It really is a journey that we’re on. All through life, we interact with so many different people. Some of them come just for a bit and make our lives better. Some come into our hearts and stay. And those are the times when we are truly blessed.
Some of the best friends are the ones who have and you can't seem to remember when you first met. It's as though you've known them your whole life. Those are the friends who have crossed our paths and we've know in our heart-of-hearts that our life's journey has been changed for the better. We know that we have been changed for good.
Martha Gibson is one of those friends for me. She works at Evans as a server. She's done it for more than 30 years. Her feet and knees will wear out long before her heart ever does. Through the years I've known her, she has been the best pastor I've ever had.
Martha has a way of welcoming us all. I've watched as she has been kind to those who appear to have power and privilege, and she shows the same kindness to those who don't. She pushes through her aches and pains, through her own hard-times to help make our times better. She serves grits with a butter-smile in the center (thanks to Myko, our chef) and always asks if there's anything else she can get for you. Can you imagine that? In this day and age when so many of us are racing in two directions at once, there stands Martha day-after-day, plate-after-plate asking if there's anything else we need.
And when it comes down to it, more often than not her kind and gracious attention is just what we've needed all along.
I think I've witnessed this best as I've watched her with the men in my life. Our boys, Brogan, now 6'1"+ and Sam, 5'11" each started out as centerpieces at Evans at one time or another. Early on, each of the boys would be laid out in the center of the table while we ate our meals. As babies Martha hugged and loved on them, and she continues to do it every time they come to the restaurant (although now she needs to stand on her tiptoes to get her their hugs). And she was so very kind to Dad. My father lived for 19 years with Alzheimer's, his final decade here in Atlanta. As his disease progressed it was harder and harder for him to go out to eat. His world seemed to grow ever smaller. But our family continued to bring him to Evans until his last few months. And every time he walked in and Martha was working, she seemed to make a point of coming over and giving him a big hug. Five years have passed since his death and I can still see the look on Dad's face during Martha's bear hugs. He was safe. He was known by someone who cared so much for him. He still mattered.
Martha's path has crossed mine. We were strangers once a long time ago, but because angels are always nudging us, somewhere on the journey she and I have become friends. I've learned a lot about compassion from her over the years, and I've eaten way too many pancakes. And along the way thanks to those angels, I have been blessed to call Martha my friend.
Louise Penny is truly a gifted and life-bringing author. She writes wonderful stories about characters who are never-dull, ever-strong that get inside my heart and stay for a while. She weaves incredible ideas into her stories…so often these weavings raise me up and help me stand a little straighter, a little taller.
In The Nature of the Beast she has done it again. Near the end of the book (and I’ll try not to give anything away)…my hero, Armand Gamache is facing an overwhelming task. We are invited in as we watch this character dig deeply into himself to find strength for what he has to do next. With his deep-digging he reminds himself of what is good and kind; he remembers, re-members who he is. Ms. Penny shows us that this is always possible to do. Here in this book, when faced with this impossible event Gamache forces himself to think of the ones he loves. He lists them in his head by name. And then he remembers moments of love – last year’s Christmas dinner, a recent gathering at his friend Clara’s house, walking his dog that morning. And in his reflecting he comes to himself. He re-members himself. And that is enough.
This past week I was visiting with one of our hospice patients. She has come to be very special to me. Her lung disease has brought her to our hospice, but her illness does not tell you much about who she is. This spunky, gracious lady loves Christmas – she and her husband, George have 14 Christmas trees fully decorated throughout their house. She began as an elementary school teacher, and evolved into a Special Education teacher who birthed a vibrant countywide program in the 70’s. She loves taking the Eucharist more than life itself.
When I was visiting with her, I could tell right away that she was having a very hard day. Lying there in her hospital bed that George has turned toward her big picture window, she weakly greeted me. She was using her oxygen on full-throttle and she “just didn’t feel good.” She looked at me with her big, brown eyes and said, “Tell me something good.”
I told her about what I’d read from Louise Penny. I invited her to try it. Soon I listened as she shared names of the people she loved and she knew loved her. Her list sounded long and full, and I listened and listened. And as she shared her list of loved ones, her eyes seemed to grow a little bit clearer. When she stopped to take a drink of water, I asked her to share some of her best memories of the past year. And again, her list went on and on. She started with the Christmas in July party they’d recently had at their house, and her list went on from there.
As she was talking, I was aware – and I think she was, too – of the strength was in her - still...always.
As I go from house to house, room to room I encounter folks who are living while on hospice. As I listen to them, I am reminded that I have no idea what it feels like for them. I can’t begin to even put myself in their shoes. What I can do is walk with them for a bit. And share a word or two of encouragement and hope along the way.
There is strength, wisdom, power that comes to me when I circle back ‘round to this life I have lived, and am living. When I begin to list folks I love and I know love me – those who are living and those who have gone on…when I begin to think of moments that I’ve lived in love, in laughter, in grace…there is enough – more than enough – for the facing of this hour.
Louise Penny reminded me of this strength that I carry with me. Every minute of everyday. I pray that I can practice this spiritual exercise of connection and gratitude the next time I am afraid. I pray that I will remember to re-member. This is not an exercise of simply looking backwards. Instead I believe it is a spiritual practice of looking inward and breathing it deeply in.
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. A Candler School of Theology graduate, Lesley has just published her second book, Grief and the Psalms: Companioning the Moon for 29 Days (available on this website). She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan and Sam in Decatur, GA.