My Aunt Arlene had nothing at the end of her life, but as Mother Teresa once said, God’s got lots of money … and he does what he wants with it, so a few days after Christmas, he gave her a magnificent funeral.
Let me start at the beginning. For years, my wife Sandy helped care for her, bought her groceries, brought her to the doctor, reminded her to turn off the stove, argued with her about smoking, and scolded her for spending money on scratchers that should have gone to pay the phone bill.
Arlene was always part of my life. One of my oldest memories goes back to my First Holy Communion when she took me to St. Augustine Cathedral for confession.
The church was packed with penitents. There were three priests, and the lines stretched up the aisles … except for one short line. I started to go to the short line, until she said, “Not that one.”
A moment later, I understood why when I heard the priest yelling at some unfortunate fellow, who sheepishly pulled the curtain aside and crept out.
As I said in her eulogy, she was a devout Elvis fan. She worshiped the King and bought every one of his 45 RPM records as soon as they came out. Even though she loved Elvis, she loved the Beatles even more. If you’ve ever seen pictures of teenage girls screaming and crying hysterically while the Beatles are singing “She Loves You,” my aunt was somewhere in that crazed mob.
Her loyalty was rewarded. When she arrived in Boston for one of the Beatles’ first concerts, she walked into the hotel and pressed the elevator button. When the doors opened, standing in front of her were John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Arlene had a mind of her own. Nobody could tell her what to do. If they tried, she wouldn’t listen anyway. Last year, when she was in St. Joseph’s nursing home, she came down with an infection, and they had to rush her to the hospital.
There was one problem. Nobody—not the nurse, the social worker, the EMT or my daughter Julie—could persuade her to get into the ambulance. Mayhem erupted, until my 5-year-old grandson Gabriel stepped up to the plate. He walked over to her as she was having a tantrum and yelling, “I’m not going anywhere!” He took her hand and explained, “Auntie Arlene, you have a bad boo boo. We have to take you to the hospital.”
Miraculously, she shut up and followed him. The grateful EMTs let him strap her onto the stretcher, and they put her in the ambulance. Someday, that kid will have a successful career selling life insurance.
She spent the last six months of her life in the hospital as her health deteriorated and her dementia got worse. Like many people, including the nursing staff, my wife also got yelled at by her. One day Sandy said to her: “Auntie Arlene, why are you swearing at me? I came here to visit you. I love you.”
Arlene took her hand, kissed it and said, “I’m so sorry. I love you too.” Then, she shut her eyes and promptly fell asleep, as if nothing happened.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen often told the story of the good thief who stole heaven. As Jesus hung on the cross between two thieves, one cursed him, but the other said, “Have you no fear of God? We have been justly condemned.… But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then, he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus told him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” I thought of that story during her final weeks. You see, in her later years, Arlene fell away from the Church, but while she was in the hospital, Sandy kept pestering the nurses to have a priest visit her.
The priest did more than visit her. He went every day and prayed over her in those last weeks. He gave her the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and absolution.
I’m convinced the hospital chaplain and her beautiful funeral at Church of the Assumption in Ansonia were the answers to countless prayers from her family in heaven.
During her last years, she was often despondent and would tell me, “I pray to God … but he doesn’t answer me.” I’m sure she expected him to answer her prayers with a winning lottery ticket. However, when I look back on everything that happened, I realize he did answer her, in ways so wonderful she couldn’t have imagined them.