"The great contract in literature is this: you tell me your story and somehow I get my story."
- Patricia Hempl
In this spirit I begin. At the psychiatrist's office a devoted daughter thinks to leave trouble behind and take her frail father across the border to a peaceful place. At a Texas border shelter, a Sister puts an indigenous Guatemalan woman and her son on a Greyhound bus destined for Ohio and safety.
Each of us has border stories to tell. Some of us staff shelters in cities with borders between people who are economically rich and poor, sick and well. Some cross lines at drone plants and do jail time. Some convince their parish council to open the empty rectory to a Syrian family, so that they and the parish alike cross borders. Every time we enter a classroom, we cross a border. Every time we welcome a LGBT person around our church and family tables, we cross a border. So do they.
Our border stories are endless. I am telling you these stories that you may somehow get yours.
The psychiatrist's office
The sun rose slowly, like a hot orange balloon, and settled in the hazy sky. Late morning, a Sister brought her father to a psychiatrist's office. She helped her father fill out the office papers, a handful of incidentals that in no way touched upon who he was. While they waited in a small, confined room, her father took off his Kitty Hawk cap and asked about her Sister friend in Hawaii who had sent it to him. "She's fine, Dad. She's concerned about you."
Her father turned pensive. "It takes courage to do what I'm doing," he said. "I wish your mother had done it. So much suffering. Too late now."
A few minutes later he went into the inner office and she went into a book called The Crossing. Some people said she crossed the border into fiction, choosing to live in an unreal world. What's more, the case was that she saw no border to cross, like on a clear morning when the reflection in the lake is just about as clear as the face looking into it.
In 20 minutes or so the unhappy looking psychiatrist came out and asked her to step into his office where her frail father sat in his nice rose-colored sports shirt. The psychiatrist asked her name and she said, "Sister Michelina." Her father smiled. She used her baptismal name, the one he had given her to honor his dead mother. The psychiatrist eyed her from top down to slacks and sneaks.
After a mental evaluation, he said, "I am prescribing some medication for your father. There's some depression there." Like depression was just a bit of rust, she thought, something you could scrape off.
The two of them left after a few minutes and stopped at the outer office where her father handed the receptionist a one hundred dollar bill folded neatly like a handkerchief. She gave him back a dime.
As they made their way through the narrow corridor, her father went slower than usual with the walker. Once upon a time he had sat her on his lap and read fairy tales; taught her to roller skate and pick herself up off the sidewalk; played arias so she would reach for the stratosphere like a
soprano; taught her to swing a tennis racket and hit borderlines for winners; pointed out which borders merited respect and which required crossing if you were to keep your integrity.
Now she wanted to pack him in the car and keep driving day and night through whatever was thrown at them until they crossed the border where no trouble could touch him, no trouble at all.
The Texas border
The thing Sister Doreen would remember was the mud. And the oppressive heat and incessant rains that churned the mud. And the sneaks she and Petrona wore from the box in the shelter, so close to the border you could see Mexico through the chain link fence. They choose sneaks too big over too small, that way you could stuff the toes with paper. But the sneaks filled with mud a few hundred feet down the road, so they trudged one long mile through thick soup up to their ankles.
It was a far cry from the Tipp Hill neighborhood in upstate New York where Sister Doreen had walked before the convent. Those streets were named after poets like Lowell, Tennyson, and Bryant, with inspiration to journey wherever you were going. Now she remembered Bryant's waterfowl flying the high heavens, and she prayed that the same God who guided the bird's flight would lead their earthly steps aright.
Sister Doreen had come a long way since then, had crossed many borders — from upstate New York to a small Texas town, from poetic streets to nameless mud roads, from city classrooms to a border shelter and an indigenous woman from rural Guatemala.
Arm in arm she and Petrona walked the mile to the MoneyGram office to claim the money her U.S. relative had sent her. This would buy bus tickets to his home in Ohio for her and her young son. But one supervisor after another denied her claim and finally sent them to another office down yet another muddy road. It was closed for the day. It was Christmas Eve.
Neither Doreen nor Petrona cared to talk about those other displaced persons looking for refuge and finding it in a stable. No room in the inn. No money in the MoneyGram office. No escape to Ohio. It was back to the shelter hugging the border where she could see Mexico on the other side of the fence she and her son had climbed under.
When the two of them finally reached the shelter, they walked into a Christmas Eve party in full swing with a delicious dinner and large cupcakes with mounds of red and green frosting. After dinner each guest received a new fleece blanket; each child chose a toy, and the boy picked a bright red and yellow pinwheel. Along with Petrona's blanket there was a care package for a long trip — her receiving family had obtained tickets for them.
And so it happened. On Christmas day, a little boy knelt on the bus seat, put his hand out the window and watched a pinwheel spin wildly in the direction of Ohio.
Outside your window
Outside your window sunlight slowly slides down the tree from top to bottom to roots, the last to warm.
Out in her garden, Amy Lowell's grand lady wears stiff brocade like armor and walks paths with manicured borders only love can cross. Up in her castle Tennyson's Lady of Shallot weaves happy scenes of other people's lives. Leaving the loom means crossing the border to reality, and that's no pretty picture. How long will she stay safe in her castle?
How long will you stay safe inside your borders, not daring to cross over? Or do you cross and recross the same border, like a tight rope walker relieved to reach the platform?
Do you join others and block the road to the drone plant, get yourself arrested, put in a cage, and released after 12 long hours? Do you say let's not cross that border again for a while?
Do you prefer to seek safety with others in the center? Perhaps, but as Yeats notes, "the centre cannot hold."
Do you really believe there is a place on the map called, City of No Trouble, and that you can drive someone you love there?
Admit it. There are borders you do not want to cross and borders that you cannot. You stand and watch helpless as the one you love crosses the border into mental illness. Sickness is a country no one can visit, so you stand at the border and weep.
Outside your window, the sun has reached and warmed your roots. You uproot and plant yourself here, there and everywhere. No matter what paths you walk, what borders you cross, what protective brocade you wear, love strips it away piece by piece. Would you really want it any different? Rest assured, in no time at all you will be crossing the final border, there to meet face to face the One who has crossed every border to reach you.
Now there's a story to tell!
[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. “We were called Sister” (U.S. Catholic) was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the CPA.]