Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My Last Wednesday with Dorothy

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Dorothy had no relatives to take care of funeral arrangements, she only had family. The family she had was the one that she had gathered around her in the friendships made among neighbors and the connections she had made in her church.  Her friends at Glen Iris Baptist Church had been faithful throughout her illness to visit in the hospital. They began right away under Rev. Lamb’s leadership to prepare for her funeral.  The pastor had been reading from Dorothy’s little book, “The Story of my Life” which she and I had worked on together over many months.  As she lay in her hospital bed on the Palliative Care Unit, he knew that he would be sharing her own words when the time came to give her eulogy.

Funerals are expensive. In most cases, insurance and family pay the funeral expenses.  In Dorothy’s case, her Glen Iris Baptist Church family did not think twice about incurring the expense.  They decided to have the funeral service during the normal midweek prayer meeting which is always held on Wednesday night.  So it was that April 18, 2012, was my last Wednesday with Dorothy.

A Gathering of Friends and Neighbors

When I parked down the street and walked toward the church, people had already begun to file into Glen Iris Baptist Church on Birmingham’s Southside. I took a seat near the back and watched as others began to arrive. Her friends who had been with her throughout her final illness walked in to take their seats. There was Lona and Nioka who had maintained close friendships with Dorothy in recent years. There were other church members who had visited in the hospital and who had sung some of her favorite hymns while she was on the Palliative Care Unit.  There was Cliff, who was one of Dorothy’s old friends from back in the day. He had been her Occupational Rehabilitation teacher during the days when she was at the St. Andrew’s Foundation Group Homes. Cliff had remained a friend throughout the years and there he was with his wife, Ann, to remember her in death. 

Then there was her next door neighbor, that “crazy cat lady.”  She was the one who always greeted me kindly, but from whom Dorothy always maintained a comfortable distance. Yet there she was, dressed in her Sunday best, to pay her respects to Dorothy. Before long, the sanctuary was filled. There were even a couple of TV cameras rolling since the church has a presence on local public-access cable TV. I couldn’t help thinking that this was more people than I expect will show up for my funeral (and I am quite sure there will be no television cameras). I was pleased to see such a gathering for my departed friend.

Remembering a Life

The service began with a congregational hymn and a scripture reading. Next there was a solo presentation in song followed by a trio that sang a medley of Dorothy’s favorite gospel songs.  After the music and scripture, Pastor Chris Lamb stepped forward to give the eulogy. Pastor Lamb is an affable, soft-spoken man, who obviously has a love for the church and had shown care and concern for Dorothy. 

During his eulogy, he said that even though they all knew Dorothy as a faithful church member, not everyone really knew of the life she had lived.  He drew upon Dorothy’s life story that she and I had compiled during our conversations.  The congregation heard about Dorothy’s early childhood struggles and tragedies followed by her years spent at Partlow State School.  Rev. Lamb spoke with amazement how Dorothy had recounted her experience in the institution, how she had recalled the teachers who had been able to offer something of value to her in spite of the severe inadequacies and deprivations of institutional life.

The congregation also heard about Dorothy’s own spiritual life and her struggles with anger and impulsiveness. They heard Dorothy’s own testimony that she finally learned that it did no good to get angry, with the pastor adding, “we would all do well to heed that advice.” They heard in Dorothy’s own words what her friends and church community meant to her.  They heard about the struggles Dorothy had endured throughout her life just to find her place in the community.  The people who had worshiped in the same space as Dorothy were hearing of where she came from and what things she held dear. They learned of her joy in being able to live on her own. They heard what Dorothy said about having her own apartment, saying, “There’s no place like home.” 

That sounds kind of like another Dorothy, doesn’t it?”  Pastor Lamb added as the congregation chuckled to think of that other Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

The church family had meant so much to Dorothy in life, and Rev. Lamb gave such a fitting tribute to her in death. I was so moved by his using passages from Dorothy’s book in her eulogy, allowing everyone to hear something of her life in her own words.  The pastor seemed to be one who showed great sensitivity toward people who, like Dorothy, live with limitations and burdens.  Having that sensitivity to realize that everyone is important to God regardless of abilities or limitations is one reason, I am sure, that the church family was so important to Dorothy.

I carried my own memories as I sat listening to the eulogy and watching the gathering of friends and church-goers. I thought of the times Dorothy had walked to the St. Andrew's Foundation office, sometimes for help with the details of living, sometimes just to visit. I thought of the stories she had told me of the hardships and misfortunes of childhood and the chaotic harshness of institutional life. I thought of the life she had come to enjoy in the city after having begun her life during the Great Depression in crushing poverty and ignorance. Was it luck, determination, or Providence that had allowed her to navigate through such circumstances in which the institutional "cure" often seemed as bad as the problem? Though she had endured many frustrations throughout, Dorothy had also learned to rest in the simple delight of sitting on her own front porch and knowing that she was finally home.

As his eulogy drew to a close, Pastor Lamb mentioned that during their Sunday night service, sometimes he would call upon Dorothy to pray the closing prayer.  He had been impressed with her prayers and had asked one of their sound technicians one night to record Dorothy’s prayer.  The pastor then announced that they would play that recording of one of Dorothy’s closing prayers to end the service. 

We all bowed our heads and then heard Dorothy speak one last time as she herself gave the closing prayer at her own memorial service. It was a beautiful prayer. She had obviously learned from her faith community how to reverently offer up petitions and thanksgivings before the Throne of Grace.  So it was that Dorothy gave the final word and the final blessing to the story of her life.  May it be so in our own lives as well, as we each have our own story to tell, however we choose to tell it.


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