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What’s your legacy gonna be?

Blog Post by Sister Patrice Colletti, SDS
Kateri Initiative – Sisseton, South Dakota

Yesterday was Teresa Peter’s funeral. She is one of Sister Irene De Marrais’s blood sisters and in the Dakota way of extended family, called tiospaye, she is one of our relatives since we are related to Sr. Irene.

Teresa’s Dakota name is Cante Waste Win. That means “Good Hearted Woman” and, knowing Teresa for more than 35 years, I can attest to the good fit for her name. That’s what caused me to reflect on “legacy” as I sat through several hours of traditional ceremony, followed by a Catholic funeral Mass.

Relative after relative stood to give witness to Teresa’s life and influence, sharing family stories and personal memories. It’s much like what we Salvatorian Sisters do at funerals – except stories tend to wander much more widely and take their time being told. There’s no need for keeping time. It is the stories and the people who tell them that are important.

Time, of course, is a cultural thing…. and in the reality of most indigenous people on this continent (and elsewhere), time is a flexible construct, held in the hands of human community, not in the hands of a clock.

So, our pastor and the organist we borrowed from St. Peter’s stood to the side, checking their phones for the time, for most of the more than three hours before stories were finished and whole. After the proper ancient honoring songs were sung, only then could the crowd move from the parish hall into the church itself for Mass.

I sat with Sr. Irene’s relatives. I thought about the many, many ways Teresa had been a “good hearted woman” in our friendship. Even after Alzheimer’s stole her ability to remember me or, later, to even follow a conversation, Teresa continued to approach others in the nursing home, clasp their hand gently, and tell them to have a good day. She’d inquire after family (whose family, I never did know) and for the women nursing home residents older than she (she was 86), she’d sometimes call them “my mother” and with deep and honest concern, would say “It will be okay, my mother” in Dakota while patting their hand or their shoulder.

Often, it really was okay, in the shifting way of nursing home life when your basic needs were being met even as you yearned for companionship. I don’t imagine Teresa thought of that… she just reached out gently and honored that yearning.

I wonder: If you were to be given a name that summarized not only how you lived your whole life, but also how you will continue to be remembered – your legacy – what would it be?

And, when is the last time you reached across someone’s aching loneliness to gently grasp their hand and tell them, “It will be okay, my relative. It will be okay?”

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