By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
My sister Joan died two weeks ago, but we don’t know precisely when. She lived by herself in an apartment in St. Paul, and her death was discovered when a close friend, unable to reach her for two days, contacted the apartment manager. Joan was 64.
Our Catholic parents practiced the rhythm method in 4/4 time, four pregnancies in four years, but with five births; Joan was a twin. She was strong and daring and feisty from the beginning. My earliest memory of her is an unfortunate incident involving a broom, a beehive and copious amounts of calamine lotion. A year later she fell out of the family car. I recall turning to watch her small body receding in the distance, followed immediately by our mother’s terrified, “Oh, my God!” She was fine except for the gravel burns.
Joan was fiercely protective of her siblings and would take on any bully, male or female. She favored the weak through an innate sense of fairness, and while she respected authority, she distrusted it and resisted its abuses. She would argue with anyone in defense of her beliefs and, when she felt it necessary, she would argue with God.
After graduating high school, Joan entered a convent and remained for two years, finally concluding that the life of a religious was not her calling. But recognizing her need to serve others, she enrolled in nursing school and, like our mother, became a registered nurse.
During the ensuing years Joan worked in a variety of hospital and medical settings, eventually becoming head nurse in an abortion clinic outside of Washington, D.C. She remained there for several years, until an event occurred that would forever change the course of her life. As she explained it to me later, the day had begun routinely enough. But while she was monitoring a sonogram during a procedure that afternoon, the images on the screen took hold of her in a way she had never before experienced. It was, she said, a devastating mixture of shock, horror and revulsion. She knew instantly that she could not work there any longer. And she quit.
Joan spoke against abortion the remainder of her life. She joined a pro-life group and co-founded an organization to provide post-abortion counseling to women and support to former employees of abortion facilities. Some of her former pro-choice friends publicly denounced her; most simply abandoned her. But she was undeterred by the reproaches and pursued her convictions with the same intensity she had brought to everything else in her life. She cared not about theological arguments about “ensoulment” or legal theories on the constitutional implications of personhood. She spoke around the country and around the world. Her speeches were recorded and distributed widely. She attended conferences and symposia. She gave interviews and published articles. And though her words were often touched with sadness, they were devoid of hatred or rancor.
There were times, as well, in her later years that Joan was overwhelmed by the guilt she seemed unable to completely escape, and she would battle bouts of alcoholism and the accompanying shame and humiliation that only another alcoholic can understand. I know that she sometimes believed she lacked moral courage even as she was speaking courageously, that she lacked goodness even as she assured others of the goodness in themselves, that she lacked faith even as she steadfastly pursued her understanding of the truth.
As I was completing my second year of law school, a crisis arose in my own life that caused me great emotional pain and confusion. I withdrew for a semester to decide what I would do. One afternoon I answered a knock on my door and found a smiling Joan standing before me. “I thought it might be a good time for a visit,” she said. And it was. Joan stayed on for months, working at a local hospital and providing me the unconditional love and support that defined her being. Shortly before my graduation, she announced that it was time for her to move on, and she left. Had she the ability, Joan would have taken on all of the pain she saw in the world. If that is not faith, what is?
I don’t know if you’ll get this message, Joan. I am writing this because we weren’t able to say goodbye. I know I’ll still be able to see and hear you on the internet and I’ve read a few of the fond obituaries. Google may be fine for others, but it is not enough for me because you were first and last my sister. And I want you to know how much your brothers and sisters love you and how much we’ll miss you. Give ’em hell in heaven.