"Hi, Granny! How are you?"
"Lousy. I'm feeling lousy."
At 91 years, my sole grandmother has health problems, sure. Despite a slowing body, she still manages to grab her walker and chug around the campus of her retirement community, greeting familiar faces with simple hellos; still flexes the arm strength to pin up her long silver hair before receiving company into her one bedroom apartment; still devotes her spare energy to running the community thrift store, where the unclaimed treasures of past residents are donated -- she does so with the prudence of one born during the Great Depression.
But she wasn't talking about her body now. Her spirit was feeling lousy from isolation.
I was calling to invite her to the Incarnation mid-day prayer. She may not have a computer, but the great blessing of Zoom is that you can tap in with as humble a device as a corded landline.
Unfortunately, I used the word "virtual" with her, and I think that prompted a touch of discouragement. As if the invitation was well-meaning but completely infeasible. A donor misinterpreting the needs of the donee because she didn't pause to listen. You're trying to solve my loneliness, but when it doesn't work, I will only have more reason to feel alone.
I gave her the instructions. Dial this number. Then input the meeting ID, followed by pound (#). Then it will ask for your name but just hit pound again.
"Those are a lot of instructions."
There was so much despondency in her words. I affirmed the concern. "Yeah, true. There are. A lot of numbers."
"Yes, a lot..." Then with a resigned sigh, "So. I have here, dial 13126266799. And I guess, well. I just have never dialed so many digits to make a call!"
Ok, it was a starting place. I explained how it started with the long-distance 1, followed by the 3-digit area code, followed by the other 7 digits. (This gave me a flashback. Granny taught me how to make long-distance calls when I was seven years old.)
When I broke down the phone number this way, we saw a wall come down. The foreign was made familiar. "Oh," she said simply. The instructions started clicking into place.
In another shot at making this invitation a little less foreign and more familiar, I shared that the prayer would follow the Daily Office from the BCP. (She's Episcopalian-ish.)
"I think this will be a challenge."
"Yes, it is. I think you can do it, but it will be a challenge."
I noted that I would call her right after prayer to see whether it worked for her. If it doesn't, don't worry. We'll try again later. Also if it's too big a challenge for today, that's fine. The prayer meeting is available for when you feel up for the challenge.
I emphasized that whatever happens, she has been on my mind. I will be here to help her figure this out if she wants it. It was a way of saying, If we can't overcome this challenge today, don't take it as a failure and give up. A lot of things are telling you to do so, but I resist them. I won't give up if you won't.
We hang up at 11:50a, ten minutes before prayer. I hunt for my BCP, cannot find it, forsake it for an online version, and log onto zoom at 11:53. I have enough time to urgently ask Liz, "Will my grandmother be automatically muted when she calls in, because she doesn't know how to use Zoom", and just barely enough time to get the "Yes!" reply before I see a phone number appear on the screen at 11:54. Granny's landline. She took less than five minutes to call in.
Liz unmutes Granny and we give an enthusiastic greeting! We are met only with gentle music on her end, and finally we mute her again. I hope she is able to hear us alright.
Prayer begins. I read portions of Psalm 40. Church-mates read collects and intercede as the Spirit leads them. Friends come to mind, and I make mental notes. It was fruitful.
Once prayer ends and chatting begins, the landline number disappears. I had told Granny that once chatting starts, she can hang up (else I think she would get disoriented from all the voices.)
I quickly call her and get the answering machine. I know to talk to the machine for a bit. If she's around, she'll hear me and pick it up mid-message, which is what happens.
(She explains that her lunch was just brought to the door, and that's why I went to voicemail. Since all the dining halls are closed, her three meals are brought to her door. The detail helps me understand a bit more. Granny is confined to a one-bedroom, with meals delivered. Surrounded by old sewing and knitting materials she no longer has the hand strength to enjoy. The rest of her things have been labeled for years with the names of grandchildren who will want it once she leaves this life.)
We chatted a bit. She asked questions about what she could not see: how many people were there? She told me she was on the prayer call for the whole meeting, except for one moment that she went to fetch her hearing aids (hence the moment of music with no reply.) She caught most of the prayers, except for a few people who she couldn't understand over the phone connection.
"I think this was... just what I needed today."
She then describes her loneliness, which looks so different from mine. Granny has no computer. She has no smartphone. She has never sent an email or scrolled or video chatted or favorited or texted. Right now, she is mourning because she never learned how when she had the chance.
"I was too busy volunteering that, ugh, I didn't want to spend the time learning. I dragged my feet, and look where I am now." She's angry for not learning how to use a computer decades ago, and blames it for her current isolation.
But at prayer today, that fist that she brought down on herself all morning (all weekend?) was stayed.
She was empowered. She was empowered to attend prayer with a small group of strangers and simply listen, receive. I was grateful for Weber's prayer about the exiled nation. I think it gave Granny words to use in her own mourning and hoping. I hope it gave her a sense of being known.
I loved meeting with her in this way, in a liturgy that is fairly new to me but so old and familiar to her. We've never done that before.
"And thank your rector for what she is doing here." For reaching those who feel utterly alone and unreached.