Reflections: In the Distance

George Rowe

“The building is very easy to find,” said a helpful parishioner. “When you come to the intersection you just keep to the right and follow the signs. The hospital is right at the end of the road. You can’t miss it.”

This would be my first visit to the palliative care centre and a little nervousness was to be expected. When I stepped out of my vehicle I took a deep breath as I surveyed the property and then made my way into the building. I approached the information desk and introduced myself.

“Nice to meet you, Pastor George. The folks are really looking forward to the service and I’m sure you will have an enjoyable time. This is the first church service for a number of years. Please enjoy.”

The silence of the moment was almost deafening as I slowly approached the ‘common room.’ Several parishioners had already arrived and they began immediately to introduce me to some of the patients. “This is Laura,” said the parishioner, (not her real name)” and Laura this is Pastor George. He has come to lead today’s service.” All of a sudden I was alone with Laura and found myself almost speechless.

This lovely lady was very old and frail. Out of respect for Laura I got down on one knee and gently holding her right hand I looked deep into her eyes and was about to say something when she took her left hand and placed it on top of mine. My big hand was now being gently held by hands that were old and wrinkled with veins the size of a pencil.

I hesitated and was about to loosen my grip when suddenly both her hands clamped firmly on mine as she tightened her hold. The sudden gripping of my hand was certainly sending me a message. The look in her beautiful eyes and the unspoken language of her heart was saying to me, “Please, don’t let me go. Just hold my hand a little longer.” It was a moment that seemed like an eternity. I could see the tears beginning to well up in her eyes and as she spoke the salty water ran down her cheeks and for a moment they were just hanging on her chin until finally dropping they were caught by her multicolored wool sweater.

“Please excuse my memory sir, but what is your name again?”

“I am Pastor George and I am here with my wife and members of our congregation to lead in a service of song and celebration.” Her eyes went blank. Her facial muscles were strained while the veins in her neck seemed to have been working extra hard as if her mind was stranded in the present or lost in the distance of time. I waited. She brushed my hand and lifting her left hand to my cheek she said, “Thank you Pastor George for taking the time to speak with me today.”

As we sang songs of hope and praise and joy I was paying particular attention to Laura. It was hard to judge the body language. She tried to sing and then she would cry. At times she was silent as if in another time of history. Maybe she was remembering good days in the past or times of tremendous trials and toil. She kept looking in my direction as if to focus on the big man who came to her on one knee, held her hand and took some time to talk with her.

In my spirit I knew she was troubled and for a moment I just wanted to hold this old, feeble and very small lady in my arms and reassure her that God loved her. Following the service I said my farewells and then beckoned by Laura I came to her side. “Pastor George, thank you for the service. Please come again. I really enjoyed the stories of Jesus you shared with us today.”

It would be another month before I got back to lead in another service of song and celebration. I was determined to carry on a further conversation with Laura. Following the service I shook hands with all of the patients. I then sat with Laura. She was a little bashful but needed to share with me.

“How old are you Laura?” She hesitated. “Oh my! I think I’m…..I think I’m ninety-two.” My response was quick and spontaneous. “Wow! Please tell me your story,” I whispered. Now becoming more relaxed she smiled and reaching out for my hand she said, “It’s a long story. How much time do you have?” We both laughed and for the next little while she talked and talked and talked some more.

“I enjoyed my life but it was really hard,” she said. “I raised five of my own children and then I took in six more to help a family through some difficult days.”

She paused and again there was that ‘in the distance’ look as she pondered what to say next. Her little body was restless as she spoke in very faint words. “In trying to put food on the table I had to work two jobs and getting home late in the evening I had a lot of choirs to do. You know, like baking and cleaning and scrubbing clothes. That’s right Pastor, no washing machines or electricity when I raised my family.”

There was silence between us. “How much did you get paid?” I asked. “Paid? I only got paid what they could afford and sometimes that was nothing. I helped in a restaurant once and sometimes they paid me with leftover food. Not a lot of cash, if you know what I mean, but by God’s help I made it through.” Tears. More tears.

“Are you all right Laura?” I asked. “Yes. Yes my dear, I’m all right.” She stared at me and her face went completely blank. I waited and gently squeezing her hand I was able to bring her back to this moment in time. “I’m sorry Pastor. What were you asking? Oh yes. Oh yes. I’m all right.”

There was so much I wanted to know about Laura. My wife was patiently waiting but she understood my heart. I was about to leave and pick up the conversation the next time I came by. Somehow she sensed my spirit in wanting to leave and then blurted out, “But my house is still standing. Yep. That’s what they tell me, it is still standing. Not much good in going back there now. I can’t work like I used to you know.” Holding her tiny hands before my face she literally cried, “My hands are old and crippled. How I wish I could bake and clean and scrub again. I loved all my children and worked hard to make sure they were never hungry and always had clean clothes to wear.”

“Where are your children now?” I asked. I knew I hit a nerve because that distant look was again so obvious. “I don’t know. They don’t come very often now. I would love to see them. I wonder….” Her voice was silent and her thin lips quivered as tears again become so obvious. I couldn’t say anything. I just held her hand and waited.

Suddenly, “Oh my! I loved my children and sometimes I dream about them. I wake up in the morning hoping to see them but my bedroom is always empty.” There were no malicious words or rough language as she talked about her family. She loved them deeply but wished a thousand times that they would drop by for a visit. “I guess they have busy lives,” she said and then she smiled. “Would you read with me again from the Bible? I love Psalm 23,” and before I could respond she was repeating the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd….”

Over time I got to know Laura very well and now she talks about Heaven and her hope that will bring her there. Every time I talk with her I gently remind her that the sun is always shining and she just smiles.