An Interview with Mary Lynn Murray by the editor.
From 1992, when Mary Lynn began nursing Fr. Gene Cullinane, until 2006, Mary Lynn took care of the elderly members of our community. She was the first director of Our Lady of the Visitation and is currently director of MH Vancouver.
What are some of the challenges of caring for the elderly?
One challenge, especially in the beginning, is to come to the understanding and peace with the fact that people whom you’ve known for many years are now elderly and can’t move and understand and think as quickly as you at first expect.
And even when you come to peace with that, you are constantly having to adjust your expectations of them.
Then there’s the shift that has to happen. It’s like with families. Your parents looked after you as a child and hopefully you have an adult-to-adult relationship with them. Finally, the time comes when it’s you that needs to take care of them. And the challenge then is to always see them and treat them with the respect due them.
But on a deeper level, caring for people struggling with loss is very confronting. You are always confronting your own mortality. You become very aware that one day you too will experience what they are experiencing.
We are a young community. Though Catherine and Eddie had grown old and died before that, it wasn’t until the 1990s that we were faced with dealing with the problems of aging on an ongoing basis. Do you have anything to say about this?
Yes, it was around 1996 with two people, Bill Jakali and Fr. Gene, that we realized that we had to seriously look at how we would care for our elderly members. We were on new ground communally.
On the practical level, we began looking at many things: handicapped accessibility, for example.
What help do people need in order to be able to do the things they want to do? How can we enable them to continue to be part of our family life—especially meals and the Mass? Where will they live? Who will drive them to their medical trips? Who will take care of them? etc., etc., etc. We had dealt with these things before, but now it was becoming ongoing.
We finally decided to build a wing on St. Mary’s that would serve as a care facility.
You were the first person to be responsible for Our Lady of the Visitation. What happened when we opened that residence?
When we opened Our Lady of the Visitation, I was very aware of our foundress, Catherine’s, vision of the call to restore all things in Christ.
We were confronting what every family confronts. We were entering into a part of family life that we hadn’t entered before. So this was, for our community, one more step in restoring all things to Christ.
A doctor friend who works with the dying told us that what we were doing—serving the elderly with love and respect—was not just for Madonna House but for the Church, for the whole world.
What we were doing was connected with the issues of assisted suicide, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and abortion. Little by little our world is collapsing around those issues of life and death.
Every time we respond to one of our elders with respect—whether it’s our presence to them at the dinner table or making decisions when they are dying—we are standing in that place of darkness in our present world, and we are playing a part in moving that world either towards the culture of life or the culture of death.
How we care for people who are very dependent on us says something about what we believe about the dignity of all of us in God, a dignity that nothing can take away.
What has taking care of the elderly given you personally?
Taking care of Fr. Gene from 1992 until 1997 and also, later on, of Mary P. and others, was formative for me—not in terms of nursing, but in terms of my vocation.
When I started taking care of Fr. Gene, Jean Fox [then director general of women] told me that Fr. Gene would "tenderize" my heart through his own heart. She was right. His embracing of suffering broke through my fear of it, of what it means to say yes to Christ who is at the heart of this Madonna House life, to say yes to crucifixion.
In each person, I saw the process of stripping that happens in old age. I saw them endure one loss after another: the ability to take care of themselves, the ability to walk, and so forth. Somehow I had thought that if we say yes to suffering, it will get easier, but I learned that this doesn’t necessarily happen. I realized that we have no guarantees.
This realization continued to work inside me: what it really means to be present to people who are suffering, to live from the heart of the crucifixion. With these people, that’s the place where I was called to love, to pray from, to be present to them.
I don’t think I could have ever had the courage to even begin to live from there if I hadn’t seen how some of our elderly had gone there, lived there, and died from there.
You watch people you’ve known for twenty years becoming different.
As we become old and infirm, who we really are comes out because we can’t keep up any pretenses any more. The ways of being that served us well, how we defined ourselves, it all falls away.
What’s left is purer. Some people become more mellow, less impatient; some fight their unresolved issues until the bitter end.
When Fr. Brière was dying, the thing he treasured most was saying Mass. He would feel peace once he’d said Mass for the day. But in his last month, he would not remember he’d already said it.
Once during that time when some members of his family were visiting, I came and told them, "Mass will be in the chapel in a few minutes."
Fr. B made a motion like I-have-to-go-too.
I had to tell him that he couldn’t go, that he wasn’t well enough.
For just a moment, a look of agony passed over his face. Then he laid back, perfectly at peace and said, "Okay."
It probably made no sense to him that he couldn’t go, and he had a moment of struggle. Then he surrendered.
You don’t get to that point overnight. He’d lived a life of such discipline; he’d been so obedient all his life.
Among the people you took care of, is there anyone with whom you had a personal difficulty?
Yes. There was one I never came to peace with in our relationship before he died. But I have discovered that a relationship doesn’t end when a person dies. I continue to pray for him and to him, and I am now able to receive through him what I could not receive when he was alive.
What was the hardest thing for you in caring for the elderly?
I think that the hardest thing was that I became so aware of my own sin—my shortcomings, my reactions, my impatience, my pockets of anger against some people, my lack of control.
I kept saying to Jean, "I don’t love them enough."
Then the temptation was to stay there in that awareness. I had to keep forgiving myself over and over, forgiving those parts of myself what weren’t healed or redeemed. I had to trust that I was loving them as much as I could. I had to trust, too, that God saw and was honoring the desire of my heart to love them totally and that he was not bound by my shortcomings.
When the ugliest parts of my heart became apparent, I needed help in standing in that. The sacramental life is so important. That’s where God really comes to meet us.
When I can stand in my own worst pain and ugliness and let the Lord reach me there, that is meeting the crucified Christ. His heart is a heart of mercy. And when I stand in that place and let the Lord meet me there, I experience his mercy.
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