Annie was a former parishioner of mine - a sweet soul with an unfailingly pleasant disposition who actually loved golf so much she watched it on TV which, to me, is an activity akin to watching paint dry. She was also an avid tennis fan and loved to play and attend tournament games. And yes, watch it on TV which was a bit more understandable. At least, to me.
She was a decided 8 o'clocker. It was just her way. She didn't like anything fancy, just the readings, a good sermon, a small community and our own small coffee hour and conversation after the service.
She especially enjoyed coffee and conversations after church. We'd sit at one of the round tables in the parish hall - anywhere from five to ten of us - talking about whatever was going on in the world.
I remember one conversation when the tragedies of the life of Tiger Woods were unraveling on the world stage. She was distressed but hopeful. "He's a champion," she said, "and champions have 'high blood' that sometimes makes them rebel against the bit. He'll come back. You just wait and see. He's a champion."
That was Annie. Always a positive attitude, never a bad word for anyone, and always full of hope even in the darkest of situations.
When I asked her if she would consider being a lector and Eucharistic minister at the altar, she was a bit hesitant at first. After her first successful try at it, she said, "My great, great uncle was an Episcopal minister. Maybe it's genetic."
"Or," I offered, "maybe it's just the Holy Spirit."
She considered the possibility for a moment and said, "I think the Holy Spirit has probably got a lot more things to do than to help me with reading the scriptures and distributing communion wine. No," she said again, "it's definitely genetic."
That being decided, she went out and got herself a black cassock and white surplice. She loved wearing it and took special care to make sure it was always crisply ironed. I loved how she took care not to wear lipstick until after she vested for service. When Annie put on her lipstick and there was a twinkle in her eye, you knew she was ready to face the world.
She did have a way with fracturing some words. She could never say, 'diocesan'. I always came out 'die-o-SEE-an'. I just let it go. It was the 8 o'clock service. We were all understanding friends there.
Finally, one Sunday, during the Prayers of the People when she prayed, "In the die-o-SEE-an cycle of prayer, we pray for . . . ." my two young seminarians couldn't contain themselves any longer and both got a bad case of the giggles. I decided that I had better have a little talk with Annie.
I waited until after she took off her robes and combed her hair. "Annie," I said, showing her the Prayers of the People, "I wanted to talk with you about this word. It's actually pronounced, "die-OS-is-an."
She looked at the word and then at me then back at the word on the page. "Oh," she said, "Okay. 'Die-o-SEE-an'."
"Actually,", I said, "it's "die-OS-is-an. Die-OS-is-an."
"Oh, okay," she said pleasantly, "I get it. Die-o-SEE-an".
I just smiled as she looked at me and said, "Thank you. I'm glad we had this little chat." And off she went to coffee hour. She had brought a cheese danish ring fresh from the bakery and wanted to make sure everyone had a piece.
There are priorities, you know.
I didn't know Annie had been sick. That was her way, too. About 10 years ago, she had had surgery for breast cancer and, after the obligatory "cut, poison and burn" course of "surgery, chemo and radiation" had been declared a "survivor".
Apparently, the cancer in her body was just in a dormant phase then and suddenly reawakened to attack her liver. By the time she got herself to the doctor, it had metastasized throughout her body. She never mentioned a word - not even to her three grown sons - until it became obvious that something was terribly wrong.
A few weeks ago, she was unable to make the steps out of her apartment. It was at that point that she allowed Hospice to be called and consented to round the clock care.
On Wednesday of last week, she was prompted by her sons to begin calling some of the people in her wide circle of friends. She assigned some calls to her sons who knew that her time on this earth was growing shorter by the minute.
On Saturday, just as I was getting into my car to make the trip to NJ on my way to Boston to celebrate the 80th birthday of one of my dearest friends, I got a call from one of her sons. He told me that Annie was very ill - "only a matter of a few days or a week at the longest, the doctor says" - and asked if I might be able to give her a phone call or, at least, keep her in my prayers.
I told him that I would be arriving in NJ around 6 PM that very evening and wondered if it would be okay if, after having a bite to eat, that I might swing by around 7 or 7:30. He seemed glad for my offer and said his brothers and he would have already left for the evening but that he would tell his mom and her attendant to expect me.
I asked him to please explain to his mom that I would not be in my clerical collar and probably in my jeans and I hoped that would be okay. "Oh," he said, "Mom won't mind." "Oh," I said, "yes she would mind, but she'll understand."
