Victoria Haeselbarth and Pat Matola. Photo by Jack Schimmelman.
Late one summer, my world ended. I was ejected from my life and scrambled to find safe haven. I fled to my sanctuary, an island called Martha's Vineyard. You who read this might think that the Vineyard is a world of millionaires, but you would be wrong. It inhabits one of the poorest counties in Massachusetts. Its cost of living is 60 percent higher than the national average and wages are much lower than the national average. It was into this milieu that I decided to escape.
As a young man 35 years ago, I lived on the Vineyard year-round for five years. So with nothing but my heart I dove back into one of the most beautiful places I had ever known. Why do people sacrifice so much to live here? To me the island has always been one big Japanese garden. There is a diversity of exquisite landscapes, and they fit perfectly together. Everywhere I turn, water, land and light infuse the atmosphere with elegance.
Nevertheless, one has to survive. And so when I arrived, I sought employment, people. I was lucky and had an affordable place to live and I had my social security that I had earned after 50 years of working. At the beginning of my new journey I met a woman whose job it was to help senior citizens, a community in which I am a newly ordained colleague. She works for the Edgartown Council on Aging, a lively gathering place for older people. She is their outreach worker and her name is Victoria Haeselbarth. Victoria went out of her way to ensure that I learn how to survive in "paradise." She called various agencies for housing, put me in touch with others who might be able to help. I once asked her about her day and she told me that her time was spent visiting aging people who could not easily navigate their way through life, whether that be physically or psychologically.
Victoria is a slight woman with an electric smile. She is a "lofty" 5' 5", wears a size 0, but when she enters a room her heart fills the space. She could heat a frigid winter's cove. I have seen her transform depressed, hopeless people who are looking over the precipice of their lives into joyful celebrants of an eternal dance.
When one encounters mortality, it is often not an easy ride. We dive deep into a well of fear wondering if we will ever breathe again. We go to sleep wondering if we are going to sleep. On this Island I often meet a fellow named George who is probably in his 80s. Very stylish, giant intelligence. When I ask him how he is, he often says, "so far, so good." Our culture has trouble with mortality; hence, as our physicality inevitably fails, no one wishes to see. This is unfortunate, because I have observed that often when the cellular structure decays, the soul emits a brilliant light. While still a young man, John Prine wrote a song called "Hello in There." He sang, "You know that old trees just grow stronger, and rivers grow wilder every day. Old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, Hello in there, hello."
Ms. Haeselbarth washes away wounds of time allowing others to profoundly gaze into a well of life earned by living long years, surviving disappointments, pain and fleeting delight. There aren't many like her.
I have seen Victoria guide the mortally ill to completion. She is undaunted. She may not know the individual very well, but an outsider would never guess that to be true. What is truly amazing is that she does her work effortlessly. Nothing scares her. She does not seek recognition. She is elated to befriend folks who are friendless, isolated and feeling unloved. Her clients are empowered when they meet her. It is not unusual to see Victoria zipping around the island in her car delivering meals to those who may not have requested them. She knows who needs; Santa Claus without judging who is naughty who is nice.
In a world as terrified as ours, Ms. Haeselbarth opens the curtain each day to those who need to see life's splendor.
Rose Abrahamson, Martha's Vineyard Artist.
Photo by Kathleen Young. Used by permission.