GREENVILLE — Life is a journey bereft of maps, navigated without compass, sextant or global positioning satellites; from cradle to grave there is no sure thing, no guarantee, no promise that — should you do this and this — certain outcomes are your due.
We are all motes upon a larger mote, circling a still larger mote as it hurtles through the empty blackness of space; the best we can hope for is to share what love and light we have, while we still have it. Rarely are these rough truths so apparent as at Christmastime, when the disparity between those who have and those who have not is thrown into stark relief.
This December, as malls filled with shoppers eager to empty wallets and purses in support of the season, 74-year-old Lorita Kemp sat alone in her Greenville home, hoping the furnace would, this time, stay lit long enough to warm her. Since October, the aging heater would work only sporadically, for an hour or two at a time.
Lorita’s next door neighbor, Pete Enbody, stopped by a couple times a day to fire it up again, but with nighttime temperatures falling far below freezing, Lorita’s home was rarely warm. In fact, it was generally “see-your-breath” cold.
Lorita’s son also would stop by to light the furnace, but as she didn’t want to “be a burden,” she only asked for help when the situation grew dire.
Bad enough. It gets worse: It had been six months since Lorita’s home had hot running water; the water heater died in July and she had been heating water on the stove and bathing at her son’s home since then.
Living on a fixed income and dealing with serious health issues — a broken sternum from a fall, stage three kidney disease and an inoperable brain cyst that caused frequent strokes — Lorita could no more afford to fix her furnace and water heater than she could afford a trip to Paris.
A representative from the Department of Human Services told her she was eligible for some assistance, but only if she could raise roughly $1,000 toward the repairs herself. It might as well have been a million.
Grasping at straws as temperatures continued to plummet, Lorita called her insurance agent, Angie Pretzel, of Winters Insurance Agency in Greenville.
“She said the furnace breaking was just part of normal wear and tear and it wasn’t covered,” Lorita explains. “I didn’t really think it would be, but I thought maybe there was some way I could get money to go someplace warm for a day or two.”
The only time Lorita was really comfortable was in bed at night, huddled beneath a mountain of blankets and comforters. In the morning her home was again freezing, literally, but pride instilled during her rural childhood kept her from seeking the help she needed.
“I’m just so embarrassed about being this poor,” said Lorita, her voice trembling. “It was pretty hard living here these months without heat, but it’s just so embarrassing.”
Angie, the insurance agent, was sympathetic and supportive, but her hands were tied. Lorita’s policy really didn’t cover anything remotely like the problem she was experiencing with the furnace.
Every avenue of hope seemed barricaded, every door closed. For Lorita, true despair was held at arm’s length only by her unwavering faith.
That evening — with her friend Kim Cain of Greenville Community Church — Lorita turned to the one possible source of help she had left: her God.
“We prayed that the angels would somehow be around me and that, somehow, the money would come,” Lorita says.
What Lorita didn’t know was that those angels were already at work.
Angie, it seemed, couldn’t get Lorita out of her mind. The idea her client — more than a client, a friend — was sitting alone in a frozen home with nobody seeming to care made her sad. Then it made her mad.
“I said, oh, no, I can’t let some 74-year-old woman be alone in a home without a furnace,” Angie says. “I asked her if she had contacted DHS and she said they just kept sending her paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. She hadn’t had hot water in six months.
“I went home to my warm house and was just sick about it. I vented on Facebook, which I hardly ever do, but I was mad; mad at the system, mad that I didn’t have $2,000 to help this woman out.”
And that’s when the angels really went to work. Calls, Facebook messages and emails began pouring in. People Angie hadn’t heard from in years, friends and acquaintances from out of state, strangers … they all wanted to help. In the space of a few hours it began to seem that — if all these people were serious — there might be some hope after all.
The next morning, Angie called Russell Plumbing & Heating in Greenville to verify the cost of a new furnace and hot water heater. She made sure the company would be willing to take payment in the form of lots and lots of phoned-in donations. Russell’s employee Linda Shotwell said the company was happy to be able to help.
Back on Facebook, Angie posted donation details. Within minutes, the money began to roll in.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Linda says. “Whatever Angie wrote on Facebook must have been very heartfelt, because people were calling from all over and they kept calling, even overnight. I was amazed.”
Russell’s delivered portable heaters to Lorita’s house as a stop-gap measure against the cold, but as it turns out they were needed for only a day.
“By morning, we had to call Angie and tell her to ask people to stop calling with donations,” Linda says. “We had all we needed.”
Local donations also arrived; $50 from Greenville Community Church, another $200 from St. Charles Catholic Church, smaller amounts from friends and family.
That same day, Russell’s put together a special crew to install Lorita’s new furnace and water heater. The next morning, for the first time in a long time, Lorita woke to a warm home.
“People really helped,” said Angie, still sounding astonished by the speed with which everything happened. “Everything just worked. Everybody did a great thing.”
Lorita — who until her health failed spent years volunteering as a foster grandparent — remains a bit breathless from the experience. That so many people, most of them strangers, should care about the well-being of one woman living alone in the quiet town of Greenville … well, let’s just say it hasn’t exactly weakened her faith.
“I told Angie she was my Christmas angel,” Lorita says. “All I did was call to ask about my insurance and she did all the rest. This was the best Christmas present ever.”
In the face of so much good will, it’s maybe a little easier to share her hope, to believe in angels. Especially at Christmastime, with the snow falling quietly outside our warm, comfortable homes, one has to wonder; perhaps we’re more than motes, after all.