I want to tell you about Anna.
She is one of most remarkable people I have ever met. She immigrated to the United States from Poland in the 1980’s. Actually, “immigrated” is not the most precise word—“defected” is more accurate, as her native country was still under a Communist regime, which was by no means willing to let her go. She was one of the leading computer scientists when that technology was in its infancy—for that reason, the Communists were desperate to hang on to her, and the Americans were salivating at the prospect of her switching sides.
For Anna, the choice, if not the process, was simple. As a devout Catholic, Anna naturally preferred to live in a place where she would be free to practice her faith. So when U.C. Berkeley offered her an attractive position, and the U.S. government offered to facilitate her escape, Anna seized upon the opportunity, and left her entire life behind—family, friends, and possessions—to embark upon a perilous journey into the unknown with only her faith and her intellect to rely upon.
* * *
My friendship with Anna was hard-won.
She was one of the first Catholics I met as I was entering the Church. I had only recently begun to come to Mass, and, searching for a way to get to know the people in the pews around me, I answered a request in the parish bulletin for volunteers to help make the flower arrangements. Anna was one of the two other people on the Flower Team, and that is how we met—surrounded by plush bundles of white roses, ensconced in the heady perfume of stargazer lilies, and framed by curving tendrils of vibrant greenery.
Anna rarely spoke while we arranged the flowers. When she did, her words were often self-deprecating, spoken in a tentative, tiny voice, like that of a shy child. She never made eye contact. She seemed impenetrable—she didn’t laugh at our jokes, and didn’t participate in our small talk. She reminded me of an escape artist—locked inside a safe, which was then wrapped up in chains and tossed into the ocean—only she wasn’t trying to get out.
I looked at this unusual creature, always dressed in gray and black with hair to match, and with thick glasses that hid her downcast eyes—this small, quiet, seemingly anti-social and possibly self-loathing person—and I sensed profound pain from deep wounds. I looked at her and I saw a challenge. I made up my mind to win her friendship, come what may.
* * *
It was not easy. But the more difficult and remote she was, the more determined I was to earn her trust. If I saw her working on a project around the parish, I would stop what I was doing and impose my help upon her. Then I would use that opening to impose my conversation upon her.
For example, one day I saw her sitting on the side steps sorting rose petals for a procession. She had a massive box filled to the brim, and she had to remove all of the wilted and decaying petals. It was a tedious, incredibly time-consuming job.
“Hey, how’d you like some help with that?” I asked her.
Barely audible, she replied, “It’s okay. I can do it.”
“I know you can, but you’ll be done in half the time if you let me help you.”
“It’s okay. I can do it.”
“Okay,” I said, sitting down next to her. “How about this. You do your half,” I said, scooping a massive armful out of the box and dumping it into the pocket-dip created by my long skirt, “and I’ll do mine.”
She shook her head, but one side of her mouth curled up just the tiniest bit, hinting at a smile. That was all the encouragement I needed to keep chiseling away at her granite facade.
* * *
The real breakthrough came when we started sewing. Our priest had requested new cassocks for the altar servers, and I started teaching a free sewing class with the goal of training a few more helpers for the project, which was daunting.
Anna was the only person who showed up to every single one of those classes. I think they made her see me in a new light, because she began to open up to me. In fact, our relationship underwent a radical transformation.
Where she had once been silent, she became unsilenceable. She just plain would not stop talking. She’d ask me a question, and I’d get three words into the answer, then she’d interrupt me and go on prattling. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. It was downright crazy-making. She’d corner me after Mass and talk my ear off for two or three hours. It’d be dinner time, and my stomach would be growling—loudly—and I’d be saying Hail Marys for help in making my escape. I’d say, “Anna, I really need to go home now,” and she would just go on talking as if I’d said nothing whatsoever. I could be in my car, with the engine running, and she’d stand between the open door and the rest of the car, making it impossible for me to close it and drive away.
Where she had once been remote, she became incredibly clingy—she got to the point where she wouldn’t make a single decision, big or small, without consulting me first. In practical terms, this meant that she was calling, texting, and emailing me upwards of ten to fifteen times per day. I once tried to tell her, “Anna, I’m not qualified to advise you on anything. You’re older than me, wiser than me, have more life experience, and are more mature in the faith, too. If anything, you should be mentoring me.”
“Oh no,” she replied, looking deeply troubled that I would make such a suggestion, “you are very holy, Bettina.”
And this was horribly uncomfortable for me, because, although she was completely ignorant of my scandalously unholy life prior to coming into the Church, I was not—indeed, every moment of every day, I experienced feelings of visceral pain and intense shame over the things I’ve done. I wanted to cry out, “Oh Anna, you are so sorely mistaken! If you knew even one tenth of the things I’ve done, you’d be disavowed of that notion, lickety split.” But I knew that was not a wise idea.
So I became an expert in avoiding her. I stopped answering her calls, and stalled on replying to her texts. I got to the point where I’d figured out a zillion ways to sneak out of the church unseen after Mass so I wouldn’t get stuck in a talk hold with her. People would see me running across the parking lot and shoot me puzzled glances. But I didn’t care. I didn’t want to lose my entire Sunday afternoon and evening to a one-sided conversation.
And then she did something that made me feel ashamed.
My health had been getting worse for quite some time. One day I stepped on the scale and discovered I had dropped from 112 pounds—already a very low weight for someone my height—to 106 pounds in less than a week.
I flipped out.
