What follows is more of a tale than a story for two reasons:
- I only knew Claire for about two years, and as a very private, unfriendly person, she was in no hurry to share information except as needed.
- Memories can be tricky, and I originally had no intention of telling her tale, so I didn’t take notes. (I’ve had to fill in some details with speculation, but I’ll let you know when I do.)
So why even bother spinning the tale?
- It has an air of mystery and is sometimes unbelievable
- In places, the tale is fun.
- Sometimes it’s sad, bordering on pathetic.
- Some of it makes great sermon material.
- The tale ends very differently from how it starts.
- If I fleshed it out and made it longer, I could turn it into a book entitled The Webs We Weave.
This tale begins at the Groves, which is an owner-occupied community with 533 mobile homes inhabited by about 750 people, all aged fifty-five and up. (Because of the clientele, the number of residents changes daily.) Every occupant has to buy a share in the Groves Homeowners, Inc., and claim the community as their primary residence. The Groves is an affordable way to live in expensive Irvine, California. Annie, my wife of fifty-nine years, and I have lived there in a triple-wide, 1,800-square-foot home since 2009.
In February 2017, Annie and I spent six weeks skiing in Big Bear Lake, California. While waiting for a friend to join us, my cell phone rang. Ordinarily, I don’t answer it on the slopes for fear of dropping it in a five-foot snow drift while on the chair lift. Bye-bye phone.
This time, I decided to answer the call and heard a woman say, “Hello, my name is Claire Collins, and you don’t know me. I live in space 251 in the Groves. Someone told me you were a nice man and helped people.” Flattery is a great tool. “My water heater broke, and I haven’t been able to take a shower or have hot water in four months. They want $3,000 to fix it. I live on Social Security. My credit cards are maxed. I have no family. Do you have any suggestions?”
I told her we were out of town skiing, but I would call her back that afternoon.
I did and learned more about the situation. In essence, Claire was dead broke and saw no way out.
I knew the City of Irvine had an emergency fund but told Claire that I would have to make some calls to see if the program was still available and whether she was eligible.
I called City Hall, and a woman told me that Claire could apply for a $5,000 grant that would not have to be paid back if she qualified. The woman emailed me the forms, and I told Claire what documentation she needed to provide.
When Annie and I returned to Irvine the next week, I met Claire and we filled out the forms.
From the outside, Claire’s home looked very nice and even had a detached garage. The inside was a different story. It smelled stale and musty and was cluttered with furniture, decorative items, tons of pillows, and more than thirty stuffed animals—some as large as three feet long and four feet tall. I could sense an African safari theme under the layers of dust. The mess was almost overwhelming, but I pretended I didn’t notice.
Claire was tall and had open sores all over her face and arms; no teeth; yellowish, straggly hair; and dirty clothes. She was eighty-three when I met her. She quickly explained that she didn’t wear her false teeth because they were hurting her mouth and that she didn’t see very well due to macular degeneration. That told me a lot about her.
She tried to explain the sores. She said that she felt like something was moving throughout her body and trying to come out through her skin, where it left a slimy, sticky residue.
Claire was quick to tell me that she used to be a stewardess for Trans World Airlines, and she showed me a picture of herself with a group of other stewardesses. She was good looking in her day.
I’m not sure when she shared that she had been married. She and her first husband had a lucrative helicopter company that ferried movie stars and producers to different locations, but Claire never told me why the marriage ended.
She also had a second husband who was a golf pro. At that time, I had no idea why that marriage ended, so I assumed she got divorced.
Claire had no children, but I discovered much later that she was a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for twenty-six years, which could explain her failed marriages.
Claire had a couple of other businesses throughout her life that did well and then failed. Could her drinking have been a factor?
She said that after she sobered up, she became a drug rehabilitation counselor, but like so many other counselors, she took her clients’ problems home with her and burned out after five years.
I found out that Claire had been a very creative, talented woman in the past—or so I surmised from her stories.
