I’ll venture a guess that most of us weren’t around in 1917, but that year, deep in the South, a baby girl was born who eventually changed my life and helped me gain perspective on issues, ideas, and purpose. Profoundly!
Allow me to start at the end and then, if you will, go back a few years.
Last night at 8:15 PM, I received a call from my neighbor Ellen’s full-time caretaker who has been part of a group that is been assisting my 97-year old neighbor with her daily tasks. Over the last two years, I’ve seen some caretakers come and go and I have seen others stay on the entire period. It brought me great comfort to know that she was being cared for in a very loving and positive way. Last night as Ellen was getting ready to go to bed her body decided that she had had enough and she died.
Her caretaker Tanisha then called me, frantic, so I made the short trip across my lawn to Ms. Ellen’s house just as the paramedics were arriving to see what they could do. Poor Tanisha was so emotionally distraught and was both physically and mentally shaken. I understood. Although at this point we did not know for sure that Miss Ellen had passed away, there weren’t many reasons to be optimistic and, as other medical personnel arrived and performed heroically, it was clear that if she were to survive this episode, that it wouldn’t last.
And it didn’t.
I don’t know if this is as much a eulogy or, perhaps, a remembrance, but it is very much a reflection of the many gifts that I received from Miss Ellen throughout the years.
I have been in the same house for almost 20 years and met Miss Ellen on our move-in day. As we were unpacking the moving trucks she ventured over to introduce yourself and was thrilled to hear that we had three young children moving into her neighborhood. It didn’t take but a visit or two before a predestined friendship grew into something quite special.
Of the many gifts that Ellen gave me throughout the years, one of the most important ones was sharing her deep commitment and passion for democratic politics. She was a feminist LONG before that word existed, I assure you. It was an ingredient in our friendship that neatly tied everything else together quite nicely. For a number of years we spent an enormous amount of time talking politics at the local, state and federal levels. Her empathy for people the world over was both astounding and unselfish. There were very few of our conversations on the most difficult topics political discourse where Miss Ellen didn’t embrace the idea that most of what ailed us could be solved by compassionate hearts and minds. She was always mindful that her belief in God and the role that God played in her life was not something that everybody embraced in the same way that she did. Never judgmental, Ellen had great patience for people who did not see the world the way that she did. For many years, as is common with people of advancing years, Ellen had a routine. Sunday, a day that always included attending church and then having lunch with the ladies with whom she worshiped, was the central part of her week. In fact, she once told me that the reason she went to church was that so she could renew and replenish everything that she needed in order to be happy, including her relationship with God and with the people in her life.
Yes, she was extraordinary in many ways, but what will stick with me for the rest of my life is one of the many things that Miss Ellen taught me: that when you have made a decision, no matter what that decision is and as long as it is founded in truth and pure intent, then it is worth embracing and moving forward with with all the gusto that you can produce. To Miss Ellen, failure was not that you didn’t get what you wanted, failure was when you quit before you got what you wanted. She also taught me that there is no statute of limitations on our goals, just the statute of limitations on the time we have on this earth.
I can’t count the many hours of time that Miss Ellen and I spent sitting in front of her garage in the warmer months of the year talking politics and solutions to societal ills. Miss Ellen was incredibly well read and spent a great deal of time educating her circle of acquaintances about the challenges we face and the solutions that she believed would make a difference. I assure you, she made a difference to many.
I realize while writing this that I could fill up volumes upon volumes of books sharing stories and ideas that she was convinced were being ignored out of greed and profit. Ms. Ellen had this unique way of holding others accountable that words don’t quite bring justice to so I won’t try to explain it other than to say that, had she had chosen politics as a profession, she would be very famous today.
Miss Ellen was well into her 80s when she made a decision to hire a lawn service to cut her grass. Up until that point, she had been taking care of her lawn herself, much to my chagrin. I asked, begged, and pleaded with her to allow me or one of my children to do the yard work for her, but she refused time and time again. Every week, no matter what, she would go off to a chiropractor that she adored to get her adjustment. She told me many times that it was the chiropractor that kept her healthy and as spry as she was. I don’t doubt that to this day.
Over the course of the almost 20 years that we lived across the street from each other, Ellen watched my children grow and become good responsible young men. Their journey into adulthood was something that she relished and she invested a great deal of her heart in them. I know, without question, how much they meant to her.
When we moved in, Miss Ellen was already a widow with two grown sons, one who was serving as a career man in the United States Navy and the other one a successful attorney. Yes, she was an outstanding mother, wife, friend, grandmother and any other label that you would care to put on her. What was most remarkable, though, was that there was always more room in her heart for others.
Because the central core of my life for a very long time has been politics, advocacy and activism, Miss Ellen and I got along famously. As my life got busier and we spent less time together, it bothered me immensely. I guess inherently knew that she would always be there if I needed to share a story or ask advice or smooth out a difficulty, and amongst all of the things that she did and was, I believe being a therapist, albeit an amateur therapist, was her greatest strength, for me anyway.
At different times in my life I have been met with certain challenges that required very deliberate thought and actions and, just when I thought I had reached a dead end to a problem or a solution to that problem, it was Miss Ellen who would help me reframe and adjust and to find a new path and a better direction toward a solution.
I can honestly say that I didn’t know until last night how much I may have taken for granted the wisdom that she bestowed upon me.
The last couple of years have been a challenge for Ellen. On top of her advancing years, she also had to deal with the onset of dementia and a cancer diagnosis. As these challenges advanced, her memories of me slowly faded as well. Although she remembered who I was and, as her caretakers told me quite often, she would ask for me and talk about me, it’s been more than a year – well, more than a year – since she remembered who I was when I saw her in person. I won’t lie; that wasn’t easy for me. Of course, that is more selfish than anything. I also know, that the Miss Ellen that left us last night was, deep down in whatever part of the conscience that holds onto our memories and our personality and our greatest hopes and desires, still present, if diminished.
I’m having difficulty ending this except to say that I love Miss Ellen and I fully understand and realize the impact that she had on my life, on the lives of my family, on the lives of the people in the community that I live, and on the very foundation of passion that I stand on today. I would like to think that part of the reason that I live the life that I am living right now is because Miss Ellen came into my life when I needed her the most. I am grateful for the 20 years that we had together and am fortunate that, although she is gone now, the many things that she bestowed upon me will live on. For that, I am grateful and honored.
Today I say goodbye to a good friend and over the next couple of days there will be funeral arrangements that I will honor and conversations that I will have with family and friends and neighbors. Then, as we all know, conversations will turn to other matters and, before we know it, we will have just our memories. In this case, I’ll have better memories than most. For that I am also grateful and honored and, perhaps, one of my gifts to all of you – one I think I can safely say that I can deliver on – is that I need and will continue to live like Miss Ellen did: with purpose, compassion, conviction, and faith.
I am one lucky guy. Ellen… I miss you!
[CC photo credit: Jay Morrison | Flickr]