November 19, 2017

Frances and Lenny: When All That’s Left Is Love

Maine Coast Early Morning 2014

Frances died last week. Her family all said she missed her husband Lenny since his death a few years ago, and would be happy to be at peace and reunited with him.

Frances and Lenny were faithful Roman Catholic members of a city parish. At her funeral, the priest said Frances especially loved to share in the Eucharist and to pray. She and her husband raised a large Catholic family on the east side of Indianapolis and were the central figures in their family’s life, the hub around which all activities turned.

Over the past few years I served them both as their hospice chaplain, and loved every visit with this gentle, kind, and funny couple.

When I met Lenny, it had been several decades since he was forced to give up his work because of an accident. A large piece of drywall fell on him and injured his leg so severely it had to be amputated. From that point on, he stayed at home and Frances was forced to go to work to support the family.

It’s just what one did. As down-to-earth and realistic as they were faithful to their beliefs, they supported each other and took care of their family, and from all the reports I’ve ever heard, did so without complaining or ever suggesting they got a raw deal.

About eight years ago, when the couple was in their mid-70’s, Frances answered the door one night and a young man pushed her back into the house. She grabbed his sweater and managed to kick him in the groin as they fell to the floor. But she was no match for the intruder’s strength, and he beat her mercilessly.

Hearing the commotion, Lenny rolled his wheelchair in and soon found himself under attack as well. The home invader beat him in the face so badly his eyes were swollen shut. Frances gave the thief her purse and told him they had no jewelry in the house, and their brutal attacker eventually left. The wounded couple spent two weeks in intensive care recuperating from their injuries.

When the children came to visit them, angry and frightened that someone would do such a thing to their parents, they were surprised to hear words of forgiveness and pardon coming from Lenny’s and Frances’s mouths. The couple expressed not even the least bit of ill will toward the stranger, and they urged their children and grandchildren to turn the other cheek.

The children convinced their parents that forgiveness was fine, but that they should also consider moving to a safer neighborhood. They found a nice senior community a few miles east for their folks and Lenny and Frances relocated there.

And that’s where I met them, when Lenny was diagnosed with a terminal disease. Do you know that in all of our conversations during his time on hospice, neither of them ever once mentioned that home invasion? It wasn’t until after Lenny had died and I was making a bereavement visit to Frances that I learned about their ordeal.

A year or two went by, and then just last fall, Frances’s own health took a turn for the worse. She not only was terminally ill, but she also suffered from an extraordinary number of wounds on her skin as it broke down from her condition. She was almost always in pain, and had to endure the agony of daily wound care and dressing changes.

Once again, Frances refused to be a complainer. She never mentioned her pain to me, and instead always focused on making me feel welcome or asking me a question that was on her mind.

I went to see her the day she died, and in some sort of remarkable turnaround the swelling in her body had diminished and some of those intractable wounds that she had been battling were actually healing. She was comfortable now in both body and spirit. I prayed for her, gave hugs and words of affirmation to her daughters who were at the bedside, and departed. She died within a few minutes of my leaving.

Her priest, the same one who had officiated the funeral mass for Lenny, spoke wonderful words of tribute to Frances’s faith and character as well as providing hope in God’s promises of resurrection life in Christ.

Then, at the end of his homily he read something which Frances herself had written and asked him to share. It was a brief letter to her family.

Frances encouraged them to find solace in the many good memories of their life together and in the love that they had known. She urged them to remember that, although she would be gone from them for a time physically, the love they shared would always be in their hearts.

And then these unforgettable last words that tell you all you need to know about Lenny and Frances: “When all that is left of me is love, give me away.”

Comments

  1. Two saintly people. Suffering I understand and have experienced, as we all have, some more than Lenny and Frances; but extreme suffering of which I don’t complain in one way or another is an uncommon thing for me, and suffering that doesn’t lead to bitterness even more rare, perhaps nonexistent. I’ll never live up to the measure of the model that people like Lenny and Frances provide; the measure of my own smallness can be seen in the fact that my impotence to emulate their example leads me to look away from them and others like them, so that I’m not constantly tormented by the awareness of my own pettiness and sin.

    • Robert,
      That was a different generation. The fact that you come here every day to comment shows your desire to become a better human being. Merton wrote that the desire to please God is in fact pleasing to him.

