A Woman Named Emily

In addition to teaching (which we are doing remotely now), I am part of St. Kateri Parish’s ministry to the homebound. Normally, I visit with four people at Tekakwitha Living Center, our local skilled nursing facility. One of them is one of Sister Irene’s sisters, Teresa, and another is Celine, a friend I have known for over 35 years.

Now that nursing homes are locked down, I can’t visit these elders in person. Phone visits work, as long as I remember that their dementia will make it harder for them to know who they are talking to because they can’t see me. Thus, at least twice a week, I reach out via the Relay to connect with these elders. We chat for a few minutes. I often have to “orient” them to who I am and why I am calling instead of visiting.

I call Celine every day. It usually rings and rings and then goes to voice mail. She doesn’t know how to do voice mail, so I end up trying several times a day in the hope that I will get to her.

Last week, I dialed and after three rings, the Relay signaled [female answered]. I thought “Great, finally!!” and launched into my usual greeting, to orient Celine to who I was and why I am calling. Then I asked “How are you doing?”

Usually that elicits an “I’m okay but..” response. But this time, she was practically chatty! I was thrilled. She told me she was knitting (first time I heard that) and was wishing her daughter would call (her daughter does call, daily, but Celine can’t recall that.) I used my “uhummm! Ahhh! Nice!” verbals to keep this surprisingly lively conversation going. I told her about remote teaching and about a movie I had watched on Netflix. She was engaged and responsive. This was the most Celine had EVER said in a phone call.

Celine and me at her 95th birthday in January

As we moved toward closure on the call, I asked Celine a question and the answer made me pause. Her response just didn’t “fit.” She then thanked me profusely for calling, noting that it’s been five lonely years since her husband passed and this phone call came at a perfect time to make her feel less lonely. 

Now, I know for a fact that Celine’s husband died more than 60 years ago.  Moreover, she rarely mentions him. I was confused. Was she imagining this? Or??

Well, it turns out that… I had misdialed! 

And, for fifteen or twenty minutes had engaged in an active conversation not with Celine… but with Emily, an almost 80 year old widow of five years whose daughter lives in Denver while she lives alone on the “homestead” outside a tiny rural town in western South Dakota! 

“I don’t actually know who you are, Sister Patrice, but when you said ’This is Sister Patrice and I’m just calling to see how you’re doing,’ I was doing rather poorly. But, you said “sister” and I was so lonesome that I decided to just talk with you. I can’t tell you how much your phone call has helped….”

One digit off. 

That made the difference for this woman, whom I will probably never meet in person.

But, what I **will** be doing is calling her once a week during this pandemic. We’re all “locked down” to stay safe, but there’s no reason she needs to also be lonely. 

A simple phone call can truly make a person’s day and connect them to their wider world in a way that is meaningful and life-giving.

Emily is now on my weekly “call the elders” list. 

Perhaps this is a new stuck-at-home ministry. What would happen if each of us decided to dial a random phone number once a week just to say “Hi, how are you doing?”

One never knows who’s going to be on the other end.