I was a speaker at the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers Conference in Denver, Colorado. It was particularly poignant for me to be presenting a workshop titled “Five Strategies for Building Holy Families of Faith” as my 85-year-old great Aunt Lola, who is a model of the faith for me, would be able to see me speak for the first time.
Aunt Lola and Uncle Lee have been married for over 66 years and have been devout Catholics and raised two daughters and a son. They modeled the faith by always attending Mass as a family. In the 1990s Aunt Lola went on a pilgrimage. She was so profoundly affected by the experience that she began attending Mass daily and offering prayers and tears for the world.
When I was a young adult, it would make my eyes roll when Aunt Lola would talk about her devotion to the Blessed Mother. Don’t judge me — I was spiritually immature. She would always send me Catholic prayers, rosaries and other items. Her gracefulness, beauty, and devotion became a beacon of light to illuminate my path on my faith journey over time. My Uncle Lee was at her side always and served as a model to me for how I wanted to be treated by a man I’d call husband someday. He was in the Air Force for thirty years, and he was the favorite uncle because he made us laugh louder and harder than any other member of the family.
They were always so active. In their 70’s they took up ballroom dancing and even contracted with senior citizen centers to give lessons and exhibitions. Their laughter and the light in their eyes were infectious. Watching them glide across the floor was just breathtaking. They were great contemporary dancers to the Motown sound, too!
Last year I was in Denver for a wedding and took the time to visit my aunt and uncle and noticed a difference in them. Aunt Lola had always been fit, but she looked very small and frail, and Uncle Lee didn’t know me. When I spoke to their daughters they explained that both were in declining health and they were in the process of placing their dad with the Colorado State Veterans Home. This visit was a year later, so we visited my Uncle Lee at his new home, and this man who I knew all my life as the one who would hold court at any gathering was now sitting in a wheelchair, slumped over, eyes shut and unresponsive.
His 13-year-old grand-daughter Marisol, gently lifted his hands in hers, trying to stir in him a response. When that didn’t work, she turned on some music. It was that Motown song, “Ain’t too proud to beg.” She tried again, her little voice singing “I know you wanna leave me — but I refuse to let you go”… nothing. That’s when I lost it! The tears welled up in my eyes spilled out and rolled onto my cheeks. A wave a pain washed over me, causing my body to heave. The man I had known my whole life — who was larger than life –was not even a shadow of who he used to be. As I composed myself there was Marisol comforting her mom and then hugging her grandpa so sweet and tenderly. It made me smile to know his family was there for him — he wasn’t abandoned!
Aunt Lola still lives in their home. When you walk inside the home, it is adorned with Catholic art all throughout. Her devotion to the Blessed Mother and Sacred Heart of Jesus is so evident. In the spare room that I’m sleeping in hangs a portrait of St. Therese of Lisieux, and in the bathroom a picture of Pope John Paul II embracing St. Teresa of Calcutta. My former self would have rolled her eyes with disdain with the churchiness of her living space; today I find it so endearing. Aunt Lola talks to me about how difficult it is not to have Uncle Lee with her, how she’s known him since she was twelve. He’s her everything — her best friend! She loses her train of thought a number of times during our conversations and knows she’s losing her cognitive skills. But still she praises God for all the blessings she has in her life and all the beautiful experiences God has ordained she have in her life’s journey.
Her daughters are both in healthcare and have taken on responsibilities for their aging parents’ care. They even have devices that send alarms to remind Aunt Lola to eat meals and drink water following a recent stay in the hospital for dehydration. She is unable to drive to Mass daily anymore, and recognizing her loneliness, the girls found a senior daycare center for her to attend three days a week. The week I’m visiting her is also seeing the viral use of the “Face App” that allows you to see what you’ll look like when you age. I don’t need the app: Looking at my aunt lets me know what I’ll look like. Not too bad, huh!
Being near your loved ones as they age is such a blessing and allows you to be there for them. Others who find themselves across the country from aging parents, grandparents, or beloved extended family struggle with guilt. It can also challenge the faith of so many who find themselves forced to prioritize the needs of their aging loved ones over their own families or personal needs.
Watching loved ones age is sobering. It causes you to reflect on what your own mortality might look like. Have you inherited some genetic material that may cause you to follow the same path to your life’s end? What should you do differently to alter the course of how your life will end? I see so many people who think if you eat this, drink that, do this, don’t do that — you will have some measure of control of how your life will end. The reality is that only God knows when, how, and why your life will end.
Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come. (Psalm 71:18)
As I stood in front of the crowd of people gathered to hear me speak, my beautiful Aunt Lola sat in front, beaming with pride to hear me share ideas with the audience of how they could build holy Catholic families. It brought a tear to my eye knowing that she had modeled the faith for me and inspired me to inspire others to love the Lord deeply and passionately like she does.
Copyright 2019 Sherry Hayes-Peirce