Friday, October 4th/Saturday, October 5th
I am writing this from your hospital room, while you lay only a few feet away. I offered to take the night shift this night so that others could get a few hours of rest. All have been so faithful to never let you alone for a minute. When I came in, I relieved one of your sisters of her watch, and we caught up for a bit on your status and all of the little happenings that had occurred in the hours since I left the hospital this afternoon. She has gone home to sleep, and I am here to wait. And watch. And listen. I don’t know if you know what’s going on, but I pray that way down in the core of you that’s still alive you know you are deeply loved and cherished. We all keep watch. It’s all we have to offer until He calls you home. We offer willingly, a little helplessly, but lovingly all the same.
No one told me it would start to sound like this as you reach this time in your journey to the end. I thought I might be able to nap, but I know now that sleep will be impossible. I lay down anyway, and watch your chest rise and fall, and listen hard to see if the sound grows louder. I call the nurses when it does, and they do what needs to be done, but still I cringe. I’ve heard it said that you cannot ever forget the sound – right now, I believe it. It will be with me always, in the back of every memory I have of this room and these days. Unsettling perhaps, but it’s all part of the privilege of caring for you. Holding your hand, checking the cloths we lay on your forehead, rubbing your arm, tending to the endless little duties we do to keep you comfortable….it’s all privilege.
I am struck in this moment by how very frail and temporary these human bodies are. Our frailty becomes part of what makes the glory and eternal presence of God that much more permanent and beautiful. I suppose He’ll be calling you home soon. Was it really just months ago that I was helping you with chores and eating your breakfast biscuits? How quickly it all fades, even an entire lifetime. The nurses look at me with pity this night, but I feel only joy. Joy for you. We’ll weep, but you will be united at long last with your King and Savior. Joy is all I have for that.
Since you aren’t completely with us anymore, I wanted to tell you about the immense beauty I have witnessed during this week. I have seen far more laughter than tears in this room. So beautiful, and indicative of the life you’ve led.
I love how your three younger sisters file in every morning, and gather in a circle to resume their daily vigil and tell their endless stories. They have vowed to remain until you leave, and find much to laugh about while they wait. One time they took a break and walked to the lounge for coffee. I followed them to fill my own cup, and a roar of laughter broke out behind me. It sounded so like you that I had to grip the sink and wait for the tears to tuck themselves back away behind my lids. I knew it was one of them, with the corners of their broad mouths opened wide to laugh that full laugh you all have.They are so different and so like you all at once. I’ve heard them compare their hands and hair and smiles to yours, and discuss how you all favored your parents. The connection you all have, sometimes having been broken and bruised but still intact, is unmistakably loud when they talk like this.
Their stories make us all nearly fall of our chairs with laughter. Your sister Nancy said one day: “What we didn’t do wasn’t far off.” How true. I heard them tell about that time you girls and your younger brothers all went up to a herd of sleeping cows and grabbed hold of their tails, planted a foot on either leg, and rode the cows for as long as they would run. I know for a fact that cows don’t like their tails pulled, so I assume that was a great ride. I love hearing their giggles and saying your mama just didn’t know what to do with the lot of you girls.
The days your precious older sister came to see you were achingly special. Her sad, wrinkled eyes looked longingly at you across the room. She is so dignified, that one. Quieter than the rest, with her neat white curls perched on that high forehead of hers. I kissed those curls and held her a moment longer, thinking all the while that no woman should have to bury her little sister.
Your niece, the one that loves you so, and cares for some of your physical needs as she can with an authoritative but gentle manner, has been a great comfort. She’s already seen much pain in this life – perhaps it is what makes her so calm and wise when she visits each day. She brings along her mother: your tiny, adorable sister-in-law, the one with Alzheimer’s. That dear old woman has known me, and most other people in the room, since we were in diapers, but she shuffles in every day with a happy smile and meets everyone all over again. Her innocence reminds us to be joyful and acknowledge one another with a hug. I always give her two hugs in case she forgets the first.
In the first day, when you could only move your left arm, I saw you clasp the muscled hand of your only son without a sound. But recognition was in your eyes, and that will have to do. I’ve seen your two daughters ease the wrinkles of pain in your forehead with soft caresses and even softer words, though you were no longer responding. I’ve watched your youngest daughter do what needed to be done when the nurses weren’t fast enough – she does so with a quiet sort of tender grace. You would be so very proud of all three of your children. I’ve watched so many loving hands stroke your gray hairs across the pillow, the hairs you always cursed in the humidity and tucked under your trusty old ball cap when you went to do chores.
The hospital staff has been incredibly kind. They ask us always if we need anything, and stop in the middle of their work to stroke your high Cherokee cheekbones. They call you “sweetheart” and “sweet pea” if they even think they might have caused you pain. The precious teenager who came to clean the room today stopped on her way out to say, “I hope things get better for all of you” in her little voice. The doctor kept a short watch with me as we stood with bated breath early in the dawn, watching for you to breathe. Then we breathed with you.
While I am deeply grateful for all of these scraps of life in these days of impending death, I don’t believe I’ll choose to remember the shriveled shell in the bed, the waiting and watching, the way your sisters set their strong jaws to keep the tears at bay, how your children leave the room to take strolls and grieve. I choose to remember you in life and the way you lived it.
I choose to remember your strong, muscled arms – always well-equipped to hold a grandbaby or wrestle an ornery steer.
I choose to remember that time after your second husband received his grave prognosis from the oncologist: you strapped on a bonnet, hopped on the tractor, and rode off into the pasture to tend to the cows. Nothing could stop you.
I choose to remember an afternoon I spent at your house just a few scant months ago. You, me, your beloved youngest brother, and the farrier talked and laughed for a couple hours in the pasture while we took care of the donkeys’ hooves. Your sweet brother is a male version of yourself, and the giggling that ensued was contagious that day.
I choose to remember how you made magic in the kitchen. It was usually in the form of biscuits, but you found other ways, too. You would feed an army without blinking an eye, and often send the eater home with a bag or two of food for later. No one left your table hungry. Ever.
I choose to remember your hands and feet at their unceasing stream of work. You have patted backs and birthed calves and rubbed shoulders and buried two husbands and raised three outstanding children and milked cows and planted gardens and canned food and mended fences and walked a thousand miles of pastureland, all with the same determination set in your sturdy little shoulders.
I choose to remember your belly – the one that carried three babes and shook full and jellied when you laughed.
I choose to remember that time I asked you what you thought of Jesus Christ. You told me about your own salvation story, and how you liked to imagine God as a big crock jug of water, so that every time you needed Him, you just tipped it over and took a big long sip. And how anyone could “drank and drank” of Him and never get enough. I’ve long loved that imagery. I suppose it won’t be long now until you meet the One you love and Who loves you. I cannot help but be hopeful in these days as I will see you again one day. Soon and very soon.