July 13, 2018

Making peace with “sister”

By Elizabeth Kelly *
Man holding cross outside of water  / Credit: Tim Marshall on Unsplash
Man holding cross outside of water  / Credit: Tim Marshall on Unsplash

You know you’ve crossed some mystical threshold in aging or illness the moment that water aerobics begins to look, well . . . appealing. I confess, I crossed that threshold about a year ago. 

Living with MS for some years now, swimming is one of the only exercises left to me and my body. Borrowing the spiritual linguistics of St. Francis, who referred to his body as “Brother Ass,” I sometimes refer to mine as “Sister Ass.” A few times a week, I drag myself and Sister to the local Y, endure the stark humiliation of wrangling Sister into a bathing suit, and, reassuring her that it will all be over soon, lower Sister into the pool. Oh, but for a few lovely, cool moments, we almost feel strong again. Pulling her through the water, stroke after stroke – the buoyancy of more than a few extra pounds no doubt helps keep Sister afloat – but for those minutes in the water, I have a sense of agility, strength, coordination, control. It brings Sister and me so much joy.

I am frequently there with my pool-buddies – the little old ladies doing water aerobics to terrible, early rock-n-roll tunes in the next pool over. And then there’s my favorite, “Stanley.” Stanley’s spine is more crooked than a crooked question mark. It bears the mean scars of countless surgeries that did little to ease his condition over the course of his life. I watch in private awe as this humble creature lowers himself into the water, turns over onto his back, and ever-so-slowly flutters his hands and kicks his legs, patiently making his way back and forth across the length of the pool – lap after protracted lap. I sense in Stanley that same inkling I have, a feeling of buoyancy that eases the pain and the wearying weight of constant illness, if only for a moment. And when he’s finished, I take note as Stanley hoists himself up the ladder to his walker and makes his way to the locker room, the pain of his condition clearly having returned in full. 

And though for now, I am faster and stronger and more able than Stanley, I can imagine a time when I may not be, and I pray for the graces that Stanley seems to so easily possess: acceptance, perseverance, and not the slightest iota of self-pity. 

“Brother ass,” St. Francis’s well-known moniker for his body, was always making demands for sleep, for food, for shelter, but even Francis admitted at the end of his life that he might have been a little too hard on his body after all. 

My body makes far more demands than I would like these days, too: for rest, for pain relief, for every kind of comfort. One day I may be moving to the other pool to cha-cha in the water with the older ladies and I hope I can accept it with gratitude and a good sense of humor. And I beg the Lord: let my wrinkles be earned for always seeking his truth; let my gray hair come from striving after virtue and gentleness of spirit. Let my fatigue be the result of spending my energies for Jesus and his Church, and let the pain of my body be consumed by his pain in that mystical way we are granted the startling honor of joining Jesus on the Cross – even in our crooked, little, humble laps. 

Lord, I thank you for the gift of this wonderfully perplexing body. I trust in that merciful day of its glorious resurrection, and on that day, I hope you will give me the chance to ask Stanley for a proper dance – no pool required.   

Elizabeth Kelly is an award-winning speaker and the author of six books, including including Jesus Approaches: What Contemporary Women Can Learn about Healing, Freedom and Joy from the Women of the New Testament. She is trained as a spiritual director in the Ignatian exercises and leads retreats with a particular focus on helping women to flourish in their faith. She teaches in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (MN). Her website is: www.LizK.org.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.