She’s so young to be in here!” That was my first thought on meeting Gloria. At forty-eight, this Mexican-American woman had recently been admitted to the nursing home I was visiting with my Legion of Mary group.
Though I liked her right off, I had no idea that our friendship would evolve into one of God’s greatest gifts to me.
Gloria had AIDS, I discovered. She had contracted it from her husband and was an innocent victim of this disease, as so many people are. My heart went out to her when she told me that her husband had committed suicide not long after she entered the home.
Early one morning after my first visit, a nurse from the home called with a request. Gloria wondered if I could see her that afternoon, after her doctor’s appointment.
I arrived to find her lying on a couch in the hall outside her room. Tears ran down her face as she reached out for me. “I’m dying,” she said. “The doctor told me I’m at the end stage. I want to go home to my mother.” Home was Kansas. Gloria had no family in Washington state and had only come because her husband was looking for work.
She was hooked up to an IV and had numerous episodes of vomiting while I was there with her. “Did you know I’m dying?” she asked everyone who walked by. I held her in my arms and tried to comfort her. All the while, I was thinking of my own sweet mother, who had died just the year before. The bond between us grew—Gloria wanting her mother and me missing mine.
When it came time to leave, she clung to me, crying and asking me to return. I suggested that we pray the Novena to the Holy Spirit and said I’d come on the next nine days so we could do it together.
Day Eight. Gloria was in bed and very sick the next day, still on the IV and vomiting. She was too weak to pray out loud, so I sat at her bedside and said the novena prayers and rosary for both of us. Our request was for her to get well enough to travel home.
We presented this intention to the Lord for the next week. I have to admit, though, that I really didn’t think Gloria would live to finish the novena—she was in such bad shape. Then on the eighth day, something happened. I was saying the prayers and looking down at my rosary, when a sudden chill went up my arm and jarred me to a realization: Gloria had been praying along with me, without missing a beat!
“Do you realize that you just prayed the whole thing?” I asked her afterwards.
“You sure did. I think you’re gonna make it!”
Gloria laughed for joy and suggested a walk in the hall. I helped her up, and into the hall we went, thanking and praising God. When I said I was going to thank our Lord and our Blessed Mother again in my night prayers, she became very serious. “Ruth, will you ask God if I can live two more years?” I laughed at her implication that I had a direct line to Almighty God but said I’d see what I could do.
Hanging Out with Jesus.
I continued to visit Gloria several times a week. We would say our rosary and several litanies, and sometimes I read from the Bible. We enjoyed praying together—and, as we discovered, Gloria’s Protestant roommate enjoyed listening. So we became a threesome with “Grandma,” as we called her. We prayed and laughed together and even shared girl talk.
Meanwhile, Gloria got stronger. I found someone to fix her a Mexican meal every so often, and she loved that. I took her to Mass at my parish and introduced her around. Being a people person, she loved that too. We went shopping, out to dinner, and even to the local casino. I wanted her to see laughter, bright lights—life!
Occasionally, I thought about Jesus’ words, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). I remembered how Mother Teresa said she saw the face of Jesus in everyone she helped. Then one day, after a humorous incident that sent Gloria and me into a fit of giggles, another thought came to me: “If this is what Jesus meant when he told us about serving the least of our brothers and sisters, and if this is what Mother Teresa meant when she talked about caring for the needy—then I want everybody to know that it’s fun hanging out with Jesus!”
Despite some setbacks, Gloria continued to make progress. She stopped vomiting and learned how to do her own IV medications. She gained weight. One day I brought her over to my house and we dyed each other’s hair—we were both tired of the gray. She helped the Legion of Mary to start a prayer and Communion service at the home. Gloria transformed into a beautiful, happy, and loving woman who was living, not dying.
While waiting for the bus to the nursing home one day, I looked down and saw a bright, shiny penny on the ground … then another … and another. Strange, I thought, picking them up. Maybe it means something.
I gave Gloria and Grandma each a penny when I got to the home and suggested that we keep them in a special place: “They’ll always remind us that we’re together in the Lord, no matter what.” We were all looking through our purses to find special compartments for our coins, when I noticed the big grin on Gloria’s face.
“Do you think I’m nuts?” I asked her.
“No, you’re just Ruth.”
We all laughed with merriment. Then Gloria got serious and said to me, “When I die, I’ll have my mother put this penny in an envelope and send it back to you. That way, you’ll know that I’m gone.” I told her I hoped it would be many years before her penny came back.
Gloria flew home to Kansas on September 13, 2005, and I’m glad to say I have not yet received that penny. In fact, as I write this, she and her mother are planting spring flowers. Though she has had some difficult periods and has even come close to death, Gloria is now well into the second year that she wanted me to ask the Lord for. In November, she will reach her goal of turning fifty. Maybe God will give her a bonus!
I still miss Gloria very much. I hadn’t realized that sometimes, when God answers our prayers, it might hurt a little. But whenever we pray and talk and laugh over the phone, it does me good. Hearing her laughter, I feel not just closer to her but closer to God, by whose grace we formed our bond of friendship.
I love Gloria, and I love my Lord for giving me this wonderful experience. May everyone who reads this discover such a treasure!
Ruth Wilson is a retired nurse and mother of four. Since this article appeared, in the September 2006 issue of The Word Among Us, Gloria passed away. Ruth sent in this update:
Gloria got the two years that she and I asked God for—two years plus one month. And the penny came back to me in a letter, just like she said it would.
As long as she could, Gloria continued the public speaking she had begun doing after her diagnosis, going to universities, prisons, and other settings to give talks about living with AIDS. She did this out of love for Jesus, who said to “love one another as I have loved you.” She gave others hope with her message that AIDS is not to be feared if you face it with the Lord at your side. And she remained devoted to prayer and to the rosary right to the end.
Of course, Gloria was very ill—in and out of the hospital. But even in her last days, her loving and tender heart was open to others. One day while she was hospitalized, Gloria heard a commotion out in the hall. An elderly Spanish-speaking woman needed surgery, but her family and the nursing staff were having trouble explaining this in a way the woman could understand and accept. Gloria wandered out of her room, joined the discussion (she was fluent in Spanish), and had everyone calm and agreeable in no time. That’s the kind of person she was.
On October 26, 2007, after seventeen years of living with AIDS, Gloria died in her mother’s arms and with her brother at her side. I was able to fly to Kansas and participate in her funeral Mass. Her family and community welcomed me, as I eulogized my friend and spoke about her life. At her request, the priest read our story, “Gloria and Me,” at the funeral. That was a special joy for me.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already almost five years since Gloria passed away. Sometimes I think I hear her laughter, and I feel that she is near. I know that Gloria lives on in the Lord, and I can only rejoice that her story continues to reach hearts.