I managed to drag myself out of bed at 5.45am today. I am not an easy morning person. Once I am up and get going then I am okay. It’s the clawing my way up out of sleep and letting go of the sheer wonderfulness of being snuggled up that I find hard. But I really want to create a routine for Thursday mornings; going to 8am Mass followed by a special Rosary with a small group.
When I walked into the church the first thing I saw was a closed coffin in the center aisle in front of the altar. We had a funeral Mass set for 11am. I am part of the Ministry of Consolation and knew of this, but hadn’t expected the coffin to be there already. Then as I took my place I realized I had sat behind Jim. So between the coffin and Jim I was thrown into the reservoir of my memory.
You see, another area in which I volunteer is with an agency called Community Hospice of North East Florida. I had been introduced to this agency by a new friend just a few months after arriving here in January 2004. My mother had been cared for by Hospice in London, UK during the period between her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer (12 February 1996) and her passing (9May 1996). So I determined that I would become a volunteer with the organization here in gratitude for those wonderful nurses.
I underwent training in July of 2004 and was assigned to my first patient in August. The main thrust of Community Hospice’s work is to be there in full support for the patient and family, offering compassionate care, and to help lend dignity and meaning to the patient’s end stages of life. My role as a volunteer is to offer respite to the main care-giver as often as possible, allowing them some time to run errands or have some personal breathing space without having to worry about their loved one. It is a small mercy that I feel I can give to someone in such circumstances.
Over the intervening years I have also trained as a Peds Volunteer, a Complementary Care Volunteer, a Spiritual Care Volunteer, and an Ambassador (volunteering on behalf of Community Hospice at Health Fairs and speaking to small groups about the services the agency offers). But back to Jim.
I met Jim almost two and a half years ago when I was assigned as a volunteer to his wife, Cindy. I will never forget walking into their living room and seeing the look of total fascination on Cindy’s face. She could not take her eyes off of my hair. My hair is somewhat noticeable – it is purple! As Jim and I talked I would look over at Cindy from time to time to include her in our conversation even though it soon became obvious that she did not speak, and always her eyes were on my hair. So I got up and went over to her and asked her if she wanted to touch it, just to check out that it was real. She did so, rubbing it gently between her fingers as though she were touching a piece of fabric. And so our relationship was cemented.
Cindy was diagnosed with Frontal Lobe Syndrome (I don’t remember what the correct medical term is), a disease that slowly robs a person of their emotions, their ability to speak, then takes away their strength as the brain shuts down pixel by pixel. When I first started visiting with Cindy, even though she could no longer initiate or maintain a conversation, she still was able to communicate in her own way. When I asked if she wanted something she would either just look at me with no real expression or reaction, indicating no, or she would take a deep breath in, raise her eyebrows, and sigh her breath out, indicating yes.
In the early months of our visits when she was still mobile, even though she couldn’t talk, Cindy had a mind of her own. We would be sitting watching TV and suddenly she would be up out of her chair and headed for the stairs or the front door. I would have to be quick off the mark to catch up with her and gently but firmly bring her back to her chair. If it wasn’t too swampy-Florida hot, then we would go for a walk in the neighborhood and I would be hard pressed to keep up with her! Often we would spend time in the garden on the swinging chair watching the birds and the squirrels.
It was on one of these rushes to the front door that she suddenly stopped beside a small cabinet just inside the door. There were a couple of objects laid out on top of the cabinet along with two Rosaries. Her hand reached out to touch these and I asked her if she would like to say a Rosary. Deep breath, eyebrows raised, great sigh out. So we each carried a Rosary back to our chairs and I began the prayers. Imagine my surprise as I realized she was whispering the second half of the Hail Mary. And so began a ritual that would take place almost every time I visited.
Cindy loved receiving hand and foot massages and when I arrived she would always check out if I had my purple tote with me. That was where I carried my creams and a towel. Sometimes I would bring paperwork that I needed to do and would immerse myself in that after making sure she was comfortable and didn’t need anything. But I would soon become aware of movement coming from her direction. Looking up I would see that she was leaning forward and her eyes were fixed on my tote. As soon as I touched the bag she would lift her hands, deep breath in, raise her eyebrows, sigh out.
