Here’s another excerpt from my soon to be reissued (by TMI Press, with new material) book Love in the Second Act. This interview is taken from the section Act Two, Scene Three – 180 – Degree Turns. This section includes stories of people who have radically changed in some way in the second part of their lives. Straight in Act I, gay in Act II. Drunk in Act I, sober in Act II. A nun in Act I, and … wait, why explain, here’s Sister Cheryl Donahue’s story in her own words:
For many years, if you asked my family what was their saddest day they’d say, ‘The day Cheryl left home for the convent to become Sister Cheryl Donahue.'”
“Do you mean that you weren’t able to see your family?”
“It’s kind of funny because as time went on and the rules got lax, I was able to see my family more regularly. I loved the different places I lived while I was with the sisters.”
Cheryl lived in upstate New York for three years; then, in Georgia, she was the director of religious education and adult education. At that point, she had gone back to school and gotten a master’s degree in adult education; she taught elementary school for a while, doing vocational work with young women who showed an interest in wanting to become sisters.
“Was it a strict order?”
“It’s certainly not cloistered. After Vatican Two they started to lighten up a bit, the church became more a part of the world around, not ju st tied up with itself.”
Cheryl Kane joined the order of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception when she was nineteen. She stayed with them for twenty-three years. While she was a nun she began to work in a homeless shelter run by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. She went to nursing school to get a degree in nursing when she was forty-three. Today, more than ten years later, she’s part of an outreach team for that same organization. Night and day, winter and summer, you can find Cheryl, either alone or with one or more members of her team, somewhere out on the streets of Boston.
“l have the best job in the whole world. It’s something that totally feeds my soul. I work with homeless men and women who for whatever reason – won’t come into the shelter. So I visit them on the street. I work in a multidisciplinary team. It’s made up of a doctor, a physician’s assistant, a psychologist, and a social worker. There are other outreach teams from some of the neighboring agencies. They aren’t medical, so if they run across someone with a medical problem, they’ll page me or someone on our team, and we’ll go out onto the street to find and try to assess the person.”
I ask for a description of some of what she does.
“Sometimes I might take out sutures. Today I cleaned a wound, dressed it. It might mean taking someone to detox. It might mean 911’ing someone to the hospital. I never know. Someone might be having some psychological issue. During the day we go on foot all over Boston. At night there’s a van that combs the city. They provide blankets and sandwiches, and someone from our medical team usually rides on the van as well. Sometimes it’s me.”
“Does this mean that you get to know a lot of the same people for years?”
“Oh, absolutely. We really do. It’s critical critical critical that we establish a relationship with these people. Our patients are so much on the fringe of society and have really broken a lot of their human bridges. They’re very nontrusting and many of them have mental illness as well. Until we can establish a bond of trust, it’s really not until that happens, that we can begin to do our work. When somebody trusts us enough to tell us their stories and strug gles, then they’ll usually tell us some of their medical needs. Their lives are so chaotic that very often taking care of medical concerns is the last thing on the list. It’s like, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight? Where am l going to eat today?'”
“ls there a way for someone in a crisis to search you out?”
“It’s kind of funny. The community on the street is very, very strong. Lots of times when I’m out walking someone will say to me, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s been sick all night. You’d better go and find him.’ At which point I will. Last week I got a page from one of our patients saying she was really, really sick. She didn’t know what to do, and could I meet her at one of the parks.”
“Do you have much of a success rate getting people off the streets or is that not really a goal? Or, do you just try to keep people as well as you can?”
“If somebody completes a whole regime of antibiotics, that’s a huge success. There’s a guy we’ve been trying for weeks to get to go to the shelter. Today he agreed. We were so excited about that. We also have a twenty-four-hour medical-care respite program – the Barbara Mcinnis House – for homeless men and women who are too sick for the shelter, but not sick enough for the hospital.”
“What sorts of illnesses?”
“It could be somebody dually diagnosed with diabetes or cardiac issues, someone having asthma that’s out of line, a woman with a high-risk pregnancy, someone with a broken limb; during winter people who have frostbite or the flu. Recently, we’ve been pondering end-of-life care for our homeless patients who have no family or support. Here in Boston if you’re staying in a shelter you have to be out by seven A.M. If you have any of the things I just mentioned, it’s hard to be hanging out on the street all day.”
“Let’s turn to when you decided to end your life as a nun. Was that the happiest day for your family, the day you came out?”
She pauses, then replies, “It was a hard decision. I loved the sisters. I loved the work but by my early forties I wanted to work with the homeless in a fuller way, meaning that I wouldn’t have to be tied down to the structure that the sisters expected, like being home on time, which was an important part of our lives.”
“Did it take a long time to decide?”
“Yeah. It took a very long time. I needed help to realize that I wasn’t breaking my relationship and commitment to God, that I was just changing the way I was going to live it out. Once I got that out of my head and into my heart, it was okay.”
“So it was gradual?”
All the while she was mulling over her decision, she had been speaking to someone who was supposed to help with the process, who was more objective.
“While I was doing this vocation work, I had several other counterparts who did the same work. One of the people I worked with was a Jesuit priest.”
