I knew about her in advance of course; the Hutchings Center had called before they released her to me for subsequent therapy. “Hyper-religiosity. No longer violent, but needs to talk more, and to a woman, I think,” the psychiatric nurse said.
Miriam entered my minimalistic office, small and hunched. Her blue and white habit, that of Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity, complimented the harmonious greens I chose for my walls. Instead of dark skin, hers was translucent, glass-like, her hair and eyelashes white. If I squinted, I felt I could see right through her to the back wall.
“It all started so long ago,” she said almost immediately, her small hands clasped in her lap.
“What?” I asked.
“When I found out I was pregnant. In that very unusual way.” She touched her sleeve, avoided my steady gaze.
“This was before you were a nun?”
“Of course. Long, long ago.”
Noting her bare sandaled feet, imagining them out in the slushy March streets of New York City, I asked her to back up, tell me about her childhood. She talked pleasantly, in a calm, slow voice. I learned we had opposite experiences in life. Her childhood was happy — she’d always been loved. She tended flowers, married young. Her peaceful demeanor drew me in. I felt drowsy, repressed a yawn.
“You don’t know about me?” she said suddenly, looking me in the eye for the first time.
“Not very much. Just what you’ve said here. Should I know more?”
She smirked a bit, an amused expression flashing across her face.
“Are you religious?”
I hadn’t been inside a church for twenty years. I even skipped bat and bar mitzvahs and religious weddings and funerals. No thanks.
Her eyes shifted to kindness, maybe concern, somehow compelling me to speak.
“I don’t believe in God. At all. And this session is about you, not me.”
“I can’t say I’m religious either.”
“No? But you’re a nun,” I said, gesturing at her habit.
“Yes.” She straightened her veil, tucked in a few stray hairs. “They’re the only ones who would have me, after everything. And for years I was perfectly happy, but then they moved me, to this convent, here,” she said with contempt. “But, I still see him, my son, the Lord. He’s mostly all I see.”
I cleared my throat, shifted in my chair, ran a hand through my dark hair.
“You’re very beautiful. Are you a mother too?” she asked.
“Sister Miriam, these are not appropriate questions to ask a therapist,” I said, feeling a growing weakness, a desire to bite my nails, a habit quit long ago. “Why did you become violent at the convent?”
“Because they wouldn’t let me stay with my son.”
“Your sisters are worried about you. They say you no longer do your duties, you don’t even come to group meals or recreation. You just stare at the crucifix, become belligerent when they ask you to—” I hesitated.
“That’s very kind. That they are worried. They should be. They care about all the wrong things,” Miriam picked again at her white sleeve.
“What happened long ago? How was your pregnancy unusual? You never said exactly,” I asked.
She spoke deadpan, without inflection. She looked into my eyes but also past them.
“The angel Gabriel came and told me I was with child. I was going to have the son of God.”
“Okay,” my pen hovered about my notebook page, “Did you?”
“What was that like?”
“Difficult — but also beautiful — being a mother. I don’t think people understood how I loved him like any mother — every hair on his head, everything he said and did. I’ve heard people say when you have a child it’s like your own heart—“
“—is in someone else’s body,” I interrupted, wishing I hadn’t but unable to stop, “I’ve heard that.”
Miriam peered at me again, this time her clear eyes penetrating. She nodded her head, again and again.
“Love, love is everything,” she said. “My son is love. You could do with some love, Nora,” she said firmly.
“What happened to your son?” I said with an intensity, an edge to my voice.
I asked the question, but I knew the answer. I knew it like I knew my own name, like the size and shape of all ten of my fingers, like my own mother’s voice.
“I’d like to go back to the convent now,” she said, standing without being dismissed, moving slowly to the door.
Afterwards, I just sat there, in awe of the profound silence left in her wake.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 52, living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at www.maggienerziribarne.com.