A church service and a phone call…
This year on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, our choir at Ebenezer UMC did not assist in the service there, so I took the opportunity to attend the service at the last church where I sang and served. It was a joy to worship with the congregation at Messiah Lutheran, one of my church homes, and folks I will always consider family. My patient husband was chauffeuring me around at the time because my vertigo had flared up, and we agreed with the family doctor that I probably shouldn’t drive until I was feeling better. So Sweet Pea picked me up from work, we shared a tasty supper at PF Chang’s, then headed across Kingston Pike to the church.
”You are dust, and to dust you shall return…”
It was a beautiful service, contemplative and solemn…and just as we were leaving the church my silenced phone began to vibrate. My cousin Hazen was calling to tell me that Aunt Helen was in the hospital and her situation looked pretty serious. “Aunt” Helen is actually my first cousin, but because she was so close in age to Mama, and because they had grown up like sisters, we always called her Aunt Helen, just like all the other Aunts we were blessed to know and love on Mama’s side. It was probably late in grade school before I figured out the actual family math on that relationship. But she always functioned as an Aunt for me.
Because my vertigo was flaring I knew that a drive to Johnson City on my own was not possible, so I asked Dad if he might be up for a visit with Aunt Helen in the hospital on Sunday. My cousin Stacy had told me that we should probably visit soon if we wanted to. So Dad, bonus mom Carole and I made the brief trip up on The First Sunday of Lent, in beautiful sunshine and coolish temperatures. Signs of spring were evident along the roadside as the landscape began to green up.
We arrived to find my cousin Lisa talking with the doctor, and Aunt Helen’s frail frame in the bed. She was awake and recognized me before I fully made it into the room. We exchanged “I-love-you’s” and I asked the questions I always ask at such a time as this.
”Are you afraid?” She said no.
”Are you in pain?” She said yes.
And I swear, it was like seeing Mama in her hospital bed, living that scenario all over again.
In the days that followed, our phones blazed with text messages and calls. How was Aunt Helen doing? Was Lisa eating? Did anybody sleep last night? Might they send Aunt Helen home? What exactly would hospice entail or provide?
That Tuesday night, Aunt Helen went home with hospice care.
Wednesday morning, Hazen called again to tell me that Aunt Helen had died about a half hour before. Stacy was texting while Hazen and I talked. I was at my newish job learning a very new task, and Amy, my trainer, who was aware of Aunt Helen’s condition, let me have her office for a while to make phone calls and cry. It was a kindness I will always remember.
The Second Sunday of Lent was Aunt Helen’s memorial service. Years ago she had asked me to do her eulogy, and I agreed. My cousin Lisa asked if I could sing as well, which I also agreed to do. I never sing well at funerals. But I do it anyway, with the understanding that, while it won’t be beautiful, it will be loving. I’m doing the best I can.
Rumors and speculation about coronavirus had already started to churn, and looking back now, I am grateful that we had the chance to gather as Aunt Helen’s family, by blood and choice, to honor and remember her. I was able to hug my people, cry, sing, and laugh. The church was packed with others whose lives Aunt Helen had blessed. If a couple more weeks had passed, we wouldn’t have had the chance to be together like that.
The remainder of Lent saw us all self-isolating, exercising caution, and avoiding crowds as much as possible. Many of our workplaces shut down, or drastically curtailed their activities and staffs. A trip to the store became a major event. Toilet paper, of all things, became almost impossible to find! And our church buildings have sat empty.
But The Church has, in many cases, been more vibrant and active than it was before coronavirus flipped everything sideways. Technology has allowed us to stay connected to our church families via live streams and Zoom calls, for example. I was privileged to assist my own congregation in worship on Palm Sunday and Easter, with a few other musicians and our pastors, from our mostly empty sanctuary, properly distanced from each other.
I miss hugging people. I miss sharing space with my church family and my kinfolks. And Lord, how I miss Aunt Helen.
(My last photo with Aunt Helen, February 2019, during #OperationTakeAMinute. She was my first stop on a month-long road trip, and the days and nights I spent at her house are memories I will cherish forever, especially now that her New Home is someplace I can’t visit. YET.)