Aging with Focus

A Reflection by Sister M. Martha Pavelsky, MHSH

I’m folding laundry and I come across the heavy cotton canvas pastry cloth that was my mother’s. It’s mine now, and I use it three times a year at least: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, when I make a pecan pie from scratch (scratch and a lot of butter) for our Community dinners.

Pecan Pie 3pastry cloth, and learning to roll out dough on it, is one of my earliest memories. It was in good shape about 70 years ago, but it is definitely showing its age now!

Maybe we’re having our own little race to the finish line: Will it outlast me? Will I go first? Am I as beat up as it is?

Using that cloth, I kind of work around the holes, and we get along fine. It’s not a marriage that the cloth and I have, but it gives me an insight into the tolerance and forgiveness necessary for a marriage to last—or for a Community to hold together as it’s members age.

Focus on the holes and the fraying edges, the weak spots, the little stains—or get on with doing all that can still be done: a pie, an outreach to someone frazzled, a chuckle over some crazy caper of years ago.

We may just make that finish line together. Tuck the pastry cloth somewhere in my coffin. Just in case….

The Mystery of God in Transition

By Sr. Donna Fannon, MHSH

During Lent I reread a book entitled “He Leadeth Me” by Walter Ciszek, SJ.  I first came across this wonderful book more than 30 years ago as I discerned a call to join the Mission Helpers.

Ciszek describes his 23 years of captivity in Russia during World War II and the Cold War and his experience of God’s grace, faithfulness and love in the midst of his trials.  Ciszek was also given many opportunities to minister to fellow prisoners and to establish underground parishes in an area hostile to Christianity.  He came to see that the value of his life was not simply about his accomplishments, but about God’s presence and love in darkness and in the unknown.

Sister Donna, at left, last Easter Vigil with candidates at Cornell University.

While reading this book again I am in the throes of another major transition in my own life.  In July I left a truly life-giving ministry as Chaplain to students, faculty and staff at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to become the primary caregiver of my mother.  She is 90 and her health is failing.

Since she retired in 1990, mom has spent her time visiting my brother, my sister and me.  As the years went by, we all noticed that it had become increasingly difficult for her to get around and to be as independent as she would like.  Her poor eyesight and failing health affected her ability to drive; her hearing loss restricted her ability to enter easily into conversations.  She can no longer take care of her basic needs.  A caregiver was in order.

An Uneasy Transition

As a family we made a decision that I would be the most likely of the three children to take on that task full-time.  (The Mission Helpers have also blessed this decision.)  And although I agreed that this is the right thing to do, it was not an easy transition for me to make.

Sister Donna, at right, last Easter at Cornell.

I was very comfortable working with young adults, and the university atmosphere was very alive and exciting.  In addition to the various aspects of the ministry, there was always something going on—concerts, athletic events, lectures, walks on campus, dinners, service projects.  Never a dull moment.  And after 16 years at the same location, it felt like home.  And I was beginning to delude myself that this could last forever.

Aging—An Ever Changing Process

To let go of all this activity and enter into what seemed like the limited world of a frail, elderly person—even though it’s mom—didn’t seem very attractive.  However, in prayer, God persistently invited me to embrace this new mission.  I have come closer to the mystery of human existence as ever changing, knowing that there is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to be young and a time to be old; and that we are called to appreciate each moment for what it is—an opportunity to be present to the mystery of God.

Sr. Donna and her mom, Lillian.

I now see that there is a lot of change going on in the life of an aging person. I have also come to a deeper realization of how great a gift it is to be part of a family—a microcosm of the family of God.  I suppose I began this new venture out of a sense of duty, but during this past year I have come to see how God continues to lead me (along with my brother and sister) into a new appreciation of the mystery of life in all of its wonder and fragility.

In this Easter Season when the Church celebrates the presence of the Risen Christ everywhere, I pray that God will continue to lead me—and all of us—to see more clearly and to appreciate Christ’s presence more deeply.