Out of the woods: In Philly suburb, a true-life tale of friendship

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John and Doreen McGettigan near their home in Glenolden: “Sophie taught me to love, and that kindness is deeper than being nice,” Doreen wrote.

THERE'S Hollywood, and then there's real life.

Hollywood looks like this:

Maggie Smith, the British grande dame of film, is starring in a new comedy called The Lady in the Van, about a homeless elderly woman who parks her beaten-up 1957 Bedford CA van in a stranger's driveway and lives there for 17 years.

Mayhem ensues. Delightful music underscores the funny parts; sorrowful notes amplify the poignant ones. By the time moviegoers leave the theater, they've fallen hard for Smith's troubled but quirky character. All is well.

Real life looks like this:

Doreen McGettigan and her husband, John, take in a homeless, mentally ill 80-year-old named Sophie after John learns that she's been living in a wooded area off MacDade Boulevard in Delaware County. Sophie settles into the couple's nearby home for what the McGettigans presume will be a brief stay while they locate her family, find her shelter, or both.

Mayhem ensues when Sophie's kin want nothing to do with her anymore. And every agency that ought to help with Sophie's crisis fails to do so - for reasons that may have as much to do with Sophie's past noncompliance as with bureaucratic indifference.

The "music" that accompanies these scenes?

Sophie's yelling.

Sophie winds up living with the McGettigans for 2 1/2 years, until a terminal illness and mental decline force them to place her in a nursing home. She screams at Doreen to "rot in hell" for abandoning her, and dies within a few months.

Two years later, Doreen has written a memoir of the couple's experience. The Stranger in My Recliner recounts the heartbreak and frustration of caring for someone who was not easy to help and harder to love.

And yet they came to love her anyway. Because caring for someone terribly vulnerable, despite the difficulties, can breed a special kind of love.

Doreen's self-published book may lack the dazzle of The Soloist, the best-selling memoir by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who befriended a homeless and mentally ill musician.

But Doreen, a freelance journalist and prior caregiver (for elderly and hospice patients), is a solid storyteller and, more important, an emotionally honest one.

I couldn't put her book down, but not because Sophie's story is unusual. We see the homeless every day and we glide past them.

What is extraordinary is that the McGettigans could not look away. The care they offered to a difficult, sometimes sweet, often impossible and very vulnerable human being is the kind that few of us can imagine bestowing on a similarly demanding family member, let alone a stranger.

In the prologue to her memoir, Doreen writes that the most profound lesson she and John learned when they took Sophie in was that "almost always in life, the right thing to do will predominantly be the hardest thing to do. We still have to find a way to do the right thing anyway."

"You and John did God's work. You know that, don't you?" I tell Doreen when we meet on a quiet afternoon at the Court Diner in Media. She's 58, a tall redhead with the softest blue eyes. She and John, 59, have five adult children between them from prior marriages and 13 grandchildren.

"I don't know," she answers. "Some days, she frustrated me so much. I feel bad about that. But how could we leave her in the woods? She was 80 years old. She was so sad and pitiful."

A long-ago kindness brought Sophie to the McGettigans.

In 1996, John, a car salesman and long-sober alcoholic, lost his 17-year-old son to suicide. At a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, he shared his sorrow and was approached by a female member named Sophie. She was able to listen when others couldn't. John ran into her often, and she always offered comforting words about the loss of his son. They lost touch when she stopped attending the meeting.

Four years ago, he was leaving an AA meeting on a cold, sleeting night as a disheveled old woman fell onto the sidewalk in front of him. It was Sophie. He helped her up, offered her a ride home, and learned that she was living in the woods behind the nearby Glenolden Church. He called Doreen and said he was bringing home a friend for the night, and that began the McGettigans' 30-month stretch as Sophie's caretakers and de facto family.

It happened by degrees.

When Doreen contacted two local agencies for help, she learned that Sophie had caseworkers with both and had been on a waiting list for housing. But once the agencies learned that Sophie was staying with the McGettigans, they would no longer offer help, because Sophie was "technically no longer considered homeless."

"But she didn't live in our home!" says Doreen, who was shocked by how easily the agencies washed their hands of Sophie when given the chance.

In the memoir, she recalls, "They honestly made me feel . . . like I didn't deserve help getting out of this situation with Sophie because John and I made a reckless decision when we took her in. I felt stupid, and at the same time, I was so angry with everyone. At least John and I did something. We did something that was real and hard. The right thing to do is never the easiest. An eighty-year-old woman was off of the streets, out of the woods, and safe and warm, and it still felt like it was the only thing we could do."

It took a while for the McGettigans to track down Sophie's adult children - she has three - who wanted nothing to do with their mother. Doreen is angry about that: "How dare they leave their moral responsibility up to me and John?" she says.

But, honestly, reading Doreen's book, it's clear that Sophie had burned many bridges on her way to the woods. With the proper diagnosis and treatment decades ago, her demons might have calmed enough to keep her family close. The McGettigans never learned her exact mental illness, but she was incapable of caring for herself. Sophie often shunned help, even berating those who reached out.

Still, the McGettigans learned that others had cared about Sophie before they did. The staff at the McDonald's on Chester Pike, where Sophie was a regular, didn't know the McGettigans had taken Sophie in and were worried when she no longer spent her days in the eatery. They even drove the streets, looking for her.

A local businesswoman looked out for Sophie, too, letting her use the office to receive mail. And another AA member, Bob, was a good friend to Sophie for a very long time.

The McGettigans' grace is that they hung in there with Sophie. They made her one of their family. (The grandkids loved her.)

They invited her on outings. Taught her the rules of baseball so she could cheer the Phillies when the entire McGettigan gang crowded around the TV, waving rally towels.

They fed her and bathed her when she couldn't clean herself.

And when they no longer could care for her - she became terminally ill and would wander if unattended - they placed her in a nursing home for her own safety. She died in her sleep on a soft bed in a quiet, clean room - a death more dignified than much of her life had been.

But Sophie gave the McGettigans a gift, too.

"Sophie taught me to love, and that kindness is deeper than being nice," writes Doreen. "She taught me to be kind to people who are less than deserving, and that the people in my life who are the hardest to love are the ones that need my love the most."

I would call Doreen an angel, but she shuns the word, remembering the times she wanted Sophie out of her home.

So, OK, she was not perfect.

Real angels never are.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

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