I was worried that there might be something other than the usual RA and Ehlers-Danlos issues going on with me—that maybe I had cancer and was dying. I called an advice nurse, who recommended that I go to the ER. So Anna drove me.
But that wasn’t all she did. She sat at my bedside praying the rosary for me, over and over, for about 7 straight hours.
That, my friends, is Christian love in action.
In the car on the way home, she told me a bit about her childhood. Her mother and sister had essentially treated her more like a servant than flesh-and-blood. She was always and only given what was left over after they were done helping themselves—whatever food they didn’t eat at meals, whatever clothes they were tired of wearing, and so on. As for her father, he had rejected her outright. Refusing to ever touch her, he told her on a regular basis that she was “too ugly to love” until he abandoned the family entirely.
And suddenly I understood why she had begun to cling to me so tightly—I might have been one of very few people to take an active interest in her. I might have been the only person who ever courted her affection.
After that, I decided to confront the issues between us directly—she was totally deserving of that respect and consideration, and it had been childish and cruel of me to deny it to her. I wrote her a long letter telling her everything I loved about her, while simultaneously delineating my boundaries in a very concrete way.
And wouldn’t you know it? After that, things got a lot better.
* * *
We spent Thanksgiving Day of 2014 together. I was working as a live-in nanny for a well-to-do-family at the time, and they were away with relatives—I was alone in the big house. Anna’s son was unable to make it home for the holiday, and I knew it would be very difficult for her to spend the day by herself. So I invited her to spend it baking apple pies with me.
We had an absolutely delightful time. We peeled, cored, and sliced pound after pound of apples and debated the finer points of pastry-making. She told me about the traditional baking methods used in Poland, and reminisced about the decadent desserts she had made and eaten there.
We then had a simple, yet somehow very lavish dinner. She had roasted a chicken in advance and brought it with her. I showed her how to make rice pilaf with white wine and butter-caramelized onions. And we sautéed some carrots with garlic, honey, and ginger. The house was overflowing with delightful aromas. We ate like queens.
Afterward, we took a walk around the neighborhood. I had news I knew she would not take well, and somehow it has always been easier for me to break bad news while in motion—almost as if, by immediately moving away from the spot in which they had been spoken, I could somehow escape the ramifications of my words.
“Anna,” I tentatively began, “I need to tell you about something.”
“Yes, what is it?” she asked, looking over at me. Her eyes gleamed, catching the reflection of the setting sun.
“My grandmother called me a few days ago. The one who lives in Oklahoma? And, well, she asked me to come back. And, I kinda have to do it…” I trailed off.
Anna stopped walking. She took hold of my hand and clasped it between both of hers. She bit her lip. Her eyes glistened. But she didn’t say anything. She just looked at me.
I felt myself starting to break down. Quietly, I said, “Let’s go back to the house, Anna.”
Slowly, silently, we walked back, hand-in-hand.
* * *
The day before I left for Oklahoma, I came to the church to say goodbye to the people there. Anna lives across the street, so she was there, too. After I had hugged or shaken hands with everyone else, I came to Anna.
Anna had never been the hugging type. And even though I had never before gotten the signal from her that it was okay to do so, that day I threw my arms around her and held her tight.
While I was holding her, she put her head on my shoulder. In a trembling voice, she whispered in my ear something that cut right through my heart. Something to which I could not respond.
“Don’t go,” she said. “Please don’t go.”
* * *
But I did go.
Ironically, the forward march of technology had passed by the former computer science expert—she knew little about modern computers and electronic devices, and it was not long before we lost touch as a result. As time moved on, the emotional distance between us became ever more reflective of the physical distance, and when I came back to California about a year later, we were almost strangers.
Several years ago, Anna nearly died from an auto-immune related lung disease. She had been given only a few months to live by the doctors who ultimately, much to their own surprise, cured her.
Over the course of the time that has passed since I returned, the disease has recurred.
At first, Anna was merely very sensitive to smells. The incense used in the Mass was overwhelming to her, so she would come to Mass, but she would have to wear a surgical mask, and she would sit in the vestibule.
Eventually, she stopped coming to Mass altogether. Nobody—including me, I’m ashamed to admit—really seemed to notice.
Then, last week, I got a text message from Anna—she sent it to both our priest and me. She asked us if we would please come pick up the materials we used all those many moons ago to make the cassocks for the altar servers, which I had left in her care when I went to Oklahoma. We replied that we of course would, and we set up a time.
When we walked in her door, my heart nearly stopped when I saw her. This woman, who had always been small but robust in that stereotypically Eastern European way, had wasted away to a skeletal shadow of her former self. Her plump cheeks were now hollow, her once-bright eyes sunken, her lips thin.
I tried to fight back my tears while our priest loaded up the heavy boxes, but it was no use. I wanted to ask her, “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad? Why didn’t you ask for my help?”
But deep down what I was really thinking was, “Why didn’t I call her? Why didn’t I try to find out what was going on? Why didn’t I offer my help?”
So I tried to offer it right then and there. She claimed she didn’t need any help, didn’t need any food brought, didn’t need help getting to her doctor’s appointments, didn’t need anything, anything at all.
Before I left, I once more threw my arms around her, without bothering to ask if it was okay. And I felt her body, nothing more than a sack of bones at this point, soften in my embrace. And once more, she whispered in my ear.
This time, she said, “Don’t cry.”
And once more, I defied her. I cried like a baby. I cried until she stiffened in my arms, shrugged me off, and showed me to the door. I cried until she closed it behind me, possibly for the last time.