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An Unlikely Friendship Formed at the Hospital

She was a teenager spending the holidays alone at the hospital. Then along came a nun named Sister Jo.

Illustration of an angel holding a New Year's banner; By Susanna Harrison

Most teenagers look forward to the Christmas break. In 1952, I was spending mine in a hospital, undergoing a series of orthopedic operations to give my arm back some of the mobility and strength childhood polio had taken away. I lay in bed one night after visiting hours were over, my arm encased in a thick plaster cast, crying more out of loneliness than pain. The hospital was quiet—a world away from the parties my friends were enjoying that December evening. A nurse came by to check on me. “You should pay a visit to Sister Mary Josephine,” she said. “She’s right across the hall.”

“Sister?” I said. “You mean she’s a nun?”

“Yes. The two of you have the same doctor. Go say hello.”

These were my choices? An empty room or a nun? Not being Catholic, I didn’t have much experience with nuns, but I knew they wore long black robes and a close-fitting headdress that hid their hair. The outfit alone made me uneasy. Plus, I’d heard stories from friends in Catholic school about strict nuns slapping their desks with rulers.

A couple of days after I’d learned of my nun neighbor, boredom brought me to the brink. I drifted up and down the hall, looking for a distraction. On my way back to my room, I hesitated. Peeking through the nun’s doorway, I saw what looked like Mrs. Claus in the flesh. Hardly a scary specter. Sister Mary Josephine’s face inside her headdress was round and rosy-cheeked. Her blue eyes brightened when she noticed me. This was who I was afraid of?

“What are you in for, darlin’?” she asked. I sat down by her bed and told her all about my operations. Our doctor was grafting bones from her leg to sculpt new discs in her back. “Six months to go,” she said. “And now that we’re friends, call me Sister Jo.” Despite her long stay, she seemed happy and grateful. How does she do it? I thought when I got back to my room.

I started to visit Sister Jo every day. I told her about my family and my friends at school, and she told me about her childhood, which was filled with adventure. Her stories made me laugh out loud. It seemed strange that someone as lively as Sister Jo would become a nun. Finally I got up the courage to ask her why.

“I always wanted to be a nun,” she told me. “Ever since I was a little girl, I knew God had a place for me. I found it in a loving community devoted to him.”

My days in the hospital were no longer boring or lonely. Not with Sister Jo around. I thought I’d easily make it to my release in early January, but when New Year’s Eve rolled around, thoughts of all those parties in the outside world brought me down again. I tried to summon up the cheerful attitude Sister Jo had. But she probably had never been to a New Year’s Eve party and didn’t know what she was missing.

We chatted for a while that New Year’s Eve morning, but even Sister Jo couldn’t lift my spirits. “Joyce, darlin’,” she said as I was leaving, “I have a little surprise for both of us tonight. Come over after dinner.”

I couldn’t imagine what she might have in mind. As the hours ticked by, my anticipation grew. I barely thought about what my friends were doing because I was too busy looking forward to seeing Sister Jo. I returned to her room after dinner, and the time flew by while we gabbed. When I looked at the clock it was near midnight.

“Joyce, go check the hallway and see if anyone’s coming,” Sister Jo said.

After I assured her that the coast was clear, she gestured for me to come closer. She reached back under her head and pulled something out from under her pillow. A small glass bottle. “What’s that?”

“Blackberry brandy,” Sister Jo said proudly. “One of the sisters brought it in for just a taste of a New Year’s Eve toast.” Sister Jo poured us each a tiny sip in the little blue hospital cups. At midnight, we rang in the New Year. It wasn’t anything like a traditional champagne toast, but somehow that made it even more special. I couldn’t think of a friend I’d rather be with.

We kept in touch after I left the hospital, writing letters back and forth while I was away at college. In my sophomore year, I received a letter with a picture of Sister Jo and a prayer card. “Joyce, darlin’,” the note read, “from this day on you won’t hear from me again. I’ve taken a vow of perpetual silence and will spend the rest of my life in prayer, having no more contact with the outside world.” But even if I wouldn’t hear about it, she wanted me to know she would never forget me. She promised to keep me close in her devotions, especially in January, the month I was discharged from the hospital.

True to her word, Sister Jo never wrote me another letter, but I often felt her prayers lift me. Whenever I wonder if I’m missing out on something, I remember the taste of blackberries that turned a drab hospital room into the best New Year’s Eve ever. God had more than one place for my friend Sister Jo.

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