When I was twelve, I started telling people at school that my older sister, Hannah, was dead. I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I just figured it would be easier than explaining what had actually happened to her. You’d think the phrase “contemplative nun” would mean something to kids who’d been attending Catholic school their entire lives, but it really didn’t. To them, nuns were old women who wore nude panty hose to hide the varicose veins in their legs and seemed like they’d slap you with a ruler as soon as look at you. Nuns were practically prehistoric, and it didn’t make any sense for my then twenty-three-year-old sister—tall, thin, blond as Barbie—to be working on her fourth year at the Sisters of Grace convent in Middleton, Indiana. But she was.
So I lied. I didn’t get what the big deal was. I hadn’t seen Hannah for longer than half an hour a year through an iron grille since I was eight, and those visits consisted mostly of my parents nervously babbling about work and how I was doing in school while Hannah sat with her hands folded in her lap, serene, listening but saying virtually nothing. She wasn’t dead, but she wasn’t part of my life anymore, so I simplified the story.
It wasn’t long before my teachers caught wind of the rumor. When Ms. Hopeshed, my music teacher, who was very sensitive, heard, she called our house to express her sincerest condolences over the loss of my sister. Mom and Dad were furious with me.
“How dare you tell people that Hannah is dead!” Mom screamed. I’d never seen her so angry, and she very rarely yelled at me. I was practically an only child and my parents and I were close, or I thought we were. It didn’t occur to me that they might have other loyalties.
Stubborn and defiant as always, I refused to deny the pragmatism of my plan. “Well, it’s sort of like she’s dead,” I pointed out. It was, I thought, an unassailable argument. “We never see her. She never calls or comes home. What am I supposed to say?”
Mom took a deep breath and steadied herself before answering.
“If you talk like that in school, people are going to think you wish Hannah was dead,” she told me. “They’ll think you’re a liar who hates her sister. Is that what you want? Is that who you are?”
I stared at my shoes. “No, I guess not.” I knew a losing fight when I saw one, but I didn’t quite see where all this was coming from. It was a lie, yes, and lying was wrong; I’d been told that a million times over the course of my life, and I knew it was possible I hadn’t done the right thing, or the best thing. But how was I supposed to explain my sister’s absence when nobody had ever given me the words? So I’d improvised. One look at my mother’s face and I knew I’d be better off keeping that justification to myself.
“Good.” She didn’t sound convinced, but I think she knew that was as much as she was going to get out of me. To my mom, this was a problem that couldn’t be solved with an apology, and even as we stood there not looking at each other, she was formulating a game plan. “I told Ms. Hopeshed the truth, and I expect you to do the same with everybody you told that horrible lie to. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” I said.
She paused at the door and pointed at me. “You’d better fix this, Caro.”
“I will,” I promised.
I’d severely underestimated what this would mean for me at school. The next day, deathly afraid my mother would have them make an announcement over the PA system if I disobeyed, I took back my lie and started telling people it felt like Hannah was dead, but that she was alive and (presumably) well at the Sisters of Grace convent in Middleton, Indiana. The kids in my class labeled me “Caroliar,” which became a popular playground taunt, and the reputation stuck with me until I went to high school and made new friends and everyone except them basically forgot I existed.
Hannah was a touchy subject in our house for years. We almost never talked about her, and after she’d been at the convent for two years, Mom packed up all her things, hid them in the garage, and let me move downstairs into her old room. There were only a few photos of her in the house, none of them taken when she was older than eighteen. “We’re going to Indiana” was the euphemism my parents used when we’d been scheduled for one of our annual visits to the convent, and apart from the traditional “she seems happy,” nobody ever said anything on the topic on the way there or the way back.
So it wasn’t like I was the only liar in the house. We all acted like Hannah was dead; all I did was take it one step further and bury her.
Telling the truth wasn’t my only punishment. My parents arranged for me to have three one-hour counseling sessions with Father Bob, the pastor of our church. We weren’t what you would call devout Catholics, but we went to Sunday Mass every once in a while and never missed on holidays. I’d had all the appropriate sacraments and so had Hannah, even before she decided to marry Jesus.
Father Bob was very concerned about me, or so he said. My parents had asked him to explain the ins and outs of religious vocation to me, so that I might be a little more prepared the next time someone asked me what had happened to Hannah: why she had gone away, why she was never coming back. Father Bob was nice and patient, but I didn’t care to hear anything about Hannah’s chosen life.
“Carolina,” Father Bob said, over and over, as if teaching the alphabet to a small child. “It was God’s will that Hannah go to the Sisters of Grace. It was God’s will that I become a priest. That’s how vocation works.”
The word “vocation” made me want to barf. To me it was a synonym for “prison,” for a particular kind of abandonment. I hadn’t seen much of the world at that point, but I knew it was full of things I wanted. I knew I would want a boyfriend, and eventually a husband, maybe a couple of kids. I knew I would want a house and a yard and a dog—I wanted the dog most of all at that age. I knew Hannah couldn’t have those things, and it was bizarre to me that she would give it all up. At one time, I believed that Hannah hadn’t chosen to leave, that she’d been taken, but that was only when I was very young.
