It was her friends who made her Rosary High School’s Mardi Gras queen in 1940. Was it because they saw a beautiful, fair skinned red head, with large brown eyes, and a contagious smile? Not likely, as there were surely other beauties in the school. Did it help that her feisty spirit, Irish wit and comedic antics had gained notice in the yearbook , declaring, that Eleanore McLaughlin had the “ best sense of humor” in her graduating class ? Those attributes may have helped but I believe it was an undeniable inner beauty that separated her from the crowd and drew people of every stripe. She called them all her “friends”, never showing partiality.
Later, with a strong sense of duty to her country, she was among many young patriots who answered the call to support our fighting forces during WWII. Her choice of military occupational specialty was a perfect fit for the eldest daughter in a family of six kids. She’d seen her own Mother bring her aged and infirm Aunt Silvia into their home and tenderly care for her until she died. That quality of mercy eventually took root in her own heart. So it was no surprise to anyone when she became a Navy Hospital Corpsman, providing direct aid to wounded warriors returning from the battlefields of the European and Pacific Theaters of war. Her youthful mind and soul were forever changed as she witnessed the gut wrenching sights and sounds of men recovering from the horrors experienced in battle. Some needed their wounds treated and others just needed a friendly face. Knowing Mom, she’d light up the darkest hospital room with her cheerful smile. She wouldn’t hesitate to reach for a hand or whisper a prayer.
Her circle of friends changed as she moved into the role of wife, mother, neighbor and more. Our large Irish family drew many other families to our home and Mom found her friends among the numerous people who graced our doorway. She’d faithfully nurture their relationships through thick and thin. They couldn’t all be her closest friends but she referred to them as friends nonetheless. I’ll never know how she found time to serve so many while mothering 12 children but she managed with grace and love. Neighbors in our tight knit community didn’t call before showing up on your doorstep. They knocked and were invited in. Among her countless “friends” was Mrs. Murphy, mother of six, who drank too much and seemed to depend on Mom for adult conversation, moral support, and an occasional egg or cup of sugar. I remember another very young Mother of five pouring out her heart to Mom fearing pregnancy too soon after the birth of number five. Whenever anyone’s child was injured, they’d rush him down to our place where Mom, the trained Corpsman, accustomed to treating war torn bodies, would calm the anxious mother and render first aid. Mom took good care of her friends whether bandaging a knee or a broken heart.
Even into her 80’s long after Dad passed, she continued to reach out to people in church, her retirement community, nursing homes, and even distant fields of poor migrant workers. While visiting her several years before she joined Dad, I’d hear her on the phone checking on the infirm, lonely, widowed or others needing a helping hand. It was one of the many ways she served the Lord. She’d call and ask if she could pick up anything from the store for them, then go to their homes for a visit and prayer. Although many were strangers, once they met Mom, they knew they had a friend they could call on. Her outgoing, compassionate and loving heart extended well beyond a mother’s usual care for her own family to those in greatest need.
Her neighbors at Venetian Park Estates, the senior community where she lived, knew she cared as well. It wasn’t unusual to see her driving someone to the doctor or just making the rounds to check in on her friends. They loved her and she loved them back. It was always important to her that I meet her friends so I’d walk around the Park as she’d proudly introduce me to people on porches, bicycles, or just strolling by. Sometimes we’d be invited in for a cool lemonade or cup of tea. As impatient as I might sometimes feel about this ritual due to our limited time together, I knew better than to deny Mom these leisurely visits as it was the highlight of her day. She had her distant Army daughter here now and wanted everyone to meet me. I imagine that she did this with all of us…..a proud Mom showing off her kids! It was important to her that I meet her friends and I’m so grateful now for that special time in my life. To this day, I stay in touch with many of Mom’s friends when I’m in Florida and every time they see me they say “oh, you look just like Eleanore !” Mom’s friends remind me of her too, as they talk about her life and what she meant to them. Their sentiments and stories are always a nurturing balm for my lonely heart. I feel closer to her because of them and somehow think that she’d like me to continue her legacy by visiting them as we once did together.
