Friday Open Forum – December 10, 2010
(My ex-husband’s mother, my girls’ grandma passed away two days ago at the age of 84. My oldest, Jennifer, is an English/journalism major who is head of public relations at a Christian mission foundation; her husband is a pastor. She was asked to write this for her grandma’s pastor to read at her funeral. Both girls elected not to make the long trip back this weekend for the funeral, mainly because they had already witnessed their grandma’s departure into God’s heavenly kingdom).
Death isn’t pretty, and it isn’t easy. But in the midst of my grandmother’s death Tuesday, God gave me one of the greatest gifts ever.
This is going to be a long post, but if you’ve ever wondered whether dying people know what’s going on around them, or whether the angels really do show their faces to those they’re coming to take home to Heaven, I hope you’ll make it through to the end.
When you think of what the perfect grandmother would be like, Grandma was that grandmother. Pleasantly plump. Always a smile on her face. Always a hug and a yummy treat. Always more love brimming out of her than even we greedy young things could absorb.
And we were greedy. I don’t know how many grandchildren Grandma had (although before the Alzheimer’s, she would have been able to tell you every one, along with all their birthdays). I don’t know the number, though, because there had been several divorces, remarriages, more divorces, etal …it was hard to keep up with who was with whom. But somehow Grandma kept it all straight, and for many whose home lives were falling apart, she and Grandpa were the rocks their grandchildren clung to. For nearly 40 years, they provided unconditional love, in great abundance.
Late Saturday night, I received one of those phone calls we all hope will never come: the call from a little-known relative, letting you know that someone you dearly care for is nearing the end of life on earth. Grandma had suffered a massive stroke and wasn’t expected to live much longer.
The woman who had rubbed my tummy when I felt sick, who helped me out of the apple tree when I climbed too high, who bandaged my scrapes and stings and kissed me goodnight now needed me to bring her that same comfort. And oh, how I wanted to be able to give back to her, just a little bit of all that she’d done for me.
Fortunately, I have an incredible husband who didn’t question me leaving him in the middle of Advent (one of the most hectic seasons for a pastor) with two busy kids and a messy house. Just gave me a kiss and said, “Go.” And so I went.
Late Monday afternoon, I arrived in western Iowa at the bedside of my broken grandmother. In life, Grandma had been an Avon representative and always kept herself looking nice. Now, that pretty softness was gone. In its place was a tight mask of death: skin pulled taut across her face, eyes sunken, her toothless mouth hanging open as she gasped for each breath. It was difficult to see.
At her bedside were my half-sister, and one of my cousins. My “whole” sister and I joined them and into the wee hours of the morning, we held Grandma’s hands, stroked her sparse hair, kissed the thin, feverish skin on her forehead and cheeks, and shared our favorite memories. Could Grandma hear us? If so, we couldn’t tell. She remained as unresponsive has she had been since the stroke, unable to squeeze our hands or murmur a word.
As the hours passed, our attention shifted to what was most important: sharing the Gospel with this dear woman who was soon to meet her Creator. It had always been hard to tell exactly what Grandma believed about God. She went to church every now and again, and I knew that she believed in Him.
But now, with the time of her meeting Him so near, was she ready? Again, we couldn’t know. She couldn’t communicate with us at all. And so, having been told that hearing is the last sense to go as a person dies, we decided to do what we could to share the Good News with Grandma.
As the rest of the people of my home town climbed into their beds for a good night’s rest, we opened the Bible to Luke and the story of Jesus’s birth. When we got to the part about the prophetess Anna, who had waited her whole life to see the Christ Child, I whispered into Grandma’s ear that now, like Anna, she was going to get to see her Savior. If she was worried about whether she would be able to go to heaven, I told her that because she was a baptized child of God, those worries could be thrown away. Jesus had taken all her sins upon Himself, and she no longer had to worry about them. Now, He was waiting there to take her with Him into heaven, and someday, I was going to join her there, too.
Again, there was no response. Just the strained, though regular, breaths.
The next morning, things quickly changed. Grandma’s breathing became even more labored and her eyes stared, unseeing. More family gathered, and we each had our time for that final goodbye and our private words of love.
Then, as the other family members left the room, my two sisters, two nieces, and I were left alone with Grandma. I thought of Grandma lying there in the silence – wouldn’t that be lonely? What else could we do for her? So we pulled out a hymnal and started to sing Christmas hymns.
We started with “Away in a Manger,” which ends with this stanza:
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there.
As we finished the last few lines, Grandma began to stir. Thinking she was hurting or restless, I rubbed her hands as we continued. Then, as we sang the Glorias of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and prayed “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” what I believe was a miracle happened.
Grandma’s eyes, previously frozen and unseeing, suddenly came alive. The spark of life was in them again, and she focused intently on something only she could see. A single tear seeped out of her eye as she joined her voice, guttural and unformed though the words were, with ours. With her last strength, she raised her hands and swung them with the music. Her toothless mouth spread wide in the most joyful of smiles. Her face shone.
I’m writing today to tell you that something happened in Room 218 of Crawford Hospital at 12:40 p.m. on Tuesday, December 7, 2010. I believe that the curtains to heaven were opened to Marcella Keiner’s eyes. And five of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were blessed enough to be in the room when it occurred.
If you wonder, if you worry, …give those wonderings and worries over to God. He is with you, friends, to the very end, and He will never let you go.