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A walk of compassion

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Terri and I met Joe, his wife Jackie and their family when they joined Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Plymouth in 1998. They quickly became a second set of parents to us. They were devout Catholics and daily communicants. Joe became a lector at the parish where Terri, also a lector, got to know him better. Jackie watered the plants and helped care for the gardens on the parish grounds.

Joe was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about six years ago. Jackie was devastated but she put her faith in God. This began our ministry to him and his family. Jackie and Joe moved in with their daughter Joyce and her family when Joe was diagnosed, so that Jackie would have help with Joe's care. Jackie brought Joe to Mass every weekend because it gave him so much peace. As the disease started to worsen and Joe was unable to attend Mass, Terri and I started to visit with him and Jackie almost every Sunday.

The highlight of our visits was bringing Joe the Eucharist. No matter where he was in the course of his disease, each time I gave him the Eucharist it brought tears to his eyes, tears of joy. When he was able to communicate, he spoke about how important our visits were and that they helped him to continue to feel connected to the parish community. As time passed, Joe fell and broke his hip. He was confined to a wheelchair and lived in a nursing home. Jackie visited him every day and tended to all of his needs and Terri and I continued to bring him Eucharist on Sundays. About a year after his fall, Joe passed away. The day before Joe died we had brought him Communion and it was the last food he ate, truly food for the journey as the sacrament given at the end of life is called.

About a month following Joe's death, Jackie suffered a stroke from which she was not expected to survive. After several weeks in the hospital, however, she came home and was homebound. Terri and I continued to bring Communion to her every Sunday. For the next year her health slowly declined. Over that year, we were able to minister not only to her but also to her family. Eventually Jackie was placed on hospice and she decided that she wanted to die at home. One evening Terri and I went to visit her. Jackie's breathing had slowed and the hospice nurse told us the end was near. Jackie was surrounded by her family with each person taking turns at the bedside. Terri noticed Jackie's breathing getting very shallow. She went over to Jackie and started to gently rub her chest. Two of her daughters noticed Terri and came to their mom's side.

Jackie had a devotion to the Blessed Mother, so the three of them prayed the "Hail Mary" three times and then Jackie died. What I saw in front of me was the Trinity coming to life. Three women praying the Hail Mary three times and our Lord and Savior coming to bring His daughter, Jackie, to Himself! As we stood and prayed, we noticed that Jackie's hands had a youthful appearance. Jackie suffered from severe arthritis and her hands had been very crippled. She was no longer in pain.

I told this story at Jackie's funeral with tears streaming down my face, the same tears of joy that Joe shed each time he received the Eucharist. It was a gift for Terri and I to walk this journey with Joe, Jackie and their family -- a walk of compassion, a "suffering with," which is at the heart of our Christian calling. Now, Terri and I bring this same gift with us each time we visit a sick person. By their lives of faith, and by their deaths, Joe and Jackie showed to their family, and to Terri and me, the dignity of each human life even until the moment that God calls him home.

Deacon Jim Greer is Director of Healthcare and Prison Ministries for the Archdiocese of Boston. Terri Greer is a Volunteer Coordinator for the Plymouth Council on Aging.

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