It was during one of these massages that I was given the gift of the “presence” of Cindy. I happened to look up at her face as I was gently rubbing the cream into her hand and I saw a tear roll down her cheek. Initially I was concerned that perhaps inadvertently I had hurt her, and I let go of her hand, came close to her face and put my hand on her cheek and asked what was wrong. She just looked at me with those beautiful deep eyes of hers and lifted her hand to me as if to say “just keep on massaging”.
Another way that I shared time with Cindy was to watch DVD’s. Her all-time favorite was Disney’s Anastasia. I had never watched that movie before. I guess it became popular after my daughter had become a teenager and was beyond Disney. I think I could recite it word for word, song for song now. There was only one other video that competed with Anastasia for Cindy’s attention – Shrek, and I know that one pretty much inside out too!
The seventeen months that I spent with Cindy were a true gift, a joy. Being able to give her friendship and care was an honor and a privilege. But another gift that I received during this time was given to me by Jim. He allowed me to experience the true marriage commitment of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”. His love, dedication to, and care of Cindy right up to her last breath were deeply moving and nothing short of spectacular. I feel truly blessed to have been a part of their lives.
Today we celebrated yet another funeral in my parish. I use the word celebrate because in the Catholic faith we chose to say a Mass of the Resurrection in celebration of the deceased being resurrected into new life with Christ.
I am a member of the Ministry of Consolation and so I find myself attending more funerals than the average person. As part of our ministry we prepare the church for viewing services and vigils which usually take place the day before the funeral Mass, and then for the Mass itself. We are on hand to greet family and friends of the deceased as they come to the services and to be of any assistance to them or the priest.
As I stood in the church narthex this morning greeting everyone, I noticed a mother and her son come in to join those already present. The young man carried himself with great care and dignity. He wore a uniform of sorts, some kind of cadet perhaps. His posture was perfect, and even though he walked with a slight limp, he carried himself “tall”. I found out later his name was Teddy.
In all the time they were in the narthex before Mass started he stood quietly by his mother’s side. Every once in a while they would look at each other and smile. I could not help but notice that it was more than just a smile. It was a communication. In that one act they seemed to speak volumes to each other.
Close by them stood another couple with a small girl of about three years old in a stroller. Teddy noticed the girl and stood staring at her as though mesmerized. After some moments, his mother touched him gently on the arm and he looked at her with a huge smile. He then turned his attention back to the girl for a few more moments before turning once more, the smile still upon his face, to gaze intently, lovingly into his mother’s eyes. Again I had the feeling of a long, silent communication between them.
It was time for Mass. We discreetly directed everyone into the church and Mass began. The ritual was beautiful, the songs and readings perfectly chosen for the occasion. Then came the moment for Communion and once again Teddy and his mother took front and center stage of my attention.
I had already received Communion and had just returned to my seat to pray when I looked up to see them returning down the aisle. As before, I noticed how tall and straight Teddy walked. His mother walked beside him and, with one hand resting lightly in the center of his back, seemed to gently guide him. But more than guiding, it appeared to be a sign of reassurance.
It seemed to me that Teddy was totally focused in the moment. He had just received Communion and his hands were folded in front of him in a gesture of quiet reverence. Yet as they walked together I noticed that with a slight movement of his head he seemed to keep his mother in his peripheral vision.
Once back in their pew, they knelt side by side. It looked as though it was difficult for Teddy to kneel, perhaps something to do with that limp. Then he slightly turned his head to his mother and waited. I don’t know how I knew he was waiting, nor did I know what he was waiting for. As I watched, his mother leaned in to him and brought her lips to his cheek in close proximity to his ear.
As if on cue, Teddy inclined his head just fractionally in her direction and she began to speak to him. In that moment I thought that perhaps she was saying some prayers for him, or perhaps suggesting some prayers that he might like to say. No matter what, the moment was precious, just utterly precious, and I felt humbled to have been part of a very intimate act between them.
What made this Mother’s and son’s love so precious and special? Teddy is a Downs Syndrome child. He is now twenty six years old. The unconditional love that flowed so freely between them was palpable. I felt privileged to see the warm compassion that this mother showed her special child. As I was allowed into their space and allowed to share their beautiful relationship,I felt as though I been given a priceless gift.
