Blackberry Brandy

Joyce Benedict

© Copyright 2021 by Joyce Benedict

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash
Photo by 
Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash
Infantile Paralysis, known as 'polio' devastated families for years. The Chicaho epidemic of 1949 caught me  in August; the same as President Roosevelt who contracted it at age 39 in 1921. Fortunately, a wonderful, orthopedic surgeon did a series of three operations to lend use to an arm that was lifeless after age four. Nevertheless, I had wonderful experiences during each surgery. Below is the second one performed and most memorable.

The  operation completed I awoke with my right arm encased in a thick cast from shoulder to hand. It was Christmas 1952. I had just undergone the second of three orthopedic operations  performed due to polio contracted when I was four. I cried quietly each night from pain, self-pity and loneliness.  I wanted to be partying. I was just a junior in high school.

Four days passed. A nurse informed me that a nun, a Sister Mary Josephine, also had surgery by my doctor and occupied the room across from mine. Why not visit her? “Why,” I thought, “would I want to visit a nun?”  I was not Catholic.  With their starched, white mantles binding their faces, black robes, nuns appeared more like specters of death than joyful, loving ‘brides of Christ.’

Wasn’t my stay in the hospital horrible enough? However, following a few more nights of pity and loneliness, I found myself drifting towards her room.  There, laying on her back in a white gown, head wrapped in the usual white mantle, lay not a “specter of death, “ but Mrs. Santa Claus in the flesh.  She had rosy, shiny cheeks, a round face, and bright, electric blue eyes. She beckoned me to come closer.  Her radiant smile filled the room. I felt instantly warm and loved.

I told her my name is Joyce. ‘So darlin’, what are you in for?”  “ I learned from the nurse we shared the same doctor,” I replied feeling  comforted by her broad smile and interest. I continued, “Our mutual doctor, Doctor Pisani, had transplanted muscles in my right arm to other places to help it lift to a right angle. The entire arm paralyzed by polio when I was four,”  I added, “this is my second of three.”

Sister Jo,” as I came to call her affectionately,  “what is being done to you?” I inquired with sincere interest. “Joyce, darlin’ “ turning her head to face me more directly, she continued, “several disks surrounding my spine had disintegrated resulting in intense pain and threatened paralysis. Our doctor was executing a series of bone grafts from my leg to sculpture new disks to  surround my spine.”  She added that she had been on her back for over a year. “I have  another six months to go,” she concluded with a great sigh turning her face upward as if in silent prayer.

I could not imagine how she could lie there, smile and be joyous. I began to feel ashamed that I had cried each evening to sleep, missing holiday parties and feeling sorry for myself.  Her burden a thousand times greater than mine.

We became instant friends.  I visited her daily, spoke of my family, asked her questions about her life.  Since she was a little girl, she wanted to be a nun. She had wanted to be a nun.  It had been a choice, not an imposed sentence. My prejudices were fading fast.

New Year’s Eve arrived.  I was to go home a few days later. “Joyce, darlin,” she said that morning, “I have a little surprise for both of us tonight. Come over after dinner.”

I did. We chatted gaily. My anticipation grew. Around 11:30 p.m. Sister Jo suddenly lowered her voice. “ Joyce darlin’, go out to the hall and tell me whether you see anyone.” I did. “It was devoid of any activity,” I reported. “Are you sure?” she asked with some urgency. “Yes,” I whispered as I entered into the suspense of the moment.

She gestured that I pull the chair closer to her bed. Her hand disappeared under her pillow pulling out a large, flat bottle. “Joyce darlin’, it’s Blackberry Brandy and we’re going to have us a whopping New Year’s Eve celebration!” I was stunned. A nun drinking and offering it to me.  ‘Why,” I thought to myself, “didn’t only priests drink this at service?” She  unscrewed the cap and poured hefty amounts of the dark, forbidden fluid into two, plain hospital water glasses.  We drank every drop. I had no recollection of making it across the hall to my bed.  I slept very late. I awoke to a headache and a cold breakfast tray beside my bed.

Sister Jo and I corresponded with one another well into my last year in college.  One day I received a note, her picture, a prayer card. “Joyce darlin’”, the familiar address always warmed me. “I write to tell you that from this day on you will never hear from me again. I begin a vow of perpetual silence. I will have no further contact with you, anyone, nor from the outside world. You will be in my prayers, always. I love you, as does God.”  She had become one of the most dearest, loving people in my life. I cried for several days. I never heard from her again.

The ritual passages of human events, births, deaths, marriages,  betrayals, sickness, financial struggles have passed taking their toll. Parties, fancy clothes once so important, have long been forgotten, but not Sister Mary Josephine. Who, in her own unimaginable suffering, having radiated limitless joy and abundant love, had shared Blackberry Brandy with a lonely little girl on a lonely night in a small, simple, lonely hospital room long ago.

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