Catholic Voices - Spes

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“Jerry the Wolf” would be delighted to know he’s being remembered in print. His given name was Jerome Wolf, and he’d been an inveterate playboy, so the moniker he’d given himself was fitting.

Ours was an unlikely friendship. Jerry was an aged nursing home resident and I was a young wife and mother intent on pursuing a master’s in social work from Portland State University. They would not consider my application because my alma mater, Evergreen State College, didn’t use letter grades. So to fortify my case for acceptance in their program, I collected letters of recommendation. I also volunteered as assistant to the social services director at a local hospital and visited local nursing homes to gain experience.

Michele Maitland

It was at Whispering Pines Care Center that I met Jerry, who laughingly referred to his shabby domicile as “Whimpering Pines.” Over the next couple of years, Jerry entertained me with tales of his life and exploits.

As a young man, he’d become independently wealthy from his father’s invention of the addressograph-electrograph, an automated typeface machine that replaced the laborious process of hand-addressing missives. He was disqualified from military service because of a minor health issue, and since there was no need to earn spending money, he willingly settled into the life of a playboy, taking up residence at a tony men’s club in Portland. He filled his time with leisure pursuits, sports and chasing women, most of whom he caught. He loved to dance and often visited a now-eroded spit near Rockaway Beach, which at that time was home to an exclusive resort and dance hall, accessible only by boat from the port at Astoria.

Until I showed up at “Whimpering Pines,” Jerry’s only visitor had been the droopy-eyed resident cocker spaniel, who seemed as resigned as all the other tenants that this was his final home. Jerry appreciated my company at least as much as the dog’s, and his eyes twinkled as he regaled me with his stories. It was difficult to meet those crusted and gelatinous eyes, ravaged by cataracts and hideous to behold. He’d been a dandy in his day, but now he wore a faded red plaid robe to warm his shrinking bones, and woolly slippers on the pale waxen feet that had danced their way through the Great Depression.

Over time, I realized that in spite of his bonhomie, Jerry knew that I knew he was tired of living and scared of dying. He confided one day that he’d lived a self-indulgent life and felt that he’d squandered it. He feared, he said, that if there were a god, he’d be lost. “Do you know the French word roué?” he asked. When I nodded yes, he said, “I’ll bet you don’t know the translation. It means ‘broken on a wheel,’ and refers to the instrument of torture thought to be deserved by such a person.”

I looked directly into his clouded eyes and asked, “Do you know the Latin word spes?” When he shook his head no, I said, “That’s the word St. Thomas More scratched into a beam in the Tower of London while awaiting execution for defending his faith; it means ‘hope.’”

Jerry pondered a moment and then smiled. “Well,” he said, “I guess if I’ve got a choice between despair and hope, I choose hope.” As I was leaving, he called after me: “Hey, what was that three-word prayer you taught me a while back?”

“My Jesus, mercy,” I said over my shoulder. I hadn’t known it was the last time I’d see him alive. But I trust that I’ll see him again. I choose hope, too.

Michele Maitland is a lay Carmelite and a member of Holy Redeemer Parish in Vancouver.

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Northwest Catholic - April 2018