Thursday, March 18, 2010

Remembering Aunt Fuzzy - 8/13/1913 - 3/18/1974

My eldest aunt and godmother, Florence Louise Saul, whom Mom always called "Aunt Fuzzy", was born two years before my mother. Besides being the eldest child of my grandparents, Florence had a very outgoing, fun-loving personality combined with a sort of professional seriousness. I had great respect for her, almost awe. Perhaps it was because of her confident, take-charge approach toward life and because of her knowledge, especially in the medical field. I also sensed that she valued to me as a real person, even as a child, and that she loved me very much.

The picture above is Florence's bracelet, given to me by her daughter, Roberta, after her brother's death two years ago. Florence was an R.N., the only person among our immediate relatives with a college degree until I received mine in 1960. She was my Mom's idol and closest friend. I was astounded when Mom mentioned to me, during a visit to her in the 1980's, that as a young person, Mom had also entertained the hope of becoming a nurse like Florence. Unfortunately, because of the family's financial situation and my grandmother's illness, my mother had to work instead and help care for her four younger sisters.

Certainly from the time Florence was in nurses' training, she and my mother loved to party and dance...and drink. After her husband, Bob, died in 1950 after along illness, Florence gradually spiraled downward, drinking more and more heavily. In 1965 she hit bottom, could barely keep a nursing job, and became very depressed. I'd just finished my pastoral training year in Detroit and had been appointed college chaplain at Sacred Heart College, Wichita, KS. One afternoon in September, as I was working down in the basement on the college newspaper, I received an urgent call from Florence. She calmly told me that she was very depressed, that she had no desire to go on living, and that she had the means to end her life with her and was ready to do so. My recollection, after all these years, is somewhat hazy, but I know that I talked and talked like a "Dutch uncle", trying to give her every reason I could think of for not doing this, and probably drawing upon a lot of the pious platitudes I'd learned in seminary. Truth be known, I felt totally helpless and fearful. I'm sure that we talked for well over an hour, and I don't even recall how the conversation ended. I do remember not feeling very hopeful that I'd ever speak with her again.

In the ensuing weeks I fell into my regular routine at the college, somewhat encouraged that I'd heard nothing further. "No news, is good news." I continued praying earnestly for her. Three months passed and I was visiting my Mom who'd been hospitalized. I casually mentioned that I hadn't heard from Florence for awhile, and Mom replied: "Oh, didn't I tell you: she started going to AA, has given up drinking, and is doing really well." You can imagine my relief! But I wasn't prepared for what Mom said next. She told me that Florence began to make the turn-around after the phone conversation with me because of something I'd said which had "clicked" with Florence. When I asked what that was Mom said: "It was something about a 'sinner' being a human being who falls and just chooses to lay there and not get up, while a 'saint' is someone who falls repeatedly, but has the courage to put his/her hand in God's hand, and to get up and keep going." It vaguely rang a bell in my mind. Many years later I rediscovered the source of the advice I'd passed on to her, something which a retreat master, Fr. Joseph McNicholas, C.PP.S., had said to us in our first college retreat in 1955!

This was surely a reminder to me of how important it is to pay attention to what one says to other people. God's grace has a way of working through us even, maybe especially, when we're completely unaware of what's going on. Mom told me that, ever after, when Florence was asked to give an AA talk, which happened frequently, she'd always refer to this incident and to her nephew and godson. The real joy for me in this is recognizing the reality of God's saving power at work in a human life, something over which neither Aunt Florence nor I had any control. If my whole future ministry were declared a failure, this one blessed incident would serve to redeem it all, thanks be to God!

Florence continued to blossom after her initial recovery. She was extremely active in AA, in constant demand as a speaker, working the program faithfully, and eventually, I'm sure, having a very positive influence on my mother who also became active in AA. Florence resumed full-time nursing, returned to college, and became reinvolved with her parish. One of my greatest delights was to learn that Florence made a Cursillo just two years before she died. I'd made mine in 1965, so it was something further which we had to share in common. Even during her drinking years, it was apparent to me that Florence still had a deep faith. Cursillo seemed to deepen that and brought her, I think, into a close relationship with the Holy Spirit. She would often say to me and others, when we were having difficulties: "Well, honey, just throw it into the Holy Spirit's lap!"

In 1973 Florence collapsed while working at the hospital and was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. By Christmas that year, I'm sure she knew that the end was in sight. She'd expressed a desire for me and my family to come back to Ohio for a last visit, but, unfortunately, it was simply impossible at the time. At the end of December, however, I took time to write her a long letter, expressing my deep love for her and reminding her of happy past memories which we'd shared: "...the house of Water Street; the sandbox and the white picket fence; the levee; your fabulous pink crystal collection; hot whiskey-and-coke when we kids had coughs and colds; all your specialties -- beef stew, fried chicken, outstanding spaghetti dinners, and chocolate mayonnaise cake... I remember our happy times of healthy laughing and celebrating the humorous elements of life & people...But most of all, I cling to and treasure the reality of sharing a deep friendship and love with you these past 36 years...It is a constant joy to know that I was there when you needed someone most...And it is reassuring to know that, should I experience the same need, you, too, will be there to help an old sinner believe he can still be a saint...So there, I've said it, and I can have some peace knowing that you know how I feel. Yet, after reading over what I've just written, I suspect that I have said more in the unwritten lines and the silent words..."

In February, 1974 Mom took Florence to the Mayo Clinic in Cleveland where she underwent surgery to relieve excruciating pain. It was successful, but soon thereafter she developed a brain embolism. Between then and the time she died in mid-March, Florence returned to surgery some ten more times, slipping in and out of a coma. She finally was released from her suffering, dying with Mom by her side on March 18.

Sometime later, Mom gave me a small crucifix medal which Florence had received during her Cursillo weekend. Mom said, "Florence gave this to me as a keepsake, but I know she'd want you to have it." I still do have it. On the back it reads: "Christ is counting on you."

Shortly after Florence's death, her children, Terry and Roberta ("Bobbie"), and other friends set up the Florence L. Saul Nursing Scholarship Fund, to be administered by Dettmer Hospital, Troy, OH, where Florence had worked. The scholarship was to aid future nursing students needing financial assistance. In September, 1975 the first grant of $500 was awarded to Mrs. Sandra (Clevenger) Yahle, of West Milton, OH. To my knowledge, the scholarship is still in existence, helping equip other nurses to help others.

And Aunt Fuzzy, I'm sure, is sitting, probably in the Holy Spirit's lap, taking it all in!

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