My friend Angela is an extraordinary person, and not just because she’s a consecrated virgin living in the world. The year I met her, I wandered in the middle of my life into a church in Brooklyn, New York, and finally committed to convert to Catholicism. Angela attended church without fail–it seemed that every single time I was there, she was there. The priests often called her to come up and help, whether to serve communion or to read if our usual 12:30 lector, Eric, wasn’t there. She always said yes, happily padding up to the altar in bare feet, a big smile on her face. She was friendly, especially after she met me and found out that I was converting. Every time I saw her, she’d say, “I love ya, kiddo.” I didn’t know her that well, but I figured it was just because I was kind to her elderly mother, who sometimes appeared in church beside her, and sometimes didn’t, due to her advanced age and failing health.
My sponsor for baptism and confirmation was my old friend Charles, who lived a few miles across Brooklyn and had a tendency to lateness. We had known each other for years; we became friends over disaster tacos when G.W. Bush was voted in for his second term. Sometimes he was so late to things that they were over when he got there. He’d come in to church to meet me, and I could hear him singing loudly, walking up the aisle during the final hymn. Those were the lucky days. Other days he just couldn’t make it at all, mostly because he was depressive. I just knew that some days were good days for Charles and some were not so good. I didn’t judge, though occasionally I’d be disappointed. Mostly I didn’t count on his appearance, so that when he did show up, I’d be delighted. Part of the reason I had asked him to sponsor my conversion was because I knew that church was important to him, but he needed a push to come.
Because Charles sometimes couldn’t make it, I appreciated Angela’s ever-present commitment to church. I didn’t realize that she was extraordinary until later. At first, I just thought she was a nice woman.
The week of Easter the year I was baptized, my mother-in-law died, and then I got sick. I don’t know if it was the flu, a terrible cold, or demons (though I still have my suspicions about that.) I felt awful, though. Aside from feeling like I had let my husband down in his moment of grief, I had an earache that turned into partial deafness for several weeks, as well as respiratory problems that you really don’t want me to describe in detail. In addition, I was preparing for the full-body immersion in our baptismal font, which was designed like a tomb. I was glad to know that there was a little bleach in the holy water, because I didn’t want to pass my germs to everyone else. On top of everything else, my priest asked if he could wash my feet at Mass on Holy Thursday. I was nervous about all of it, so when I went to attend Holy Thursday Mass, I asked my former student Kevin to come with me. (I was afraid I might faint, due to being sick.)
Angela was there, so I introduced Kevin to her. I half-expected that she might tell Kevin she loved him, too, but she didn’t. Mass started, and I got my feet washed, and I came back and sat with Kevin and knelt and rose for prayers and did everything I was supposed to do for the first hour or so. And suddenly, in the middle of kneeling, I started to feel very wrong. “Are you okay, Susan?” Kevin whispered.
It turned out I did not faint. But right in the middle of the consecration of the Host, with my newly clean feet, I had to sprint out of church and into the little bathroom in the entryway, because instead, I had to vomit. Violently.
A few moments after, when I was washing the sink, I heard Angela’s voice. “Are you okay? Kevin asked me to come and check on you,” she said.
“I threw up,” I said. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe it’s demons.” I was joking, but only about half joking.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not demons,” Angela said, and laughed. She put her arm around me and helped me back to the pew, while everyone else was returning from the communion line to their seats.
Two days later, on Saturday morning, Angela came to the consecration ceremony for the catechumens. Charles had come the day before to Good Friday service and scolded me for genuflecting, since the tabernacle was empty. Charles would be coming, too, to my baptism at Midnight Mass that night, but that morning must have been a bad morning, because he didn’t make it. It turned out that it didn’t matter. Angela stood in for Charles at every moment, even helping my priest by holding the vials of holy oil, including the one that smelled like pine and incense, which he used to cross the palms of my hands, my forehead, and my chest.
That was when I realized that the source of Angela’s extraordinariness wasn’t just that she was a friendly woman from my neighborhood. I knew a few permutations of love–the romantic kind, and the kind I had for friends, especially friends like Charles, whose wounds I recognized in myself. There was the love I was developing for my priests, a special semi-parental kind which confused me at first until I could put a name to it. And then there was Angela’s kind–the kind that showed up whether she knew you needed her or not, just in case you did. And I did.
As I was packing up my things to go, Angela came up to me. “How ya feelin’?” she asked. I assured her that I was much better. “I know. You look alright,” she said. “You’ll do fine tonight. And don’t forget, I love ya, kiddo.”
“I love you, too, Angela,” I replied.