August 22, 2011
She and her husband were in the back row. That was the accustomed place for my family and in-laws, as we are numerous enough to require an entire pew unto ourselves. We scrunched in, the seven of us seated at her and her husband’s left, careful not to bump her wheelchair.
“I love you,” she said, first to my wife and then my daughter. Her words were muffled and childlike, as if spoken in surprise and through a mouth filled with marbles.
“I love you,” she said to the couple who approached her. They placed their hands on her shoulders and spoke in calm and deliberate words. They asked how she was feeling, how she was. “I love you,” she said again, and the smile on her face said more than her faded vocabulary could.
The preacher—“I love you”—said he loved her right back. He tucked his worn leather Bible under his left arm and took her hand in both of his. I watched as the muscles in his forearm flexed, giving her fingers a light squeeze, praising God.
“I love you.”
The congregation settled into the Sunday morning ritual of greeting/prayer/announcement. The pianist then began the opening of the first hymn—“To God be the Glory”—and all but she stood to praise the Lord in song.
To God be the glory, great things He hath done…
The slow movement to my left was hers. She placed one frail hand upon her husband’s and bid him to help her stand. He placed his arms around her and hefted her up, steadying her against the gravity that pushed down on her and the mind that worked to make sense of it all. I wondered if this too was the glory of God, a great thing He hath done.
I watched her as she sang, her voice too soft to stand with the others but her lips moving free, mouthing not O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood, but I love you I love you I love you I love.
I watched her, and what I saw was the woman she once was rather than the woman she was now. The Sunday school teacher, the choir member, the woman who organized Bible School in the summer and the Christmas program in the winter, the woman who at the young age of barely fifty had suffered a stroke that erased much of who she’d been and replaced it with a child imprisoned in a cell of flesh and blood. A child who needed help to move and wash and eat and whose vocabulary was condensed to three words.
I love you.
Act II of the Sunday morning ritual contained further announcements and a brief presentation by the church’s youngsters. Do not ask me what was said, I don’t know. I suppose I should have been listening, but I was watching her. Watching as she eased back into her wheelchair and looked out with bright but confused eyes. Watching as she said I love you to her husband.
We rose for the offertory hymn, this “Worthy of Worship,” a congregational favorite. She remained seated this time—she’s so tired now, not like before—but mouthed her own translation nonetheless, mouthing
I love you I love, you I love you
where we sang
Worthy of rev’rence, worthy of fear
And I wondered upon looking at her—God help me, but I did—that her sight made me fear God but also tempted me not to reverence Him. What God was worthy of reverence who could allow such a thing to one of His own? To pardon the darkness of this world and allow it to strip this woman down? To leave her a husk of what she once was and call it good?
For much the same reasons I missed the children’s presentation, I missed the sermon. The congregation rose. I joined them when I saw that she and I were the only people not standing. Three men stood behind the podium, songbooks in their hands, as the piano began the closing hymn, Farther Along.
I did not sing. Could not. I was watching her instead, still not knowing the Why—it’s always the Why that trips me up—but knowing that the fears and worries that once upon a time defined her living did no more. Like her body, her life had been reduced to the most fundamental level, one where Hello and Goodbye and Thank you and Praise the Lord all mean I love you, and perhaps that is what it should mean for all of us.
I joined in on the last refrain:
Farther along we’ll know all about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why.
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.
The Billy Coffey Collection