Near the end of that year her body finally gave out and she remained bedridden. Ariana spent as much time as she could spare comforting her and listening to some of her experiences in the world of high class prostitution. Sometimes they could be heard bursting out in laughter, followed by Sylvia’s terrible coughing fits. Surprisingly, and perhaps not so surprisingly, during that year some of Sylvia’s clients who had helplessly fallen in love with her, traced her to the hospice and she was permitted to receive them. There were strange tearful reunions and many a new anonymous donation appeared in the “Hope Fund”.
The week before Christmas was the hardest. Sylvia labored for breath and could not eat. Fed intravenously, she was slipping fast. Christmas Eve came and she couldn’t hold any longer. Ariana came in and saw that the battle was over. She reached down and held the frail, wasted body of her sister and said:
“Remember our vow – no matter what the circumstances, we would always spend Christmas day together? You have to hold on tonight. You have to celebrate the birth of our Lord with me tomorrow. You can’t break your vow. You can’t!”
Sylvia understood. She held on and passed away in the evening of December 25. Ariana looked out the window into the city night. Snow had fallen all day and everything was covered in white. Street lights reflected their pale luster upon store fronts decorated with various aspects of the kind of commercial Christmas the world has come to accept as normal. For a brief moment the city, attired in a virgin’s white hid her ugliness. Ariana thought it fitting that it would make an effort and put on a white mantle for the passage of her sister’s soul. Above the city, between high-rise escarpments, Ariana saw a couple of stars twinkling in the cold night. Only then did she allow the floodgates of sorrow from her heart to open and she cried silently, for a long time.
A year went by. Things returned to their normal madness in the hospice. Sister Celeste drove herself even more now, but learned to ease up on the younger postulant nuns and things ran smoothly. On Christmas Eve she found herself alone in her small office in the old house that served as rooming house for nuns and postulants, and office for the hospice next door. She had done her final rounds to ensure that all was under control there under the night shift.
The old house felt terribly empty as those not serving in the hospice had gone home to their families to celebrate Midnight Mass and Christmas day. She pulled out her rosary, thought of Mother Teresa doing the same thing and smiled to herself as she looked out her office window into the night sky filled with grey clouds that presaged more snow on Christmas day.
The beads of the rosary slipped silently through her fingers from years of practice. She thought of Sylvia and tried to imagine the kind of life she was now having. Pangs of sorrow, regret and emptiness hit her. Had her foolish dream, however well it had turned out, been the cause of her sister’s death? She shook her head as she prayed through the rosary. “I cannot entertain such thoughts. It is wrong. Sylvia and I were as one and she made a choice that I would have made had our positions been reversed. She chose her life of sacrifice, not just for me, but for the people here, for the city, for the world. We both did, and found what we wanted most.”
The front door buzzer brought her out of her meditation. She checked the monitor. Two men, unshaven, poorly dressed and obviously hungry and cold, stood at the door. Compassion moved her heart as she looked at them and in violation of an unbreakable rule she had made, against all common sense, got up and went to open the door. She invited the men inside and as she turned to lead them out a side door to to the hospice cafeteria, they grabbed her, threw her to the floor and raped her at knife point. Then the one with the knife plunged it in her heart several times.
As Ariana lay dying, her blood-soaked hands holding her punctured chest, she whispered, “I forgive you…!” Her final thought from this side of the veil was, “As promised, I’ll be with you for Christmas, sister.”
It is not given to us to see beyond this point. Death guards his territory with terrible jealousy. His reasoning, often tragic to us, remains impenetrable. We cannot investigate further; we can but speculate on the fate of those who “cross the bar” and never return. Some will think, heaven, and some will think, there is no more to the story. That is how it should be but regardless of our belief choices, it is given to us to have the mental means to contemplate the lives of people such as these two sisters; their motivation and the results from such sacrificial offerings to us and our world.
The story is fictitious, certainly, but how many real lives provide the flesh and blood background for stories such as this one? My question, as always, is: can we take ourselves beyond just admiration and perhaps temporary sadness? Is there some food here for us? Something to move us to better ourselves and take new steps, however hesitant, towards becoming compassionate beings? Surely, anyone who has read the story to the end must realize such are not given to us simply to entertain, or bring out a few temporary tears, as beneficial as such may be to our eyes strained by the harsh glare of consumerism.
I do not easily give Christmas wishes for to the degree that I understand the concept I strive to live without hypocrisy. However, I will do this: on behalf of Sylvia and Ariana, cast out any darkness from your hearts during this time and do give yourselves, one and all, a merry Christmas!