Paul Bailey describes how a visit to a rest home became a memory to treasure.
The visitations we do in the name of St Vincent de Paul often throw up interesting situations. We can let the experience fade into obscurity or it can be shared as a reflection. I have chosen to share this experience because my life was enriched by this encounter. To let it die in my memory is not the way to treat such a treasure.
It started when I was out walking on a beautiful Hawke’s Bay morning, when I walked past a local rest home where I believed an old classmate was in residence. As it turned out, he had been shifted to a more appropriate facility because of deteriorating health.
While I was speaking to the manager, she said to me: ‘Can I ask a favour of you? It is rare for a charity such as yours to come in cold like you have, so would you mind visiting a member of our home who rarely gets visitors, and who seems to have no close family?’
She took me through to a lounge where there were 12 to 15 elderly people, most watching TV, some reading and a couple knitting. Away in a quiet spot was an elderly lady reading a large book without glasses.
The manager introduced me as Paul from St Vincent de Paul. The elderly lady said, ‘Sit down Vincent’ whereupon the manager said, ‘no, Cynthia, this is Paul.’ ‘Okay’ she said. She then said, ‘I’m Cynthia with a ‘y’ and you’re Paul and it doesn’t matter where you are from, but it does matter that you have come to see me.’
Cynthia was well-spoken, with a slight accent, and with a presence that made me suspect there would be no short-cuts in this conversation.
She said, ‘I am 93 years old, I am in reasonable health apart from a seething anxiety about becoming old and being cooped up in this home.’
I said, ‘my mother lived to be 93 and died on Christmas day, 1994.’
Cynthia leaned forward and said, ‘Careful, young man, nobody in here uses the “dying” word. The only time I use it is when my hairdresser comes and gives me a rinse.
‘Christmas Day eh,’ she said. ‘What a wonderful gift for you and your family.’
She said, ‘you know, Paul, the last time I had a visitor was on Valentine’s Day in 2012, 14 February you know. I was sitting in this very chair and I noticed this well-dressed, old man coming towards me carrying a boater hat. Now my mother, bless her soul, said “always be wary of men carrying hats, especially if they are making eye contact.”’
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘He looked at me and said, “Margaret, would you like to go for a coffee? I know a nice spot just down the road.”
‘I replied, “Let’s set some ground rules before I move out of this chair. For one, I am not Margaret. And if we decide to go, how are we travelling?”
‘He said, “I have a brand new side-by-side mo-ped out the front, very safe and not fast.”
‘“Listen here Buster,” I said, “I don’t care how new your mo-ped is, I’m not shifting.”
“I’m not Buster,” he said.
“I know you’re not but it will do for now.”
‘With that he went and tried someone else.
‘The cheek of the old coot,’ she said.
I realised I was dealing with one feisty lady who I guessed by this time was odds-on an Australian.
The manager came back and told Cynthia she had another visitor.
‘You’re kidding me,’ she said. She turned to me and said, ‘Paul, don’t you move. This next bloke could be an imposter and I might need your help!’
With that a priest joined us and said, ‘hello, Pat how are you?’
‘I’m fine John,’ she said.
‘I’m not John,’ he said.
‘And I’m not Pat,’ she said.
After things had settled, the priest said, ‘Cynthia would you like to have confession?’
‘Not likely,’ she said. ‘Look at them over there. As soon as they saw you they started to turn their hearing aids up and they even turned the TV off. Another day, Father, and anyway it would probably take two hours to hear my confession!’
With that out of the way, we said a Hail Mary and Father left.
And then Cynthia said, ‘You know, Paul, that is my favourite prayer, especially near the end where we say “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.” It lumps us all in together, we share, every one of us, the sins of our life, asking for forgiveness through Mary, the Mother of God.’
I asked her how long she had been a Catholic and did she enjoy her life in the Church?
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I became a Catholic by accident. Many, many years ago my uncle was a pastor in the Church of England in a small community on the New South Wales Victoria border. Tragedy struck his family when his wife was killed in a motor accident, leaving the Reverend with his nine-year-old son, Michael. The Reverend stayed on to serve his community for many years and I visited them often to help in their house. My uncle, bless his soul, decided I was by nature a tomboy and many times spoke of a Father Clancy and the nuns who he believed were going to be needed to sort this wayward niece out!
‘Lo and behold, one weekend after riding horses and mustering cattle for my uncle’s friends, and me basking in the euphoria of freedom, as we made our way back to town he said: “Cynthia, I have a surprise for you”. This made me sit up straight as I knew not to trust surprise from religious uncles.
‘“I have discussed with your parents,” said my uncle, “and we have agreed that you should join the nuns to finish your education. Your uniform is waiting for you when you get home.” I thought what a shrewd display of passing the buck by my parents, as who was I to argue with the clergy.
‘So the nuns took on the responsibility of educating me, of giving me a faith I have loved, and making me into a young woman. It was a wonderful experience and the nuns will remain in my heart for the rest of my days.
‘Before you go, Paul, I must tell you the conclusion of my life in Australia. My uncle was a practical man and when he had to bury people he entrapped his son to be the altar boy. It was my cousin’s job to walk in front of the coffin at the cemetery with the holy cross. His reward for doing this was a day off school and during this time until he left secondary school, he estimated he was the cross-bearer at over a hundred funerals.
‘At the graveside he and his Dad recited Ode of Remembrance off by heart.
I am the resurrection and the life, said the Lord.
He that believeth in me, though he were dead
Yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and
believeth in me shall never die.
For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present,
nor things to come, not height, nor depth,
nor any creature, shall be able to separate us from the power of God.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,
In the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life.
‘They then packed up and left for the after-match function. My cousin never went back to school after a funeral and he told me they always had a very light evening meal on funeral days.’
Many years after this time, when she was a young woman living in New Zealand, Cynthia received a phone-call. It was her cousin Michael.
‘“Cynthia,” he said, “I have just lost my wife. Would you come over and stand beside me?” At the graveside, after the others had gone, Michael and I recited Uncle Peter’s Ode of Remembrance.’
It was time for me to go.
‘Thank you Paul,’ she said. ‘This morning has passed, you have made an old lady tell her life story one more time. Thank you and God bless.’
As I left, the manager invited me into her office and told me Cynthia only had weeks to live. Apart from confusing names, she had a remarkable memory. She never married, had no family who lived close. She had graduated from university before the war. She majored in languages, including Russian, and acted as an interpreter for most of her life.
Paul Bailey is Acting President, Hastings Area Council, St Vincent de Paul Society.
Published in WelCom September 2020