I arrived around 7:15 PM on Saturday evening to discover that she had just taken her last peaceful breath, surrounded by her three sons and her daughter-in-law. Her son said that she was very peaceful at the end.
She was 80 years old.
I was sad not to have been able to see her or talk with her one last time, but her son said that, after he told her that I was on my way, she smiled and her eyes twinkled and she seemed to relax. "I think she knew you would take care of us," he said, "so it was okay for her to go home."
Indeed, I did tend to them, but first I had to take care of my own heart. I crawled into bed with her, held her frail body in my arms and gently kissed her head and held her still warm and soft hand in mine as I talked to her, thanking her for her life and bidding her rest eternal with Jesus.
The family gathered 'round her bed and we shared some fond memories and laughter for a while. It was then that her daughter-in-law said that she and her husband, Annie's oldest, were members of the Roman Catholic church in town - "And we'll never forget your sermon for our Fr. Ed".
Fr. Ed Hinds was the priest who was murdered in his kitchen in October of 2009, allegedly by the sexton. The trial, as I understand it, is still pending.
I had written a remembrance of Fr. Ed on this blog which the Monsignor, who actually delivered the eulogy, had included as part of his remarks.
"We were all so touched by that," she said, "You were such a good friend to Fr. Ed and your words continue to help us in our grief. Never forget the good works you have done here," she said. "No one here will ever forget you and all you accomplished and all you tried to do."
What an 'odd and wondrous calling' is this life of a priest. It's an 'impossible vocation' to live into or out of - or even understand, really.
Here I thought I was simply on my way to Boston to celebrate the birthday of a dear friend. Little did I know that I would be called to help the children of a dear former parishioner in their immediate grief. Little did I know that my heart would be simultaneously touched by grief and consoled by one who was also grieving.
Fearing that I might begin to weep and become more of a burden to the family, I got up from Annie's bed and bid them help me to pray and sing her into heaven.
It wasn't a proper service out of the BCP. I didn't have one with me and doubted if her children really cared about that formality. I had no clerical garb - just my jeans and a blouse. No sacred oils. No communion kit. I did the best I could, remembering some of the words from some of the prayers, sprinkled in with some personal petitions for Annie and her boys.
At the end, we prayed the Lord's Prayer and then I said, "Okay, we have to sing her to heaven. What hymn or song shall we use?" We all sort of looked at each other in expectation that certainly, some one among us would remember a favorite hymn or song. It was her daughter-in-law who came to the rescue.
"When Irish eyes are smiling, sure, 'tis like the morn in Spring," she sang out.
"In the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing," we joined her in singing the song. Well, I did. The boys were overcome with grief and croaked along.
When Irish hearts are happy,It wasn't a proper service by a properly dressed clergy person, but I think the Holy Spirit was present to help us through. Or, maybe, as Annie would say, it was genetic.
All the world seems bright and gay.
And when Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, they steal your heart away.
Something happens to your DNA, I think, when you commit to serving God through the people of God in your baptismal vows.
After we talked a bit about burial arrangements and how Annie "didn't want a fuss - just a graveside service" - the call came that the Hospice nurse was there and having difficulty finding a parking space. I said I would leave so she could park in my place.
One of the boys and Annie's ex-husband, with whom she had kept a good relationship (even dragging him to church at Christmas and Easter), walked me back to my car in the crisp evening darkness.
I got into my car and as the boys made their way around the corner of her apartment building and out of sight, I finally allowed grief to flood my heart. In the midst of my weeping, I heard the voice of angels singing the words to the beginning of the song.
There's a tear in your eye,I have no doubt that Annie is smiling in heaven as she is greeted and surrounded by her mother and father, her brothers and cousins, and even her uncle the Episcopal minister. I'm sure it was even more a joyous Irish reunion as the ones known here on earth.
And I'm wondering why,
For it never should be there at all.
With such pow'r in your smile,
Sure a stone you'd beguile,
So there's never a teardrop should fall.
When your sweet lilting laughter's
Like some fairy song,
And your eyes twinkle bright as can be;
You should laugh all the while
And all other times smile,
And now, smile a smile for me.
In the season after I left my last parish, Annie would call me on Christmas and Easter Day just to bid me the season's joy and add, "The service just wasn't the same without you."
Life won't be the same without you either, Annie.
But, I'll remember your sweet and always pleasant ways, and your smile and your laughter will come to me like a balm to soothe my aching heart. And when the night sky is dark, I'll look for your star which will twinkle even brighter because of your Irish eyes.
Rest in peace, thou good and faithful servant, and rise in glory.