She shared that in the 1990s, she went to a women’s Bible study at the Groves, and the leader of that group committed Claire to some quack mental institution that simply locked her up, prayed for her, and took a lot of her money. One day, she had enough, walked out, and returned to her home in the Groves.
I knew I was missing many pieces of the puzzle, but I didn’t pry. I knew I would eventually hear more.
Claire was volatile (though never with me) and had a long list of people she had alienated.
She despised doctors (I wonder if one sexually abused her?) and spent large sums of money on homeopathic snake oil to “cure” her degenerating sight, failing memory, oozing sores, constipation, aches and pains, and eventually, cancer.
Claire was diagnosed with breast cancer twenty years before I met her. Her doctors removed one breast but, as I later learned, the mastectomy left her with seeping sores. She never returned to a doctor for follow-up care.
Claire also shared that she had broken her hip once, but I suspected that was during her drinking days.
She was a heavy smoker for most of her life but quit stopped five years before we met.
Here comes another guess. Because of her unresolved anger, heavy drinking, alienation from her parents, mental breakdown, mistrust of almost everyone, and aversion to being touched (more on that later), I suspected she was sexually abused as a child. I don’t think she ever dealt with that, but I hoped that maybe she would want to talk about it as we got to know each other better.
I liked Claire, and we had some great conversations. She was fascinated by my vocation as an Episcopal priest who thought way outside the box. She occasionally picked my brain about my beliefs, but I always had a feeling that she didn’t want anything to do with God, Jesus, the church, and religion. That changed later, when she was dying—she begged some god to take away her cancer and give her a new life.
My only comment was “Whew, that’s a lot to ask!”
Obviously, no one “heard” her prayers. She died February 16, 2019.
That is Claire, from my limited viewpoint.
Now, back to Claire’s shower.
Hurry Up and Wait
I drove Claire’s grant application to Irvine City Hall. Within a week, the city informed us that Claire qualified but would have to follow some strict rules:
- No one could lend Claire the money, install the water heater, and be reimbursed. We had to go through a complicated process.
- We had to submit three estimates, all from licensed, insured, and bonded contractors acceptable to the city and the Groves.
- The estimate had to be for exactly $5,000.
- Once the contract was approved, the installation could start. When the job was finished, an inspector from another agency had to approve it before anyone would be paid.
This presented new problems:
- Contractors disliked the process because they received no money up front, and the city sometimes didn’t pay them for months.
- Because the contractors didn’t want to work with the city, they were reticent to even give an estimate.
- Sometimes grantees had to schedule an installation weeks or months ahead of time because the contractors were so busy.
- A new water heater could take a long time to install.
I started calling contractors who met all the qualifications, and after a lot of begging, I finally found three men who would at least give me a bid.
I found one contractor whose father had lived in the Groves. He was familiar with the laborious process of the emergency fund but agreed to give Claire a bid and do the work immediately.
A few days later, he drove about fifty miles from his home to give his bid. Unfortunately, a new security person wouldn’t let him in once he arrived. The contractor was livid (so was I), but after an hour of nice conversation on the phone, he said he would submit a bid, sight unseen. A day later, his bid came in at $5,000.
I delivered the bids to Irvine City Hall, and within two weeks, the bid from the man who could do the job immediately was approved.
He did the job within a few days in spite of some new plumbing issues, and after seven months of waiting, Claire had a hot shower.
The bill was submitted to the city, and an inspector came a week later. Of course, he found some minor issues. The contractor fixed them immediately, and the job was finally approved.
I submitted the contractor’s name for sainthood and developed a new definition for the word emergency: “whenever.”
Whew! That was a lot of work.
A New Challenge
I could have quit while I was ahead, but I noticed that Claire had no mortgage or liens on her house.
She had $38,000 in credit-card debt. She said she would never declare bankruptcy. She sent ten credit card companies the minimum required payments every month. She knew she would never eliminate her debt, but she didn’t have bad credit. After making all those payments, she had less than $200 a month to live on.
One day, I asked, “Would you ever consider taking out a mortgage on your house to pay your debts and do some repairs?”
