By Larry Peterson
Lee and Shirley Mae had moved from Pittsburgh, PA., to Pinellas Park, FL, back in 1984. Lee, a World War II veteran who served in the South Pacific during the war, and Shirley Mae had met at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport years before. Lee, a widower, worked for United Airlines. Shirley, who had never been married, was a waitress at the airport restaurant. They fell in love and got married. A few years after Lee retired from United, they headed south, settling on the Florida west coast near St. Petersburg.
They purchased a two-bedroom home in a 55+ community called Mainlands of Tamarac. They immediately joined the local Catholic parish called Sacred Heart Church. It was perfect for the happy couple, and they quickly became involved in church ministry. They both volunteered as ushers, and Lee became an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. They also worked together every year during the annual Fall Festival, coordinating all the food court workers.
It was sometime in January of 2020 that Shirley began feeling “not right.” She was having a bit of trouble breathing, had a slight cough, and was experiencing fatigue. Lee and Shirley knew it was time to see the doctor, and they did. Doctors told her she had lung cancer.
Treatments with oral medications began in February. The pandemic resulted in a change of lifestyle, and Lee and Shirley adapted the best they could. They did not dare venture outside their home, and food and supplies were delivered and placed near the front door. Days turned to months, and Shirley’s health kept slipping downward.
Lee, who is a vibrant 96-year-old, could no longer care for his wife by himself. Sometime in early September, Hospice arrived on the scene. Towards the end of September, a hospital bed was placed in the family room. Shirley was no longer able to sit up or eat by herself. Hospice workers were now coming in several times a day.
Hospice wanted to move Shirley to the Hospice center. Lee was horrified at the prospect. He told the nurse in charge, “My wife and I promised each other we would never let any one take either of us to any kind of home. She must stay here with me. Please, please, do that for me?” Hospice, realizing Shirley’s time was not far away, agreed.
Lee and Shirley are devout Catholics who attended Mass every day. They are also neighbors and close friends of mine. .I became personally involved in helping them early in summer. My most important function was that of being a Minister of Holy Communion. Nothing was more important to them than my bringing Jesus in the Eucharist, especially on Sunday.
The end of September and the beginning of October seemed to blend together. It was about 5 P.M. on October 8th when my phone rang. Brenda, a close friend of Lee and Shirley’s, was calling to say that Shirley had passed a few minutes earlier. I had promised Lee that no matter what time of day or night it was, a priest would come to pray over Shirley when she passed. I immediately called the church.
The church has a phone menu, and if you press #8, you got the emergency line to the priest. I left a message, and I headed over to Lee’s house. Shirley was lying halfway on her side. Her head was bowed down a bit, and her eyes were half-open. She had a simple smile on her face. I was transfixed at how peacefully beautiful she appeared. I called the church again. Then I gathered those willing around Shirley’s bed, and we said a Chaplet of Divine Mercy for her.
Upon finishing the Chaplet, I called the church a third time. As I hung up the phone, it rang. It was Father Kevin, our pastor. He was out in Tampa at a convocation with priests and the bishop. Father Vijay, our other priest, was with him. They were was almost an hour away. The problem was the funeral home van was on the way to pick up Shirley. I was told they could not wait for the priest.
It is interesting how things can work out. Nothing was more important to Lee at that moment than the priest being there to pray over Shirley. Father Kevin said he could leave right away and, if traffic was light, he could make it in 45 minutes. I said, “Okay, father. Thanks, .”
Fifteen minutes later, the funeral van pulled up. Father Kevin was at least a half-hour away. One of the hospice nurses came over to me and told me that they had another stop to make and could not wait. It was time to get bold.
I walked over to the van driver and told him the situation. The guy told me he was sorry, but he could not wait for more than fifteen minutes. I told him very nicely that “the only way anyone gets near that woman before the priest does is over my dead body.” The guy smiled and said, “Okay, okay, I get it. I understand.”
Father Kevin arrived within the 45 minute time frame. We all gathered around, and calmness filled the room as Father prayed over Shirley and blessed her. Lee stood next to him, holding his wife’s lifeless hand, tears coming from his eyes. As Shirley was removed from the house, Lee stopped by the gurney and held her hand one last time. Sobbing softly, he bent down and kissed her goodbye. She was still smiling.
Her funeral is scheduled for October 31st, Halloween. Ironically, wearing masks will be appropriate.