I met Georgina at night school. It was one of those courses being offered to people who had been away from school and study for some time and were considering going back to college. She was a few years younger than me and not sure of her path in life. I’d been “lost” for so many years I’m not sure I’d have recognized my path if I saw it! But I was trying; I mean I was at night school, no?
I’m not exactly sure how we came to be friends. There were about twenty five of us in class and we were often paired up or asked to do a project in small groups, so perhaps that was how we first came together. I do remember however that she was pretty focused in her studies and so was I. Maybe that was the first attraction.
One evening in Social Studies the topic of religion came up and I found out that Georgina was Jewish – orthodox. She shared with the class how important her faith was to her and described some of the basic beliefs of the Jewish faith. In talking she mentioned the Sabbath and how she observed it each week, and I was intrigued.
A few weeks later I was having a very stressful time. One of my teenage sons was acting up and causing difficulties at home. I was a divorced single mother and life was never too easy at the best of times. My boss, who was Jewish, noticed that I wasn’t my usual “Miss Sunshine” (my nickname at work), and jokingly said, “what you need is a Sabbath”. A bell went off in my head and I called Georgina immediately.
I arranged for the boys to go straight from school on Friday to my mother’s. With my weekender packed I left work early as I had to be at Georgina’s before sunset. My boss had happily given me a couple of hours off and sent me on my way with a Jewish blessing.
Georgina greeted me and quickly explained the “mechanics” of the weekend. All the lights were on timers. Food for the next twenty four hours was already prepared and kept warm on low settings on the stove. No work of any description was to be undertaken until sunset the next day. The telephone would not be answered, neither radio nor television would be turned on, no money would be handled. This was a time dedicated to the Lord through total relaxation and worship.
I asked about the worship. Georgina led me immediately into the “opening ceremonies”, breaking the sweet bread and sharing it with me along with the sweet wine. (She knew I did not drink alcohol and so she had provided me with special sweet, non alcoholic grape juice.) There were ritual prayers said and Sabbath was officially begun. She said that we would attend synagogue in the morning.
The next day, after breakfast, we walked to synagogue. We could not take the bus because of the “no money” rule, but it was a pleasant day and she lived in a a really lovely neighborhood, so it was very enjoyable. Once arrived, we entered and I couldn’t help but notice that the men went in one door and the women another. I followed Georgina along with the other women.
Nothing could have prepared me for the violent internal reaction that I had when we entered the inner part of the synagogue. It didn’t take me long to realize that the women were on a slightly upper level from the men and that we were barricaded, separated off from them by wrought iron bars.
As the service began it became quickly obvious that the men did everything and the women were completely excluded from any active participation. I was furious. How dare they do this! Who did they think they were? I could feel steam coming out of my ears. And how could my “feminist” friend Georgina put up with this?
In a brief moment of sanity it occurred to me that I had come here to worship God. I took some slow deep breathes and snuck a look at Georgina. She was peaceful and calm, immersed in the ritual, saying the prayers. Then I had the grace to surrender as I realized that this was not MY religion, not My belief system. I was just along for the ride and the experience and I could still pray to the God of my understanding in the same way as I did when I went to my church.
After the service there was fellowship. Everyone was welcoming and kind. The Rabbi was warm and shared his pleasure that I, a Roman Catholic, had wanted to share in my friend’s faith form. He said that was surely a sign of a good friendship. I had the grace to blush internally as I remembered my earlier “moment of madness”.
Georgina and I left after a while and went for a stroll in the park. I couldn’t remember the last time I had walked in a park – perhaps when my boys were still very small. Arriving home we had lunch which was all prepared and the dishes were left on the side until after sunset. The afternoon was so calm and tranquil. We chatted, we read, we relaxed and were content. I was full of an inner peace as never before.
When sunset came around, we closed Sabbath with another set of prayers. Then I helped Georgina clear up and reluctantly packed my over nighter ready to go home. The Sabbath had been a veritable oasis for me, a place, a time, for refreshment and restoration. I spent a few more wonderful Sabbaths with Georgina before leaving the UK. To this day I use the expression “I need a Sabbath” when I recognize the need to pull back from the world and restore and refresh my spirit.