One of my dearest friends was an elderly lady named Mary Jane. I was assigned by my church to be her visiting teacher, which meant that I was to go at least once a month, give a short message, and help her with any needs. This assignment quickly blossomed into a deep friendship that spanned fourteen years.
Mary Jane was a large woman, confined most of the day to her motorized chair. She had long gray hair and a twinkle in her eyes as she told story after story. Her face would light up as she told me about her son, grandchildren, family, and friends from her past. I felt her loneliness keenly. Her one constant companion was a small tabby cat named ET. ET had to be the most spoiled cat in the world, but she loved Mary Jane with a simple devotion. Mary Jane longed for the weekends, when her son would make the long drive up to see her and spend some time with her, and she mourned that her grandchildren didn’t come as often as she wished. She couldn’t throw anything away, and her small duplex was burdened by boxes of things and piles of stuff, some of which contained things that were quite valuable. Her husband’s ashes were kept in a brass box on her bedroom shelf. She’d had a long life, full of many experiences both good and bad. She would never tell me how old she was, but instead played a guessing game with me as she gave me details of her past. She asked me to help her research her ancestors, and I spent many hours finding her family on the census records, recording my results, and reporting back to her. I compiled a large binder full of information for her.
I in my turn poured out my heart to her, telling her of the troubles of a busy mother, my concerns and fears, as well as my own stories. I often would buy lunch and drop by to share it with her. Half an hour turned into two or three hours as we talked, laughed, and cried together. I invited her over to my house, and while she was able, she made the tremendous effort to come. For a few years, she and her son came to our family’s Christmas Eve dinner and Nativity program. Mary Jane was overwhelmed by the noise made by five children, but she enjoyed the dinner and looked very regal dressed as an angel, with a sheet draped over her shoulders.
But still she was alone. We were all surprised when she met and married Ross, a real sweetheart of a guy who treated her like a queen. They had a few short years of bliss together before Alzheimer’s and then death took Ross from her. As she got older, her pain and loneliness became overwhelming. Her son convinced her to move to a senior retirement place, but she wanted to go home. I convinced her to have her house cleaned, painted, and hardwood floors installed before she went back. I supervised the work, but having no experience as a general contractor, I did not do the best job in the world. When she moved back in, she wasn’t happy about the paint spills or defects in the floor, etc. But the house was cleaner, sunnier, and more open. She was so happy to be back.
Mary Jane was fascinated by religions, and she studied them all in her own way. She had relics of many faiths in her home: a mezuzah on the doorpost, a crucifix on her bedroom wall, a picture of an eastern religious leader in the hall, and a Book of Mormon on her living room table. She had a firm, sweet faith in Jesus. “One day,” she told me, “Jesus will come for me. I’ll be sitting under the tree, and he’ll come and take my hand, and we’ll go off through the tall grass together. And then he’ll take me home.”
Towards the end of her life, Mary Jane lost weight, became confused, and eventually went to a nursing home. My heart hurt to see her so thin and frail, and so lost. She gripped my hands and cried as she said, “I want to go home.” She was talking about her cluttered house where her cat waited, but I knew she also was talking about another place that was free of pain and suffering. Her son called me with the news of her death. My last service to her was to dress her body, which was a singularly reverent experience. As per her instructions, there was no funeral, just a short service at the mortuary with her family and a couple of friends in attendance. There I had the opportunity to express my love for this beautiful woman who had touched my life so deeply. In serving her, I found a true friend and learned much about love. Four years later I miss her still, but I am glad that she is now home.