This is the most bizarre encounter with visiting teaching I’ve ever experienced. I’m sharing it today because it has been on my mind for a while, and because maybe—a big maybe—other people feel the same way about these things?
I moved into a new ward last August and was asked to visit teach a lady named Colleen. The RS president gave me Colleen’s history: she was the only member in her Catholic family to join the Church; within a year of finally marrying in the temple about a year ago in her late 40s, her husband passed away; days later her father died with cancer; then Colleen discovered she had breast cancer; then Colleen discovered she had a brain tumor and eventually she could no longer work. She’d been living in a home for the disabled when I became her visiting teacher. By the time I’d met her, cancer meds and brain tumors eroded whatever mental acuity she might have used to talk herself out of giving her bank account information to online con artists. There was a 30-year age difference between us and we had two things in common: we were both converts and neither of us had children.
I visited her for six months and she’d tell me she prayed every day to win the lottery. Once I brought two cupcakes and she was thrilled because she hadn’t eaten anything for a few days (she’d lost all her savings to another Internet scam). Another time she was sitting in the dark because she couldn’t afford electricity (more internet fraud). Every month, I heard the same stories over and over again about how her husband and father died and about the horrible things her mother, who never supported her conversion, supposedly said to her.
Being her visiting teacher was exhausting. She lived all alone with physical and emotional pain I could never ever imagine, and there was nothing I could do about it, except listen to her same old stories. I was secretly glad when she received new visiting teachers six months later and I moved on with my life.
On July 22nd it was my turn to conduct RS. Colleen came to church that day and sat in the back. Just when it was time to start, she said, “Sarita! Come here, I have to tell you something!” She was more excited than I’d ever seen her in a long time. I told her I couldn’t talk then, but I’d be sure to see her after the closing prayer. And then I stood up to welcome everyone to RS. Two seconds later, Colleen was up at the front of the room, cupping my chin in her hands and whispering in my ear. And this is what was so important that it couldn’t wait: she said, “I just wanted to give you a blessing so that you’ll be able to get pregnant and have a baby.”
What do you say to that?
I said, “Um, thanks?”
And then she sat down and smiled at me for the rest of the hour. Nobody heard her, but the whole thing was still very awkward. It wouldn’t have surprised me except that a) after all my visits, Colleen hardly knew anything about me about me because we always talked about her, and b) I’ve been wondering if my great trial in life is infertility. I eventually laughed it off because Colleen was always doing crazy things like this. So I thought nothing more of it.
Colleen died in a car accident a week later. When she came up to give me a “blessing,” that was her way of saying goodbye, but I had no idea. Later, I found out that she had hugged and kissed several other sisters on that Sunday, and had talked about her husband’s funeral and how she’d be with him again soon, as if she had known it was her time.
Her death surprised me more than it made me sad. She had suffered so much that it was hard for me to cry. I didn’t cry at the funeral home when I helped dress her body for the viewing, even while her closest friends stood there telling me that Colleen told them she really loved me because I was so nice to her, etc.
I didn’t expect to cry at her funeral either. But that’s when I cried most. And the funeral wasn’t even morose. Her friends told funny stories. Once Colleen brought home a boyfriend and her young nephew sat under the table, turned on a vacuum, and started vacuuming her boyfriend’s legs until her boyfriend got up with the intent of leaving the house, only to walk into a closet he mistook for the door. When that nephew got married, Colleen gave them a vacuum for their wedding gift… Colleen loved hanging Christmas decorations during the holidays and once, when another nephew tested out his new slingshot, he broke one of her window ornaments and was afraid to confess, but when he finally said, “I’m so sorry auntie, but I broke it,” Colleen said, “What are you sorry for? That was a great shot!”
I cried because this quote, by Marjorie Pay Hinckley came to mind as I listened to these stories about Colleen:
I don’t want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor’s children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone’s garden. I want to be there with children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder. I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.
That’s what Colleen was like. I cried because I didn’t get to know that part of her. All I knew was the Colleen with cancer who made me and the bishopric and RS president tired. Thinking about the Colleen who “was really here,” and who “really lived” helped me remember that I’m far from really being here and really living, and that there’s so much of me left to give.
The whole thing also made reminded me of Hazel Lancaster’s line in The Fault in Our Stars: “Funerals, I had decided, are for the living.” Because isn’t that so true? If I could have my way, my own funeral would inspire others to wonder if they live so that others want what I have. And if they aren’t there yet, to try a little harder. For me, that’s one of the miraculous aspects of death—that another’s passing has potential to help change us for the better. Not in the melodramatic Walk to Remember way, but more realistically in the Sister Hinckley way. Colleen and her funeral reminded me that death and dying can help us endure more than we thought we could, that those things help us to be more like our Savior and find the lives we were meant to live. And although death sucks, and is really inconvenient for the living, it does come with the possibility of finding an abundance of the joy that we might merely glimpse here.