    • –> “…the measure of my own smallness can be seen in the fact that my impotence to emulate their example leads me to look away from them and others like them, so that I’m not constantly tormented by the awareness of my own pettiness and sin.”

      I must admit, Robert, that sometimes I don’t quite understand you or understand your perspective, but this post…this simple statement…has finally hit home here in me, and light bulb just went on, and I now understand you better and I understand your struggle. Thanks for sharing this torment. It’s painful, and maybe shameful, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s better to hide and avoid than confront. Truly, truly, thanks for being so openly honest about this.

  2. And right here is encapsulated the best and worst of humans. Who the hell beats an old women and a crippled old man in a wheelchair? What depths of hurt and woundedness and despair leads to that conclusion. And who forgives such monstrosity, how did they develop such spiritual maturity? Amazing grace indeed.

    • Hurt, woundedness, despair? What about sheer spite and enjoyment of wielding power over others? You don’t have to have had a “bad childhood” to be an evil person.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And if the home invasion happened today, the perp would have snapped Selfies and uploaded them to social media.

    • Almost everything in my being cries out for justice to be done, for the hurt and and injustice done to those two sweet and innocent people to be made right. And yet, I hear those most radical of words echoing in my head, “Father, forgive them.” How did they? How did He? What love it must take! I despair that I may never have that love within me.

      • The only example of that kind of forgiveness that holds any grip in my mind and heart is the reply that Gandalf gave to Frodo when he passed judgment on Gollum…

        “Deserves death? I daresay he does. Many live who deserve to die. And many die who deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be eager to deal out death in judgment. For not even the very wise can see all ends.”

  3. I suppose the ability of Lenny and Frances to suffer patiently and without complaint was the result of being able to forgive. And the ability to forgive itself is both the gift of God, and a practice. I’m only beginning to know the church as a community where forgiveness is given by God to be practiced by his people. This not to say that the gift of forgiveness and its practice do not happen outside the church, only that, along with the practice of Christ’s presence, the receiving, practice and extending of forgiveness is one of the reasons for the existence of the church.

  4. So often we focus (have been taught to focus) on deeds (‘What have I DONE for Christ?’) but when we look at Lenny and Frances it seems that their faith was about a way of being. It reminds me that I should think less about whether I’ve DONE the right things and more about what sort of person I am being. I find that encouraging – it helps lessen the pressure to tick off those lists of ‘things Christians should be doing’.

    • “…it seems that their faith was about a way of being.”

      Yes, exactly. A lifetime of knowing Jesus conformed them to his image, not by, as you say, “ticking off those lists of ‘things Christians should be doing’.”

      This ties in to what Richard Rohr said in his meditation this morning:

      “’Cross and resurrection,’ or loss and renewal if you prefer, is a doctrine to which most Christians might intellectually assent; but we worshiped it in Jesus, thanked him for it, and rarely transferred it to our own lives. This mystery of transformation must become the very cornerstone of our own life philosophy. We move into this mystery through actual encounter, surrender, trust, and the infilling of a new and larger life that proceeds from it. This is the experience of an inner movement and presence, not a mere belief or moral position.”

      Sad to say, I’m still in the “intellectual assent” phase.

    • –> “It reminds me that I should think less about whether I’ve DONE the right things and more about what sort of person I am being.”

      The men’s group I help facilitate on Saturday mornings is focused on that. My mission – or at least the mission I feel the Holy Spirit is leading me – is to help the guys (self included) leave our fellowship and study bearing more fruit of the Spirit than they would had they not come. As one of the guys says, “Will I be kinder to people when I leave here than when I arrived?”

      The challenge, especially in Evangelical America, is to resist the people who look at us and say, “You aren’t doing enough!”

  5. “When all that is left of me is love, give me away.”
    I don’t believe that penetrating statement is accidental. That comes from someone who was aware of the process that we are all engaged in. That comes from someone who knew what was happening and where it was leading. I love that. Go Frances! That is real inspiration in the midst of sin and suffering.

  6. Wayne Essel says:

    Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Ronald Avra says:

      I agree. It is people like Frances and Lenny who help me focus on the essentials of Christian faith.