Yesterday, I found out to my shock that a good friend of mine had passed away several days ago. Although she and I had not spoken in many years, I had always been under the impression that she was one of those people who was extremely robust in their health. Alas, God’s ways are not our ways and Shirley has left us for eternity. In light of all this, I would like to post some reflections and memories that I have of this charming woman.
Shirley was born in Omak, Washington, a small located several hours away from Spokane. She grew up on a farm. Her father was a country doctor. He made frequent visits to the Indians who lived on the reservation. She spent the earliest years of her childhood here and then went on to complete her studies at Washington State University where she completed her bachelor’s degree in 1956. She continued her education at the University of Washington and joined the faculty of Fresno State College (now Fresno State University) in 1963 and returned to Spokane in 1970, where she would spend the next twenty nine years at the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education (ICNE) until her retirement in 1999.
These facts, however, are only the bare bones. As so many of us know, a person is much more complex than his or her career, the places where they have lived, and the years in which they accomplished various things. Rather, there is always something more that cannot be captured in an obituary. An essence that defies our ability to describe it no matter how hard we try.
If there was one thing that distinguished Shirley from the numerous others that I have known, it would have to be her smile. Her smile was the most contagious thing on the face of the earth. More than anything else, it showed the rest of the world how happy she was even when she wasn’t happy.
Yet this joy was always tempered with a mind that was constantly questioning. As a member of a study group at my old Orthodox parish, Shirley was one of the stalwarts for many years. As the book was read to us by Father, she always had a pencil in her hand with which she would mark the passages of the book that were most interesting to her. Not only that, but she would be willing to ask questions, even thorny ones. Like all good students, she knew how to keep Father and the rest of the members on their toes, but she was always able to do so with grace, kindness, and goodness.
I believe that Shirley’s questioning was something that helped her to embrace the Orthodox faith as wholeheartedly as she did. The reason for this has to do with her background. She told us many times that she was raised in a family where religion was a rather divisive. As a little girl, her Catholic grandmother would take to the local mission church where they would light votive candles in front of statues of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother. As she grew up, she was drawn towards Anglicanism and she remained there until her parish converted en masse to Orthodoxy in 1993.
In the years that I knew Shirley, she was constantly reading all kinds of books. She often told me that the “to read” pile next to her bed grew every couple of days. As far as I know, she devoured every theological and hagiographical book that has ever been printed. Yet I also know that she had a great love for those authors whose works were not strictly religious including C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Books, however, were not her only hobby. She used to crotchet and knit during the study group as well. She made many beautiful quilts and blankets. There were many times when she and Popadea (Father’s wife) would share ideas on cloths and patterns. She put her heart into her crafts and into the beautiful garden that she would frequently talk about. I sense that it was the same with the numerous students that passed through her classes.
Although I did not know Shirley well, I understood that her life was not a bed of roses. She had her own struggles with her ageing mother and often expressed her anxiety about what the future held. However, these worries did not impede her joy rather they made it that much more vibrant.
One of the most interesting things about Shirley is that she taught Sr. Mary Francisca, one of the nuns who was responsible for my conversion to Catholicism. Looking back now, I can see certain parallels between the two of them: they were teachers, they were women of extremely strong conviction, they deeply loved their faith, and they were also women whose joy no one could take away. I suppose that it was that last quality which drew me towards both of them and that I sought this precise quality because I knew that it was a gift which the world could not give.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.