Moving into a senior home can be the ultimate indignity.
With the hefty monthly bill comes a hundred little losses – of the car keys, of the backyard, of all the familiar nooks and crannies: ticks on the pantry wall tracking the kids’ upward ascent; the Christmas-tree corner; the candy drawer; the cat’s favorite window sill; the grandkids’ Hide-And-Seek spots; reminders at every turn of who you are, what you love and how you live.
Leaving it all behind at 80 can feel like surrender.
That’s why the folks who moved into the local senior-housing complex were so grateful to encounter my mom, zipping around in her floral blazers and coral capris, enchanting them with her cheerful heart and boundless energy, soothing them with her deep faith and listening ear. Mom led book clubs, Bible studies and current-event groups. She brought in jazz bands and boy scouts, mayors and babies. She danced for them, cried with them and prayed with them, supporting them through the death of a spouse and, in the most sacred moments, ushering them through their passage into heaven.
What makes me proudest is that no one knew the residents better than Mom. She could name their grandkids and cite their wedding anniversaries. She heard their stories and somehow, without writing them down, she remembered, commemorating difficult days by slipping notes under their doors and offering hugs in the hallways. She accepted their invitations to tea and admired their fine china. In her presence, they forgot about their walkers and worries. They felt like themselves again – younger, needed, vital.
So you can imagine the sadness that erupted when she announced her retirement; after a dynamic career, it’s time to focus on her grandchildren and her volunteering. The cards keep pouring in – images of daisies, robins and teacups and, inside, heartfelt messages in shaky cursive, the kind that is no longer taught, where the tops of capital T’s wave and the H’s hook back.
“You always knew just what to say to comfort and help others,” wrote Donna and Norm.
“Thanks for all you did, always, to make our life here more pleasant,” Fred wrote. “We love you.”
A widow named Agnes reminisced about “the occasional stops along the hallways we roam when you would ask, ‘How is Norbert?’” and then lamented, “It seems everyone else has long forgotten Norbert.”
Meanwhile, Vera wrote, “Your unselfish giving in all areas to others surely is a response to God’s love in you.”
Her words make me think of Pope Francis’ first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei,” which illuminates the deeply woven braid of love and faith. “Those who believe are transformed by the love to which they have opened their hearts in faith,” the Holy Father writes. “By their openness to this offer of primordial love, their lives are enlarged and expanded.”
That expansion can happen at any age – for the new graduates just beginning their careers this summer and for the happy retirees, who help us see the future in expansive terms. We begin with the end in mind, considering today how we want to be remembered when we finish.
Truth is, my mom will never really retire – this is the woman who was nicknamed “Energizer Bunny” by our priest. A more apt term, for her, comes from the Spanish infinitive for retirement, jubilarse: to make jubilant. We can count on that.
Though her hours now look different, her core remains unchanged, as Pope Francis put it his new encyclical: “a magnificent calling, the vocation of love.”