries. I saw reality… and my heart began to hurt. They looked so vulnerable, so tired, so unhealthy. So bald.
En route to check on Dad, I frantically looked for a quick detour to the nearest bathroom. I was about to lose it. Well, actually I did (thankfully, it was one of those single restrooms). I slammed the door behind me and turned the water faucet on high to drown out the sounds of all the emotional vomit that came spewing out of me.
“Damn it! I hate this. I hate cancer. I HATE it!“ Sobbing uncontrollably and repeating the word hate about a hundred times, a wave of intense rage came over me. I know this is gonna sound bad, but it’s the truth so here it goes: I felt like I wanted to pick a fight with Sister Carmen. I imagined myself charging through the door of her retirement home and screaming at her, “I HATE cancer! There, I said it. What are you going to do about it now, huh? Yeah, that’s right. I said Hate! Hate! Hate!”
Before my overdramatized visualization went any further, I was interrupted by a soft knock on the door. Quickly, I composed myself with a few deep breaths and cordially allowed the next woman in, hoping she didn’t hear me freak out or read my delirious mind.
I’m pretty sure my emotional release had something to do with my relatively zen demeanor as I walked down the hallway to see Dad. More in my right mind, I revisited the scene at the retirement home and wondered: What would Sister Carmen say about my recent rant? Would she chastise me for saying Hate? Would she be disappointed that I went against her teaching after all these years?
Right then, I envisioned her peacefully standing there, still wearing her nun habit with strands of now grey hair framing her face and headpiece. Kindness and compassion piercing through her dark brown eyes as she patted me on the shoulder to reassure me and even excuse me for saying the H word. Talk about peace — I was filled to the brim.
It was like The Holy Spirit swooped in and used the updated visualization of Sister Carmen’s response as an example of how God feels about me. That HE understood why I used the word Hate in reference to my feelings about cancer. That it was okay to feel angry and to keep trusting in HIM and forgive myself when I have epic fails with my faith.
Over the course of this month, I will definitely keep reminding myself about what I wrote in this blog. I have a feeling I’m going to need it. Breast Cancer Awareness Month has a tendency to make me want to throw out a few H-bombs. Thanks to my little life lesson, I will be gentle with myself and keep moving on.