Monday, May 16, 2011

Lessons From the Lady in the Laundry Room

The apple blossoms have disintegrated and only dark green leaves remain on each of the tree's branches. While driving to work this morning I reflected upon the lessons I learned from my dear friend, Ellen. It has not yet been a full week from her passing, but I thought it worth posting.

1. Know who you are. Ellen made no bones about telling everyone,"I'm not a cancer patient. I'm a child of God. I don't let this run my life." It is because of this tough as nails attitude that she survived so long. Her doctor told her that if anyone else had the type of cancer she had, they would have been dead a long time ago.

2. Love yourself and others. Ellen always used to say, "I love Ellen." She was always kind to herself and others. Eating right and exercising were a way of life for her. She was good to herself. For others, one of the last things I did with her was to bring some goodies and cheer to an old friend that was ill. She loved it and so did the person we visited. Upon returning home, Ellen took care of herself. She rested.

3. Be honest. Ellen never held anything back. She was very transparent with me and God. "The hair, Lord. Please, can you do something about the hair? I just want my hair for the play," she pleaded. Losing her hair from chemotherapy was traumatic as well as having others have to help her get dressed in the morning. She hated it and never tried to hide it. Her brutal honesty only speaks of the depth of her personal relationship with Jesus.

4. Enjoy the free entertainment. Ellen often told stories about the people in her neighborhood and others she knew. Some of the stories were hilarious. One man, she enjoyed seeing mow the lawn in his bare feet while he was drunk and singing. She'd say, "That's way I stay here. It's the entertainment."

5.Keep busy. Up until her last full day at home in her apartment Ellen was knitting sweaters for kids in the Ukraine. Even though she was not able to make it to church to play the piano, she could knit and so she did. In addition, she kept a stack of puzzle books and devotionals on the nearby end table to read. She had no tolerance or time for self pity.

6. Ask for help. Ellen loved being independent, but she wasn't afraid to ask for help. The Saturday before her death she had difficulty getting out of her blue recliner to get to the bathroom in time. She pressed the button for the Life Alert and paramedics came. Afterwards, she called her physical therapist right away to see if he could work with her at home, showing her how to get up the right way. "If I need help, I get it," she explained.

7.Praise God. Ellen was a pianist. She loved to play, but more importantly she loved to worship God. She informed me that she picked out 10 hymns to be sung at her funeral. It was going to be a sing-a-long. With tears in her eyes and a slightly cracked voice she said," That's the way I want to die-with my hands praising Jesus." Ellen simply loved to praise Him.

8.Don't settle. Although, Ellen never married she was engaged 3 times. Yes, you read that right. One man in particular made dinner arrangements with her and then stood her up. He chose to have dinner with his mom instead. When Ellen asked him if he ever thought to tell his mother he had plans with her, he replied, "No." Ellen had prepared a lovely meal with stuffed peppers. Her friend expected to be able to come the next evening. Ellen told him no. She would be having the rest for left overs. She was not about to settle for a man still joined at the hip.

9.Look and listen. While driving south on route 9, Ellen noticed a crew of men working alongside the road doing landscaping. While pedaling on the bike at the gym, she began to think of what she could do to thank them for brightening up our community with new plants and flowers. She heard the soft whisper of the Holy Spirit say, "Donuts, Ellen. Men like donuts." After finishing her workout, she was off to Dunkin' Donuts for a box of Joe and a dozen donuts. She delivered them and gave them all a standing ovation thanking them for their service. The mens' eyes began to fill with tears. Ellen was open and took the time to say, "Thank you." We'll never know the full effect of her kindness that day, but I know people were changed because of it.

10. Make new friends. Ellen was quite the social butterfly and loved it. She would talk to anybody which is how I met her. One Saturday in the laundry room, I entered to see the lady with the cute little hat, no eyebrows and thin wisps of white hair poking out from the bottom, greet me. She was waiting for her wash to finish while doing a crossword puzzle. She began venting about her annoyance at having to go through chemotherapy. She was a woman on a mission; a mission to seize the day and make the world a whole lot nicer in the process. Our friendship only grew from there.

The apartment complex I had been living in for the past 7 or 8 years suddenly became a lot more homey. I had a new friend with whom I could talk with over lunch or the laundry. There was a new friend in my own complex to pray with. I had a living witness and testimony sharing her life lessons, laughter and heartache. I had great treasure cloaked in the simplicity of an older woman wearing plaid shirts, long cotton trousers, and white sneakers from the A building's laundry room.

I had Ellen Marie Barrett, a woman I deeply admire and now strive to emulate.

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