I remember the first time I met her. She had a Bostonian accent and she was loud and outspoken. I never saw her without a shopping cart heaped with her favorite things. She lived in a weekly motel with her daughter and granddaughter. And we did motel church at her motel every Sunday.
Dolores was a character. On Sunday mornings she would come down from the room with her cart of stuff to go to the motel church service. She would get a cup of coffee and a plate of breakfast and sit at a table to eat.
In those days it was my privilege to share a message every week. I tried to aim it toward hope and encouragement and the love of God for everyone. I was the pastor. I wanted these brothers and sisters of mine to understand that God wasn’t mad at them, that they weren’t being punished, and in fact that God loved them so much that He had even sent a suicide rescue mission just for them in the form of Jesus, His only son.
Dolores would always counter everything with something. She was colorful. She was brash. She was blunt. And I loved her. I loved her for her honesty and for sharing it with everyone else. It was the signal to everyone else that they had permission to be honest, to be real. Dolores was above all real.
I first realized who Dolores was as I was preparing for her memorial service that would be held in the parking lot motel church. I saw her pictures as a young girl. She was an innocent child, the product of a hard-working Boston family, a soon to be an out in the world, doing the best she could, young woman. Pretty in her own way, determined, a survivor. But it was in the picture of a young girl in a white dress holding a small confirmation book in her hand and a dream in her heart that I first recognized who she really was.
She never lost her qualities. Even in her late 60s when she was on the back side of health, battling heart disease, able only at rare times to come down from her room and go toe to toe with the pastor at her motel church, Dolores was a rare gem.
You could see past her abrupt personality to the occasional glimpses of the wistful, beautiful young girl she had once been. You could see the shadow of dreams once felt, of hopes long passed. But then the New Englander in her would come out and you’d hear her accented voice ask a question that cut straight from the dream to the truth. “What does God care?” It was pure Irish Catholic cynic, and it was painfully honest.
I suppose in many ways I treasured Dolores. To be fair, it was a Christian love, but in other ways it was the love of the idea that a pure and innocent promise and hope lives in every child. It was the love of the desire that God locks in every heart to aspire to be something and someone.
And then, Dolores lay in her bed in the hospital down the street from the motel in her last struggle with congenital heart disease, laboring for breath, gasping for life, fighting to stay in the present.
We went to see her, one by one, two by two, day after week. To cheer her and to love her. To pray for her. To touch past this rough exterior lady to the tender love that she had missed for the most of her life. To help her to feel some of the dreams that she had as a child.
And then she was gone.
At her memorial service we shared stories of her life, we talked about all that she meant to us, and we talked about the child. And we passed out a memorial card with a picture of the girl that had worn the confirmation dress and held the innocent gaze of the camera with openness and hope. The girl before life had taught her a cruel lesson.
The flowers and music and fine words were important in a way that most might not realize. They recognized not what Dolores did, but who she was. And in those few moments the real Dolores was shared; the lady that we cherished and laughed with, the one that still had the little girl smile while guarding her heart. The person who always was and never became who we loved for who she was.
Today, seven years later, Dolores lives on. She lives on in our memories as a person we knew and loved and can’t ever forget. She was never quite as lovable as we wanted. She was never soft and cuddly, the kind of person you could hug easily. She had been hardened by life. But inside was still this young girl. The one with hopes and dreams.
And today, we see Dolores in every young girl living in a motel, perhaps with her parents and grandparents. Perhaps with her mom and mom’s boyfriend. Perhaps in an older person’s body.
Every weekend when we show up to worship at motel church with our neighbors living in the motel we see the hundreds of Dolores’s and we commit to help them find the hopes and dreams that God has given them.
God wants nothing less.