“Do you mean she had to be a nun? That she didn’t have the option not to be?” I asked. I knew what it was like to be told where to be, what to do, how to act, and what to say every moment of your life, but I’d always believed that once you were grown up you got away from all that—you got to be your own person. I didn’t know what to think about Hannah’s “vocation.” Did she have the choice to go away, or didn’t she?
“No, not exactly. God doesn’t force us to do anything, even His will. He only calls us to be our best selves, to serve our natural purpose as His creation. For Hannah, that purpose is sisterhood. For me, it’s priesthood. For you, who knows? You’re still young. Maybe God will give you a vocation, too.”
“No way!” I cried out. “I’m never going to be a nun. I don’t even like church.”
“Okay then,” Father Bob agreed. “Maybe not.”
In the last week of August before my junior year of high school, something unexpected happened. I was still on summer vacation, slowly finishing up the summer assignments I’d been carefully avoiding since June. I talked to my best friend Erin on the phone for a couple of hours (she was at her grandmother’s house outside Minneapolis, dying of boredom), swam in the pool in the backyard of my other best friend, Reb, and put in some quality time in front of the TV. Mom called me in to dinner at seven; when we were all seated, I noticed that they weren’t eating, and I asked what was wrong.
Dad explained; Mom didn’t seem to have the words. They had gotten a phone call earlier that afternoon from Mother Regina, the superior at Hannah’s convent, saying that Hannah had decided to renounce her vows and leave the Sisters of Grace permanently. They were taking the news exactly as I would’ve expected them to—with shock and disbelief. I asked if they’d spoken to Hannah, but evidently she was too upset to talk to anyone just yet. I wondered whose choice it was for her to leave—hers, or Mother Regina’s.
“And she’s going to come and live here?” I asked. It was a stupid question, really. Where else would she go? She had entered the convent when she was nineteen and she’d been gone eight years. There was no way she had any friends left after such a long absence; I didn’t get the impression that she’d ever had friends to begin with. Hannah had never been on her own before. It seemed impossible that she could make it alone.
“Of course!” Mom snapped. Whenever Hannah came up in conversation, Mom got sharp with me.
Then it occurred to me to ask the question that probably should’ve been my first. “Why?”
“Why what?” Dad poked at the chicken on his plate with a fork. There wasn’t an appetite left at the table.
“Why is she leaving the convent? I thought she loved it there.” My parents had stopped dragging me to their yearly visitation with Hannah when I was thirteen. I’d never hated anything more in my life than going to that convent; it was too unnervingly quiet, too sterile, too cold, not to mention totally boring. Not too long after the whole “my sister’s dead” fiasco, I wasn’t having any of it. The fit I threw when they tried to cart me down to Indiana to talk to a virtual stranger through iron bars was epic. I screamed and pouted and threw things and made myself sick rather than go.
Mom and Dad made a valiant effort at forcing me; they shouted back, threatening me with unprecedented restriction and even, in a moment of desperation, resorting to bribery. Eventually they gave up.
They always came back from Indiana saying that Hannah looked happy, in a way. Always “in a way,” later clarified by the word “serene.” She was calm and quiet, neither excited to see them nor bothered by their presence. She never fully engaged, just listened patiently to their stories (mostly about me, Mom admitted) and responded carefully and clearly to their questions. She never revealed too much, she never gossiped or chatted, and she never seemed happier to see them than she did to see anyone else. I once overheard Mom crying to Dad that Hannah didn’t care about them or seem to recognize them as her parents. Mom almost never cried, and the sound of it broke my heart. Vocation or no vocation, retreating like that was Hannah’s choice alone.
“Apparently she’s not happy there anymore,” Mom said. She was tense and upset, I could tell, but I didn’t understand why. Wasn’t this what she had wanted since Hannah went away? They desperately wanted her to fail as a nun; maybe they even prayed for it, although everybody’s faith in God had taken a hit when he stole my sister away. They wanted her vocation to be false, for her to despise the convent and come back home, even if it meant she had to be kicked out. I think they wanted it so much because they were afraid it wouldn’t happen. From the moment she hit puberty, Hannah and the habit seemed destined to collide.
I didn’t remember much about Hannah, and I wasn’t even sure if the memories I did have were true or just cobbled together from photographs and other people’s stories. One of the things I did recall was that Hannah always wore her school uniform, even when she was at home or in public. She wore pajamas to bed, but that was it. Mom bought her tons of clothes that ended up stacked neatly on her shelves and in her drawers with the tags still on; she wouldn’t back down, despite Mom’s begging.
“She could be just as stubborn as you when she wanted to be,” Mom said after I found a photograph of Hannah wearing her uniform at the Saint Louis arch, a vacation I didn’t even remember, although I was definitely there for it, age two, sitting atop Dad’s shoulders, wearing a pair of plastic yellow sunglasses with lenses shaped like stars. My poor mother. She wanted Hannah to be happy, but she would’ve settled for normal. Hannah didn’t stop wearing that uniform until she graduated from high school, when she started attending Loyola University, but even then she was nothing but the picture of modesty.
