Thursday, December 9, 2010

days I will treasure

Saturday, Dec. 4:
The call came. The one I'd been dreading since her last hospitalization just a couple of weeks prior. Grandma had suffered a stroke.

Sunday, Dec 5:
A morning email from my sister confirms, Grandma is not expected to survive the damage suffered. Daughters 2&3 join me in traveling the three hours to Grandma's side. I had no plan. I had very few clean clothes. We were going to follow where ever the day led us.

We arrived. She was awake and alert. "Help me," she asked over and over as she tried with all her strength to escape her prison. Family said their nightly goodbyes and filed out of the room. We were alone. I couldn't leave her. Why didn't I bring my Bible? Mine ... with hand-written notes, headings, modern English, and the Old Testament. We carried on, though. With the help of the Gideons I read aloud several psalms and bits of Revelation. We held each other's hands for most of that night. She slept soundly.

With a cross marked upon her forehead I blessed her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Monday, Dec 6:
Grandma slept most of the day, in a relaxed state and at other times quite uncomfortably. I reminisced with cousins I had not been in touch with since Grandpa's passing four years ago. There were doctors and nurses, visitors both family and friends.

My sisters arrived from their distant homes that evening. There were tears and there was laughter. Why, oh why did I not bring my hymnal?

Tuesday, Dec 7:
Grandma had been moved to the hospice room the night before. My cousin and I spent the night with her. The morning light brought with it the knowledge that today would be the day. Family began arriving, and Sisters 1 & 2 brought with them the hymnal. What treasures they are to me, I do not think they will ever quite truly comprehend. We (Sisters 1&2, Daughters 2&3, and I) began to sing. What happens next Sister One describes beautifully in the addition found below.

Forty-eight hours, two nights, at her side ... then bittersweet relief. For her. For us.

Wednesday, Dec 8:
After a shower and a wonderful meal the night before, I climbed into bed at a local motel and slept heavily (according to my children) for 13 hours, only to rise in the morning for what became a four hour drive home in complete exhaustion.

I did not attend the funeral. There I would not hear of our gracious Savior or feel the warmth of family. This is my one sadness: the great unfaithfulness smothering those I've cared for my entire life. Each tear I shed was for this reason, though they did not understand. Satan has had his way and torn the family asunder, but some still fight. I saw it. I heard it. I can't help but think of the Parable of the Sower. May God grant them his tender mercy and hold fast to them that are faint.


Written by Sister 1 ....
Death isn’t pretty, and it isn’t easy. But in the midst of my grandmother’s death Tuesday, God gave me one of the greatest gifts ever.

This is going to be a long post, but if you’ve ever wondered whether dying people know what’s going on around them, or whether the angels really do show their faces to those they’re coming to take home to Heaven, I hope you’ll make it through to the end.

When you think of what the perfect grandmother would be like, Grandma was that grandmother. Pleasantly plump. Always a smile on her face. Always a hug and a yummy treat. Always more love brimming out of her than even we greedy young things could absorb.

And we were greedy. I don’t know how many grandchildren Grandma had (although before the Alzheimer’s, she would have been able to tell you every one, along with all their birthdays). I don’t know the number, though, because most of Grandma’s four sons married and had families that just disintegrated. Divorce, remarriage, more divorce, children out of wedlock…it was hard to keep up with who was with whom. But somehow Grandma kept it all straight, and for children whose home lives were falling apart, she and Grandpa were the rocks their grandchildren clung to. For nearly 40 years, they provided the unconditional love, in great abundance, that many of us didn’t always find at home.

Late Saturday night, I received one of those phone calls we all hope will never come: the call from a little-known relative, letting you know that someone you dearly care for is nearing the end of life on earth. Grandma had suffered a massive stroke and wasn’t expected to live much longer.

The woman who had rubbed my tummy when I felt sick, who helped me out of the apple tree when I climbed too high, who bandaged my scrapes and stings and kissed me goodnight now needed me to bring her that same comfort. And oh, how I wanted to be able to give back to her, just a little bit of all that she’d done for me.

Fortunately, I have an incredible husband who didn’t question me leaving him in the middle of Advent (one of the most hectic seasons for a pastor) with two busy kids and a messy house. Just gave me a kiss and said, “Go.” And so I went.

Late Monday afternoon, I arrived in western Iowa at the bedside of my broken grandmother. In life, Grandma had been an Avon representative and always kept herself looking nice. Now, that pretty softness was gone. In its place was a tight mask of death: skin pulled taut across her face, eyes sunken, her toothless mouth hanging open as she gasped for each breath. It was difficult to see.

At her bedside were my half-sister, Tena, and my cousin, Heidi. My sister, Camille, and I joined them and into the wee hours of the morning, we held Grandma’s hands, stroked her sparse hair, kissed the thin, feverish skin on her forehead and cheeks, and shared our favorite memories. Could Grandma hear us? If so, we couldn’t tell. She remained as unresponsive has she had been since the stroke, unable to squeeze our hands or murmur a word.

As the hours passed, our attention shifted to what was most important: sharing the Gospel with this dear woman who was soon to meet her Creator. It had always been hard to tell exactly what Grandma believed about God. She went to church every now and again, and I knew that she believed in Him.

But now, with the time of her meeting Him so near, was she ready? Again, we couldn’t know. She couldn’t communicate with us at all. And so, having been told that hearing is the last sense to go as a person dies, we decided to do what we could to share the Good News with Grandma.

As the rest of the people of Denison climbed into their beds for a good night’s rest, we opened the Bible to Luke and the story of Jesus’ birth. When we got to the part about the prophetess Anna, who had waited her whole life to see the Christ Child, I whispered into Grandma’s ear that now, like Anna, she was going to get to see her Savior. If she was worried about whether she would be able to go to heaven, I told her that because she was a baptized child of God, those worries could be thrown away. Jesus had taken all her sins upon Himself, and she no longer had to worry about them. Now, He was waiting there to take her with Him into heaven, and someday, I was going to join her there, too.

Again, there was no response. Just the strained, though regular, breaths.

The next morning, things quickly changed. Grandma’s breathing became even more labored and her eyes stared, unseeing. More family gathered, and we each had our time for that final goodbye and our private words of love.

Then, as the other family members left the room, Tena and two of her daughters, Camille and I were left alone with Grandma. I thought of Grandma lying there in the silence – wouldn’t that be lonely? What else could we do for her? So we pulled out a hymnal and started to sing Christmas hymns.

We started with “Away in a Manger,” which ends with this stanza:

Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever
And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there.

As we finished the last few lines, Grandma began to stir. Thinking she was hurting or restless, I rubbed her hands as we continued. Then, as we sang the Glorias of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and prayed “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” what I believe was a miracle happened.

Grandma’s eyes, previously frozen and unseeing, suddenly came alive. The spark of life was in them again, and she focused intently on something only she could see. A single tear seeped out of her eye as she joined her voice, guttural and unformed though the words were, with ours. With her last strength, she raised her hands and swung them with the music. Her toothless mouth spread wide in the most joyful of smiles. Her face shone.

I’m writing today to tell you that something happened in Room 218 of Denison Community Hospital at 12:40 p.m. on Tuesday, December 7, 2010. I believe that the curtains to heaven were opened to Marcella Keiner's eyes. And five of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were blessed enough to be in the room when it occurred.

If you wonder, if you worry…give those wonderings and worries over to God. He is with you, friends, to the very end, and He will never let you go.


  1. Tena, I'm so sorry about your loss and we are praying for all of you.

  2. Thank you both for sharing.
    God Bless

  3. aw, I just now saw this for the first time. ;*)