Last Rights

“They say there's a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it's better but I say it ain't
I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun”
-Billy Joel

“JESUS CHRIST!!!” I snapped.

With every scrap of strength I could muster, I swiped the oil and pudgy thumb away from my forehead. The unforgiving IV that was lodged in arm sent a sharp, searing pinch up my right side to remind me that movement was for the privileged.  I winced in pain, opened my eyes, and glared at the priest.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startled you.”

After 5 days in the hospital, I had finally fallen asleep.  I discovered that hospitals are the worst place to catch a little shut because someone is always poking or prodding at you.  Which is ironic, considering the place is jam packed with sick people.

“I’ve come to bless you,” he whispered.  He was a post middle aged priest, with flushed, chunky cheeks and white hair that wisped to the side, as if he just stepped off a magic carpet.

“I didn’t sneeze,” I whispered back. Half joking. Half not joking.

I knew exactly why the priest was at my bedside; to anoint the sick. Meaning me. It is the sacrament performed to heal the ill from sin so they can receive the Holy Spirit before death. I perceived it as a sacrament reserved for very old people or the dying, and thought it audacious of him to consider me a rightful member of either group. And to top it off, he woke me up to insinuate that I maybe dying. Who does that? Still he persisted...

“You are very sick,” he whispered.

“I know,” I whispered back. “But I’m not THAT sick.”

He smiled. Indeed, I was a train-wreck. Having just endured 20 weeks of chemotherapy and a tooth extraction, I was bald with a gaping hole in my smile that could receive a punt from the 95 yardline. Cancer was not what landed me in the hospital though, not directly anyways. Cancer treatment did.  Ironically, a side effect of cancer treatment can be just as deadly as the disease itself.

Officially, I was diagnosed with sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused when the immune system has an extreme response to an infection. When I checked myself into the hospital with a blazing fever, chills, sweats, nausea and severe joint pain, I must have I checked off the Catholic box on the admittance form. Hence, the priest. Note to self.

He waved the Sign of the Cross in front of my head and began reciting a prayer,

“Lord, Jesus we pray for this woman, Maureen...”

“Whoa...whoa...hold on there...” I said, gently moving his hand away from my face while ignoring another burning shot of pain from the IV.

He looked at me with confusion. “I’ve come to bless you,” he stated again.

“I know...I know,” I said. “I got that. It’s just...It’s just..” I did not know how to tell him that I did not want this sacrament.  I did not want to be oppositional or disrespectful; I just wanted him to go away. “It’s just that I’m not THAT sick and I’m not sure how this sacrament works.” I said. “Is this a one-and-done sacrament, like baptism and first communion, or do I get a second shot at the title? I’m not even fifty…”

“You are very, very sick” he said firmly. “And I think it is best,” he continued, “..for whom we implore the aid of Your tender mercy.”

“Wait..” I interrupted, shooting my tube-free hand up in free hand up. “How accurate is the record keeping system for anointing the sick?  And how is the database system managed? If I move Florida when I’m 80 will my sacramental records follow me?”

“SHHH...” he commanded.  It was clear; I was to shut up.

I leaned back in my bed and let him finish his job. No harm in getting blessed, I told myself. But then the truth uncoiled from within me, hissing with anger and indignation.

I had been wanting to leave the Catholic Church for years. But I didn’t know how.

Unlike an old pair of jeans, religion is not something that you can just crumple up toss in the corner when it is no longer a good fit.  Like most Catholics, I was baptized before I could walk or talk. The adults in my life proclaimed, “This is who you are, these are your people” long before I knew who I was or where my spiritual beliefs landed. Therefore, my faith was not something I chose but a vein that was thread through me and intimately woven with family.

The priest finished with his blessing, leaned close to me, and placed a squishy hand on my shoulder. “I will listen to your confession,” he whispered.  I submerged myself into my pillow and away from the stench of his breath.

“Um...Ugh...I don’t think we have enough time for that,” I said.

“Confession will absolve you of your sins and enable you to reconcile with God,” he explained. He flashed a set of  prolonged, egg-yoked colored teeth that would be the envy of any squirrel.

My sins? I thought. What about your sins? You are an ordained minister of an church that enabled the sexual abuse of children.  You and your misogynist organization disgust me. Don’t touch me. Go away. Why are you even here? Then it hit me:

I checked off the Catholic box. I made this happen.

“Oh...um...I know that.”  I cleared my throat. “It’s just that I kinda like my sins. They are the messy part of me. And most, if not all of them, are benign. They are mainly they product of immaturity, poor choices, impulsive acts, or senseless debauchery.” I flashed my toothless grin and concluded, “My sins actually taught me some very important lessons.”  He stared at me, neither amused or convinced. There was a loud, pregnant pause.

Why? I thought. Why did I check off the Catholic Box?

The question scurried around in my head, searching for even a morsel of an answer. The quantum endeavor of finding a new religion was always on my To-Do List but buried somewhere underneath the perennial tasks of “Do laundry” and “Clean kitchen.” So, by default, I disengaged from the Catholic Church but I did not leave.  Besides, how do I abandon something that is a part of me? Leaving the Catholic Church would sever a tie between me, my Nana, and her Nana, and her Nana before that. And so on and so on…

“YOU HAVE CANCER!” he spat.

I stared at him, hearing the phase that I was told over and over again but still did not understand.  Or accept. Cancer was like this wild tornado that scooped me up and tossed me into a strange and scary land. It appeared out of thin air, not because of anything I did or didn’t do. At first, I felt overwhelmed and isolated by my cancer diagnosis and the impending treatment. Then family, friends and strangers appeared out of nowhere like the mysterious little Munchkins from Munchkinland.  They showed up to scrub my toilets and vacuum my living room floor. They transported my kids to LAX practice, Girl Scouts and school dances and lovingly melted them into their family routines. They gave me money and gift cards and homemade chicken tenders because someone, somewhere told them I have a 9 year old who is picky eater. Cancer then didn’t seem so scary after all because I had so much love and compassion to protect me.  Isn’t that God?

“I know,” I told him.

“Confessing your sins will bring you closer to God.” he said.  It’s true; I did want to connect to my religion during cancer treatment.  Or I liked the idea of turning to faith during a time sickness. But I did not find God by going to church or reading the scriptures. Instead, I found HIM in my family, friends and community.  What’s interesting is that these angles were always embedded in the landscape of my life. But I just didn’t appreciate their divinity till cancer came along. They loved me, sins and all.  Isn’t that heaven on earth?

But enough is enough.

When I showed up at the hospital doorstep, I felt defeated. By admitting myself into the hospital, I was also admitting that cancer was, once again, throwing me into yet another whirlwind and that I might not get my shiny, new boobs after all.  Instead, I would need more help. Having already gone to that pot of gold far too many times, I needed to get strength my from someplace different. So went over the rainbow to my Nana, and her Nana, and her Nana before that. And so on. And so on.

I checked off the Catholic box.

Please ladies, from generations before, help me.  For God’s Sake, give these angels on Earth a break from taking care of me.  And please, get this annoying man away from me before I poke him in the eye. Amen.

“Thank you for your offer,” I said. “But I’ll be taking my sins with me. Besides, I don’t think St. Peter would recognize me without them.”  He stared at me blankly, not quite sure how to respond. I was probably the first parishioner he ever knew to decline a confession. “I’m sure there is someone up the hall that really needs a blessing,” I said.

With that cue, he slipped away from my hospital room just as mysteriously as he arrived.  I slipped into into the coolness of the stiff hospital sheets, dreaming of all the thank you cards that I still needed to write.