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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Ministry of Presence

Phyllis Robin Cohen died on Thursday, April 19, in a nearby community hospital.

I’m still allowing that information to sink in to my reality. Some of you may recall her name only from our weekly prayer list. Others may remember her attendance in this church when she was a child. A small group of folk may remember her from the letters and cards which they wrote and sent, unsure, exactly, to whom they were writing, what to say or how it would be received.

I presided at her graveside service at 10:30 AM this morning, where Phyllis was laid to rest in a family plot at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Springfield, NJ. Her "security" bear - a stuffed character of Garfield through whom she often communicated when she was scared or very sick - was buried with her.

I was joined by Linda Coogan and Bill Schatzabell, her pastoral visitors, as well as her foster brother and his wife, who came from Troy, MI to settle her affairs.

Phyllis was born on June 17, 1963 and was placed in foster care as an infant with her foster family, whose lifetime ministry it was to take in abandoned children. She was developmentally challenged but seemed to thrive with the love and care of her foster family in the Summit home.

After her foster father died in 1994 and her foster mother in 1998, she lived for a time with one of her foster brothers in the family house. After he died in 2002, it was determined that Phyllis could no longer manage to live by herself.

She was sent to an adult extended care facility, where her health further deteriorated. She developed severe diabetes which was rarely in good control and had to be carefully medically monitored. She took comfort in food, and carried over 450 pounds on her five foot two frame when she died. (Yes, that's right. She weighed more than 450 pounds at her death, having gained about 100 in the last year or so.)

She was frequently in and out of the hospital with a variety of lung and serious skin infections, and was and was placed in a skilled nursing facility in Elizabeth, NJ in January of this year. I and her pastoral visitors grew increasingly concerned about the quality of her care in this particular facility.

The one thing I know about institutions of any sort is that the level of quality declines in direct proportion to mechanisms of accountability.

With the help of Linda Coogan, Pastoral Assistant at St. Paul’s, we sought to coordinate care between the clergy and members of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Elizabeth and members of our congregation.

We were blessed to enlist the help of Deacon Cy Deavours, canonically resident in the Diocese of New Jersey, but who resides in the Diocese of Newark. Cy and his wife Lyn were invaluable in assisting with the coordination of care and gracious and generous in their pastoral visitations.

Phyllis loved getting visits and phone calls, as well as cards from the church school children and various cards, notes and letters from members here. Her foster brother and his wife commented that she would always call them and read the notes to them over the phone. It gave them comfort to know that she was being cared for and tended to.

Equally important, however, is that the nursing home clearly became uncomfortable when they saw the steady stream of visitors as well as the increased volume of cards and letters being delivered to her room. They were also clearly annoyed when one of us would ask about the status of that special bed she needed, or whether or not that dessert belonged on the tray of such a brittle diabetic.

The last time I spoke with Phyllis, just before Easter, she delighted to tell me that arrangements were being made for her transfer to another nursing home closer to Chatham. Indeed, she was to have been moved to the new facility on the day she died.

A ministry of presence may seem like an insignificant thing. It’s such a simple thing to do – almost anyone can do it – that we often devalue its impact.

However, it is a powerful tool, capable of gladdening the heart of the lonely, as well as challenging the apathetic heart of those who are charged with the sacred trust of what it is to “care.”

A ministry of presence is a bit like the Gospel Ministry of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. From little bits and scraps of visits and conversation, the souls of so many are nourished and fed - and work of social justice is simultaneously carried out.

In one of her last conversations with Phyllis, Linda Coogan reports reflecting on all of the visitors and cards she was begining to have, saying, "Well, Phyllis, you're not alone any more." And, Linda reports, Phyllis burst into tears and said, "I know. I know. Thank you."

Phyllis clearly and fondly remembers being a torch bearer at St. Paul's. She hoped one day to come back to the church and take up that sacred task before she died. "I may need a little refresher course," she said, "but I learn real fast."

She is now bearing a different light in the heavens, the one and the same she was given at the moment of her creation. She is now bathed in Light Eternal, safe and secure in the arms of the loving God who is the Source of Light and Life.

May Phyllis rest in peace and rise in glory, and may the souls of all of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


Bill said...

As Elizabeth indicated, it was a small gathering of people who came together to say goodbye to Phyllis. I visited Phyllis only two weeks ago, along with Linda. Phyllis lived in a room approximately seven feet by nine feet. She had a bed, a night stand, a walker, and a wheel chair. That was it, that was her world. When we visited, we stayed for about an hour, during which we talked about St Paul’s, what was going on, the new kitchen, and whatever else we could think of to make her feel like she was still connected to her Church and the congregation. Linda made her aware that she was not alone and not forgotten.

I’ve been alone in my life and the thought of letting this day pass without saying goodbye to Phyllis was something I could not do. It’s such a small thing, to visit someone in the hospital, to visit someone who is shut in, or just to sit down and talk to someone who is alone. But the difference it makes in their lives is priceless.

The cemetery where Phyllis was laid to rest is a small patch of earth separated from the Presbyterian Church by an interstate highway. If you don’t know where it is, it’s almost impossible to find. It was just luck that I used to live in the area. I used to jog along the paths of the cemetery. I got to know the names on the tombstones. It’s quiet and peaceful there. In the summer, the trees close their branches overhead and provide shade for those few people who visit the residents. Most runners play little games as they run. I used to talk to all the people who rested there. I guess even then, it annoyed me that visitors were few and far between. That was ok though, I made sure that they were remembered, I made sure that they weren’t alone.

Dr. Alice said...

What you describe in long-term care facilities is, sadly, not news. I am sure that the love, care and attention Phyllis received from your congregation helped extend her life, not only because of the spiritual and emotional support you provided but because it probably prodded the facility to pay more attention than they otherwise would have.

June Butler said...

May Phyllis rest in peace. May God bless those of you who kept her company during her life.