Claire thought for a few moments and responded, “My daddy told me to pay cash and never get in debt.” That’s a nice principle, provided that one can live within one’s means. Then she asked, “What would taking out a mortgage mean?” I explained how mortgages work. She decided it would be worth a try.
So try I did.
The banks and lending institutions were quick to say, “Too much debt and not enough income.” Then I asked if Claire was amenable to my asking some friends for help. She was.
One of my friends was interested, and after thinking about it overnight, he said, yes—with conditions. He wanted proof that the property was clear, an updated will, an advanced directive, a real-estate appraisal, and me as the executor.
Claire was fine with all that, so I contacted LegalZoom, I drew up the legal documents, and a real estate agent did an appraisal.
To fill out the will, I had to ask Claire to whom she wanted to leave her money after all the bills were paid. I was surprised when she said she wanted to leave her money to an organization that cared for animals.
I asked, “And what animal did you call when you needed a new water heater?”
She laughed and understood, so I added, “Wouldn’t it be nice to start a charity for people who needed some immediate help—like you did?”
Claire said yes. That was the birth of Claire D’s Helping Hands, although our new charity wouldn’t be active for a long time.
We finalized the LegalZoom documents, and the funding went through. For the first time in years, Claire had an extra $1,500 per month.
I called a contractor friend and asked him to look at Claire’s house and give us an estimate on repairs. He found much to fix, and the $10,000 for repairs was quickly gone. When the work was finished, I felt relieved—Claire was healthy, and I probably wouldn’t need to be heavily involved with her care for years.
I was heading off to my spin class around eight o’clock on a Monday morning when the phone rang. Claire was experiencing excruciating internal pain.
I took some strong painkillers to her house and promised to return after my class.
When I came back, I discovered that the pain meds had done nothing, so I called 911 against her wishes. The firemen arrived in five minutes and took her to the emergency room at Hoag Hospital.
I gave them a few days to treat Claire, and when I went to Hoag, she was in good shape—eating like a horse, smiling, and even acting nice to most of the staff.
A few days later, the doctors said her breast cancer had returned and maybe metastasized.
Annie and I brought Claire home. A week later, we drove Claire to her oncologist’s office. We found out that the cancer had indeed metastasized. Because of Claire’s blood type, she couldn’t undergo any invasive procedures to stop the cancer. She needed a body scan to see where the cancer might have spread.
I dropped Claire off at the imaging center at 6:00 a.m., and when Annie and I returned to pick her up at 9:00 a.m., we found out that she fell in the bathroom and broke her femur—yet another new challenge. Claire was back in the hospital; the cancer in her breast had spread to her back, lungs, and hip; and she had to be moved to a care facility that could only tend to her for a limited number of days unless we (meaning me) applied for Medi-Cal, a program to help the disadvantaged.
How could she qualify? I had to go to the California Department of Social Services, share Claire’s story, and apply for Medi-Cal. I made an appointment, gathered all my evidence, and at 6:30 a.m. one cold, rainy morning, I went to CDSS to request help for Claire. About three weeks later, CDSS told me that she qualified and could stay where she was.
I became the manager of Claire’s home, mail, bills, visitations, battles, and food delivery because she didn’t like the food at the care facility. That kept me hopping.
I went to see Claire about every third day, and we had some interesting conversations about God, death, miracles, and her fears. Then we’d have them again the next time. Because Claire was terrified of death, she started making deals with God. If God would perform a miracle and rid her of the cancer, she would then save the world.
Claire was strong and stubborn, and that kind of person doesn’t die quickly.
The hospice nurse and I became friends, and she gave me a report about Claire every time I visited. Once, the nurse said, “Every time I go into Claire’s room, I wonder which Claire I going to deal with.” Claire often seemed to have multiple personalities—another trait that is often indicative of childhood sexual abuse.
Occasionally, Annie accompanied me on my visits, which Claire loved. One time, Annie—being a warm, caring, touchy individual—tried to give Claire’s hand a warm squeeze. Claire pulled back sharply and said very loudly, “Don’t ever touch me!” Folks who have been sexually abused often don’t like to touched.
