Yesterday I went to the funeral of a housebound elderly lady that I visited, who last week lost her battle with cancer after many years of other illness and of being attached to an oxygen line. Before this opening sentence fills your mind with clichés of a quiet, sweet old woman visited compassionately day and night by a saintly, selfless younger woman, let me burst your bubble and tell you that the reality was a lot more dappled and paints neither of us in a totally flattering light. But as reality is all we have and are, then maybe this picture is nonetheless worth painting – honestly, gratefully, and graciously – with an eye on all that I have gained and learned through this relationship. So, if such things can be boiled down (and they have to be somewhat for a blog!), here are four things I learned from Peggy:
1) I am not in the running for sainthood...
...Now this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this, and it surely is no surprise to me! And yet, when I got the chance to deliver a Christmas meal package and gift to Peggy for the first time a few years ago, I was picturing the sort of pleasant and unchallenging interchange that Amélie and I had with our nonagenarian neighbour in England – a sweet old lady who was easy to converse with and grateful for everything, never demanded more than I offered, and was always appropriate and delighted with Amélie. So when, on our first visit, Peggy responded with less than full enthusiasm about the gift I’d chosen her, I was perplexed and a little offended; she wasn’t rude, but she was ‘too honest’ and didn’t give back to me what I secretly thought she owed in gratitude. When, soon after my second visit, she began to call too regularly and ask for help, and to turn a little nasty if I said no, I was horrified, angered and terrified by turns. How could I extricate myself from this misguided commitment that was evidently heading towards disaster?! But it didn’t, and I didn’t try, and instead both of us gradually, painfully negotiated over time the ups and downs of the relationship: the humanity of conversation, laughter and surplus food exchanges; the occasional nasty name or slam of the phone being hung up on me; the gratifying moments of deepening friendship and needed help offered; the struggle to recognise manipulation, sift my own motives, prioritize, and know when to say yes or no; the little messages and gifts of candy sent to Amélie (or Crunchy, as Peggy called her, after the loud crunching of proffered Ganong mints that made Peggy laugh); and the window onto my own selfishness, smugness and hard-heartedness. Because Peggy was no saint, it was obvious that I wasn’t one either, and in the end this was a gift, and an invitation to be myself – as I am, and working towards being the best me possible.
2) All humans are a mixture of brokenness and tenderness
Much of Peggy’s life had been troubled, and the rejection and betrayal she had experienced clearly showed their heads from time to time; yet she was also affectionate and honest, curious and gruffly grateful, generous and shrewdly funny. She liked to call just to find out what I was up to and tell me how she was doing. She enjoyed teasing and recounting funny incidents. She loved the crooning of Elvis and Daniel O’Donnell, her wrestling shows and daytime soap operas, treats of microwave popcorn or frozen yoghurt, novels and crossword puzzles, people-watching and dog poo patrol out of the window, cuddly animals and any moving or talking toy. Most of all, Peggy loved each friend in her life in a very simple, childlike way, offering so much affection. And when she got mean she would usually call back again, after hours or days, and apologize – you can’t ask more than that. Once, when her call and request came on a busy day that saw me already feeling overstretched and a touch self-important, she responded to my “No” by calling me an ‘uppity b**ch’. I said a polite goodbye and put the phone down on her this time. Then I fumed and bristled and waited for her repentant call, until I felt convicted that my own manner and tone had actually been worthy of such a name this time, and so swallowed my pride and called to say sorry myself. And so my own tenderness showed through my brokenness, and we were simply humans together, each of us such a beautifully mixed bag.
3) God’s presence is a gift available to everyone
One of the things about Peggy that not many had the privilege of seeing was the way in which, when she occasionally asked to be prayed for, her sometimes tough exterior would soften, she would tear up and, afterwards, would place her hand on her heart and shyly say “Feels good, donnit?” It was special to see how sensitive she was to God’s presence, even though faith or religion were not things she gave much thought or time to. In this, too, she taught me: that however much I, or any of us, try to earn or hide from or strive after or quantify or rationalize God’s Presence, it is Pure Gift and available to all of us if we can present ourselves simply like the children we are, not pretending or trying to be anything but those mixed bags of brokenness and tenderness. I was able to say goodbye to Peggy the afternoon before she died; she was asleep and no longer aware of what was going on around her, but another friend and I got to hold her hands and pray for her one last time. The previous day, though, I called her in hospital to see how she was, and she sounded terrible, as if she could hardly breathe; she told me the nurses were with her, and that she was getting ready to go – “You know where, right?!” While some might call this naivety or wishful thinking on her part, I call it the Reality of God’s Love that she had struggled with much of her life and yet longed for, experienced, and somehow come to trust.
4)Love is an action not just an emotion
As someone who had voluntarily become estranged from all family members in the last years of her life, Peggy obviously felt even more keenly her connection with and need for others who cared for her and called on her. And a good few people stepped into those shoes in various ways, including a lady who took Peggy into her home for the last year, giving her a real home, companionship, care, and an amazing view from the sun room where she sat and watched the world, read or snoozed in her new reclining chair. Others, like me, just visited now and then, and helped in small ways like taking out the garbage, washing her hair, changing the time on her watch (Jeremy’s job every spring and fall!) or running other small errands. I swung between feeling, on my overstretched days, that I was being asked too much of, and feeling at other times that I wasn’t offering enough. What difference was I honestly making to her life? Could such simple actions really be called love or service? Peggy would often say “Love ya!” to me at the end of a phone call and I would either dodge replying in kind, or choose to say it back, feeling a little guilty that I didn’t FEEL more affectionate towards her. As time went on, though, I grew to understand that the amount of affection I felt towards her was really beside the point; as one human reaching out to another, and keeping on doing so through thick and thin, I WAS giving love. And Peggy herself received the simple fact of me ‘showing up’ as love - turns out even 'mixed bags' can do that! This is a sentiment that the minister echoed at the funeral: to be able to look back on Peggy’s life and see that she found a group of friends who cared for her and made her happy, who loved her even when it was hard, and who she loved, is really all that matters in the end. As I ended my last call with Peggy, I volunteered the “Love you!” for the first time myself, so that Peggy’s gravelly “Love ya!” in reply turned out to be the last words I heard her say.