For seven years I was a visiting teacher to Beth, a widow in her eighties with dyed red hair, loud clothing, and an equally flamboyant character. This independent, talented lady lived in a home filled to the ceilings with knickknacks. She blamed her more-than-twenty-year inactivity in the Church to diabetes and glaucoma, but she seemed to get to all of her social activities just fine by driving her little pink car at top speed.
For several years, we had a nice but superficial relationship. I visited her faithfully each month, sent her cards for various holidays, took young people Christmas caroling at her home, gave her gift subscriptions to Church magazines, and continually asked if there was anything I could do to help her. We talked about the weather, my children, her neighbors, and her granddaughter. Although I learned much from our conversations, our relationship never reached a level of genuine love and caring.
Finally, on one of my visits, I decided to ask some meaningful questions. I took a deep breath and asked Beth why she didn’t come to church. She told me she was inactive because she had taken offense at a comment made many years ago. “I know that’s a bitter way to feel,” she said, “but I’m too old to do anything about it.”
We had a very lively conversation. I told her that she was only cheating herself from fulfillment and happiness. We talked a long time about her feelings, and for the first time I felt the beginning of a close friendship.
A short while later, during a horrendous heat wave, I was walking with my children in Beth’s neighborhood when I received a strong impression to stop and see if she was all right. The thought would not leave me, so I rerouted the children in the direction of Beth’s house.
The heat from Beth’s closed-up home engulfed me as I opened her front door. There, in the middle of the oven-like room, stood my friend, bent over a walker in obvious pain, hair plastered to her head by perspiration. What a scene!
I helped Beth to a chair and got her a cool drink. The pain in her lower back couldn’t be relieved, but I could do something about the heat. I aired out the house and brought a fan to relieve some of her discomfort. Then I asked my standard question: “Is there anything else I can do to help?” Beth gave me her standard reply: “Oh, no, I’m fine.” Finally I got it into my head—you don’t ask; you tell and then do.
The next morning, I called Beth. “May I come over and make breakfast for you?” She replied, “Oh, Janice, I wish you would!” When I arrived, she was sitting in a straight chair in her kitchen, in intense pain. I filled an ice bag and placed it behind her back, along with some pillows. After she ate her breakfast, I washed the dishes, and then we sat and talked. All of a sudden I could see my own grandmother, weak and ill in a faraway state, being visited each day by her Relief Society president. Then, as I saw how the Relief Society program works, I wanted to repay that woman in love and kindness toward Beth.
I arranged my schedule so that I could fix Beth’s breakfast every morning. Afterwards, we would talk, and then she would cry—something I had never seen her do before. At this point this woman I had visited so casually for so many years said through her tears, “I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’re my best friend, and I’ll never forget you.” We had really come to mean something to each other. She then told me that when she felt better she would like to forget her past hurt feelings and return to Church activity.
As Beth’s condition deteriorated and she could no longer get out of bed, other sisters came and helped. I could not stay away from my newfound friend, and I continued to help and to keep Beth company.
Finally, the time came for Beth to go to the hospital. She asked me to help her get ready and to wait with her until the ambulance came.
She told me what to pack in her suitcase. I bathed her, changed her clothing, and combed her hair, and then we talked. There were no barriers between us; age, health, and Church activity were set aside.
She told me she would never leave the hospital. I didn’t feel the need for phony clichés. Instead, I gently asked Beth, “If it is the end of your life, Beth—are you ready to go?” She responded, just as calmly, “Oh, yes, I’m ready to go. I’ve been so lonesome too long. Twenty-one years I have been alone. You don’t know what it’s like to be so lonesome.”
So there it was. Beth, the independent, feisty sister, had been lonesome, even while I had been her visiting teacher. I wish I had done more for her over those seven years. I wish it hadn’t taken a crisis to penetrate our relationship and make us feel so close. But I’m glad that we finally did become sisters.
Beth moved to a hospital far away, in a city closer to her granddaughter. She passed away a couple of years later. I pray that I’ll always remember that I learned to love Beth by forgetting myself in her service. Because of my experience with Beth, I know more about how to be a real visiting teacher.