The weekend before Thanksgiving, I attended my annual silent retreat at the Jesuit retreat house in St. Louis. While on retreat this year, I noticed another woman who was there and her presence seemed to be very prominent throughout the weekend. At first, this REALLY bothered me! You see, I noticed her not for her looks, from meeting her or any of the usual ways but by her cough. She had my mom’s cough.
For anyone who has known someone who battles or did battle COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you will know the cough I mean. This is a cough that sounds like it is coming from the depth of a person’s being. It is a deep, heavy and full cough. And it is constant. It becomes a background noise that is always there. This is the type of cough this woman had. Now, I have been going on this particular retreat now for 9 years. I don’t remember seeing or meeting this woman on any of the other retreats. But, boy do I remember her from this one! It seemed like everywhere I went, she was there. In chapel, she was sitting 2 rows directly behind me. At night, she was in the room across the hall. When I would sit in the lounge, she was usually across the room. Wherever I went, I was followed by this cough.
I say it that way because I didn’t meet the woman herself until after the retreat was over. But, I felt like I knew her because of the emotions that her cough brought to me!
At first, I was angry that she was there. The sound of the cough just grated on my nerves and I was inwardly very angry that this cough was disturbing the silence that I long for all year until I am on retreat. My anger grew when I was awakened several times the first night due to her coughing. I prayed very hard asking God to help me find the silence I desired! I went for walks during the breaks between conferences when resting in my room or in the lounge was interrupted by the cough. I searched for silence and peace and my feelings every time I heard that cough were definitely not peaceful.
After the second night of being awoke, I remember praying and begging God to help me. I remember crying with concern because the depth of the cough reminded me SO MUCH of my mom’s cough during the final months of her life. I remember praying and asking God to show me what I needed to see from this and to possibly give me courage to talk to this woman and encourage her to savor the time with her family because I was convinced in my soul that her time here on earth was limited. I remember hearing her cough so hard this second night that when the coughing stopped, I started to worry that maybe she was choking on the phlegm and then I worried for her life. Needless to say, I imagined all sorts of awful scenarios (which I tend to do during the middle of the night).
The next day, when I heard the cough again during morning prayer, I remember saying a prayer of thanksgiving that she didn’t die during the night from the coughing! Then, I realized that God was talking to me through her cough. I didn’t understand then what He was saying, but I knew I needed to listen more intently. After praying some more over it, I realized that I needed to actually meet and talk to this woman. But, that isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do on a silent retreat! So, I went to evening recreation in the hopes that she would be there. Since that is the time each day where you can ‘legally’ talk, I felt it would be the best opportunity. But, she wasn’t there. *sigh*
The next day was our last day on retreat. The cough was still there. I still wanted to talk to her face to face and encourage her to savor life to the fullest. On this last day, I also had the honor of being an extraordinary minister at Mass. While serving at Mass, this woman came to me in the line. When she stepped up to me, I looked up into her face and I saw my mother. I was floored. My mom was there! At Mass with me! Receiving the Blood of Christ! For those of you who knew my mom, you probably knew that she hadn’t attended Church much in her final years. In fact, she always seemed angry at the Church and at God. Honestly, it was one of the biggest struggles that I had after she died because I had so prayed for her that she could come to peace with God before her death. Then, when she died, it was so sudden that all I had were my prayers that she was able to find that peace beforehand.
So, after Mass, I was in a bit of a daze. After Mass, the code of silence is lifted and after 3 days of silence, you can imagine the noise that 85 women can make chatting! I wanted to see this woman! But, when I looked for her, I didn’t see her. When I did, she was surrounded by others and I didn’t want to go up to her then. So, I prepared to leave understanding that if God wanted me to actually meet her, it would happen. It didn’t until I was walking down to the parking lot to leave the grounds. Most of the other retreatants had already left. So, I was surprised to see her when I turned the corner and saw her there about to get into her car to leave. I stepped up to her, called her by name (thank you Lord for name tags — so I knew her name). She turned around with a quizzical look on her face. I introduced myself and told her how I had wanted to meet her most of the retreat. She asked me why and I realized I had to tell her the truth. So, the entire story spilled out about how her cough reminded me of my mom and how at first it really made me very uncomfortable. And then, when I saw her at Mass coming to receive the Blood of Christ, I saw my mom through her. She is the same height and body structure as my mom was. Their hairstyles and facial features were very similar. And how through seeing her, I could see my mom. She then just smiled.
She leaned into me and said… ‘God knew your heart and is giving you a message. Your mom is here with you every day and wherever you go. She loves you and this was God’s way of letting you know she is okay.’ Through my tears, I explained to her that my mom was angry at the Church and at God. And she just smiled this huge smile and said with a southern drawl like my mom’s … “not anymore she ain’t!”
And you know what? I know now the answers to my questions. And no, she isn’t angry anymore. She is at peace.