I stepped gingerly into the room. It was only my third week volunteering at the nursing home, and I was still very unsure of myself. A curtain enclosed the bed, and a fan slowly moved its head back and forth, lazily stirring the air and muffling all sounds. I gently pushed aside the curtain and peeked inside.
I was transfixed by what I saw.
The woman, fast asleep, looked just like my mother. She had the same smooth olive skin, aquiline nose and heart-shaped face. The thin wisps of molasses-brown hair that slipped from a flowery scarf on her head were the same color.
My eyes pooled with hot tears. I stood for a moment, drinking in the sight, and then tiptoed from the room.
My mother had died of cancer 20 years ago. Infuriated with God for not heeding my insistent prayers to heal her, I left the church shortly after her death, embracing atheism with all the fervor I had once bestowed on Catholicism.
Then, a few years ago, my emotional tide began to turn. One day, speaking with a friend whose mother had died when he was a small boy, I suddenly realized my own good fortune. After all, I had enjoyed a loving relationship with my mother well into my adult years.
I finally surrendered my grudge against God and started groping my way slowly back to faith. When I spoke with a priest at a church near my home, I described my humble stirring of belief. "It’s just a tiny seed," I admitted. He smiled broadly and assured me that was enough.
After talking with him, I walked into the sanctuary. Settling myself upon the kneeler, I began with a simple prayer: "God, help me to believe." I started attending Mass dutifully and saying my prayers, hoping that old habits might uproot the residual weeds of my doubt. Did I truly embrace the church’s teachings after so many years of atheism? Did I really accept the consecrated bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood? Did I believe in Christ’s divinity? At first, my truthful answer was no, not reallybut I desperately wanted to believe. I longed for the certainty I had in childhood. I longed for the comfort that came from the sacraments. And I hoped my little seed of faith harbored the stirrings of future life.
But part of me remained stubbornly cynical. Claims about miracles and mysticism especially annoyed me, and I discounted them as the outpourings of troubled minds, nothing more or less.
Hoping to jumpstart the whole faith process, I threw myself into volunteer work. After all, if I was going to give Christianity a second try, I didn’t want merely to stand on the sidelines. I became a vigorous volunteer, joined the choir, worked at an AIDS home, visited the sick and the elderly. It was my duties as a eucharistic minister that had brought me to the nursing home, where weekly I took holy Communion to an elderly woman.
One day in the lobby of the nursing home, I met two Cuban ladies, sisters who were visiting their mother. With their dark hair and eyes, they reminded me of my own Italian-American heritage. When I mentioned that I would enjoy meeting their mom some time, the sisters smiled widely. She was recovering from an operation and would welcome my company, they assured me.
It was their mother, fast asleep, whom I saw that day. Afterwards, I rushed home to share the news with my husband. "She looks so much like my mom, it’s uncanny," I said breathlessly. "I can’t wait to go back and talk with her."
A few days later, I returned to the nursing home and walked quickly to her room. I was nervous. What if she weren’t there any more? What if something had happened to her?
My hands were trembling when I approached the door. Inside, the same fan stirred up the steamy summer air. But this time the curtain was drawn back. The woman, wearing a bright turquoise housecoat and a flowery scarf on her head, was sitting up in bed. She gave me a big smile and, using a mixture of English and Spanish, beckoned me into the room.
I stood there dumbfounded, trying to make rational sense of the scene. She was a beautiful woman, there was no doubtand she was the same woman I had seen asleep a few days earlier.
But this woman bore no resemblance at all to my mother.
Only later did I realize what had happened. So many times since my mother’s death I had yearned for the feel of her hand on my brow, the music of her laughter on the phone. More times than I can count, I had longed to travel back in time, to arrive in her hospital room as she lay dying.
I wanted to have a final conversation with her. To tell her that I would never forget her and that I loved her as much as it is possible for one person to love another. But as the years passed, I learned to content myself with occasional sightings of her in my dreams.
In one dream, she and I sat across from each other at a small table. I reached out and grasped her hand and told her how much I loved her. "Please, Mommy, won’t you come back to me?" I pleaded. With infinite tenderness, she smiled at me and said softly, "I can’t."
But, in her own way, she had come backif just for a few moments in the nursing home.
This was not anything my rational mind could understand. What did it all mean? It was then I found myself shelving my skepticism in a desperate effort to preserve the treasure I was sure had been given me that day.
Finally, I realized it was only through the lens of love that I could interpret that moment.
I decided that my mother had sent me a message: to tell me that she was still, in some mysterious way, with me. That she would always be hidden in the lined and weary faces of the ailing and elderly people I visited.
And that, no matter how often I might stumble, I would in the end arrive at a green and thriving realm. A place my mother had never left. A place of faith.
Lorraine V. Murray is a parishioner at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, Ga.