Posted October 05, 2012:
Ways of Loving and Serving

by Linda Owen.

Linda is the current director of Our Lady of the Visitation, the care facility for our elderly members.

I want to talk about how I have begun to learn to love and serve.

Maybe you are like me: someone who likes to make herself useful, someone who likes order and routine, someone who enjoys beauty and light. But these qualities need to be for others: ways of being present and of providing comfort and an environment of respect, ways of building family and home.

Our Lady of the Visitation, our "home" for our elderly members, factually a wing off the place where part of our community lives, has been for me a school of love.

I could tell you many things about the people whose lives I have been privileged to share since I started serving at OLV seven years ago. Here are some stories about three of the people who have died and some of the memories I have of them.

One of my favorite people was Elsie Whitty, whom I had known for most of my Madonna House life. She was a dynamic nurse from Scotland, a midwife, a lover of the out-of-doors. She served as a missionary in the West Indies, Israel, and other places across the world.

Then in her old age, she developed dementia which took away her ability to initiate. Her "start up button" just didn’t work any more, so we’d have to wake her for most things.

Her room faced the strawberry patch, and on her window sill she kept her violets, which she loved. Almost every morning, she’d wake up and say, "I dreamt I was in the West Indies, and I was swimming, and all the children were there. We had such fun!" Then she’d sit on the side of her bed and look out her window and say, "Isn’t it beautiful?"

Then there was Albert Osterberger. He was from Louisiana, and before he joined MH, he was an engineer. Here at MH, he was among other things, farm manager and director general of men. I soon learned that he loved to listen to Big Band music, especially the Ink Spots, and that he loved to dance. We spent many a teatime in the afternoon taking turns dancing with him.

But over time, as his Alzheimer’s progressed, he lost the ability to walk, much less dance. He had to use a geriatric chair and had to be fed and turned in bed.

He also lost his ability to find words, but until the last few days of his life, he was still able to smile. He would look deeply into your eyes, never averting his; it felt like he was looking into your soul. And then, with love in his voice and eyes, he’d say, "Precious." This was the last word he ever spoke.

And there was Mary Pennefather, or Mary P., as we called her.

Mary was an anxious woman, but she was a prayer warrior. In her eighties, she developed a very painful hip problem that gradually took away her ability to use her legs. Eventually, she became bedridden.

She had a huge correspondence, and when she was no longer able to write, she would dictate her letters to us. In them, over and over, she would say, "God loves you. God loves you!"

She had certain prayers that she said daily, and every day she read a page of the Bible. But as time went on, her hands shook so much that she’d ask us to read these for her. By doing so, though she didn’t know it, she was evangelizing us.

In Mary P.’s poverty was her strength. She was very close to Our Lady, and she died in the fullness of life.

These people certainly had pain in their lives, but I wanted to show you their beauty and where their sufferings led them.

It seems to me that all of what I’ve talked about is family life—that family life happens in those times when we are graced to share a moment of life with someone.

And when I have the privilege of looking back on my time in OLV as I do today, I see images of things, too: of clean laundry neatly put away, a tidy room, a person fresh from his or her bath. Family life happens through little things done well, too.

And I see people’s eyes, their smiles, I hear their voices, feel at home in their familiar presence. These things are the "sacramentals" of family life. They are at the heart of the matter.

When I look back with gratitude on the many moments that formed me and changed me, I can sing with the psalmist: You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence (Ps 15:11).

Of course, I am not always present to the moment, and I am not always aware of its spiritual reality.

Every morning, I have to put on "the armor of Christ." I like to wear an apron when I work, probably a habit from my years of working in the kitchen. There, many years ago, I began the habit of consciously "putting on the armor of Christ" when I put my apron on (cf Eph 6:11).

But there are many days when I forget all of this, when I am too tired or multi-tasking too much or mainly focused on my agenda of things I want to accomplish.

On those days, I go to lunch feeling like I’ve gotten something done and then discover that I’ve forgotten to do something important, or I feel frustrated by the effort of constantly doing the everyday jobs, every day. Or just my weak human nature gets in the way of what I am doing or how I am relating to people.

When these things start happening, they are a clue that I need to stop, to step back and remember that there is a bigger picture.

Sometimes I think about other people in nursing homes, so many of whom are frightened and alone.

My heart goes out to them and to so many other suffering people—those who are reaching out for love, who are perhaps trying to love, but for whom the difficulties of life, sometimes the horrors of life, are just too much. And those who are lost in some terrible way, even those who have taken their own lives.

I want to bear witness to one such life, and to what I have learned by grace over time. My youngest sister, Joanne, took her life at the age of 42.

I won’t go into the details of her suicide. Suffice it to say that she had been deeply wounded in a number of ways. She could no longer cope with the struggles in her life and finally chose to isolate herself from friends and family and perhaps from God.

Why am I telling you this? Because I know that Joanne’s isolation and pain and tragedy taught me something. It changed me in some way. It made me go to God, and it helped me to seek out the "other" in grace, to move beyond the rational "why" into the mercy that awaits the poor.

Because of this experience, I no longer say things like, "if only …" I will carry Joanne’s memory for as long as I live, and I will pray for her soul and for my own and for all those who die in such tragedy and for their families.

I have learned to carry everything to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ and to the heart of Mary, who, standing at the foot of the cross, saw the sufferings of her Son. Her Immaculate Heart is so large that she can receive all the pain we take to her, and she can do that because she gives it all to Jesus. Mary’s heart and Christ’s heart are one.

So I carry this pain, too, to the foot of the cross.

(In fact, it was Elsie who taught me to do this thirty years ago when I was having a crisis.)

I have learned something else also. My sister died during the time that I was serving Elsie and Albert and Mary. I know that in some profound, mysterious way, that when I was serving them, I was serving her as well.

In the Mystical Body of Christ we are all one with one another and with Christ in some profound, mysterious way.

When we serve each other, especially someone who is suffering, we are not just serving that one person, we are serving Christ in people who are suffering everywhere.


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