She could never have imagined that her life would end in an Alzheimer’s ward, isolated from the friends who nourished her soul as she nourished theirs. Most of her “snowbird” friends and neighbors had already left Florida for their Northern homes during Mom’s last months. Among the remaining few were Louie and Garnet who determined to see her despite rumors that she wasn’t permitted visitors. They spoke later of their bold move to pass through barriers and find their way into her secured ward. They didn’t know it would be the last time they’d see their close friend alive and retold the story of how Mom sat up and came to life when they walked in her room. There were similar stories of those who gained entrance under cover of darkness to seek and find their dear friend who was no longer able to visit them.
We were all relieved when she was finally moved to a different wing in the same facility. We felt it was a great improvement after living for months on “Reflections”, that highly secured Alzheimer’s ward . It was a trial move to see how she’d function with more freedom and privacy. We thought surely she’d be happier in this quieter environment, separated from some of the more mentally challenged patients who we felt were a threat to her peace of mind and safety. At times, one of them would grab or hit me. I feared what fate might befall Mom when family wasn’t there to protect her. It wasn’t uncommon to find one of them asleep in her bed upon our return from a walk. Only later did I learn that 80% of those patients were NOT Alzheimer’s but far more serious and complex mental illnesses, often combined with dementia to some degree. They needed more controls and less freedom so were all placed in the same wing as Alzheimer patients. As one aide commented, “Your Mom just doesn’t fit here. She’s not like the others.” An understatement indeed! That’s why we fought to move her! We could only pray she’d adjust to her new environment and be allowed to remain.
Although she couldn’t communicate much at all toward the end, there were rare occasions when she’d surprise us like the day she blurted out “My friends can’t see me here! “ I was startled by those few impassioned words and felt a deep sadness as I searched her large brown eyes. I just assumed she was referring to her neighbors and friends from church. So I’d routinely walk the halls with her to meet and greet new people. It didn’t matter where she was or what her condition, she lived out that ancient proverb: “ a man who has friends must himself be friendly.”
One day, I decided to take her by “Reflections” to see if she remembered that she’d “lived” there just a few weeks ago. I punched in the familiar security code and we quickly entered her former wing before any patients could escape. And then Mom did something she hadn’t done in a very long time. She actually smiled! She smiled at the sight of familiar faces! It didn’t seem too long ago that her smile came easily, naturally, but not anymore. The disease had taken an awful toll by now, so this smile was a rare and treasured glimpse into the Mom I once knew, the Mom who was daily slipping away from me…..from this world. A serious, distressed, and often pained expression had replaced the Mardi Gras queen’s winning smile. But here she was, smiling at this moment in time, and that made ME smile! Still holding my hand, she began pulling me toward two nurse’s aides who had previously cared for her….people I knew well by now. As if introducing them to me for the first time, she’d point and say “she’s my friend!” and then to the other, “he’s my friend”. And then she said it again and again, all the while grinning from ear to ear, “these are my friends”! “these are my friends”! They smiled back and eagerly embraced her while familiar faces walked by, one looking straight ahead, another, head cast downward and another, talking to herself in a loud voice. I began to understand why a nurse had seen her on the outside of Reflections at night, banging on locked doors, desperately trying to get back in. She’d made some new “friends” on that wing and she could no longer see them. I knew I’d have to take her back there every day to visit her “friends”.
We exited Reflections and headed back to Mom’s “peaceful” wing where I began the nightly ritual of coaxing bits of food into her shrinking little body and then preparing for bed. Although her countenance had now returned to that blank and narrowly focused stare, I’d captured her beautiful smile in my heart and I savored it through a veil of tears as I drove home that night. It was those familiar faces, those “friends” who gave her that smile.
Just hours before she passed into glory, with strained, stuttering words, and eyes penetrating deeply into ours, she lifted those frail, quivering arms to reach up and touch our faces, “I…..love……you…..I ….love…. you” she repeated as we held her for the last time. Despite all that had been stripped from her, the freedom, dignity, and even the ability to swallow food or water, she refused to surrender the gift of love God had given her early in life. She used that gift until it was completely used up. It was the greatest gift anyone can have – God’s unconditional love. “A friend loves at all times”….. God’s Word declared it, and Mom lived it to the end. She walked courageously through that valley of suffering as her systems began shutting down and her body finally failed. Yet, God’s love never fails. That love couldn’t be diminished or extinguished. It overcame fear, darkness, and pain , and like a gushing stream of Living Water, it flowed out through Mom to the multitudes who were privileged to call her their friend.
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