When Can I Retire? - Kathleen Colligan, Director, Family/Respect Life, Southern Region
Each of us has a mission in life. Each of us is unique with our own gifts and talents and experiences. Each of us, rich or poor, educated or not, has something to give to build the Kingdom of God. God knows our mission better than we do ourselves. As we age, we’re tempted to retire, not just from our jobs, but from life. The Golden Years are held out to us as our final goal – the beach, sun, sand, the golf course, or bingo in the social hall. We can retire to enjoy our momentary pleasures and let the world go by. But do we really want to spend the last years of our lives in a self-centered world where we become increasingly irrelevant?
Mission is part of the lifelong journey for every Christian. Let me tell you about someone who found her last and final mission when she was 91 years old and near the end of her life.
My mother-in-law, Agatha came to live with my husband, John, and myself when she was 86, legally blind, and deeply depressed. John’s father, Agatha’s husband, had died six years earlier when they were both 80. Agatha lived in Watertown, NY but had gone to live with her daughter, Mary, 150 miles away after the death of her husband. Her life, as she knew it, was over. She no longer had the familiarity of home and her large extended family, a Catholic church across the street where she could go to daily mass, and someone to care for, which had taken up most of her life. What was her purpose now? She had to let go.
It didn’t go well living in the new place, despite her daughter’s and grandchildren’s efforts to make her comfortable. She was desperately lonely and soon sunk into depression. Eventually Mary called and said, “Mom’s in the hospital and is due to come home. Either you take her, or I’ll have to put her in a nursing home.”
We took her. With good medical treatment, she came out of her depression, and we knew her as a warm and vibrant woman who would listen to her talking books and Yankee games and enjoy a good conversation. We had a few good years together, but gradually her health declined and she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. She lost her ability to walk. We did the best we could to care for her, but her needs overwhelmed all of us. She was afraid to be left alone for even a few moments. Reluctantly, we decided to put her in a nursing home, and she agreed to go. It was a time for all of us to let go. She was the first person in our family to go into a nursing home. We felt very guilty.
We settled her in her room and put up all the things she brought with her to remind her of home—a large family crucifix her parents had brought from Ireland, a few pictures of family, and a huge picture of St. Patrick in an ornate frame. The next day when we returned, Agatha told us about her roommate.
Agatha shared her room with Marie, who had been in the nursing home for five years. She was wheelchair bound, still active. She had four children who no longer visited her because Marie was a very angry woman. She was frustrated and resentful and harbored many grudges.
John’s mother said, “No one likes her here. No one wants to live with her. She’s gone through endless roommates. She’s rude to the staff and swears at them, so they don’t treat her well either. When she came in and saw how I decorated my half of the room, she was furious. She called me terrible names, Johnny. No one has ever called me those names before. I didn’t know what to say.”
John was very upset. “Mom, they stuck you in here because they knew no one else would live with her. I’m going out to the desk now to straighten this out. You shouldn’t have to put up with this at this point in your life. I’m going to get you out of here.”
Agatha replied, “No, no, no, Johnny. Let it be. I feel sorry for her. It must be terrible to reach this point in life and have no one who loves you or even likes you. I’m going to stay and pray for her.”
When John protested and tried to talk her out of it, she responded, “John, I lived with your father for 50 years. I know how to put up with someone. I can live with Marie. Let it be.”
So we let it be—and the months went by. John’s mother prayed and listened to terrible insults and profane language. We blessed her room regularly with holy water and visited her every day. Since Marie had no visitors, she came to look forward to our time with John’s mother. So wherever she was in the nursing home, she’d soon come flying back in her wheelchair to take part in any conversation we were having.
It became apparent rather quickly that Marie hated Catholics. She said she was a Baptist, and her late husband had been a Baptist pastor. She was certain all Catholics were going to hell. She had a special dislike for Catholic priests and had choice words to say about them. Marie hated us with so much passion and with so much knowledge about us and what we believed, we came to the conclusion that Marie had once been Catholic. But she would never admit it.
Agatha’s patience began to pay off after several months when after they were put to bed, Marie would join John’s mother in saying the Our Father and Marie would recite the 23rd psalm. About six months after they moved in together, a priest came to visit us. We picked him up at the airport and asked him if he’d like to visit John’s mother with us. He said he’d be delighted, so we headed to the nursing home. On the way, we told him about Marie. We said, “You’re sure to meet her because she comes out of nowhere to join us on every visit.”
Our friend had his Roman collar on so we warned him, “Marie hates all priests, so she may say terrible things to you. Just know that it’s not you in particular that she dislikes.” He assured us he could handle it.
We arrived at the nursing home to find Agatha sitting up in her recliner. We introduced Fr. Bob, and they chatted for a few minutes. Just them, Marie came whizzing into the room. Fr. Bob turned around and smiled at Marie. “You!” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m Fr. Bob, and I came to visit Agatha. You must be Marie. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Marie’s first words were: “I’m Marie, and I used to be a Catholic.”
Fr. Bob gently prodded, “You used to be? What happened?”
“Well, I was married and divorced three times.”
“That’s too bad, Marie. What’s the state of those marriages now?”
“Well, those men are all dead. I’m the only one left.”
“Marie, would you like to come back home?”
“Come home? What do you mean?”
“Would you like to come back to the church?”
“What do I have to do?”
“Would you like to go to confession?”
“Confession! Why do I need to go to confession? I never do anything wrong! I’m stuck in this lousy wheelchair and live with these awful people. I never do anything!”
Fr. Bob responded, “Marie, let’s go talk.”
Marie and Fr. Bob retreated to the other side of the room and began talking quietly. John’s mother, who could see none of it, asked what they were doing. We said that we think he’s hearing her confession. Agatha said, “Let’s say the rosary for them.” So we prayed.
Both women went to confession that day and received the Eucharist that Fr. Bob had brought with him. After that, Marie proudly proclaimed to everyone she met that she was Catholic. She and Agatha were at mass every week at the nursing home, and Marie insisted that she had to sing the Our Father solo.
John’s mother had completed her mission. She died a few months later. We continued to visit Marie as she too began to fail. Marie told us often how much she loved Agatha. “She was the best roommate I ever had. I think it was because she was the only Catholic roommate I had. She really loved me.”
Marie died alone about a year after Agatha. We were with Fr. Bob when we were notified that Marie had passed away and had already been buried. Her family did not come. There was no funeral. The direction from her children was to just stick her in the ground. That day, we were present when Fr. Bob said a Mass for the repose of the soul of Marie. God brought everything full circle.
God continually invites us to bring Him in to the center of our lives. When we allow Him to use us, long after we can no longer give birth or raise a family, we can give life to someone who needs to be loved.