April 11, 2005

I met Maxine during an outing with the junior high youth group. The youth program emphasized more than lessons and finger-wagging against pre-marital sex. We visited the elderly, sent packages and notes to college students and missionaries, as well as monthly lessons. Service to others and the community was a priority.

That evening we loaded the kids into the 15 passenger and drove through the rainy streets to her small, modest home. Everyone found a seat somewhere and the youth leader pulled out his guitar and led us in some songs. Conversation followed along with snacks and finally the end of our evening bid us return to the church. Before I left, carefully navigating the forty-foot oxygen line that connected Maxine lungs via her nostrils, I asked her if I could visit her during the week. "Of course, " she replied. "Come for lunch on Tuesday."

I dropped my girls off at Mother's Day Out, took the money for the day, chatted casually with the other mothers, directed a new mom to the correct room, aided in filling out the required papers, and finally loaded the lunches into the refrigerators. Having complete my few errands, I pulled up in front of the mustard-yellow bungalow. The smell of crape myrtle filled the air. As I passed the trees, I reached out and pinched the bloom out of a bud, a habit from my youth.

I knocked once knowing that her physical ailments would prevent her from answering quickly. I could hear a door closing and the shuffling of feet. Her stooped figure appeared and opened the heavy door. I hugged her and entered. The smell of something delicious made me salivate and I realized that I was famished. She told me to follow her into the kitchen where a table was modestly set. She refused my help to carry the dishes laden with food to the table and directed me to sit. I couldn't believe the amount of food she had prepared: spiced meatballs, au gratin potatoes, canned green beans with bacon, a salad, homemade rolls. We prayed and she reached for my plate and began to ladle generous helpings of everything onto it. I saw the plate grow heavier and heavier bending her tiny wrists. I took the plate from her hands and thanked her. We talked easily about life and children and husbands and cooking and gardening and church and the weather and our love of Missouri. The food was the comfort of my body, the conversation the comfort of my soul.

She told me how she and her husband had met, reared three children, having lost one to death while she quite small. Though the child's death occurred forty years previous, she dabbed at her moistened eyes. There was no offer of excuse for her obvious grief, just a silent pause before she continued. We soon found our plates empty and when I returned from the pink-tiled bathroom, she had placed on the table a 12 inch octagonal pie plate filled with coconut cream pie. I was now in a conundrum. Somewhere deep in my memory existed a very bad experience with meringue and gelatinous things. She had already poured a cup of coffee and was slicing and placing a gigantic piece onto my fresh dessert plate. I could never offend this gentle, generous woman and so, sucked up, casting aside my pickiness, and sat. I told her how wonderful the food was, and asked how in the world she thought I could now eat such a big piece of pie. As she walked over to the counter to retrieve the cream and sugar, her back hunched with osteoporosis, navigating the cord of oxygen, and hearing the shuffle of the orthopedic shoe that accommodated her displaced hip, she said, "You're a skinny thing. How much you weigh?" I laughed aloud. This coming from such a fragile creature who couldn't have weighed more than 95 pounds. I told her she was the pot calling the kettle black. She chuckled and agreed. Thus began our friendship and weekly visits.

We didn't always have lunch, only on the days her son, who, at 6'5 and 250 pounds, towered over his wee mother, shadowing her with intense love and protection, stopped by for lunch. Sometimes we just sat and talked while her home-health nurse poked and prodded her, taking all kinds of vitals and scribbling notes. Maxine would make silly faces over the shoulder of the scrub-clad, bleached-blond nurses assistant causing me to stifle giggles. Maxine never complained about anything but filled the air with stories of her youth, a time so far from my own experience that I was truly transported and felt I was bumping along with her in her husband's wagon. They were a poor family, but like so many from her generation, clean and hard-working, cheerful and content.

Once, while talking, she reached into her end table and pulled out a comb and attempted to smooth her hair, keeping it nice until the next shampoo and curl. I saw her struggling to get the back, and through my smile, my eyes became wet. I walked over and taking the comb from her, began to gently arrange her hair.

The third week of May was the last Mother's Day Out and we had a planned trip. I had many things to do to prepare and also wanted to take advantage of the last full-day of refreshment I would have before summer descended. As I passed the street that led to Maxine's home, I had a conviction to pull in and visit her for a few minutes. I justified my limited time, setting an afternoon appointment in my head and drove on.

My day passed more quickly than I anticipated, as it so often does when it is the last of something. I raced into town to pick-up the girls, again thinking I would get into see Maxine the following day. Suffice it to say, I forgot and only remembered as we were driving to St. Louis. Wednesday when I return, I thought. The weekend was filled with various trips to the Zoo and Nature and Science centers and a bit of retail therapy for myself.

