The most devout person I’ve ever known died two weeks ago in a home for the aged in Queens. Vera, who had a firecracker brain, a loving heart and a great New York accent, had been my mother’s friend and became mine about six years ago when I re-met her as an adult.
Ninety-two years old, she believed without question that she would be reunited in heaven with the husband she lost very early, the parents she cared for tenderly until their deaths, and my mom. She believed that someday her only child, a Catholic priest, would join her, too.
According to her son’s remarks at the funeral (I couldn’t attend but have a copy), she prayed three times a day. As he put it, “She began the day with St. Anthony, met the afternoon with Mary and spent the evening with a list of people for whom she asked favors from God.”
I’ve been on her list, particularly when I traveled to New York every other month, first for my stepmother’s final illness and death, and then for my father’s. They were on Vera’s list, too.
Although Vera ended our phone calls by saying she would pray for me, our conversations were decidedly worldly, and I will be forever grateful for the permission she gave me to express all my feelings—“Dad and Frances drove me crazy today!”–during my New York visits.
Vera was in full possession of every brain cell she’d ever had and dispensed good advice. She also shared her own perspective. “Marion,” she would say, “Your dad will be reunited with your mom in heaven. They will be so happy.”
I wanted to ask, “What about Frances? How does that work, if you’ve had more than one spouse?”
The question seemed disrespectful, so I never asked. Now I know I should have. She might have had an answer, but I think she would also have laughed.
I learned this recently on a day when an 85-year-old hypochondriac provoked a glance between Vera and her son that showed me that faith and humor can be best friends.
The incident happened at a Catholic facility called Ozanam Hall of Queens Nursing where Vera moved a year ago. Despite her age, she was among the healthier residents, living on the 10th floor with a mobile and social crowd of older women.
Vera’s own family was small and, because her son is a priest, she had no grandchildren. The warmth of her love shone on her son, like a star on the wise men, and he responded by spending as much time with her as he could.
He told me he felt smothered, occasionally, by a mom who worried every time he went into a rough neighborhood, but that was the work he preferred. I watched him shake off her expressions of concern, but I know this man always felt loved.
My visit to Ozanam came at a very low time.
Vera had suffered a severe stroke. Unable to move anything but her eyes and one hand, she had been transferred to the sixth floor for intense care.
Because I pictured Vera as she had always been, perfectly dressed and coiffed, I didn’t recognize her when I walked in, and I wasn’t sure I was in the right room until I saw the photo of her son.
Vera lay still and silent. Seeing a woman of her verve in that condition was like watching a river go dry. I spoke, but I couldn’t tell if she understood me.
When her son Bill arrived, he showed me that she could squeeze her hand to indicate “yes” or “no.” Her mind was working, but how well?
Suddenly, one of her 10th floor “friends” blew into the room like a cyclone. Robust and bustling, perhaps 85 years old, she took one look at Vera and pronounced, “That’s not her.”
“Yes, it is,” I whispered. “Maybe you shouldn’t say that so loudly.”
My advice seemed to flip this woman’s attention from Vera to herself, obviously its most comfortable location. She proceeded to tell us which parts of her body were aching that day. Then she described her arthritis and her asthma, their origins and current status, and complained about the room temperature which adversely affected both.
Vera lay still and silent. Bill and I were silent by choice. I may have muttered a word of sympathy.
Like a runaway train, impervious to any misfortune that might be right in front of her, our “guest” went on to list more symptoms and associated complications, until the cavalcade of illness finally ended when she declared the room too cold for her asthma and left.
A giggle escaped me. “Whew,” I said. “She was something else.”
Before I finished my short sentence, I realized that Vera and Bill were way ahead of me. Their eyes had locked on each other. I heard a rumble of laughter from Bill’s chest. Vera was still, but the corners of her eyes crinkled.
A falsely devout person would probably watch our “guest” leave with solemnity. But even in her suffering Vera was herself, a seer of truth, and even more important, a mom in sync with her son.
What passed between them in an eye blink was love as unshakeable as their faith, love through a shared sense of humor.
Is there any better kind?