Even at the grave

An exercise of law becomes a lesson in God's love
March 4, 2008

Editor's note: Christ Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, has a lay pastoral ministry called the Community of Hope. Among those trained was parishioner Abby Bates, a lawyer. She wrote a moving account, published in two parts in the parish newsletter, of her experience with an elderly woman that brought the two parts of her training together. While it's "Eleanor's story," it's also clearly "Abby's story." The full article is reprinted here, with permission.

Every now and then God makes his presence known to us in a way that we cannot ignore.

I have practiced law for more than 25 years, mostly in the areas of real estate and trusts and estates. Both of these, but particularly the latter, can be very emotional for my clients. When [former Christ Church Associate Rector] Ted Babcock asked me to undertake training for Community of Hope lay pastoral ministry, I doubted I would be able to do much for the church, but I sensed that it would be useful to me in my law practice. This has proven to be true, sometimes in very surprising ways.

A few years ago, I was asked to represent an elderly woman I will call Eleanor. She had always insisted that she wanted to stay in her own home until her death. The former live-in companion of her oldest friend was serving as "attorney-in-fact" for her and had always tried to follow that wish, paying a caregiver to come in to take care of Eleanor for years.

Finally, Eleanor's money ran out. What I was asked to do was to arrange for a reverse mortgage on her house to enable her to stay there. I quickly learned that Eleanor was 99 years old, completely disabled physically and apparently no longer cognizant of what was going on around her. The bank insisted, nevertheless, that I meet with her and explain the reverse mortgage to her to determine her reaction.

This seemed fruitless, but the meeting made me aware that something was very wrong.

For the next week, I drove past the house on my way to and from work, and at every other opportunity I could find. What became clear was that the supposed caregiver was very rarely at the house. Eleanor was abandoned for hours and hours of each day. I was horrified to realize that if the house had caught fire, she would have burned up with it. She was being treated like an animal. I concluded that it was time to violate her wishes, in her own best inertest.

A necessary move
Working with her doctor and the Department of Health, I made emergency arrangements to have Eleanor admitted to a local nursing facility on the basis that the fees would be paid in full when her house sold.

When she was admitted, the nursing home reported to me that Eleanor had severe bedsores and suffered from serious malnutrition. Under the skilled professional care she received there, Eleanor's bedsores gradually healed, and her strength improved. She lived about five months past her 100th birthday but then succumbed to pneumonia.

[In the meantime], after Eleanor's admission, I had to arrange for the disposal of all of her belongings so that the house could be sold. This process led me to learn that she had one living relative, a nephew in Colorado. He did come east to take what he wanted from the house, and he visited her once while he was here.

I learned from records in the house that Eleanor had been widowed 33 years earlier. Over those years Eleanor had, at separate times, taken into her home both her brother and then her sister, and cared for them through long final illnesses. She had no children and had outlived all of her friends and family other than the nephew. She was all but alone in the world.

Despite the fact that Eleanor could not communicate with me at all, I came to know her at least somewhat, and to admire her greatly, through my necessary review of her personal records. Among other things, I found out that she was a devout Roman Catholic who had been very involved with her church. I arranged to have a nun from her church visit her. I also visited regularly at the nursing home, to be present with her and to pray with her, as we are taught in the Community of Hope training.

When Eleanor died, it fell to me to plan her funeral. Throughout my involvement with Eleanor, I found myself rather bitter with God that he would have allowed this woman to sink into such horrible circumstances. Somehow the fact that I, who had never even known her as a whole person, was planning her funeral made me downright angry.

I managed to find the records of the funeral she arranged for her own sister and copied those arrangements in hopes that they would please her. I also found out where her husband had been buried all those years ago and arranged to take her remains there.

Only seven people attended the funeral, including the priest and the altar guild. I was the only one who drove to the cemetery other than the funeral home people.

Angry at God
By the time I arrived at the cemetery an hour and a half away, I had managed to get myself really furious with God that he could let this poor woman die so completely alone and unnoticed. I was railing at him in angry "prayer." It is a wonder I did not drive off the road. As I parked at the gravesite, the funeral director, who had arrived a bit sooner, approached me to report that there was a couple in a car nearby who wanted to talk with me. Puzzled, I went over to them.

I could see that they were very elderly. They both got out and explained that they had been good friends of Eleanor and her husband and that, ever since her husband's death 34 years earlier, they had occasionally visited his grave, since they lived nearby. For the past two years, they had heard nothing of Eleanor and wondered what had happened to her.

On that day, they had decided to make one of their occasional visits. To me this was the most amazing gift! I felt as though God had reached right down to prove to me how much he loved Eleanor. He sent friends to her burial who had not even known she had died!

You may call this a coincidence, but I could not. I saw these people as God's messengers to me. My anger dissolved into a genuine joy and gratitude. I was deeply comforted by the message that God had never stopped watching over Eleanor, and that he wanted me to know this.

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