The first time I heard Cora’s voice was over the phone. “Are you the pastor?” she asked. It was 1990, and I was female, so most people still phrased that question with more shock than a need for clarification in their voices. “Are you the pastor?” they’d say with disdain or disbelief. But not Cora; she’d never met me, so she was just trying to make sure she had the right person on the line.
“Yes, I am. How may I help……” I didn’t even get the phrase out.
“Please come over. My husband is dead.” Click. She hung up. I put the receiver down and stared at the phone. It rang again. “My name is Cora and I live at…” She gave me her address.
“I’ll be right over.”
“Good,” she replied and hung up again.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find when I arrived. Had her husband just died? Was he sprawled on the kitchen floor where he’d dropped or sitting with a blank stare in his favorite chair? Maybe he had died a day or two ago and she had been so paralyzed with grief that she couldn’t find the voice to call. Or maybe he had been dead a long time, and I’d be overcome with the odor when she opened the front door to lead me to the back bedroom where his rotting remains were melting into the mattress.
I drove into the nearby trailer park and followed the numbers around the circle until I found hers. She lived in an older, more established, single-wide with another half attached, which, as it turned out, was a pleasant dining room that caught the afternoon sun. Her front door opened into this room and she was standing at it when I arrived.
“Here I am,” she called, waving an arm around the open screen.
I introduced myself and she invited me in. I scanned the rooms as I entered. No body in the recliner by the picture window. The kitchen floor was empty. I sniffed the air. It smelled like tea.
“You called about your husband,” I said cautiously.
“Yeah, he died a few months ago, and I’m lonely. I made us some tea. You take sugar?” I nodded. Tea with sugar was my favorite, but after several years of home visitation I had learned to be wary of offered refreshments. Lollys, my pet name for little old ladies, often had trouble seeing if their dishes were clean or remembering just how long something had been in the refrigerator. So I’d learned to eat or drink whatever was offered, kiss it up to God and hope for the best. Cora’s tea was good, and so were the Pepperidge Farm cookies. We ate them right out of the bag.
Cora told me she was 80, and she looked it. Like most women her age she was beginning to fade–her hair had lost its color; she’d shrunk in both height and weight; she had health issues–but what she was losing in physicality she more than made up for in personality. Having worked for many years as a police dispatcher, she had no problem being direct, even with the wiliest of individuals. This trait came in handy when dealing with her usually absent extended family. She told me that the husband who had recently died was number four. Having outlived the first three, she’d then married her childhood sweetheart. His name was Bill, and she really missed him.
“Maybe I should have been more specific when I told you my husband was dead,” she said with a grin. “You probably thought there was a corpse rotting in my bedroom…” We chatted for two hours, and as I left her house, she gently socked me in the jaw. “Come see me again, kid, this was fun!”
She started attending church services and liked to give me commentary on the behavior of the parishioners. With the magnification of her eyeglass lenses, I had no problem seeing her rolling her eyes at their antics when I looked toward her from the pulpit. “Judy is too bossy,” she’d tell me later. “Wayne is a show-off.” Once she asked me about the handsome man who sat in the next pew.
“He’s gay,” I explained.
“Honey, I’m just shopping, I’m not buying.” The next week she showed up in his car. “I told him I needed a ride,” she said with a smirk.
I dropped by when I could. One afternoon was spent trying on hats from the top of her closet. Another was to see the hole in her stomach after major surgery. “I want you to look at it and tell me what you see,” she ordered as the visiting nurse changed the gauze packing.
“It’s a really big hole.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” she said, trying to grin.
Cora was the kind of person who aged, but never grew old. The last time I saw her was just before she turned 90. Having been reassigned to another church in 1994, I hadn’t been her pastor for five years, but we’d kept in touch. I was on my way from the Naval Chaplains School in Newport, RI to my first assignment: two-and-a-half years of isolated duty in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We both knew this was the last time we would see each other.
We met at Dennys for lunch. “So what did you do at boot camp?” she quizzed, eager for some fresh story of adventure. I told her about being the nozzleman at firefighting training, about entering and exiting a non-landing helicopter by hanging from a rope, I even showed her the blisters from a three-day hike. She was enthralled.
“Hey Cora, do you think I am nuts for running away and joining the Navy at 40?”
“No, honey, if you want to be me at 90 you gotta do these crazy things at your age!” I rolled my eyes.
When lunch was over, and we were getting ready to say good bye, Cora looked more serious then I’d ever seen her. “Could you promise me something, honey? Would you do my funeral?” I looked straight at her.
“No Cora, I can’t. Your pastor will do that.” She grunted, obviously swallowing some commentary on the new pastor. “I can’t do your funeral, Cora, but there is something I can promise. I promise I will always miss you.” She grinned.
And I still keep that promise.
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