Local Hero

A Tribute to Patty Swift March 1, 1929-February 1, 20006

I like the man who faces what he must, With step triumphant and a heart of cheer; Who fights the daily battle without fear; Sees his hopes fail, yet keeps unfaltering trust That God is God, - that somehow, true and just His plans work out for mortals; not a tear Is shed when fortune, which the world holds dear, Falls from his grasp - better, with love, a crust Than living in dishonor: envies not, Nor loses faith in man; but does his best, Nor ever murmurs at his humbler lot; But, with a smile and words of hope, gives zest To every toiler: he alone is great Who by a life heroic conquers fate. (poem included in the service) -Sarah Knowles Bolton (1841-1916)

I pulled up my car to park on the street and knew this much be the church I was looking for because of all the cars lined up on both sides of the road. The quaint and simple New England church by the seaside of Padanaram was full to the rafters since people were even sitting in the balcony. Not one but two guest books were being lovingly signed as we entered the sanctuary.

I took a seat in a pew joining some of my library co-workers. My heart brimmed with gladness as my eyes took in the sweep of people represented at this memorial service to celebrate the life of Patty Swift - a true hero whose life had touched us each and every one. I was truly moved as I pondered that not a single person at this funeral was a relative of Patty. We were just the humble recipients of her greatness eager to pay her tribute with ones like me traveling from the next state with an inner compulsion almost beyond my ken.

Patty was a remarkable person who left her mark on all who knew her - and her presence in the town was unmistakable. Just look for the motorized wheelchair driving down the local streets with the flags attached to the back flapping in the breeze. Her physical life was fettered with cerebral palsy but she lived a gallant life against all the odds this disability presented to her.

She was born in 1929 and in the earlier stages of the disease was able to walk with braces and crutches but eventually became wheelchair bound. In her youth, schools were not equipped to serve students with special needs so her parents home schooled her. She was an only child and maintained extraordinary independence after the death of her parents. Until her passing on Feb. 1st 2006, she lived on her own with caregivers coming in to attend to her. She had a winter and summer home, ran a home-based business selling magazine subscriptions, went bowling every Sunday, took the ferry to Martha's Vineyard most every day in the summer time, had two cats for pets that she adored, managed to type, read books and serve on the board of directors of local organizations, sew beautiful needlepoint - the list goes on and on. What makes all of this so remarkable is that while her mind was brilliantly clear and wise, she was completely wheelchair bound, could barely move her hands and could barely be understood when talking.

Despite her handicaps, Patty was known to one and all as one of the friendliest, generous, loving, and happy people we have ever met. She was deeply religious and a fiercely devout God lover. Her absolute faith in God was the bedrock of her life and the gift that made her life sing across the treetops regardless of her obstacles.

Patty came regularly to the library where I work and while I did not know her intimately she touched my life. She used to tape record church sermons at the Congregational Church she belonged to and loved to listen to church hymn music. She would come almost daily into the library to sit and read or do needlepoint and we would get her set up at one of the bigger tables near the reference desk. More often than not she would have us taking all manner of goodies out of the storage pouch on the back of her wheelchair with frequent gifts of food for the library staff or food items to place in the charity food pantry basket near the door.

After we took her coat and hat off and put her book and other items on the table inevitably she would put on her headphones and listen to her church music which somewhat escaped through the player and headphones and wafted through the area for neighboring ears. Although libraries are stereotyped for demanding quiet atmospheres, no one ever stopped Patty from listening to her church music as it leaked through her headphones.

During the memorial service for Patty, Rev. Bob Boynton chose beautiful poems by poets such as George Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson and even a poem another regular library patron had written in tribute to Patty while she was still living. She was very involved with the church and a much beloved parishioner. At one point Rev. Boynton invited those of us sitting in the congregation to speak forth words that expressed Patty best. Courageous, brave, independent, thoughtful and many more rang out. Then individuals stood up in their place to offer a remembrance. Caretakers who knew her only briefly were nearly speechless with tears as they praised Patty. One woman who took her bowling also drove her to church and she said that Patty was eager to visit as many churches as possible - near or far.

She also provided a true role model of independent living for others with disabilities as well as being a teacher to those of us who are able-bodied in her refusal to isolate herself from the mainstream of life. She was a real pioneer and a hero. With no family at all after her parents died, she created family throughout this small town and first and foremost found family with God.

Choked with emotion, Rev. Boynton described to us how Patty loved hymns and that during her quick demise (a sudden onset of renal failure that saw her death coming less than one week from admittance to the hospital) a member of the church choir took a hymn book to St. Luke's Hospital and sang hymns to her in her final hours, not knowing even if she was conscious of what was happening. The Reverend beseeched us to think about what was it about Patty that cause someone not even related to her to offer her the hymns as her life left its mortal coil. He attributed her impact on people to her unfailing good-natured self-giving, kindness and love for others.

Patty trusted in God to take care of her despite her physical hardships. People say she never complained about her lot in life. Her impact on her community shows that God answered her faith with the care that she needed. I am personally humbled to have known someone whose life was such a dramatic gift to all who knew her. Never had I felt with such ardor that a memorial service was first and foremost a celebration of someone's life. I can only hope to dare to dream that my own life can continue to learn from heroes like Patty long after she's settled close to God in heaven.

I close with an excerpt of a long poem called "O May I Join the Choir Invisible" by George Eliot. This poem was one of the selected readings as a fitting description of Patty's life.

May I reach That purest heaven, be to other souls The cup of strength in some great agony, Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, Be the sweet presence of a good diffus'd, And in diffusion ever more intense! So shall I join the choir invisible Whose music is the gladness of the world. -George Eliot 1867