Arlene Bodge Retires from a Bit of Heaven

By C.K. WOLFSON

The Rev. Arlene Bodge sees life as a journey whose prime function is to establish a relationship with God. "It's not a trudge," she declares, smiling happily. "What you're doing is skipping through this garden."

But then, as she begins talking about transitions, comes an emotional moment.

"It's not an easy thing to do. Leave-taking is never easy, role change is never easy, losing anything is never easy; losing your routine - " she pauses and laughs - "or losing your mind." And the moment passes.

This Sunday, the 128-member Chilmark Community Church and the 65-member Edgartown United Methodist Church will host an open Island reception for Ms. Bodge on the occasion of her imminent retirement after 11 years of service to the two Island congregations.

"It was time," she says, referring the Methodist tradition of an itinerant ministry: "Pastors share their gifts, then move on." Besides, she explains, she had planned on retiring after the addition to the Chilmark Church was completed in 2001, and after all, she is about to be 65, has survived two bouts of cancer, a mastectomy, many life and career changes, and most recently the diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer's disease.

Ms. Bodge sits in the bright foyer of the new Christian education building of the Chilmark Church, reflecting on the changes in her life. "I mean, I looked at my calendar, July and August, and there are all these empty boxes." She makes a so-big gesture. "And I had a moment of panic. I thought, what on earth am I going to do with myself? I've worked all my life." She smiles. "But I'll fill them in," she says. "I will."

Judging from her history, there is little doubt.

Raised a Roman Catholic, Ms. Bodge joined the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth in New Jersey at the age of 15 and remained in the convent until she was 20 and trained as a registered nurse. She came to the Vineyard in 1967, and in 1972 became co-owner with Nancy Douttiel of Webb's Camping Area in Oak Bluffs. In her late 40s, she took a class in liberation ethics with Jane Carry Peck at Andover-Newton Theological School, and the course of her life changed again. She became an ordained deacon in 1992.

An Island activist, Ms. Bodge became a force in the AIDS Alliance, The Yard, the Commission for Chronic Disease, Community Services, the Vineyard Nursing Asssociation, the Neighborhood Convention and the church youth group.

And these past 11 years? "A little bit of heaven," she says. "I can say that I have never loved anything as much in my life and my years doing ministry with these two churches on Martha's Vineyard.

"I don't cry because I'm sad; I cry because I'm full and I'm bubbling over." She shrugs. "I'm sentimental, what can I say."

When her short-term memory started failing 10 years ago, she reacted by becoming more deliberate about being organized. Even so, it became increasingly difficult to maintain her routine. "I finish a call, and if I haven't written it right down, five minutes later I have a hard time telling you who called. Then I don't remember if I've had the conversation. So I find myself calling up people and saying, ‘Did we have this conversation? Did we decide what date?' "

She speaks unselfconsciously, adding drama with her voice, gesturing from her arms to her fingertips. "I'm very open," she declares. "I was open about my breast cancer, I am open about this diagnosis."

She recounts her attempts to learn about the disease on the internet. "I kept ending up in the wrong place. So I was in chat groups, and I'd say I have Alzheimer's, and they'd say, I'm sorry, we all have Parkinson's."

When she attended her first Alzheimer's support group, she was hoping the people there would be nothing like her, so that she could feel exempt. Instead, she found she was very like the group that included a nurse, an aeronautical engineer, a social worker and a gynecologist.

"It was like a party. Not a one of them would I have looked at and said, ‘They have Alzheimer's. There were a room full of 20 people and they were laughing at themselves and I thought, they are just like me."

According to Ms. Bodge, her memory loss is most likely a result of the program of drug therapy she was on for the cancer. "I kept saying, I want to get off this drug; it's scrambling my brain. And they said, ‘Oh, there's no evidence.' "

Since stopping the treatment, she claims to feel better than she's felt in a year. "You know, if I do have a reoccurrence of the breast cancer, then I'll get treated. Or I'll die." And as if delivering a dark punch line, she laughingly continues, "But I would rather die with some brain cells."

It would seem her challenges have heightened Ms. Bodge's energies and focused her convictions.

"I never say why me," she says, "because everything works together for the good for those who love God. The question is, why not me? Why should I think that I would be any different from any other part of His creation?"

Her early diagnosis was possible, she believes, because she functions at a high level. "If I was home doing my housework and going to the grocery store, people would just say, ‘Gee, Arlene's getting forgetful - she didn't return my phone call.' " And she is grateful to be able to take advantage of early treatment medication that can slow the disease's advance.

"Every tragedy in your life, when you look back, you can say if that hadn't happened, then I wouldn't be where I am today; or I wouldn't know what I know today; or I wouldn't be of use to this person because I wouldn't have had that experience. So everything in our lives is this cosmic blueprint in the mind of God. And our responsibility is to grow into it.

"The blueprint of my life is not finished, and so I trust that God has wonderful things in store for me. And even if it is testifying to how you live a full life with a disability, how you grow and flourish and bring the love of God to people in a new way - so be it. You're never a victim."

Ms. Bodge is looking forward to the summer, to sipping coffee on her back deck and taking bus trips to visit her New England-based family.

She will continue to serve as hospital chaplain, the historian of the Neighborhood Convention, and she plans to make herself available as a speaker to Alzheimer's support groups. "I'm not leaving; I'm just repositioning myself."

Her parting message to the congregation?

"What else is there? Love God. Love your new pastor. Love one another and rejoice that you live in this beautiful place at this time. "