Claire eventually began declining, eating less, and sleeping most of the time. She had dreams similar to those that many people have before their death. For instance, she shared with me a dream about a great reunion with her mother. They had a wonderful experience sharing jokes, shopping for fun, and being pals. This had never happened in real life.
When Claire and I set up her advanced directive, she was adamant about not wanting any heroic measures taken at the end, but when faced with death, she refused to give up. She held out for a miracle.
Claire’s pain was excruciating, especially in her back, so she needed increasingly large doses of pain medicine. Soon, she was barely conscious—in her last week, she wasn’t conscious at all. She died on February 16, 2019, at 6:00 p.m.
We had arranged for her body to be given to Anatomy Gifts Registry, so I called them right away and they disposed of the her remains at no cost.
The Hard Work Begins
I entered a new phase—life without Claire.
My first challenge was to procure the death certificate. That took six weeks, so almost everything came to a standstill in the meantime.
However, the real-estate broker at the Groves was able to schedule inspections and other jobs necessary to make Claire’s house salable.
Next, Annie and I scheduled an estate sale with a woman at the Groves who was an expert at handling such events. We had to do a general cleaning (the first in twenty-five years, I suspect) and move items so that people could move through the house. I realized that I had never seen about half the house—which was probably a good thing. The house was not in good shape. The estate sale was held on a Friday and Saturday, and we did well but still ended up with a house full of clutter.
I contacted Family Promise, a nonprofit that takes in homeless families and transitions them back into mainstream society within 90–120 days. The director came and took any furnishings that could help the client families. The veterans division of the Mental Health Association of Orange County cleared out the rest. Claire’s house was now empty.
For a solid week, Annie and I cleaned and cleaned and cleaned from eight until five and made numerous trips to the dump. I made the yard look presentable, and we put the house on the market at an attractive price.
Even though the housing market was slow, we received an offer within six weeks. We closed a month later, and Claire D’s Helping Hands became a reality.
Within a week, we presented a $38,000 check to Family Promise for a portable shower to take to the churches that house homeless families. This feature alone added a new dimension to the Family Promise program.
I like the irony of this gift. Claire, who needed a shower two years earlier, made it possible for hundreds of homeless people to take a warm, relaxing shower.
Since opening its doors, Claire D’s Helping Hands has provided scholarships to a bright young woman who is here on amnesty and a bright young man who is a Dreamer (an undocumented immigrant who came to America as a child) finishing his senior year at a California university.
Claire’s generosity has helped other homeless families purchase auto insurance, buy cars, and pay for repairs. This charity is also helping one young woman who was homeless and suffering from a rare autoimmune disease seek very expensive treatment.
Thanks, Claire, for your generosity that has already changed the lives of so many others.
Maybe as you drive around someday, you’ll see a pickup truck pulling a trailer with the sign “In memory of Claire Collins.” Now that you know her story, I hope you will share it because it contains so many lessons:
- Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these . . . you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Our role as Followers is to show agape to everyone, no matter where they are on their life’s journey.
- Seek help if you have mental health issues. Had Claire dealt with her issues, I suspect she would have never ended up the way she did.
- Alcoholism and other addictions are diseases that are treatable but never curable. Sobriety takes a lifetime of attending preventive programs. Claire didn’t stick with any programs that could have supported her. If you have an addiction, stay involved in programs that support you in your new life “without.”
- Helping others gives life a fulfilling meaning.
- Don’t judge homeless or poor people. Many of them need just a little help to get back on their feet. Because I work with organizations that offer permanent solutions to homelessness, I hear a lot of erroneous mythology about who the homeless are. I suspect many folks use that mythology to shun the homeless and classify them as subhuman. Don’t! Learn the facts—all that most homeless people need is a home.
One of the best, most memorable Christmas cards Annie and I ever received came from a young college student who volunteered in a program Annie started at the Hawai’i School for the Deaf and the Blind, which one of our daughters attended. The card was handmade and said, “Christmas presence—give yourself away.” We did, and we now see that as our life’s mission.
Peace, love, joy, hope.