“Because I do not hope to turn again”… that’s the first line of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday, and I can’t get it out of my head. My Grandma died on Saturday, my sister got engaged on Saturday. I’m not sure where I’m up to yet. This is going to be a quite personal post. Read it out of love.
I drove to Sydney on Friday morning. My mum had rang me during the week with the news that Grandma was in her final days. She had been ill with cancer since the start of the year. I spoke to mum and told her I loved her and that I’d come to look after her and give her a hug if she needed me. At our first conversation she was ok, but she rang back the following afternoon to ask that I come. I was planning to go alone but decided that I needed Emma to take care of me, so she came at the last minute. We were supposed to be hosting a big farewell party for a colleague on the Saturday evening, so we tidied the house and made all the preparations for the party, then left a key out for the our friends to look after the rest. I was afraid to leave Focal Point, I was at home with my Christian family, some of the people who are closest to my heart. I have always been afraid of the dying, it is the furthest arc of the nagging belief that I don’t belong. But I’ve never treated my mother as she deserves and I told her I would go. So we went. I sang my way through the Counting Crows: Live across a Wire Album. It’s been a while since I was back there.
Grandma was in Neringah Hospice in Wahroonga, Northern Sydney. There was nothing left of her body, but her smile was the same as I always remembered it. It was startling to see that smile in a face so changed. Although she was heavily dosed with morphine for the pain, Grandma was still very lucid, very capable of listening and responding.
I sat with her and read through psalm 23. When i had first found out that she was dying, I visited her at home in Hornsby, She said that her comfort was in God and in the promises of Psalm 23. I then read Psalm 73, which I think is my favourite, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” I wanted to read her the psalm which says “better is one day in your courts..” but couldn’t remember the number, Grandma remembered that it is Psalm 84, so i read her that to. (she knew her Bible). I read from her Bible and I read more loudly the parts that she had underlined. We then read from Colossians, all over the book, that had been her favourite place to read in the recent past. Then I left her for a while.
Grandpa Bill had, unbeknownst to his minders, brought along a big bag of old gospel tracts to hand out. He said to me “I don’t want to go to heaven while I’ve still got boxes of these at home.” And he slipped out to walk the streets of Wahroonga and put them in letter boxes. Grandpa Bill turns 91 on Tuesday, he’s a bit unsteady on his feet, but not in his heart. His minders (the Aunties) were worried for him, last time he went out he got lost and couldn’t find his way home. So I tagged along with him. I told him that we could get more done if we went together. I’ve been letterbox dropping lots of times before, but this was the best. You are invincible when you are with your 91 year old Grandpa. I ask him questions about how he became a missionary (he served for 50 years in India). So he told me stories of getting converted by the Irish evangelist Billy Nicholson, choosing to go to India during the Second World War on a steam tramp captured from the Germans in World War One. Hearing on the radio during his passage that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour. Living through Indian Independence and the ethnic and religious tension that ensued.
He first knew my Grandmother, Joy, while they were students together at Sydney Missionary & Bible College. He told me quietly that at the time he didn’t think she was the marrying type. He got a big surprise later when he found out that she had married Jim Hadfield and left with him to mission in Bolivia, in the Amazon jungle. I told him that he was wrong twice – my original Granddad (Jim) had married her, and then he’d married her! Grandpa Bill and Grandma were married in their 80’s. Between them they had 70 years of mission experience. That’s a lot of good stories. I used to travel to Sydney from Canberra in my first few years of Uni to sit at their table and listen to the stories.
Grandma raised 5 children in the Amazon jungle, they survived plague, hostility, wild animals, and who knows what. My mother was born there and spent the first 10 of her years there. I was raised on tales of adventures along the jungle rivers on a boat that my Granddad had built. Grandma even had giant skins of a jaguar and an anaconda in the garage of her home in Hornsby – skins complete with bullet holes where Granddad had shot them. They were the first evangelical missionaries in that part of South America. Che Guevara was preaching revolution, they were preaching the gospel.
I eventually got Grandpa Bill back to the hospice safely.
My final time with Grandma came later that day, Emma and I and Naomi were leaving to get dinner started for everyone at Grandma’s house. Naomi and I got some time with her to say goodbye. She pronounced her Blessing over me, “The Lord Bless you and keep you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” and then she added the verses that she has been saying to many of us – verses from the end of Colossians 4:7. She looked me in the eyes and said over and over “See that you fulfill the ministry that the Lord has given you.” And I kissed her goodbye.
Grandma died in the early hours of the following morning with all her children and husband around her. They read to her from Revelation 21 and then sung “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow” – one of her favourite hymns.
In her death she taught us how a Christian should die. The power of Christ shining through her weakness. When I think of how much we love her, and I remember that it is a small thing compared with the love that her Lord has for her. And when I think of the loss we feel, then I wonder at the cost he bore in keeping her away from her home with him for so long.
Pray that I will fulfill the ministry that I have received in the Lord.
“And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.””
(Col 4:17 ESV)