THURSDAY: It’s a Birthmark, Sister


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BETH WAS a classmate of mine in seventh grade at St. Wenceslaus School. She was a quiet girl, with a pretty smile and a birthmark on the right side of her face. Her smile was often missed because of the birthmark. It was a dark red colour, and extended from below her eye down to her jaw. Beth wore a headscarf that covered her cheek, but Sister Alice always told her to remove it.

She was an only child of older parents. Once when her mother walked her to school, a classmate asked, “Is that your Grandma, Beth?” I think he was curious, not unkind.

At recess, she would sit on a bench and read her book. Occasionally, I asked her to play dodge ball with us. She always smiled, and said, “I can’t.” She didn’t elaborate. I didn’t question her. Jean invited Beth to her birthday party. She did not attend.

At St. Wenceslaus, children were “invited” to attend Mass every morning before school began.

Most of us knew to accept the invitation. The Church was adjacent to our school.

One morning as we left Church, silently (we were not allowed to talk) walking to our classrooms, a Sister who was monitoring us, stopped Beth. She asked, “What is wrong with your face?” We all could hear, “It’s a birthmark, Sister.” I looked at my friend, Nancy. We both felt so embarrassed for Beth.

The very next day, on our silent walk from Mass, the same Sister stopped Beth, I was appalled when she again asked her, “What is wrong with your face?” Beth looked away and repeated, “It’s a birthmark, Sister.” The humiliating question stayed with me all day.

One morning, a few weeks later, Sister Alice announced to our seventh-grade class: “Please pray for Beth. She had a heart condition, and died in her sleep last night. Several girls cried. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Some of the boys looked very sad. We were told to put our heads down on our desks for a few minutes.

Three days later, the seventh grade was excused from class to attend Beth’s funeral. Silently, we walked to the Church. I didn’t want to look at Beth’s parents, but I did. They sat alone in the front pew, looking stoically at the altar, showing no sign of comfort to each other.

Beth’s name was never mentioned again in school. We all seemed to forget her.

Many years later, I attended an elementary school reunion. There were lots of pictures from the old days. We laughed at hairdos, circle skirts, the boys in their altar server attire.

“Oh, there’s Beth’s picture,” Nancy said. “She died so young. Nowadays, pills and surgery could have cured her heart condition.”

John, now a doctor, replied, “Nancy, Beth didn’t have a heart condition. I heard her dad did. She swallowed all of his pills. She committed suicide.”

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