On Wednesday, April 20, Pope Francis spoke about the need to reach out to the elderly, who are so often neglected and forgotten by society. "Encouraging young people, even indirectly, in an attitude of condescension, and even contempt, for the elderly, for their weaknesses and precariousness, produces horrible things. It opens the way to unimaginable excesses," he said.
"It is not just about one's own father and mother. It is about their generation and the generations before, whose farewell (death) can be slow and prolonged, creating a time and space of long-lasting coexistence with the other ages of life. In other words, it's about the old age of life."
I had the privilege of being friends with two elderly individuals who enriched my life immensely.
The first was Walter, a man I met at daily Mass. He offered to treat me to breakfast, and after that, I looked forward to eating with him each morning. He was legally blind, but never let that deter him from functioning fully in life.
When I helped him with some tasks that were difficult for Walter to do because of his disability, like writing checks, I quickly learned how generous he was to charities and to the parish. At Christmas time, he always bought a teenager's watch for the giving of gifts to poor parishioners. He attended the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at Saint Mary's Parish every week. Even though he could not see the Monstrance, he felt the presence of Jesus in a special way.
We made local trips to the mall so that I could help him find the correct size of pants for him to try on. And when he paid by credit card, he always made me guide his hand on the place to sign. He would never allow anyone to do that for him because of his fierce independence.
We used to go to his apartment and listen to old records. Walter had an enormous droll wit that he delivered deadpan, which kept me laughing.
I always celebrated Wigilia, Polish Christmas Eve with him, with all the special foods and I gave him a Christmas stocking full of delicacies to eat that he would never purchase. He was generous to others but parsimonious toward himself.
As a Navy veteran who served during World War II and in the Korean War, Walter was fiercely patriotic. He had been accepted at Annapolis where he would have graduated as an officer, but when war broke out, he enlisted. Walter said of that decision, "For God and country."
I could write a book and not convey all of the fine qualities and virtues that he possessed. He was a second father to me, always giving me sage advice. Walter was also an artist, poet and a fine photographer. He used to receive religious statues for his donations to the missionaries, and my home is full of this artwork. I have a Chinese Madonna and Child which he painted, modeled on one in Chinatown in San Francisco where Walter was stationed before going to Japan.
He was devoted to Our Lady and prayed the rosary every day. I must have about 20 rosaries that he gave to me which he also received from the missions.
Walter never married and took care of his parents. He was a brave cancer survivor.
Although Walter used to walk about town and managed to see from the corners of his eyes, it was a pothole that led to his demise. He tripped over it and fell. When he was hospitalized, Walter caught pneumonia and died.
I treasure the memories I have of him, our talks about literature and opera, and all the funny things he used to say. Now he is at rest and can see an even more beautiful world than the one he left.
Walter introduced me to Mary, a Polish American woman who was one hundred years old. She barely made ends meet on her Social Security check, but there was always money for her favorite children's charities.
As a communicant of Saint John Paul II Parish, she looked forward to the monthly visits from the parish priest or extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Her faith was an inspiration. The elderly woman never failed to watch Sunday Mass on the local TV station and made regular donations to its ministry to the homebound. She prayed the rosary. And no doubt meditating on the mysteries helped her get through the lonely days and nights as she "offered up" her sufferings for the Church.
Mary never married, not that she didn't have the opportunity. "One fella was sweet on me," she used to say, "but I had to care for Mama and Adam," who was her mentally challenged brother.
Talking to Mary was fascinating because she was a living history book. At 100 years of age, but not looking a day over 70, she rememberred her hometown's horse and wagon milk trucks vividly and "modern" trolleys. There was swimming and crabbing in the bay and she said people were friendlier.
"Families were close in those days," Mary said as she spoke with rapture of summers spent on an aunt's farm teeming with young cousins. The kids would sleep on quilts laid down on the floor, but not without a lot of giggling and ghost storytelling before they nodded off.
She recalled with sadness the death of her father when she was ten years old and remembered the Polish Christmas Eve supper when he was alive. The family gathered around the table to feast on delicious food. Adam helped his mother bake cookies, and everyone complimented him on his expertise as a chef, which always made the boy smile. Then everyone broke the oplatek, the holy Christmas wafer, while exchanging hugs and kisses.
Mary's birthday was on the Fourth of July, and she proudly wore a brooch of the American flag. Her favorite TV show was Lawrence Welk. It reminded her of the good old days.
She has since gone home to her family, lonely no more.
Having these two elderly friends was such a joy and the memories of them are sweet. It is fitting that Pope Francis encourages us to befriend the aged with Christian love.