by Erin Dalpini
Bent over a copy of Guideposts, Joe read slowly and carefully while Eleanor, sitting upright in her bed, listened thoughtfully. This scene was a familiar one, part of Eleanor’s daily routine of rising early, followed by Folgers coffee and quiet time with the Lord. Joe knew that when he was finished, Eleanor would ask him questions—to see if he was paying attention and to ascertain how the reading made him feel. They would share their thoughts with one another, often trading stories about their families. It was in those conversations that their friendship developed, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, Joe came to know God more fully and deeply.
Mrs. Eleanor Mueller
My great-grandmother, Eleanor Mueller, was 99 years old when Joe began caring for her at Lutheran Hillside Village in Peoria, Ill. The widow of a pastor, mother of three, and grandmother of many, Eleanor had lived a rich and faithful life. At 99, she still had the same bright eyes, brilliant smile, sharp wit, and no-nonsense attitude she possessed in her earlier years. She was devastated when my great-grandfather passed away at the age of 97 in 2002, and in the days following his death, Eleanor often said how much she wished God would take her home to be with Alvin in heaven.
Yet, God often surprises us with His plans, and as it turned out, Eleanor had more to do in this world before her time would come to be called home.
When Joe Newcomb met Eleanor in March 2006, he was a new employee at the assisted-living center. He had taken the position shortly after his mother’s death. It was a difficult time for Joe, and caring for Eleanor was no easy task—she always wanted everything just so. In the beginning, Joe wasn’t sure what Eleanor thought of him. Looking back, Joe says, “[Our story] reminds me a little bit of Driving Miss Daisy. [Eleanor] thought I didn’t like her because I used to call her ‘Sunshine.’ She straightened that out right away. . . . I felt a little bit like she didn’t like me. I was totally new at this.”
Eleanor confided to her daughter, Alice, that she felt uncomfortable with the idea of having a male caretaker, but Alice encouraged her to keep an open mind. Yet it took Eleanor some time to warm up to Joe.
And so time passed. As it did, Joe grew accustomed to Eleanor’s routine, and she began to trust him. Once they began reading and talking with one another, the tension between them slowly dissolved. Eleanor opened up to Joe about her past: She talked about her love for her parents, siblings, husband, and daughters, and Joe listened intently. In the same way, Joe told Eleanor about his mother’s life and the impact of her death, and Eleanor offered support and guidance. Today, Joe says that Eleanor is the one who helped him in his grieving stage.
As they spent more time together, Eleanor began to talk with Joe about her faith. “She knew he didn’t go to church, and that really bothered her,” says Alice. Although Joe believed in God, he did not attend services, and he was wary of returning to the church. Concerned for Joe’s spiritual wellbeing, Eleanor often told him, “You need a church family.” Sometimes Joe would agree, but he did not act on her advice. Eleanor confided in Alice that she felt discouraged at Joe’s reluctance, but Alice would remind her, “Mom, you gotta let the Holy Spirit work.”
Photo courtesy of author
Advent came and went. Early on Christmas Eve, Joe asked Eleanor what her plans were for Christmas Day, expecting to hear about a family celebration. Instead, Eleanor informed him she planned to stay in her room. Joe looked at her in disbelief: He knew how much Eleanor’s family meant to her, and he urged her to reconsider. It was no use; she did not want to go, and it seemed to Joe that there was nothing he could say to change her mind. Except . . .
There was one thing Joe knew might make a difference, but he would have to overcome his own reluctance.
“Eleanor,” Joe said, “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll go to church tonight if you go to your daughter’s house on Christmas Day.” Eleanor sat still for a moment, reveling in what Joe had just agreed to. Sure enough, she accepted his deal.
That evening, Joe attended Trinity Lutheran Church in Peoria, Ill., for the first time. Joe felt ineffable warmth in the room that night—a feeling he’d never experienced before. “I knew this was where I was supposed to be,” he says. On Christmas Day Eleanor held up her end of the deal. She joined her family for their holiday gathering.
Over the next year, Eleanor’s health deteriorated, and she increasingly relied on Joe for support. He was there for her when she was having a “down day,” and she was there for him when he was grieving. They continued to read and share and connect, even while Eleanor’s condition declined. As her family members visited, it seemed she was saying good-bye to some of them for the last time.
Soon it was Christmas Eve again. When Joe asked Eleanor what her plans were for the evening, she remarked that she would be staying in her room. Joe knew Eleanor was feeling weak, but he felt she needed to spend one last Christmas praising God in the environment she loved. This time, Joe was the persistent one, and he urged Eleanor to attend the service: “Don’t you think it’s time for you to say good-bye to the church?” he asked.
“You know, I think I can do that,” Eleanor replied.
That Christmas Eve, Joe again worshiped at Trinity, this time alongside Eleanor. She was radiant as she sat in church, dressed in a crimson-colored jacket that once belonged to Joe’s mother. Later, as Joe readied Eleanor for bed, he noticed that she seemed completely at peace. Three days later she went home to her Father in heaven. She was 101 years old.
It is always bittersweet when a loved one who has lived a long and faithful life passes away. Our family was happy that my great-grandmother had joined great-grandpa in heaven, but we will always miss her gentle heart and strong faith that continued to shine until death.
While she was alive on earth, Eleanor did not see Joe become a member of Trinity (as she had hoped), but Joe says that after that Christmas, he knew he needed to become a member for his life to be complete. A few months after Eleanor’s funeral, Joe attended the new-member information class at Trinity. Later that year he was baptized and confirmed. Today, he
serves as an usher.
Looking back, Joe says his relationship with Eleanor had a lasting impact on his life—her friendship and guidance was an unexpected gift from God. “There was a reason we got put together,” he says. “When I was with Eleanor, . . . she helped me grow in my faith, and she led me to where I am today.”
It’s easy to forget how powerful it is to simply invite others in our immediate circle to partake in the simple act of devotion or worship. Perhaps it is because we worry about rejection, or we are afraid of stepping outside our comfort zone, or maybe appearing too evangelistic. Maybe it’s because an invitation implies a commitment to hold up “our end of the deal,” following through by answering questions and making our friend feel comfortable.
But the truth is this: Oftentimes, we make sharing the Good News harder than it needs to be. It’s a simple conversation, “full of grace” (Col 4:6 NIV), that can plant a seed; or a simple prayer for the help of the Holy Spirit; or perhaps an invitation, a special deal, that can invite growth. If we, like Eleanor, simply “go . . . and tell them how much the Lord has done for [us]” (Mark 5:19), through the Holy Spirit, wonderful, everyday miracles can happen.
About the Author: A 2008 graduate of valparaiso University, Erin Dalpini is a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Batavia, Ill. She works as an editorial assistant at fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.