This was a story I entered for one of Joe Bunting's invitations. The theme was 'love story,' and this was the one I chose to write about. Most of the entrants write fiction - I do not. However, I will not vouch for accuracy of details and 'facts' in this account, which happened over 20 years ago. I will vouch for the truth of emotions, observances, character and commitment which this story so beautifully illustrates.
Lucille is 95 now, twice-widowed and I took this photo about four months ago.
Mentor, friend, 3rd mom in my life, Lucille Peterson Johnston, a woman of valor.
I knocked hesitantly, not wanting to wake anyone who might be sleeping. The morning was bright and warm, typical for southern California in late May. But this was the home of a very sick man and I wondered how far inside the threshold that warmth might carry.
He’d been sick before, this dear old man. Kidney cancer that was controlled and managed for over a decade. But now? Now, there was nothing more to be done and he had come home to die. No one knew how long his journey might take, nor what the detours along the way might look like. They simply told his wife, “Take him home. Love him as you have for the past fifty years. We’ll give you meds to keep him comfortable and a standing order for nursing help if you need it.”
And so she had. She’d brought him home. Home, where their own bed waited, good mattresses held by an antique wooden frame, layered with quilts from the old country. Sweden was where their family hailed from, the cold Scandinavian northlands. Hard to imagine such a place cradling these warm and loving people, but here they were. Proud, hard-working, hospitable, dedicated to God and family, surrounded by pieces of their long story together.
I entered slowly, aware that such times fairly shine with the luminous glow of a thin place, a liminal spot, a wrinkle in time between this world and the next. She led me to the bedroom, talking to him as she walked. “Harold? See who’s come to see you today? It’s our friend, Diana. Isn’t that nice?”
He was in a fetal position, small beneath the covers, this formerly husky man, who loved his wife’s cooking and carried the evidence with pride. His eyes blinked briefly, a smile just creasing one corner of his rugged face. No words to offer, but I hadn’t expected any. A smile would suffice, more than suffice.
His wife kept up a gentle patter, describing what I was wearing, asking me how my family was, how I was enjoying my new job on the pastoral staff of the church we all attended. Always careful to include him in the conversation, she was cheerful and genuine, without a hint of self-pity or condescension. They were best friends, these two. Had been for a very long time. They’d raised three fine children together; ran a popular shoe store in the community long past the age of retirement; volunteered in community and church leadership, working long hours for no reason other than the joy of serving.
She had more energy than anyone I had ever known, planning events for women and families, on her feet cooking for hours at a stretch, an expert on anything related to food, needlepoint, child-rearing, entertaining, small dogs, church governance, the encouragement of others. She had seen something in me and called it out, giving me responsibilities long before I thought I was ready for them. We worked side-by-side, she gently teaching, I absorbing, stretching to meet her confidence. I learned by watching and I learned by doing. And my admiration ran deep and true.
Truth was, I missed her. Both of them were fixtures in our congregation. In their retirement, they had assumed many of the everyday duties of tending a large, aging facility. They cleaned and sorted, set up tables and chairs, kept tabs on the use of our large, beautifully planned community kitchen, a creation of her design. Sometimes, he came across as a little bit cranky, particular, over-anxious. But I knew better. I saw the softness underneath the sometimes gruff exterior, the deep commitment to things of the Spirit manifested through his commitment to the gathered body in our corner of Pasadena. “You know,” he’d say to me. “You look a little like our daughter. And our daughter looks a little like my wife. You could be our daughter, you know." And sometimes I felt like a daughter.
They were everywhere at church, all the time, moving quietly in the background, checking to be sure things were as they should be, that people were welcomed and comfortable. Newcomers might not always know their names, but they surely knew their faces. And those of us who’d been around awhile? We knew them like we knew our own family members. Because that’s who they were.
I will never forget what she said to me that particular day I went to visit. My friend had been sick for about six months at that point, and his wife was with him every day, all day. I found it hard to imagine how she was managing, how she was embracing this life, the one with such small parameters. She who had been the center of a very busy hive was now in the backwater, tending to the needs of a single dying man.
So I asked her. We knew each other well enough, we loved each other deeply enough. “How are you doing this, my friend? How do you stay sane? Don’t you miss your life, your projects, your contributions? How are you? How are YOU?”
She was relaxed, ready for my question. She looked at me deeply, and with no hesitation said, “Diana, this is a privilege. This is a joy. I cannot imagine doing anything other than this, just exactly this.”
And I knew it was true, true right down to the tips of her well-manicured toes. She was radiating peace and contentment.
“Isn’t it hard to watch him shrivel and disappear like this?”
“Yes, of course, it’s hard. But this is what happens to all of us, you know. We all die someday. And we’ve had 52 years together. Fifty-two years of love and story-telling and story-making. Who else could do what I can do now? This is the last, best gift I can give him. And I am happy to do it.”
He died six months later, on the eve of my first-ever sermon, an event which they had foreseen many years before. An event which they had prayed toward, and encouraged me to shoot for, walking by my side down the road through seminary and internship. So, early on that Sunday morning, those who had gathered round me to pray God’s blessing on our worship, told me very gently that Harold had gone home, with his family gathered round. Oddly encouraging to think that both of us were encircled by love as we each stepped out onto a new leg of the journey of life, the journey of death.
And I wept. I wept with the sorrow of good-bye. I wept with the power and beauty of true love. I wept with deep gratitude that my story was interwoven with theirs. I wept because these two friends had shown me what love looks like when it’s old and well-worn and bounded by vows kept, vows honored, vows lived. I wept because of how they had modeled for me, indeed our entire community of faith, what faithfulness looks like. I wept because of the goodness of God paradoxically and beautifully revealed in and through the harsh, sometimes starkly intimate details of a protracted and difficult dying. I wept because my friends were together to the end, and now they were both free.
Adding this to Ann's Wednesday invitation, Em's Thursday one (if it's open) and Duane's, too.