When Judy first met Doreen, she had no way of knowing that God was basically going to drop Doreen in her lap like a knotted and tangled gold chain and ask her to help get things untied and straightened out. Had Judy known up front what was being asked of her she might have said “No thanks, no way!”
But God knew that He’d asked the right person. He knew that Judy had the compassion and the fortitude to go the distance. So before she really knew what she was doing, she’d offered a ride to a woman with cancer, and thus began a year-long arduous journey.
Doreen was in her mid-forties and fighting stage 4 breast cancer. She was in the thick of chemotherapy treatments and relied on public transportation to get around. The chemo was taking its toll on her, and she needed someone to take her home after the treatment. Judy volunteered to be that person for each treatment, for as long as Doreen needed.
Toni is Judy’s sister, and they live right next door to each other. Judy and Toni are cut from the same beautiful cloth, and Toni soon found herself inextricably involved as well, and they became a tag-team caring for Doreen, someone most reasonable folks would say neither of them had any obligation toward.
Offering a ride is a helpful gesture, but with Doreen, it was far, far more complicated than that. Doreen also suffered from bi-polar disorder, borderline personality disorder, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. She was not always an easy person to be around. She would call them at home a dozen times a day. The instability of her mind and the highs and lows of her emotions soon began to eat up more and more of Judy and Toni’s lives and took a heavy toll on them. They were learning the bitter reality of dealing with someone who is mentally ill.
It was increasingly clear that Doreen needed more than a ride to the hospital. Her own family had abandoned her, or worse, took advantage of what they could get out of her. In every meaningful way, she was alone in the world. She lived in a hidden, sub-stratum of our society. Those struggling with mental illness seem to live among us while remaining unseen. Theirs is a culture and a community separate from ours, though right in our midst.
In Doreen’s world the blind lead the blind. The sick tend to the sick. They know each other, get familiar with each other’s lives and habits, sometimes try to look out for each other, but often mistreat each other because they are unable to do otherwise. In their psychopathy, they can destroy relationships, businesses, homes, and finances. They can leave a devastating ruin in their wake. Families break under the strain and dysfunction.
Judy and Toni understood none of this before encountering Doreen. They’d never been personally touched by the suffocating demands of mental illness and the pain it brings. Now they were caught up in it, like it or not, and it was either go forward with Doreen or walk away and never look back.
They actually chose another option. They chose Love. They chose self-sacrifice, generosity, and charity in action. Along the way, they began helping Doreen with many things like her laundry, balancing her checkbook and paying her bills, getting her prescriptions, and accompanying her to every doctor appointment.
In the process, they discovered that Doreen was Catholic, but hadn’t been to Mass in years. They began talking to her about her faith and the Church, and Doreen realized that she was hungry for spiritual food again. They arranged to take her to see their priest, and soon she’d received the sacrament of Penance again, and Judy and Toni were there with her when she received the Bread of Life again for the first time in years. She was restored to her faith and had found such contentment and joy. Every Sunday thereafter, Toni drove Doreen to and from Mass.
They poured themselves out for this woman who needed so much. There were many days it would have been easier to say, “She’s not my responsibility!” and walk away, yet they continually chose love and I’ve had a front row seat for the past year.
Judy is my mother, and Toni is my aunt. They would be the first ones to set me straight if I tried to canonize them here, yet I insist that they are saints because they heard the voice of Jesus when He said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto Me.”
Doreen was surely one of the least of these. Out of love for Christ, my mother and my aunt cared for her and opened their lives to her. They went out of their way to love her, which is what real love does. There was nothing convenient about taking care of Doreen. In fact, they often had to suspend or cancel their own plans and adjust their own schedules in order to accommodate her needs.
I remarked to my mother that I was concerned for her health because caring for Doreen was so taxing on her and my aunt, both of them in their seventies. I’m ashamed to admit that I once wished she could find a way out of dealing with this troublesome woman.
But they are made of truer stuff than me, and they kept on loving their neighbor and sister in Christ, Doreen. They each got beside her and helped her carry her heavy cross of suffering. They said over and over, “Yes, Lord.”
Their example burns like a roaring fire in the dead of winter, warming cold hearts and bringing timid souls crackling to life. Now they hold out the torch, daring me to pick it up and follow in their footsteps. It is a witness that cannot be ignored. For the rest of my life I will be challenged by them to look more closely for the face of Christ in those who cross my path. Perhaps the day will come for me, too, when a stranger will need a compassionate friend and I’ll be suddenly brought to the test. How much of myself am I willing to give to someone who will take everything I have and offer me nothing but a cross in return?
A few months ago tests revealed that Doreen’s cancer was back with a vengeance and had metastasized to her liver and brain. She calmly declined more chemo, telling my mother she was ready to go home. Moved into hospice care, she deteriorated faster than anyone expected. Mom and Aunt Toni visited her every day, even though she was often not aware of their company.
Mom and I talked a few times about Doreen’s approaching death, and we both expressed the same feeling: excitement for her! I found myself feeling truly happy for this woman who would soon be greeted by the embrace of Jesus and be free from lifelong suffering. We both said, “Wouldn’t it be something if Doreen died on Easter?” Honestly, I can’t think of a better day to die.
Doreen was born to eternal life on Holy Saturday, April 7th at exactly 3:00 PM. Mom was there with her for that last breath, the very last step on this side of the veil.
Mom and Aunt Toni can see now what their real purpose was — it was to help Doreen prepare for eternity. They feel nothing but gratitude and awe at having been asked by God. Can there be a greater privilege for any of us than to walk the last mile of life with a brother or sister or neighbor and make sure they get Home safely?
I can hear the Father saying to them, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” I am left with the power and force of their living witness of love, and I want it to change me. I want it to make me braver and more generous. They’ve given me a spiritual heritage of sacrifice, compassion, fidelity and love that I can never repay.
While sorting through some of Doreen’s personal things, my mother came across a small notebook with only one entry. The tears flowed as Mom read Doreen’s private pain, written in her scrawling hand:
I want to step right out of
I am in.
Shed this person
I no longer want to be.
Just drop her on the side
of the street along with the
But, she is so much a
part of me
our fibers blended,
her soul intertwined
angry mess of a girl
who wears my skin
and speaks with my voice.
She moves my limbs
and controls my thoughts.
if only I could get her to leave.
Doreen is finally free of “this skin”, and that seething angry mess of a girl has been transformed into grace and beauty forever. Rest in peace now, Doreen. You’ll not be forgotten.