When I picked up the mail from the post office, I sifted through and selected the church newsletter. I left the van running, and sitting in the parking lot, quickly scanned the front and turned to middle section that held the social news of the congregation, weddings, baby announcements, funerals. Funerals. "We extend our deepest sympathies to the Gardner family at the death of Maxine on Thursday last. Her funeral will be held Wednesday..." The words became blurred, and I fell against the steering well, the music of "Performance Today" playing on the radio, the girls talking in the background.

I made it home and settled the children with painting and quickly dialed the number to the church. After getting the specifics from the church secretary- the holder of all pertinent information- I arranged for a sitter. I hung up, glanced at the clock- one hour- and dashed upstairs to change into the appropriate attire. I couldn't keep myself from weeping as I drove the twenty-two miles to the sitters. As I entered the funeral home, I pulled a couple of tissues from the strategically placed box. I took a seat on the back row and listened to the brief eulogy, the few songs, the organ. Not many were in attendance: her family, the pastors, and the aged friends of her youth that were left in this world. I don't recall any of the words. I was lost in thought while I contemplated the silver-haired, hatted women with hands covered in wax paper, still wearing their wedding rings, ornate with silver filigree, triple strands of pearls encasing the swinging flesh of their necks. Who would know that their bodies lit by the fire of true love once moved with agility and swiftness; that they ached with passion; ran after their little ones with eternal energy; snapped beans while sharing the gossip and "prayer concerns"?

After the grave side services, the family went to the church wear more elderly, fragile women had cooked and baked a savory meal, but tasteless to its consumers. I passed through the kitchen once, and overheard them talking about Maxine, sharing memories of rearing their families and organizing church projects. The sipped their syrupy coffee in Styrofoam cups held in shaky grasps, cooled with pursed, wrinkled, red lips.

I found Bruce, Maxine's burly yet gentle son. He hugged me in a suffocating and comforting embrace. I asked what had happened so suddenly. He explained that an infection from boils on her feet, an ailment she had long had, but never mentioned to me, had spread through her circulatory system and significantly weakened her. She was hospitalized that Tuesday that I had ignored her. He told me that she had asked about me, if I had come. "Surely she'll be here, " she had said. And yet I had not come. She died peacefully and in her sleep, he assured me, thinking that my display of tears and shaking shoulders was over her actual death.

I picked up the children, popped a cassette of Beethoven Lives Upstairs to occupy them, to keep their astute little hearts from discerning or noticing my obvious distress and sadness. For weeks I felt depressed. I had let my friend down. And for what? Chinese take-out, a movie, and some extra loads of clean laundry. Selfishness. One night R asked me what was bothering me. I confessed how I had justified not stopping that day; how I had realized later that if I had simply stopped for two minutes, I would have known she was in the hospital, could have rescheduled the St. Louis trip; could have been there for my friend.

R held my hand, then hugged me tightly. After my crying had diminished, he asked me that pulling I felt about going to visit her could have been the Holy Spirit. I acknowledged that I believed it was. He then told me that maybe the reason I was so affected was that perhaps in denying that conviction, I had grieved the Holy Spirit by not being obedient to His prompting. I analyzed for a few minutes, then said that yes, I believed that to be the truth of the matter. Other than missing my friend, I knew I had let her down, and that I hadn't done what I was supposed to do. R encouraged me to pray, to seek forgiveness for not listening to the Small Voice that God has promised to provide me with; the voice that directs my vision beyond the physical world and material concerns and anxieties. So, right then, we kneeled together; R wanting to be supportive of me, his concern and compassion for my contrite heart and disconsolate soul, and I prayed. I knew immediate relief from God. I thanked R for being an honest friend who didn't attempt to pacify me with sugar-coated yet deficient words of "You couldn't have known" or "You were a good friend- think of all the times you did visit her."

The next week, I drove the winding, narrow road through the cemetery and found the marker the to her grave. I stood for a moment and then crying, told her that I was sorry I let her down; that I would miss her sweetness, her humor, her humility, her friendship. I wiped my eyes, got into the station wagon, and drove home, secure that the fences in heaven had been mended.

I determined from that experience that I would never again ignore a prompting to visit someone, to check-in on them, no matter how "inconveniencing" the stop may appear.

Posted by Rae at April 11, 2005 09:57 AM | TrackBack

Rae, I love you......

Posted by: Sally at April 11, 2005 12:32 PM

Thanks for sharing this...I am truly edified.

Posted by: Beth Ellen at April 11, 2005 03:30 PM

Yes, edifying...it's a story of a lovely friendship, but also a reminder to pay attention to those gentle promptings from the Spirit.

Posted by: Cindy Swanson at April 12, 2005 06:22 AM

You should have posted a warning for those of us at work. Thanks for sharing a wonderful story.

Posted by: GrumpyBunny at April 12, 2005 07:23 AM

Thank you for blessing me with your memory.

Posted by: Carrie K. at April 12, 2005 03:39 PM

Not only was that a beautiful story, it was very well written. I loved your descriptions. I also loved the way you shared your heart.

Posted by: Eddie at April 21, 2005 09:08 PM
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