This has been a tragic year for a lot of people. Life has gone out of control in ways that are seemingly beyond our grasp. And the thing that saddens me the most is that people are dying alone.
The hospital room is dark except for the glow of the machines hooked up to her body. The TV is silent, and the room is empty. The stillness is broken only by the rhythmic beep of her monitor. No one comes and goes except the nurse who comes in on the hour to check her vitals.
Just a few short weeks ago she was fine. Even though she was on up in her 80s, she was still a pistol. If you met her, one quick conversation and you could easily imagine what a handful she would have been at 17. Feisty. Funny. Full of spunk. After all these years, her joints may have ached a little and her hair might have turned more grey than she wanted, but the fire in her spirit was ever present.
I’ve only known her for 20 years now. Which means that she was about my age when I met her. We went to church together. It was well known that no one escaped the building without one of her hugs. And when she talked to me, she would always take hold of my forearm. Grandmotherly women like to touch when they talk. There is a familiar strength in a hand worn by time and marked by compassion.
I would be standing in line for some huge spread of a fellowship meal. Paper plate in hand. Looking over the shoulders in front of me, spying out the congealed salads, the fried chicken, the sausage and cheese casserole. Large bowls of heavenly concoctions laid out across 5 or 6 tables set end to end. She would come up to me and grab my arm.
“You be sure to save some for me, now.”
“Yes M’am. You know I will. Why don’t you get in line in front of me?”
“Oh no. I got me a place not too far back.” She resorts to grabbing me by both shoulders. This is her serious move. “I want to be sure you try that strawberry cake I made. I was thinking of you when I baked it.”
“No way I’d miss that.” She remembers that I’m a sucker for anything strawberry.
Her husband went into the hospital first. Complications that may or may not have been virus related. I’m not sure how she did it, but she was able to get in to see him. She was afraid it might be her last chance to be with him. No one should have to die alone. The gut-wrenching flip of fate is that he went home, and she got sick.
She remained remarkably cheerful. Though our preacher was never allowed in to see her, he was able to talk to her by phone a few times. He kept up with the family who kept up with her through the nursing staff. Which means that she wasn’t getting to see any family or friends. The doctors and nurses were compassionate and attentive, but strangers are never a substitute for the ones you love.
Personally, I have been all over the emotional map with my response to this pandemic. At first, I thought we would be through this by summer of last year. But the longer we live in a Covid world, the more it weighs on me. The more it touches every corner of our lives. The harder it is to imagine that we will ever find ourselves again.
When I got the phone call yesterday, my heart sank. I’m listening, and I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. My preacher is telling me that our friend, this wonderful Saint of a lady has decided that she is tired and ready to go home to be with the Lord. She has asked the doctors to stop all treatment. And she has asked and got approval for him to come pray with her. She was persuasive like that.
A little overwhelmed, he and one of the men from the church made their way down to the hospital. Evidently, a military hospital can make a feisty woman’s wish come true. I am amazed and relieved that they got to go see her on such short notice.
They walked in and she beamed with that smile of hers. Most of the machines were gone. One monitor blipping away. Oxygen softly pumping its life into her nostrils. The awkward and uneasy stillness broken by familiar voices. “I’m so glad you came.”
I called my preacher to get the story. I simply had to have some news of an old friend whom I haven’t seen but once since nearly a year ago. Someone I used to see every week. A spunky gal that used to shake her finger at me like she was scolding me only to give way to a playful grin.
He told me, “I was surprised that she was so strong in her conversation. She wasn’t afraid or worried. She talked a long time about how firm she was in her faith.” No surprise there. “I’m so glad we could see her. She was at peace with her life.”
The phone rang. She answered it. There’s no way to be sure who was on the other end, but she was the one offering words of comfort. “Oh honey, I love you, too. You’re going to be fine. I know you’ll take good care of my grandchildren.”
The two men in the room are dressed in full protective gear with face shields. There are no hugs. Their eyes are moist because they know that they are standing in the midst of a sacred grace that very few ever get to witness. I have seen it only a few times myself. I wish I could have been there for this one.
“Is there anything you want us to tell the folks at church?” The preacher knows that we all hurt to connect with her in the worst way. His story will be our only goodbye.
She pauses for just a second. “Tell them . . . tell them I’ll see them in Gloryland.”
By now she was getting tired. They prayed together. She thanked them. And they stepped out into the hallway to strip off the hospital gear. That was around 1:30 in the afternoon. A little after 8:00 in the evening she stepped out of her cold hospital room and into that eternal room prepared and waiting.
I could be grateful for a lot of things right now. Her friendship. Her witness that was rock solid. Her devotion to her family and to her church. But, mostly, I’m grateful that she wasn’t alone. So, extraordinarily not alone.
I can almost feel her hand on my arm. Her voice clear, “There’s no tragedy here. Don’t you weep for me. I’m exactly where I want to be.”
Goodnight, Doris. You have inspired us all.