I have a girlfriend. Her name is Sue.
We have been thing about two years. As is the way with old men and their girl-friends, she’s younger than I am. We met when my wife and I we’re on holiday in Puerto Rico. As attractions often do, this one began slowly and grew.
I am a sucker for a New York accent. Sue has one. It’s as thick and chewy as a bagel and her accent is accompanied by a deep resonant voice that communicates no-nonsense. This is someone who commands your attention. For me, listening to another native New Yorker trying to speak real English, feels like I’m home again.
When I first met Sue, I was a prodigious walker. So was Sue and we walked together three times a week in the morning. She had been widowed about two years before and had cared for her husband through a long and difficult illness. They both had lived in Puerto Rico many years. She knew the island well. On our walks, I’d hear stories about the island, how it changed and about her adventures as a year-round resident.
Sue is Jewish. As I’m a Christian clergyman, this became the occasion for light hearted bantering about sectarian religion’s stereotypes and prejudices. Was I one of those mashugana goys that Jews find suspect? Was Sue a real Jewish mother, inspiring guilt in her maternal ministrations? We’d banter.
Soon the women who gather regularly mornings to swim at our community pool began to wonder whether Sue had a boyfriend. As the rumors were beginning to surface we decided to play along with them. Sue might even say to people in the pool that I was her boyfriend.
So, our relationship was no secret in the small community where we vacationed. Sue was among the women who exercised at the pool as my wife did. In the pool, when I’d occasionally walk by, I might hear her deep resonant voice brazenly referring to me as her as her ‘boyfriend.’ My wife, looking appropriately scandalized, would play along with the charade. Strictly speaking, I would have to say, Sue was our girlfriend; in fact, she was loved by many.
The community where we stay is mostly elderly, retirees. Some people who come here suffer a variety of physical diminishments. I learned that in this seasonal community of the elderly, she had endeared herself to many people who turned to her in need, sometimes in crisis. Sue is remarkably resourceful.
On a walk one day we met someone she knew. The woman had clearly suffered several diminishments. Sue had been instrumental in getting the woman desperately needed medical help. It became evident as I listened to both of them talk, that Sue was –– to use my word –– a godmother to many of the people in the small community where we stayed. It was touching to learn this. As we walked on, I commented causally that with all her tough guy facade, “You’re really a saint,” She blew me off, saying, “Hey, I’m Jewish, remember.” “So was Jesus,” I retorted. “Whatever,” she said dismissively is if I were mindless.
A small incident occurred. It involved Sue. For me, it was a moment of clarity, one of those fleeting moments in which something is said, casually, and it illuminates a latent thought that hovers in the shadows of my mind but never quite gets articulated. The thought involved hungers of the heart, kindness and generosity specifically, and how without them our souls languish.
When packing to come to Puerto Rico I had foolishly miscounted the pain medications I take for my back. The medication was a common one so that under normal circumstances there’d be no complications in getting the meds. However, here in Puerto Rico, if you don’t know how to work systems you can easily get lost in them. Transactions between doctors in the states and pharmacies here can get tangled. I only had a few day’s-worth of meds left and I was anxious. I would be in pain without them. How I might get to get the prescription filled for the medication without a long and complicated wait.
I mentioned my concern to Sue. She said curtly, “No problem.” In her years in Puerto Rico, Sue came to know a regional physician and how the medical network works. She was sure having worked with the physician before that she could arrange to have the prescription filled. She asked me to send her particulars. She texted me a few hours later instructing me where I could pick the prescription up. I felt enormously relieved and profoundly grateful for the fact that she was able to negotiate the prescription. I saw her shortly after that and told her how very grateful I was for her efforts. She looked at me impassively and said simply: “That’s why I’m here.”
My wife and I have gotten to know Sue better over the years and have learned more about her. Her pithy statement, ‘That’s why I’m here’ accurately represents the way she understands her life; she lives intentionally. Doing for others is her purpose. She has touched many. In short, I believe in those few words, Sue articulated the shape of her soul and a universal truth: this is why we are all here, to do for others. It’s heartwarming when I see the essence of our collective reason for being realized right in front of me.
I suppose some might read this and think: that dirty old man –– and a clergyman at that –– writing a paean about his girlfriend whom he flaunts under his wife’s nose (his wife edits this essay, after all), a girl friend who is not only a younger woman, but one who even gets him drugs.
But wait, it’s not what you think.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.