Billy Coffey

writer, observer, learner

Farther along

image courtesy of

image courtesy of

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.

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  1. So many things in this life we don’t understand. I think you are right though. “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.” Yes that is what it should mean when we strip everything else away.
    Beautiful post as always Billy.

  2. What a heart lesson for all of us, for me.

  3. I’ll be 50 next year myself. And if I were to find my vocabulary limited to three words, I honestly cannot think of any with more power than those three, when they come from the heart. In all honesty, I’d probably be a better person if I limited myself to no more than “I love you” anyway …

    Nicely done, Billy.

  4. “So loved He the world that He gave us His Son.” How fitting that she whispered to others the wonderful truth He whispered to her all her sweet life.

  5. Wow. Just wow.

    And what Jeanne said.

  6. What Jeanne said. Oh my.

    Thank you.

  7. This is the best thing I’ve read from you, Billy.


  8. This is my new favorite post from you, Billy. This also hit really close to home for me this morning..

  9. Beautiful……simply beautiful.
    Thank you for this…..

  10. Sometimes we need to be stripped away before the bare essence of, not who we are, but Who God is in us, can be seen.

    “In letters of crimson, God wrote His love
    On a hillside so long, long ago
    For you and for me, Jesus died,
    And love’s greatest story was told.

    ‘I love you, I love you,’
    That’s what Calvary said.
    ‘I love you, I love you
    I love you,’ written in red.”

    We have more right to ask why God would die for us – would save us from eternal death by sacrificing His own life in the form of Jesus, God and Man – than we have to ask why He would allow bad things to happen. The bad we brought on ourselves, but the good – that’s all a gift from God!

  11. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.

  12. While I was reading, I was asking myself– What if this were me? Are these the words that I would speak? Beautiful and touching post, on many levels.

  13. Some things we certainly do not understand–but “Farther Along,” we’ll know all about it!
    His strength is perfect when our strength is gone–He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on!
    Thank you, again, Cathy, for sharing this powerful story with us! God bless!!

  14. Your post was close to home here. My mother was 95 when she began to not recognize her family and friends. She could speak a few words, but most was mumble. Interesting enough she could sing and pray in the spirit. Seems that singing unlocks the emotions and flows direct to God. Your sweet mother has retained the most perfect of words to speak. “I love you” says so much — regardless to who we are saying it to.

  15. Really, Billy … your posts should come with Kleenex alerts. What a touching post, gently pointing to God’s love built into each one of us — right there in the midst of the unknown. I featured this one today at We are grateful for your voice in this network of writers.

  16. There has been much asking Why in our house recently as my 16 year old niece battles leukemia. It is hard to understand so much in this world. I know ‘farther along’ we will see clearly but sometimes we just want it to make sense now. I cannot imagine walking thru this imperfect world without faith and a confidence that God has a bigger plan, that He knows the end from the beginning.

  17. “…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.”

    Amen!!! Two thoughts…the first time my daddy ever said “I love you” to me when I was old enough to remember was when he had alzheimers.

    When my boys were little, we visited a nursing home where a lady in wheelchair sang one line over and over again, “I love the Lord and the Lord loves me.” We’ve never forgotten.

    Thank you for the beautiful telling of this story, Billy.

  18. Who’s to say what’s bad and what’s good. Surely, only God, is powerful enough and loving enough, to do this.

    Wonderful post, Billy!

  19. This piece isn’t just a story, but a glimpse of a legacy. Thank you for sharing it.


  20. Thank you for this post. I do hope that those three words would mark my interactions and communication with others.

  21. In a peaceful but disturbing way this was very inspiring. Thank YOU, Father God.

  22. The very woman you write about is one of my very best friends. She inspires me and in her “three little words…I love you” she has brought me to tears more than once since her stroke…realizing that of all God could have continued to allow her to say…”I love you” truly is the most important…thank you Billy for writing about this precious lady!

  23. Billy,
    This is the first thing of yours I have read. It will not be the last. I happened upon it when doing a web search for information about the hymn “Farther Along.” Your writing touched me deeply. Thank you for sharing your gift in such a meaningful way.

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