“When?” I asked.
“Next week,” Mom said, searching my face for something, though I wasn’t sure what. “Saturday.”
“Fine,” I said, shoveling a spoonful of peas, now cold, into my mouth to keep from having to say anything else.
“Fine? That’s it?” Dad asked, a little anger creeping into his voice now, too. They were both furious, my parents, but they didn’t appear to know why or at whom. They had never understood Hannah’s decision to go into the convent, which I guess was why they were never able to explain it to me, and also why I never really tried to talk to them about it. Now that she was coming back, we were all more confused than ever.
“What do you want me to say?” I asked.
“Aren’t you happy your sister’s coming home?” Mom was practically pleading with me to say, yes, I was totally stoked about Hannah’s leaving the convent.
I couldn’t say it, though. I couldn’t think of anything to say, which was unusual for me. I just shrugged.
“How can you not care?” They stared at me, like I was some kind of unfeeling monster, which was unfair. I didn’t care because there was nothing to care about. Who was Hannah to me? A few albums full of pictures tucked away in a drawer and a handful of letters and Christmas cards full of distant religious platitudes. There had been a point in my life when I wished there had been more, but that was over now.
“I barely know her!” I reminded them. “She left when I was eight and I haven’t seen her in four years—”
“By choice,” Mom said.
“Yeah, I remember. But you can’t expect me to jump for joy about this—she’s practically a stranger to me.”
“She’s not a stranger, she’s your sister,” Mom said. Dad shook his head in disappointment.
“May I be excused?” I requested, not waiting for an answer before pushing my chair out and gathering my plate. “I’ve totally lost my appetite.”
Back in my room, I wanted to call someone, but every time I reached for the phone I thought about what I would say, and put it back down. “My sister, who ran away to become a nun, is coming home”? My friends would think that sounded like a good thing, and to the untrained ear I guess it did. I wanted to call Derek, my . . . boyfriend was probably the proper term, although we’d never called each other by those words: “boyfriend,” “girlfriend.” We’d been going out for close to four months, but two of those had been over summer break and he’d been away at camp in northern Wisconsin for six weeks. He wasn’t due back for another week, the same day we were supposed to pick up Hannah from the train station, and he was unreachable by cell phone. No reception. A letter wouldn’t get to him in time, either. And anyway, I wondered if maybe Derek wasn’t really the sort of guy you told things like that to. I supposed I would find out soon enough, but in the meantime it looked like I was on my own.
I was lying on my bed, staring miserably at the ceiling, when Mom knocked on the door. I knew by the sound of her footsteps on the carpet in the hall, the cadence that was particularly hers.
“Come in,” I said, not getting up or tearing my eyes away from a crack in my ceiling, which, if you squinted, looked vaguely like the coast of California. It had been there for as long as I could remember, probably since Hannah was a kid, which was a strange thought: Hannah as a kid, long before I was even born.
Mom opened the door and shut it quietly, taking a seat on the foot of my bed. “I understand why you’re feeling unsettled. I wish I could fix it, but I can’t.”
She put a hand on my shin and sighed. I sat up on my elbows. “She’s your sister. She loves you. And I know you don’t remember very well, but you love her, too.”
“Okay,” I said, unconvinced.
“When you were born, Hannah was eleven,” Mom said, the words barreling out in a gush of nostalgia. “She wanted to hold you always, and she’d get angry if anyone else besides Dad or I tried to. You used to stare into each other’s eyes and smile. Every day, right before she got home from school, you would cry, and then she would come through the door and you would light up and reach out your arms for her take you. You adored her, and that’s what she’ll remember. So don’t act like a brat when she moves back in. It’ll upset her.”
“Wouldn’t want that,” I said under my breath.
“Don’t you miss her?” Mom asked. I knew my mother well enough to understand what she was really saying: I miss her. And it was crazy, but I could feel the jealousy creeping up my throat, putting me in a choke hold. If they missed her so much, did that mean I wasn’t enough?
“No!” I cried. “She could be anyone moving into the house. If you told me you were going to take in some distant cousin, I wouldn’t be happy about that, either.”
“How is that even remotely the same thing?”
“I don’t want her here,” I said. I kept saying it, but they weren’t listening. They didn’t want to hear. It was like we were speaking different languages; theirs was the language of the past, mine the language of the present. Why couldn’t they just understand?
“For God’s sake, why?” Mom asked.
“Because I like our family the way it is! I don’t want things to change.” I couldn’t even bring myself to imagine what having Hannah in the house might be like. What it might be like to have her sitting across from me at the dinner table in what for years had been just an empty chair. What it might be like to shop with her, watch TV with her, argue with her, laugh with her. How bizarre to have a sister and still be an only child. How was I supposed to know how to live with someone with whom the only thing I shared was DNA?
“Don’t think of it as change,” Mom advised. “Think of it as everything going back to the way it was.”
I let out a laugh, harder and harsher than I had intended. “Do you really think that’s what’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I really hope so.”