Saturday morning I decorated the tables in the church hall for fellowship after the Sunday service. I was wearing my tee-shirt that proclaims “I’m a Joyful Episcopalian.” My friend, Dan, an old lawyer who wears a patch over his blind eye, was locking and loading the coffee urns.
I finished decorating and goodbye’d Dan, who was still puttering around in the kitchen. I wheeled around the corner and into the narthex. A wild-eyed woman clutching her purse to her breast startled me.
Tall woman, too thin, shoes and dress expensive and immaculate. Dyed hair wild. Eyes too, darting like a rabbit pursued by a fox. Thought she might dart and run out the door if I approached her too fast.
“May I be of assistance?” I asked gently.
“I’m lost!” she cried.
You’re a stranger, I thought. Then, People get lost in the village all the time, but this is different. Something is terribly wrong here.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll help you.”
She said, “I think I have Alzheimer’s. I can’t remember anything!”
I said, “I understand. I won’t leave you. You don’t have to figure this out alone. I promise.” Then, “Where are you trying to go?”
“My mother’s house. I can’t find it. She didn’t call to let me in the East Gate, but the officer knew me because I come all the time. He let me in. I don’t know why my mother didn’t call. But she didn’t. And now I can’t find her house. I’ve been driving around for a long time, but nothing looks familiar. I didn’t know what to do, so I came here.” She blinked back tears.
“Good idea,” I said, thinking, Church is always the best place to go when you don’t know what to do.
“What’s your mother’s address?”
“I don’t remember,” the Stranger said. “It’s somewhere on Delfina Way. But I can’t find it.”
“If you have it written down somewhere in your purse, I’ll put it in my GPS and lead you there.”
She got out her driver’s license and gave it to me: Little Rock. An hour and a half away. “Okay,” I said, “That’s your address. I need your mom’s address.” She dug some more.
“I don’t think I have it,” she said, abandoning the purse search.
I smiled at my Stranger. “Okay. We can work with that.”
“I know she lives on Delfina Way,” she said hopefully.
“Then follow me. I’ll put that into my GPS, and we’ll drive around it until something looks familiar.” I started toward the door.
“But I don’t know where it is!” She didn’t understand what a GPS was, and I wasn’t going to be able to explain it to her, so I said, “Come to the kitchen. My friend Dan is there. He’ll help us. He’s lived here a long time.”
I led her to the kitchen.
Dan said, “Delfina Way’s right there.” He pointed out the kitchen window. “First right turn.” I thought momentarily about him being a pirate standing on a crow’s nest on a ship pointing to an island and shouting, “Land ho!”
“I’ve been driving around and around there,” the Stranger said, “But I can’t find it.”
“I’ll call the front gate,” I said. “Tell me your mother’s name. They’ll look it up for us.”
“I don’t remember Mama’s name.”
Umhm. Lady’s right. She has dementia.
“Then follow me in your car,” I said. “We’ll drive around until you can remember her name or see a familiar house.”
We hurried out to our cars.
A dog was sitting in her car, windows rolled up. Panting. Too hot to leave a dog in a locked car. But this lady didn’t know her mother’s name, so I couldn’t blame her for locking a dog in a hot car.
“This is my dog, Sheeba. She’s Shiba Inu and Basenji.” Sheeba struggled to get loose from her doggie seatbelt. “She’s all I’ve got. I don’t have any children. It’s just Sheeba and me. And my mother doesn’t like her. When we come visit, Sheeba has to stay outside. I have to tie her to the porch because Mama doesn’t have a fenced yard.” My Stranger’s eyes filled with tears.
“I understand,” I said.
I started my Subie and my Stranger pulled in behind me. As soon as I turned onto Delfina Way and came to a fork, she pulled up beside me. “I think it’s this way,” she called through her passenger window and pointed to the left.
“Okay, you lead. I’ll follow.”
She pulled ahead, drove fifty feet, and stopped. I pulled up beside her and lowered my passenger window. “Nothing looks familiar,” she said.
“Do you remember your mother’s name?”
“Sue Roberts,” she said, as though she’d known it all along.
I called the front gate. Guard gave me the address. #123.
“Follow me,” I said. “We’ll find it.”
Roads here in the village wind around, circle, divide, circle back, wind around in the opposite direction, and end up somewhere you’ve never been before. But we’d reached #79 and were headed in the direction of #123 when she pulled her car up beside mine again. “We passed a road going left,” she called.
“I know, but follow me. I promise we’ll get there this way.” She pulled back in behind me.
In three minutes, we pulled up to #123.
I got out of my car. “This is it,” she said.
“I’ll go in with you to make sure your mom’s okay, but we need to get Sheeba out of the car first. It’s too hot to leave her in it.”
“Mama doesn’t like dogs,” the woman said. “I’m not supposed to take her inside.”
“Okay. We’ll check on your mom and hurry right straight back.”
Mama was fine, but angry. She was on oxygen, sitting at the kitchen table. House was spotless. No dogs allowed.
“Where have you been?” she demanded.
“I was lost,” my Stranger whispered. She looked down as if she’d had a lifetime of being yelled at by this crone. Then she whimpered, “You didn’t call the gate to let me in.”
“I called right after they’d already let you in. That’s why I knew you were lost again.”
“Who’s that?” she demanded, pointing at me.
I stepped forward. I felt like I had to protect my Stranger from her mother’s wrath. I’m an old, retired college professor. I’ve lived through having a gun held to my head by a stranger who wanted to kill me, survived a brain tumor, beat congestive heart failure, sued the city where I lived, and been tried by a renegade bishop on a Canon 13. I don’t scare easy.
“Your daughter was lost. She couldn’t remember your address. Or your name. She came to our church. I promised I’d stay with her until she was safe.”
“What church?” she demanded.
“Holy Trinity. Episcopal. Top of the hill. Even though your daughter was confused, she knew that someone at a church would help her.” Someone… Someone at a church will always help. And sometimes, Someone lets us humans be eyes and hands and feet… “So I found out where you live and had her follow me here.”
I stayed to help my Stranger get her dog settled on the back porch: bed, water, tether. She couldn’t remember how to attach the dog to the tether, didn’t remember that the water bowl had to be filled.
I went back in the house to talk to the mother while the daughter was on the porch apologizing to the dog that it couldn’t come inside.
“Your daughter didn’t even remember your name. She said she thinks she has Alzheimer’s. She definitely has some form of dementia.”
The old woman’s eyes teared. “She doesn’t have any family but me. No husband, no children. Just me, and I’m on this oxygen and my brother has to take care of me. I don’t know what I’m going to do with her. She can’t make this trip from Little Rock again.”
“No,” I agreed. “She can’t.”
“She doesn’t want to go into an assisted living center, and I can’t take care of her. But she can’t live alone any longer.”
“No, she can’t.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with her.”
I left the house after that, sad for my nameless Stranger. Sad for her mother. Sad for her dog, Sheeba. But at the same time, a Joyful Episcopalian.
Because being joyful doesn’t mean never being sad. Being joyful means finding Christ’s peace in the midst of life’s sorrows. Being joyful is knowing that when you’re lost, church is the best place to go. The safe place. A place where you can find Someone to help you.
Sometimes you only need to sit quietly in the sanctuary and feel the Someone’s presence. But sometimes the Someone works though an old lawyer with a patch over his eye. Or through an old woman who is honored when Christ finds small ways to allow her to be of service to Strangers and their dogs. An old woman who wears a tee-shirt proclaiming that she is a Joyful Episcopalian.