I lost a good friend a few days ago. Her name was Eileen Shackleton of Altadena, California. She died just two weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
I first met Eileen in 2006. The word “met” is misleading, for I didn’t actually meet her face to face until 2010. But in 2006 she wrote me a letter telling me how much she liked my writing. The letter, written in perfect
penmanship on lined notebook paper, was six pages long. In it she described a presentation she had given to a group of Associates of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. (She was an Associate with them for 17 years). She based part of her talk on my book, Traits of a Healthy Spirituality. Her presentation was creative, inspiring, and dabbed with humor. I thought, “What a remarkable woman!” It was only in the last paragraph that she told me she was 91 years old!
Of course, I wrote back to Eileen. When someone writes: “I want to thank you a zillion times for your inspiring writing,” how can you not respond?! My letter started a correspondence—and a friendship—that lasted for 9 years.
After over three years of exchanging letters and enjoying a few phone calls, Eileen and I finally met in 2010 when I was giving a talk in Anaheim. One of her friends drove her to the L.A. airport to pick me up. When I spotted Eileen walking towards me, I saw a tall, lean women with perfect posture. Her grayish hair was neatly coiffed. Her smile was broad. No one would have ever guessed she was 95. I stayed at her house that afternoon, meeting Sister Gemma Fisher, her dearest friend, who lived with her. She and Gemma had been friends for over 30 years. When Gemma’s convent closed, Gemma was given permission by her religious congregation to move in with Eileen. They lived together until Gemma’s health gradually deteriorated and she had to move to her congregation’s health care facility three hours away. Although both women knew this move was necessary, it was extremely painful for them. Months later when Eileen was missing Gemma so much she started crying to me over the phone, I said to her, “Your pain is so deep, Eileen, because your love for Gemma is so deep.” (Gemma and Eileen died five days apart.)
Over the years I learned more about Eileen—for example, she was, indeed, related to Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famed British explorer of the Antarctic. Eileen graduated from Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and
then worked for Southern California Edison until her retirement in the 1970’s. She never married. Once she showed me some pictures of herself as a young woman. In one, she was wearing white shorts and looked beautiful—like a young Katharine Hepburn. She admitted she had had two marriage proposals, but neither gentleman was right for her, she said. Being single, she devoted her time and talents to her parish, her friends, and beyond. In her parish, she sang in the choir, taught catechism to children and adults, was a lector at Mass and a Eucharistic minister to the sick. For 20 years she conducted Communion Services at a retirement home in Pasadena. At these services, she always gave a homily, often using (she said) “some of your stories.” Eileen was very generous. She once showed me a list of charitable organizations she regularly sent checks to, saying, “I only wish I could help more.”
Eileen loved nature. She wrote: “I love working in my garden and I live just a few blocks from the mountains. I’m also fond of animals.” She walked a mile every morning until she was 99. The second time I visited her, she drove me to several different places. At first, I was hesitant to get into a car with a 97-year-old driver. But my fears were soon allayed, for Eileen was a very good driver. She even parallel parked three times with ease!
Eileen also had a remarkable ability to befriend people. She once wrote: “I thank God daily for putting a plethora of warm, friendly, caring people in my life that are truly a reflection of God’s love.” God put these people in her life, yes, but it was she who elicited their warmth and caring by her own goodness and love.
Eileen was prayerful. Her rosary and prayer books sat on the table next to her living room chair. She was honest in her prayer too. Once she had to have an MRI. She told me as she lay in the machine, she prayed, “Your will be done, Lord. Your will be done.” Then she said, “But, Melannie, I didn’t mean it! I wanted MY will to be done!” I said, “It often takes time for our hearts to catch up with the prayers we utter. And that’s okay. God understands.”
Recently I was reading excerpts from a book entitled The Road to Character by David Brooks. I thought of Eileen when I read: “Love decenters the self.” And, “Some people seem to have been born into this world with a sense of indebtedness for the blessing of being alive.” Brook also says there’s a difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the job market. The eulogy virtues “are deeper…, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” I thank our Good God for putting Eileen—this kind, honest, and faithful friend—into my life. May she rest in peace.
The song today is “Friends” by Michael W. Smith. As you listen, you might want to recall the good friends you have and those you’ve had to say “goodbye” to…
Does anything touch you about my friend Eileen?
Have you had similar friendships in your life?
Do any words of the song speak to you today?
PS: You may have noticed that I posted a new picture of myself on this blog. The previous one was about ten years old, so I thought it was time to update it (and accept the fact that I have a few more gray hairs and a few more pounds!) I want to thank my friend Sr. Patricia Pasek for taking this picture at my Golden Jubilee celebration a couple of weeks ago.