Faithful Departed: Elizabeth Bonwich
The word sounds ominous enough when it’s spoken in reference to an older person, but when it’s used to describe the dying months of a 37-year-old woman, it is dreadful to my ears.
One of my all-time favorite people, Elizabeth Bonwich — or “EEEEEEEEEEEEE BEEEEEEEEEE” as I would call her in my best “public address announcer” voice whenever I greeted her — spent her last few months in hospice. She died on Saturday Dec. 18th in the late evening. Elizabeth had five different kinds of cancer for nearly 20 years. Cancer robbed her of her ability to walk without a brace and a cane, caused a constant ringing in her ears and, in general, gave her lots of reasons to be angry at these injustices.
I would often remark to her, “EB, aren’t there things in this world that we should be angry at? Like the fact that people go to bed without food or homes, or that evil people often get rewarded for bad behavior, or that people have horrible diseases?”
Elizabeth would agree but would also challenge me: “Being angry doesn’t help. But using anger to motivate you to action, that’s another matter entirely.” Elizabeth’s anger never defeated her; she always moved into a more self-reflective place, finding God in the peace of simple pleasures, acting on stage, working for justice and simply laughing with good friends over a meal.
When we did retreats at Busted Halo, EB was one of our retreat leaders. She found solace in sharing her story of finding some peace in the midst of tragedy and of trying to find God in the “dry places of prayer,” as she would call them. I invited her to write for Busted Halo from time to time. My favorite reflection of hers detailed a crisp winter romp — a quick go on a tire swing in a schoolyard playground.
This was the most peace I’ve had in a while. My anxiety began after Thanksgiving and is only now beginning to simmer down. I decided against any vestiges of Christmas this year in my home, feeling overwhelmed by performances and obligations. My walks in the local park had gone by the wayside as well. I used to count on these for times of spiritual revitalization, but haven’t been able to seek them out recently because of a physical disability which leaves me with little energy for long walks in the park. I’ve been telling myself that God is still there and I just can’t see it. But somehow that hasn’t been enough.
Having gained confidence in my swing, I unhinged the brace, bent my knee and snuggled down into the circle of the tire. Looking out west over the expanse of the Hudson River and the brown cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades, I wondered what I must look like–a 30-year-old woman in a long brown coat, swinging in an empty children’s playground, crutches given up on the ground.
I thought about God and the stillness in which God assures us God is present. As I floated in that tire swing I realized that in this stillness and in this reverie, I was letting the Spirit do its work. I realized that the sloth of the spirit may be the action of daily life. The more activities that I pack into my daily life, the more lazy I become in my spiritual life. The more I feel that I have to do, the less I listen for what God wants me to do. But when I listen to the little clues about what step is next to take; my life, my world, and my spirit seem like a better place.
When I last spoke with EB, we talked about her work with the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped in Belfast, Maine, founded by Jesuit Brother Rick Curry. (Note: not for, but of.) My wife and I attended two shows; Elizabeth’s smile grew a bit wider after those shows — giving her a little strength for she was frustrated with her limitations.
Her broken body that was often enough to carry her to the Catholic Worker to serve the poor, to retreats to inspire her peers, to the stage to shine in the limelight and to my own heart where she will always hold a special place as a very dear friend and colleague.
Thank you for blessing me with the times we shared, my friend. And since we always left each other laughing, I hope that the church considers naming St. EEEEEEEEE BEEEEEEE the patron of eternal silliness one day.
Click here for an archive of the articles Elizabeth wrote for Busted Halo.