24 years ago next month, shortly after my son was born, I was stopped by a nurse on the NICU ward. “There is a nun wearing a funny purple hat looking for you.” I was a bit puzzled as I walked back towards the elevator lobby. Then I saw a tall, red-headed woman wearing a clerical collar and a purple hat with a feather in it. “I think you’re looking for me” I said.
That was the first time that I met Ann who was just beginning her tenure as an assistant priest at the Episcopal church I had just started attending. Having grown up in a tradition without women clergy, I had no idea what to expect, but this tall woman in a rather outlandish winter hat was definitely not what I would have imagined. Over the next 6 years I came to know her as an gracious, kind, confident, brilliant, loving woman who was not afraid to admit her mistakes and shortcomings. With her guidance and advice along the way, I laughed and learned, and worshiped, and faced struggles as I wandered through life, and I am thankful for the spiritual guidance she was willing to give.
Her path in life took her in a different direction, moving for a time to the other side of the planet, before coming back to the States and, a few years ago, settling in the Pacific Northwest. For a long time, we lost track of each other. From time to time I would hear about where she was — when she moved to Hawaii, when she retired — but we were not in contact. A few weeks after I created an account on Facebook in 2009, I was surprised when I received a friend request from Ann.
It was wonderful to catch up on our lives after losing touch nearly 15 years before. I loved reading her status updates, her opinions on current events, reviews of books, and of the joys of visits from her young grandson as he started talking, walking, imagining, reading. About a year ago Ann was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and her Facebook statii took on an additional focus: chronicling her journey with the disease and her brave battle.
Faced with limited mobility, she started to explore various artistic outlets. She worked with glass, knitted, painted on silk, and began drawing with water-color pencils. It was in this last medium that she flourished in recent months. I was honored that she used a few of my photographs as inspiration for her drawings. Although I only saw photographs of her drawings posted on Facebook, I am happy that I was able to see her work. Most everything she did was donated to sales to support her local retirement community.
Ann ended her valiant battle yesterday, slipping out of this world as she was surrounded by her family. Just as she helped show me how to live and move forward as a young 20-something single mother so many years ago, in recent months she has shown many, many people how to go through the process of dying, how healing isn’t always about a cure. I can only hope that if I have to face an end-of-life illness, I can show half as much bravery, half as much grace, and half as much humor as she was able to share with her friends around the globe in the last year.
This is a drawing that Ann did over the summer based on one of my photographs:
I will hear Ann’s unique laugh for a long time. And that hat? I’ll always remember that awesome hat with a feather that was just a little too Bishop Purple for an Episcopal priest to be wearing. That hat definitely matched her style with her personality.