Aunt Gladys seemed more ready for Heaven than anyone I ever knew, but even when her body begged to go, she demanded more time on Earth. She told us that she was determined to outlive her four siblings. She saw herself as a sort of caretaker, I guess.
So, she would will that heart of hers to keep on beating.
It perplexed me, as if Aunt Gladys could simply untie her apron, curl up on her bed and slip out of her skin whenever she pleased.
I’ve never been the style of believer who had a good sense of what was coming in the next few years, let alone the next few minutes. And I’ve never been one to think we could tell God what to do in these matters.
But Aunt Gladys had a different way of seeing. As a child, I thought it seemed a sort of simple prophecy. I wondered if maybe she’d found that gift tucked in her tattered Bible, which she read straight from Genesis to Revelation once every year.
Like her Scripture reading, her whole life had a rhythmic certainty to it. She rationed her bread and knew precisely how many loaves she ate each year. On our birthdays, she penned us long letters that we could barely decipher. (She wrote in small print, to save paper.)
I can’t remember for sure anymore — maybe it’s legend — but I do recall stories about her instructing people to use only one or two squares of toilet paper as a way to conserve.
She knew poverty and pain. During the Great Depression, her sister, Lois, died from pneumonia on the way to the Ringgold County Hospital. So Aunt Gladys stepped in, marrying her sister’s husband, and helping raise the three young children.
She wore all those hard years on her frame, it seemed. With each passing year, her back hunched deeper. I thought it looked like God folded her in half.
There was nothing fancy about her. Her socks sagged in ripples around her ankles. She wore simple, threadbare house-dresses. She gave us coloring books or socks for Christmas.
Yet, more than anything else, I remember her smile. I remember how the corners of her mouth pushed her eyes into a tight squint. I wondered how she could see with eyes pinched shut like that.
I always wondered how she could see.
And then, the Dukes brothers began to die. Merle. Then Vincent. And in November 1989, her brother Paul — my grandfather — died of a heart attack at the Ringgold County Hospital.
I remember watching Aunt Gladys — last Dukes standing — bent over her brother’s casket a few days later. They say she lost the will to live here after 85 trips around the sun.
Thirty days later, with a county hospital blanket drawn around her, Aunt Gladys’ heart stopped beating.
Author Sarah Bessey is collecting stories about spiritual midwives and patron saints who’ve shaped our spirituality. So then, this story of Great Aunt Gladys…. (Find more of of the spiritual midwives’ stories over here. )
(And our #TellHisStory linky can be found by clicking here.)