Outside my windows, the trees had begun their beautiful dying.
I stared out blankly, eyes cloudy with grief, thinking about the phone call I’d just gotten.
She was dying.
I didn’t want to go say goodbye. But she was ready to go, surrendering to the season. She was a tree in autumn, about to show her glorious colors.
I was a grown woman, grieving as a child. That night, I slept with a set of stuffed brown bears that she gave me when I was six or seven years old. Mama Bear had velcro hands, so that Baby Bear could nestle inside. As a child, I unVelcroed and re-Velcroed those bear arms countless times. They never wore out.
It felt like the most foolish and most sensible thing I could do: to fall asleep like a child, bears in arms.
* * * * *
The next morning, I sent a Facebook message to friends in my writing/prayer group. They are the type of friends who counsel you, but don’t chastise you for sleeping with toys.
“Someone I love very much is dying, and I don’t know what to do,” I wrote, while tears tore down my cheeks. “I should go see her, but I don’t know if I can. I am afraid.”
They each said one thing I needed to hear:
1 – “You won’t ever regret going. In fact, you may regret not going.”
2 – “It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to lose it in front of her.”
3 – “Even grief is a gift.”
4 – “Don’t let the enemy rob you of something beautifully meaningful. He’s got you.”
The next day, I woke before dawn to head east to see her — my dying godmother, Janet.
I set a pair of stuffed bears on the car seat next to me.
* * * * *
As a little girl, I was smitten with Janet. As my godmother, she was given the task — along with my parents — of seeing to it that I knew about Jesus and His teachings. She taught me mostly by using the gifts that are available to all people: by being present, by holding me close, by looking me straight in the eye, by making me feel brave when I was small.
She had a beautiful singing voice, and along with her sister and my mother, they sang together at churches around northwest Iowa. The three of them were called, quite simply, The Trio. The song I loved most? “Something Beautiful” by the Gaithers.
Janet always made me feel warm inside with specialness, like I was the most important person on the planet. I was this small shadow behind her, like a skinny apron string. She let me make a mess of things with the flour. She let me push in her insulin shots. She let me eat ice cream before dinner, even when she couldn’t have any. And afterward, we’d climb to the hay loft to search for kittens.
When I was sad, she would pluck a tissue from the box to dab at my tears. She listened. And always, on our visits, she’d tell me something new about Jesus.
I remember the day she pulled the nestled bears from the bottom of a closet. She placed them in my arms. “I think these belong to you. I know you’ll take good care of these, Jennifer.”
I always did.
* * * * *
Turns out, Janet made a lot of people feel like they were the most important person on the planet. This week, my Facebook news feed was swollen with tributes to Janet, age 72. There were pictures of Janet holding babies, Janet wearing sunglasses, Janet trying to feed children bits of cake off of her hospital tray. “She’s always trying to give her food away,” someone wrote in the comments.
Someone posted a picture of her wiping away a granddaughter’s tears with her tired hand. I walked down a whole corridor of memories when I saw that photo:
And then I was there, at the end of a life. At a bedside.
I walked in with a collection of memories, that felt like a series of sketches: A bear. An apron. A song. A church. A hand. A tissue. A Savior.
My mom came later, along with a group of close friends.
We decided to sing, and the room was thick with Gaither, with memories, with Jesus. We all sang “Something Beautiful,” and the trio still knew their harmonized parts. It was the last time they’d sing together, this side of heaven.
As I stood there, I remembered the four things my friends told me about grief. And I thought it might be good to always remember these, and I thought it might be good to tell you, too. Because it seems we all have to do really hard things. It seems there’s something scaring all of us, but once we walk down the corridor toward the thing that frightens us, we might find a song at the end of the hallway. We might find Something Beautiful.
I also thought about the impact of one life. You know this, don’t you? One person has immeasurable potential to make others know how deeply they’re cherished. That person doesn’t have to speak to full arenas, or sell bestselling books, or make a lot of money, to make a lot of difference. They just have to be available. They just have to be a person.
You might find the most influential people in all the world, holding tissues in their hands, right up to the very end, so that they have one last chance to heal the hurt in the world.
* * * * *
It was my turn to say goodbye. The sun pooled on Janet’s blanket, and she held the edge between her fingers. I leaned in close, clumsy with grief.
I told her how much I loved her, and how she’d loved me well, and how she taught me so much about Jesus. I stammered and fought those stubborn tears, even though my friends told me it was okay to cry.
It wouldn’t be long before God loosened my godmother from earth.
“I’ll see you later,” I said.
“I’ll see you later,” she said.
Her eyes were thick with faith, wide and warm. And I could feel her breath on my cheek, like a small fog. We stayed that way for a moment, eye to eye, one last time. Until later.
And when my tears slipped out — much as I tried not to let them — she lifted a tired hand to wipe them away.
And I left the end of a life, with a song.
The Trio’s Last Song
(If you are unable to view the video in your email, click here.)
Janet Anderson went to be with Jesus at 8:40 a.m. on Oct. 14, 2014.
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