I got lost in the middle of nowhere, Minnesota, on my way to Aggie's wake 2 years ago this month.
I think Aggie meant for that to happen. In the midst of my disorientation, I had to stop to get my bearings, and when I looked up I got something even better -- this photo. The view stopped me short. I had to exit my car and watch this stunning moment of the sun setting against rippled clouds and a blue snow-blanked field.
No doubt about it, Aggie was a force of nature. Which is why I like to think of this image as "Aggie's sky."
It's taken me till now to be able to write about her.
She paid me the briefest of visits on the day she flew away. (I love that phrase, flew away, blatantly lifted from Steven at The Golden Fish.) It was not the kind of visit where you sit down for tea and chat. More like a visitation.
I was on my way home from work on a chilly Friday, tucked away in the back corner of a bus, book in hand. For reasons I'll explain some day, I was reading about the Rule of Saint Benedict, a guide for living in a monastic community, written some 1,500 years ago. One of St. Benedict's precepts was that any visitor to a monastery should be greeted with abundant hospitality, including a kiss on the cheek.
Upon reading that passage, I had an extraordinary and vivid image of how when I announced my arrival at Clare's Well Retreat Farm by shouting "I'm home!" Sister Agnes Soenneker, a Franciscan nun, would sweep me into an embrace and plant a kiss on my cheek. And thus would begin a weekend of joy, solitude, renewal, and abundant hospitality.
Aggie was a gifted massage therapist, who began each session of bodywork with a prayer, and finished it with a blessing. She was a healer, someone who could read a person's body and know just what was needed. A Lakota man named Basil Braveheart befriended Aggie years ago, and Basil was convinced that Aggie was a Medicine Woman. I couldn't agree more. To be sure, Aggie was instrumental in my own healing after the Year of the Sledgehammer.
But I digress.
On the bus ride home 2 years ago, that delightful image of Aggie greeting reminded me that I'd be visiting Clare's Well in 3 weeks. And that was that.
Until the next morning, when I got a phone call, the kind bearing sad tidings. The voice on the line was that of Roxanne Wagner, a lay massage therapist who also works at Clare's Well and was Aggie's dear friend and colleague.
"I have some sad news," Roxanne said. "Aggie died yesterday. She was in the kitchen, cooking. And apparently she had a heart attack."
It seems Aggie, 68, a farm girl who became a nun and a nurse, who spoke two languages fluently, who worked wonders with her hands, trekked every year deep into the wilds of Nicaragua, riding in packed and bumpy buses, slogging through mud, and floating down rivers in rugged dugouts so she could get to remote villages to offer her services, who was arrested and jailed once for protesting the institutionalized teaching of torture, this Aggie had a bad heart. An irregular rhythm embedded in a mighty but imperfect heart.
She died in the midst of serving others, preparing a meal for guests at Clare's Well, a place she helped found. She died with a wooden spoon in her hand.
Aggie's funeral was held in the beautiful chapel at the convent of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls. Following a Catholic mass, Basil Braveheart led a Lakota ceremony that included drumming and singing. Aggie believed the sound of drumming was the heartbeat of the earth, and she had long ago requested that the procession to her gravesite be led by such drumming. And so it was.
When her body was lowered into the ground, it was accompanied by drumming and by the sweet and melancholy sound of a Native American flute played by Aggie's best friend since high school, Carol, another Franciscan sister. The sounds of the drums and flute grew quieter and softer until Aggie's body reached its final resting place. And then silence reigned.
The cold December wind blew bits of snow and detritus around us as we stood in disbelief, sadness, and fleeting feelings of abandonment. Nuns just aren't supposed to die that young. They live into their 80s and 90s and beyond. Aggie had years left, years to dig in her organic garden, ply her trade, do good work in central America -- and fail to hide the mischievous side evident in the twinkle of her smiling blue eyes.
Her death was a ragged lesson in humility. A reminder that things happen in God's time, not our own. And it's been a hard lesson for all of us who loved Aggie and were loved by her.
As it turns out, my visit from Aggie happened within hours after her heart stopped beating and she flew away. Lucky for me, I caught a kiss goodbye on her flight path.
We got our first big snow fall of the year today in Minneapolis, and the whiteness is blowing and drifting outside. So beautiful. It seemed like a good day to look at Aggie's sky and tell this story.
(And Aggie, if you're listening, love the snow, but I'd still like you to pay a visit!)