In the late summer of 2008, when I was living in Northern California, I heard that my church was in need of people to make weekly visits to some elderly people who used to be a part of the congregation, but who could no longer attend due to illness, infirmity, or just old age. I had enjoyed visiting nursing homes during high school and had been praying about how I could get more involved with my church, so I called to volunteer.
I was paired with an elderly lady named Thelma, who lived in a nursing home in town. She had gone blind and had requested someone to come read the Bible to her on a weekly basis. The first time I visited, the leader of the ministry accompanied me. She warned me that Thelma could be rather abrasive and cranky. She introduced us and then sat with us as I read. I felt like I was interviewing for a position.
Apparently, I would do, and Thelma and I fixed upon a time and day that would work for both of us. I came every week to read the Bible to her until just before Christmas. As we got to know each other, she began to talk more and ask me questions about my life. I learned she had buried three husbands. She talked about their differences and their accomplishments. It became almost a ritual for her to then ask me if I were married. Each time I told her no, and she would respond with "why?" and that I really should. I agreed with her, but said I wasn't willing to marry just anyone, and she said that that was good.
She had three children still living, but they were all far away. She lived for them to call her on her phone, which she kept always close to her bed. Sometimes she would have me check it to make sure it still worked. One evening, one of her daughters did call when I was reading to her and saw Thelma transform from a cranky old lady to an ecstatic woman full of life and vitality.
But as the winter progressed, Thelma's faculties did seem to decline. Her lucidity ebbed and flowed. The last night I visited her, she seemed only slightly aware of my presence. I started reading her favorite Psalm, when she stopped me midway through.
"Who is that man behind you?" she said.
I was startled. As far as I knew, we were in a room all by ourselves with the door closed. I quickly turned around, but there was no one there. I told her so, but she insisted there was a man standing behind me. Suddenly, I wasn't frightened anymore. A peace spread through me.
"Maybe it's an angel." I said.
"I think you're right." Thelma said.
That was the last night I saw her. I went to visit my family a few days afterwords for Christmas, and while at home, I got the call that Thelma had died. She had died the night we usually met to read the Bible. At first, I was worried that the change in her schedule at such a tenuous time in her condition might have had something to do with it, and then I remembered our last conversation.
I think she did see an angel that night, or perhaps even He who commands them all. She was ready to go. She had lived a full and fascinating life. He had come to take her home.
Death is always sad, no matter the circumstances and no matter the age. But I have hope in the Man behind me, who does not forget about cranky old ladies in nursing homes or unmarried nobodies like me. Every day He gives me little stories like this one to remind me that He is there, that He cares about even the smallest things in each of our lives, and that our stories never end.