Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Unknown Soldier

This afternoon I presided over the funeral service of a woman whose name I had never heard until after she died, when a funeral director unknown to me gave me a call. 

She was in her late eighties, and she and her husband, who died last winter without any subsequent notice to their church (that would be my church), had apparently become estranged from everyone on their lives.  No children, but a few surviving siblings, their families, and an assisted living facility filled with people, with none of whom they maintained relationships.

In addition to my own congregants, I have visited with several people who live, or lived, in various forms of institutional care here, and who have at most a tangential relationship to our church.  They come to my attention one way or another, and I go to see them.  Sometimes I simply sit with them for awhile, sometimes several times over the course of weeks or months, because I believe that the dying should have companions, even ~ or perhaps especially ~ if they have no way of knowing who, or whether anyone, is present to them.

But this elderly couple did not come to my attention, which means that neither of them was ever even mentioned in a passing conversation.

How does this happen?

How can someone live into her eighties, become widowed, and slowly slip away, without anyone at all remarking upon her existence?
As it turned out, about twenty people did show up for her service, including two nurses who have cared for her for the past two years.  None of them were able to shed much light on her life.  In talking to everyone before the service, I learned that she had effectively severed all family ties, and that no one knows why.
The others who materialized were from a military veterans' group and from the United States Navy.  The lady in question had served in the WAVES during World War II.
Thank God for the gift of imagination.  My homily emerged from Psalm 139 ~ the God who accompanies us everywhere, the God to whom even the darkness ~ in this case, the darkness of the human heart and mind ~ is as light ~ and from my imaginings about her life.  She had once been an adventuresome girl who joined the Navy, she had had colleagues at a number of jobs,  and she has a large extended family.
The general consensus of those who spoke to me afterward was, in the words of one relative through another, "That gal did a great job, especially with nothing to work with."
But I did have a lot to work with.  Things happen. God loves, anyway.  God heals and restores.  It's a mystery.
That's the story.


  1. Wow, Robin.

    Here in South Florida, what you describe is common. People often come here running away from a life they can no longer stand to live. If they come as a couple and one dies, it is common for the survivor to live out their days with the most minimal connection and community. Right now, Sherod has at least five urns with ashes of people nobody came to claim, who nobody ever saw at church, but who somehow identified All Saints as their home parish. There is something so horribly forlorn about all that.

    I am glad she had you and your imagination.

    1. All week I have been trying to imagine scenarios in which this might happen to me. I suppose that's one. I can see heading for a remote and isolated destination and ending up very alone. This woman managed to live in the same way in a facility with five floors of other people.

  2. See, this is totally imaginable to me w a husband who is 14 years older than me and no family on my side here. It scares the hell out of me.

  3. Oh my gosh, what an experience. And what a way for you to find your homily, but that is grace. And what Rosa describes... I have no words, but many prayers, those, I do have.