Michele and her Oma (grandmother)

My Oma

by Michele Schaeken, former MH guest & applicant

Recently, my grandmother, known to me as “Oma,” passed away at the age of 90.

She spent most of the last decade of her life living in nursing homes, gradually losing the use of her body. Her mind, however, remained sharp. At her funeral, I shared with our family and friends about my relationship with Oma. The following is a little bit of what I shared.

Inspired and challenged by Catherine Doherty’s words, “If you disperse the loneliness in others, you will disperse the loneliness in yourself,” I found myself heading to the nursing home to visit Oma every time my own loneliness began to close in on me.

Because of this, we received many blessings from each other, and we discovered that we shared similar experiences.

In 2014, I left my job and gave up my home, so I could spend more time in Combermere, first as a guest, and later as an applicant with Madonna House. As a young woman, she too left her home in the Netherlands, to follow her husband to Canada. She knew what it meant to leave everything, to “arise, go,” not knowing when or whether she would return.

I remember telling Oma about some of the challenges of living in community. She said she too in going to a nursing home had joined a community. There she could not choose her schedule, her food, or the people she spent her time with. The people around her were chosen by God for her to love.

The staff and volunteers who served her became the people she prayed for. Oma knew them, she loved them, and she did her best to share her faith with them. She was a missionary, living the faith wherever God sent her.

Eventually, I left Madonna House and returned home to deal with some health issues. Oma showed me what it meant to truly surrender her body to God.

She required assistance in everything she wanted or needed to be done. Initially, it was with washing, grooming, and dressing, but later, because she could no longer get her hands and arms to work, she needed help answering the phone and feeding herself.

Sometimes she would let me see the pain and frustration that her disability caused her, and my heart would speak to hers because I grieved my own body’s changes the way she grieved hers.

Oma was a woman who prayed. While I complained about how difficult it was to attend daily Mass in rural southwestern Ontario, I was inspired by her commitment to remain a daily participant at Mass in the way that she could.

Every day she watched the Mass on her television and grew in community with the men and women who attended and assisted at those Masses. Even though she never met them, she prayed with them, and she knew them. What a blessing that ministry is to those who are homebound!

Oma reminded me that if I truly desired to attend Mass, God would make it possible, in his way, not mine.

The activities coordinator at her nursing home spends time with the residents, interviewing and photographing them for a special display called “If these hands could talk.”

Three pictures and a short biography of the residents are framed and displayed on the walls of the nursing home. Oma was so excited to be interviewed; she couldn’t wait to see the results. Unfortunately, she passed away before her story hung on the wall.

The staff at the nursing home generously gave us the pictures and the biography so we could display them at Oma’s funeral.

Two of the photos are close-ups of Oma’s hands holding her rosary. Every evening, the staff would place her rosary in her hands as she faced the long, lonely, and dark night ahead.

If Oma’s hands could talk, they would say, “Holding this rosary gives me comfort … gives me hope.”

Me, too. At various times in my own journey, when talking to God seemed to be the most difficult thing I could possibly do, it is the rosary that I clung to. Through my simply holding my string of beads close to me, Our Lady has taken me by the hand and led me back to her beloved Son.

In slowly whispering words that seem written on my heart, in simple prayers said over and over again, I re-encounter Christ in his mysteries. And I am comforted. My hope returns.

What joy, what love, came from a simple desire to disperse the loneliness in myself! I thank God for Catherine and for my Oma, for continuing to inspire and encourage me, and for Our Lady, who never lets me stray too far.