“Jim. Father Jim Kane. We became really good friends.”
Jim Kane was working with candidates who wanted to join religious orders. When it came time for Cheryl to make her decision, she talked to Jim quite a lot.
“Making this decision was a huge struggle. He was very helpful. He helped me process my thoughts. Unbeknownst to me, this was a struggle that he too had been having for many, many years, on whether or not to leave the Jesuits. He didn’t tell me at the time. The year I left the Franciscans was also the year Jim left the Jesuits. The next year his mother was sick, he went down to Connecticut to care for her. After she died, he came back to Boston.”
I’ve been speaking to Cheryl on the telephone. At this point in our talk, I’ve warmed to her.
“When Jim left the Jesuits, I was just starting nursing school at Boston College. When he came back to town, he started working at Boston College and we began to have dinner together . . . as lay people. We used to joke with each other saying, ‘Oh, my God, if you hear me tell you I’m getting married, shoot me.’ Neither of us wanted to be tied down. We became really, really good friends. Nothing romantic. We saw each other all the time. We’d have dinner together. Then we started realizing what a real comfort it was . . . to talk . . . to be together. Our backgrounds were so similar even though he was older than I was by seven years. And then we married .”
“Did that surprise your family?”
“Yeah. The year before we got married, they could see how happy we were, how much we enjoyed each other.”
“Tell me about your married life.”
“We both just loved being married. We were shocked how much we loved it. We were crazy about each other. We’d been married about one and a half years when one day I picked up the telephone, and it was Jim saying he had a terrible headache. As he spoke he began repeating himself, seemed to be forgetting names of people he knew intimately. I could tell that something was very wrong. I asked if he knew my name. He said, ‘No. But I know you’re my wife.'”
My heart clenches; l hadn’t expected her story to take such a turn.
“Before I could get to him, he had a massive seizure. An ambulance took him to a hospital. Very quickly he was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor. l was in my last year of nursing school when he was diagnosed. Jim had been a very, very healthy man throughout his life; it was almost impossible to believe.”
“Were you angry?”
“We had both found what we wanted to do . . . found each other. Of course l accused God. Of course l was angry. We’d had so little time together, he was a young man in his early fifties. How could this have happened? Though his type of tumor is deadly, the doctors decided to do brain surgery. To our amazement, after a lengthy post-op convalescence, very gradually, Jim began to get well. It seemed like a miracle. He was a runner who’d run ten marathons and had put his running shoes back on. He began to train for the marathon that would take place in spring. Of course l thanked God.”
Things began to seem normal all summer, all fall. Winter came. It seemed like it would be a joyful Christmas, but when Jim went for a routine MRI, the news was bleak.
“Not only had the tumor reappeared but it was rapidly growing, was inoperable. We both knew what that meant. Again my faith in God crumbled.”
Once Jim was terminal, Cheryl took a leave from her job so she could be with him night and day – as nurse, as wife – for whatever time he had left.
“Very quickly I knew that I couldn’t be angry at God and ask him for strength at the same time. I realized how much l needed God . . . much more than God needed me. Suffice to say, I’d had a lifetime of trust in God. My faith hadn’t deserted me. I knew Jim’s hadn’t either when he began having visions of angels. He saw them as very beautiful, as very loving. They were in the room with us near the end.”
Her voice thickens.
“Those last months together were the most intimate of our marriage. I think of it as sacred. Of course he wouldn’t be running in the Boston Marathon, but many of his friends did and, still wearing running clothes, came to visit Jim after the race, told him all about the race. They brought the excitement of the marathon into the room, surrounded Jim with it. A few hours later he died. It was as if he’d laced on his running shoes and run off toward God . . . had his own race to finish.”
Again there’s silence, then she changes the subject, speaks about a woman she’s run into today who’d lived on the streets for fifteen years. The woman was on her way to speak at a conference on the homeless in Washington, D.C.
“I don’t know what it is . . . what gives you the inner strength to be able to follow through with something you need to do. Whatever it was for her, that’s the thing I can relate to. Something happens inside that moves you in a direction.”
She doesn’t respond to my question, instead returns to the subject of Jim’s death.
“After Jim died, the only thing that kept me going was my work with the homeless. If I hadn’t had my work, I don’t know how I would have gotten through those first months, first years. He died in April of 1998. It was my need to be of help to people who needed help that had attracted me to the work of the Franciscan Sisters early on, it was that same need to help people that ended up helping me to survive. It wasn’t until I was over forty that I knew what it was to fall in love with a man. It happened.”
A few months later I speak on the phone with Cheryl Kane again to catch up on her news. She tells me:
“I’m selling my big house in Milton and moving to Dorchester to the old Baker Chocolate Factory. Recently I began going to a Friday evening dance near where I live. I like to dance. Jim’s been dead for over seven years now. You know how crazy I was about him. Just crazy. But . . . I’ve been dancing with a man who goes there, we enjoy each other’s company. We’ve begun to date. Mind you, he’s one hundred percent different than Jim. But he’s a terrific man. His name is Russell. He’s a barber and we like dancing together.”