Effie Caldarola

It’s early on an Advent morning and I’ve just poured a second cup of coffee. I have my Scripture and I’m hoping to shift into listening mode.

The phone rings. It’s my mostly ignored landline, but it’s early for robocalls. I answer.

The voice is sweet and familiar. As a parish volunteer, I was given the name of someone who lives institutionally in town and likes to make new friends. I visit this friend periodically, but on my own schedule.

But through our parish directory, my friend discovered my phone number and calls frequently. I try to discourage 10 p.m. calls but have never received one this early.

Nevertheless we have a nice chat, and when I hang up, I remind myself that was Jesus calling and I am grateful.

I am not boasting of my patience. I can be an irritable person. Just ask my husband.

But through experience, I have learned that I need that mantra. I need to remind myself: That was Jesus.

Years ago, we moved into a house in Anchorage, Alaska. I’d barely surveyed my lawn when I heard an unusual, disembodied voice calling to me. This is how I discovered that for the next over 20 years Jo would be my across-the-street neighbor.

Jo was mentally and physically challenged, and lived with her brother-in-law and sister, a teenage niece and nephew, and her aging mother. The household was Jo’s entire life — no adult day care or special needs activities. The house’s four walls were the boundaries of her life.

Except from early spring until late fall when her domain extended to whomever she encountered from her lawn chair in front of the house.

From that perch, she would waylay passersby and neighbors. She was desperate for company. She did her best to become friends with the mailman, and to his credit, the guy gave her a Christmas present.

Jo attempted conversation with everyone — an unsuspecting jogger might be flagged down for a chat. Strangers were puzzled, neighbors practiced avoidance.

My kids loved to visit with her until they grew older, surpassed her intellectual abilities and expanded their own domain.

Then there was me. Jo’s bad feet prohibited her from crossing the street, but if I appeared, bringing groceries home, checking the flower beds, she immediately called out to me to come over.

We couldn’t settle for a neighborly wave. It was always a need for companionship. Always. I tried to be friendly and loving, but my patience frayed.

I’m embarrassed to say one day I drove into my garage in such a hurry to escape a conversation that I closed the garage door from the car too soon and bumped the roof of my car. When my husband saw the mark when he came home, he said, “You were trying to get away from Jo, weren’t you?”

Busted. It was then I started to practice my mantra. I acknowledged that I needed boundaries, but I also knew Jo needed a friend. “This is Jesus calling me,” I would repeat to myself as I mustered a smile and crossed the street.

When Jo suffered her final illness, I went to see her at the nursing home. She’d had surgery, but the doctors were puzzled by her decline. I brought her a brightly frosted Valentine cookie, but she was refusing to eat. I think she chose to give up.

Life is tough. They say we never really know the private suffering of others. Some crosses are visual, many hidden. It helps to remind myself that Jesus is present in challenging and everyday encounters.