Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Loving the Neighbors

Fellow Traveler and I have friends, a lesbian couple in their sixties and seventies respectively, who live a few miles down the road from us; FT met them at a neighborhood Christmas party shortly after moving to this area. The two live in a household I'll call Dysfunction Junction, a remodeled trailer on the edge of a river.

How can I describe this couple? They remind me of characters in a 1950's lesbian pulp novel, all growed up but still dressing and acting according to the Sisterhood's script of those times; think tough girls in jeans with a pack of Camels rolled into their T-shirt sleeve. Each has a past that she seems extremely reluctant to talk about. One partner has numerous health problems and hasn't worked for years; the other, younger partner has worked for years at a physically as well as emotionally punishing nearly-minimum-wage job. They've also been caregivers to two live-in invalid parents, although they seem to have burned bridges with many of their other family members -- including their children.

The two dwell in a cloud of blue cigarette smoke, so much so that we literally can't visit their home for more than a few minutes at a time before FT is sent into an asthma attack.They operate in a state of perpetual personal and household disshevelment; on the margins in a multiplicity of ways. They cycle through doomed money-making schemes; financial crises; caregiving problems; health issues; simultaneously exploitative and exploited "friends" who come and go. We in turn lose track of them for months at a time; then they'll call asking for help of some kind, or wanting to borrow some tool or appliance from us (that is inevitably lost or broken) and we'll briefly get involved in their lives again...until, once more, their neediness begins to overwhelm us.

A few weeks ago, after months of not hearing from them, one of the partners appeared on our doorstep. This time it wasn't about borrowing a saw. She told us that the other partner had been diagnosed with a large, inoperable tumor in her lung, and was about to undergo chemotherapy. She sank down into our sofa and, blinking away tears, began unloading about her partner's illness; problems with her live-in parent; loss of an elderly friend; her overwhelming physical and emotional fatigue and worries about money.

So here we are again, trying to help this couple without becoming completely sucked into the vortex of their household trials. We said we could help take the sick partner to chemotherapy once or twice a week. Knowing how difficult it was for the well partner to make meals for the household -- the sick partner tended to be the family cook, but is now too weak to do that -- we decided we'd make food for them once a week; enough for a good meal and leftovers. FT, who has facility with computers, offered to help fix their computer so that the sick partner can maintain some contact with her family through e-mail.

Yesterday we dropped by to pick up the computer. The ill partner, who just finished her first round of chemotherapy, met us at the door, ashen-faced, surrounded by a pack of yapping toy dogs (the result of a failed let's-make-money-selling-puppies Grand Plan, plus a rescue dog, plus Mama's dog). She let us in, then pulled me aside amid the chaos of the dogs and the durch-und-unter of the tiny living space and the vacantly cheerful, nonverbal mother-in-law who spends the day just sitting at the kitchen table.

"I need some spiritual guidance," she said. "I've been trying to pray. I pray an act of contrition and and Our Father every night. And I've been doing some bargaining with God too. But...I'm just really scared right now."

I can't remember exactly how I responded to her; something about how every prayer is a good prayer and to just keep talking to God; some sort of unnerved, caught-off-guard church-geek gibberish. I also told her to call me if she just needed to talk or wanted me to come over.

It's a daunting thought, being asked to provide the closest thing to pastoral care that this lady is willing to accept.. I had my Moses/Peter moment: "Um, no, God, you really don't want me to do this job. Because deep, deep down I'm shallow; too shallow to walk the valley of the shadow with anyone. You want someone with spiritual chops; not me." But now that I've had a day to think and pray about it, I know that I am being called to carry Christ, somehow, into the life of this individual. How that happens...well, we'll see.


Jules said...

What does the Lord require of us? Seems to me you are doing it. Blessings, on you and on them.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Wooooow, yes, the hardest following is not the up front stuff, but the quiet, behind the scenes, supportive stuff. Prayers ascending.

Mary Beth said...

praying for you as you carry this with them.

Kathryn said...

You are . . . i'm not sure i have the right words. :)

I think you are walking the "real" Christian life. The one that is hard. The one where you wonder what you are doing & where to set your boundaries so that you don't become overwhelmed. The one where you're called to do things for which you feel entirely unprepared, but you choose to go in & do it anyway. I'm sure this will be so very hard, but i'm also sure you will reap huge blessings because of it & the folks whom you are trying to help will be blessed as well.

It probably won't feel like a blessing for a while yet.

Will be praying for you.

Tom in Ontario said...

God has sent you to be Christ to your neighbour. This Sunday's gospel reading is about Jesus sending out the 70 two by two to bring a word of peace to any household or town they encounter. Sound familiar? They return with joy, shocked at how they could tame demons. I don't think they felt totally prepared or else they wouldn't have been so surprised. Knowing what I do of you through reading your blog all these years I'm confident you'll do just fine, maybe even better than fine, but it's God's grace that will be doing the doing. Have faith.