My friend, Barbara, died on Christmas Eve.
Barbara and I weren’t close friends, but God used Barbara to challenge and stretch me. In fact, Barbara intimidated me up until a few years ago. She was different than me and that can be intimidating. She was older than I and reserved…I am not. She was highly educated….I am not. She was quiet…I am not. So I found myself falling prey to preconceived ideas about who she was and what she must have thought about me. Silly me.
About 3 years ago I realized that grace doesn’t work like that and if we both served the same creator, He wouldn’t want me avoiding friendships with people who are different than me. I was being just as judgmental as I incorrectly thought she was, and so I decided that I was going to break down my walls and pursue her as my friend. She was going to be my friend if it killed me!
I started innocently via email. In my line of work I have to email many folks who do ministry in my church, so when I would email Barbara about one of her many ministries like Divorce Care, or Stephen Ministries I started addressing her as “Babs”. I think it made her smile. I did ask her permission to do so and she said I was the only person she would allow to call her that, and certainly not in public. I felt honored. Walls came down.
Then 18 months ago Barbara was diagnosed with a horrible disease that imitates Parkinsons disease, although different. It’s an ugly result of the fall that manifests itself at first with imbalance, slurred speech, and then disables muscles and nerves and eventually rendered Barbara speechless and bedridden in the final months of her life. My fears about dying and disease told me that the investment I had made in Bab’s life wasn’t important enough to minister to her, but the voice that speaks to my inner heart told me that was unacceptable. So I began to visit Barbara as often as I could.
Don’t think me a saint…there are others who visited Barbara consistently who I watched and learned from. Cindy 1 went every Wednesday and ate lunch at Barbara’s table…supping on laughter and one-sided conversation for months and months. Sharing her heart and getting Barbara to laugh – one of the bodily functions that lasted almost to the end – Cindy was a constant encouragement to Barbara. Her prayer time with Barbara every Wednesday helped sustain her long days in bed.
Rachel, whose gentle spirit would be bedside with Barbara regularly, treating Barbara with such grace and respect with her reports of “life on the outside”- sharing what was going on with her children, showing her their latest projects, talking about what she was growing in her garden, praying with her, and asking Barbara questions and patiently waiting for her belabored answers.
And there were many others; caregivers who blessed her by caring for her every need, friends who cared for her plants and yard, and others who came to chat, and clergy who brought her communion and prayed with her. It wasn’t easy to come but they did come, faithfully, day by day to walk Barbara through the letting go of this world that held her captive and on the lonely passage into the lasting beauty of the next.
The best part of visiting with Barbara was the knowledge that she was mentally there and understanding everything that went on. You see, Barbara’s mind was intact to her final breath and so she was fully alive within and as sharp as a tack…something we tend to forget when someone is dying. In the early stages of her home care Barbara could raise her left arm with a thumbs up to signal the word “yes”. As her disease worsened she would communicate by squeezing with the one finger that still had movement for a “yes” answer.
Communication could be lengthy…having to spell out words one letter at a time. It could also be pretty funny. I once asked Barbara what breed of dog her dog Lady was and she spelled out “I”….”D”….”K”. I sat there talking out loud saying “I, D, K….what breed starts with Idk?”…until I realized she was telling me “I don’t know”. We laughed long and hard about that one.
Me…well I would read to Barbara. Something she and I did share was that we were both educators, and so I read Henri Nouwen’s book The Inner Voice of Love to her. It’s sub-title is A Journey through Anguish to Freedom which is exactly the place she lived in, tied to a bed, unable to speak her mind or share her heart. I decided not to sugar coat things, as this book talks about dying, and loneliness, and fears, with chapters entitled Bring Your Body Home, Stand Erect in Your Sorrow, Say Often “Lord Have Mercy”, Cling to the Promise, Live Patiently with the “Not Yet”, Acknowledge Your Powerlessness, and Let Others Help You Die. Sigh. Those were all places Barbara lived in each day. She was such a testimony to me in life, and even more in her death.
I got to play a tiny part in a little miracle shortly before her death, of which I am eternally grateful for. The second to the last time I visited Babs, about 2 weeks ago when I had finished praying with her, (and wiping my pitiful eyes and hers as well cuz praying about death usually results in lots of tears) on a whim I asked her if she wanted me to play Santa for her and buy her two adult sons a gift from her for Christmas. She squeezed my finger “YES!”. After some questions back and forth she communicated to me that she wanted it to be something they would remember her by with a spiritual theme.
Yikes! You can imagine the burden I felt! What could I find or buy that could sum up a mother’s love for her children and say her last goodbyes adequately? Then it hit me…one of our dear friends that preceded Barbara to Glory was a man named Frank James – a very talented actor and artist who had done ministry alongside Babs before he died. He also has an equally talented daughter who is also an artist and who puts beautiful words to paper with thoughts and prayers, so I asked her if she might write something…as if in Barbara’s words…to her sons that she could leave them with.
Time passed, and Frank’s daughter (also named Barbara) thought and thought, feeling the pressure of writing words for someone when not sure of their true feelings, and as the days ticked by I assumed that it wasn’t going to happen. So I purchased a beautiful stone plaque for each of them that listed all of God’s promises. Promises like God will love you…God will always respond….God will never leave you…God will forgive you…God will redeem you….God will comfort you….God will strengthen you….God will provide for you, etc. It seemed perfect, but still lacked the personal touch.
Then on Dec. 23rd I received an email with a draft of a letter that Barbara L. said she felt inspired to write on behalf of Barbara S…although she had no way of knowing if it expressed her heart. It’s theme was HOPE. I sent it to both Cindy 1 and Rachel asking for their input. Interestingly enough, Rachel responded that she had asked Barbara if there were one word she could think of that expressed how she felt in the days approaching Christmas, and Barbara spelled out the word H – O – P – E. Isn’t God good? Doesn’t grace abound?
I printed out the letter for each of her sons, wrapped the stone plaques, and headed over to Barbara’s. Because of the pain she has been in, Barbara’s last days were usually highly medicated and so as I walked in her caregiver told me that she was asleep. But when I walked over to her bed her eyes were wide open, looking heavenward, and she was alert. So I took her finger in my hand and was able to talk momentarily with her…and then had the privilege of reading the letter written on her behalf to her boys. Barbara cried tears of joy, as did I. After praying with her, I kissed her cheek, reminded her that she was precious to Jesus, and said goodbye…sensing this might be our last embrace.
She died the next day on Christmas Eve night. On the eve we celebrate our Savior’s birth Babs went home to a new birth herself. I don’t know if God was just waiting for Christmas to bring her home, or maybe He was waiting for the gift of that letter to put Bab’s mind and heart at ease for her boys. Who knows. Maybe it wasn’t as spiritual as that and it was just her time to go Home for Christmas. All I know is that Barbara’s life was grace-filled….as was her death.
Cindy 1 called me today to tell me Barbara had gone home, and then she shared with me the devotion from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling devotional for Dec. 24th, the day Barbara died. Here is what it says:
I speak to you from the depths of eternity. Before the world was formed, I AM! You hear me in the depths of your being, where I have taken up residence….I am Christ in you, the hope of Glory, I, your Lord and Savior, am alive within you. Learn to tune in to My living presence by seeking me in silence.
As you celebrate the wonder of my birth in Bethlehem, celebrate also your rebirth into eternal life. This everlasting gift was the sole purpose of my entering your sin-stained world. Receive my gift with awe and humility….
Barbara is Home for Christmas and if that ain’t amazing grace….I don’t know what is.