In March of this year, I watched the sweetest woman on the face of the earth as she turned 97 years "young." Maw Maw took one look at the huge birthday balloon we had bought her and all but giggled like a school girl. She said it was the biggest balloon she had ever seen! I suppose I could say that her delight in simple things was due to this whole concept of the "second childhood" that some say occurs as we enter our twilight years, but honestly, my whole life Maw Maw had always expressed delight at the simplest of things.
Whether it was a birthday balloon or a bag of shelled fresh pecans wrapped with a Christmas bow, whether it was a lifelike baby doll or a glass of cornbread and buttermilk, she expressed the sincerest delight. Oh it wasn't because life had been easy for her. Quite the contrary. Her life had been hard - extremely hard since she was a little girl, but the harshness of life had not hardened her at all! Instead, the fires she had gone through, melted her or should I say, melted away the hardness around her heart until a soft purity of soul and spirit emerged. She was like a sparkling jewel or a shiny piece of refined silver. Maw Maw glowed!
I watched her time after time as she met someone new walking through the doors of her church. She zoomed in on strangers like a beacon. With a twinkle in her eye, she would welcome them, wrap her soothing arms around them, plant a big old kiss on their cheek with those false teeth with the one gold filling grinning like a Cheshire cat, then tell them she loved them and was so glad they came. Chances are if they received such a warm "Maw Maw" greeting, they would come back - often to stay. Her childlike love and acceptance drew people like a magnet.
Don't get me wrong though. Just because she had a soft heart, doesn't mean she was a pushover. Not in the least! One of her former pastors dubbed her "The Iron Lady." Maw Maw was tough! She had a discernment and wisdom that was uncanny and supernatural. If you had darkness in you, she knew. No one had to tell her a thing - she just knew! And like a child, she was brutally honest. She didn't mind telling you what she thought! Still, people loved her! Not in spite of this, but because of it. Maw Maw was the real deal. She loved people and loved life regardless how difficult. The reason why? Because she loved God and He loved her!
If I could say one thing about this incredibly strong yet gentle woman, I would say she learned how to "live well." It was heartbreaking watching her over the last few years as she lost her independence due to failing health, then suffering a stroke, and finally falling and breaking her hip which totally debilitated her. At times, it seemed that the light in her eyes was completely gone. I sat with her for many hours at home, in the hospital, and in rehab. Though she groaned with excruciating pain, and winced as nurses and aids moved her around to change her, bathe her, and try to lift her up and down, she would cry and sometimes wail expressing her frustrations and fears. Her mental capacity was diminished but after being brutally honest with how she felt, she would soften and just a glimmer of that old twinkle would shine from her tired eyes as she whispered "thank you" to those caring for her. Sometimes, she would tell these strangers, who were way too intimate out of necessity, that she loved them! Even though they were hurting her with their touch as they had to move her and care for her, she thanked them! This was not the words of a bitter old woman, who missed living life on her own terms. This was the words of a woman who had spent most of her life, "living well" regardless of what came her way.
Maw Maw "lived well" when Paw Paw was bedridden for years after a stroke. She barely left his side. Maw Maw cared for him day and night and rarely left the house except for quick trips to the store or bank while one of her children sat with Paw Paw. She refused to even leave him to attend church services on Sunday. If he couldn't attend with her, she wouldn't go. They could worship together at home. God would just have to understand. This mother of six, who married at the tender age of 14 trying to escape a terrible home life "lived well" bearing six children as well as bearing the burden of a minister's wife. She raised her brood to love God and love people even though people didn't always love them back or life didn't always shine bright for them. In little or much, she "lived well." When the youngest daughter developed breast cancer and fought for eight long years, Maw Maw "lived well." It didn't matter that she was ninety years old and struggling to care for herself. She cared for Aunt Betty - cooking, cleaning, nursing her, comforting her, praying for her. When Aunt Betty's life was down to days and hours, Maw Maw laid next to her in the bed, held her close, soothing her pain, and calming her fears - no matter Maw Maw's own fears and pain. Those were things she could deal with later.
When the decision came to bring Maw Maw home from rehab, I recalled the years of sacrifice she had made for those she loved - including me. She was my best cheerleader, strongest advocate, and supreme encourager. She believed in me and helped me believe in myself through hard times in my life. Though she told me "not to sweat the small stuff" and sometimes even said "don't let people or things get you down, just go out there and have a ball!" I knew she wasn't advocating that I "live it up." Nor was she suggesting that I be irresponsible or selfish with the attitude that some have of the need to "live a little." Rather, she was showing me the value and simple joys that came from "living well." Even in difficult times, joy remains for those who live well.
I wish I could report that rehab ended with a stronger, better Maw Maw, but it did not. She came home completely debilitated and unable to do anything for herself. Her oldest daughter Laura - my mother took care of her round the clock with the help of nurses and aids. The pain did not diminish, the bones did not heal, and strength did not return. Her body was racked with unbearable pain, her mind was tormented and diminishing every day. On Saturday, seven hours before midnight rang in Mother's Day, Maw Maw was carried to Hospice. She was refusing food, refusing medication, and refusing help from everyone. I didn't understand what was going on, and honestly didn't even know who this person was that was struggling so much. It wasn't our Maw Maw.
Twenty-four hours after Maw Maw was admitted to Hospice I took my turn to relieve Mom to sit with Maw Maw. That morning, miraculously her pain had gone. She had been resting peacefully for several hours when I arrived. Mom left for home and I settled in trying to stay as quiet as possible so as not to disturb her sleep. I was so grateful that she wasn't hurting and was finally sleeping. A couple of hours after I arrived, a family friend came to visit Maw Maw. Bobby quietly stepped in and we whispered as I filled him in on her status. As we sat on the sofa beside her bed, Maw Maw's eyes opened. She had not been alert or lucid since she had been there and had not really communicated much with anyone. I moved a chair close to the bed and held her hands while looking closely into her eyes. They twinkled again! The softness spread across her face like pastel brushstrokes on a fresh canvas. There was no sign of harsh hues of pain, only peace and something else I had not seen for weeks - understanding. She somehow knew where she had been, where she was and mostly, where she was going.
For a moment frozen in time, Maw Maw spoke to me. I told her I loved her. She thanked me for being there and for everything I had done to care for her. She told me she loved me too. I told her that it was Mother's Day and she had been a terrific mother and had raised an amazing mother for me also. I told her that Mom would be okay - I promised her that I would make sure of it and take care of her. You see, Mom has health issues of her own, but just like Maw Maw, had pushed through them to care for her amazing mother. The apple had not fallen far from the tree. As we looked intently into each other's eyes, tears began to pour down my cheeks and more tears pooled in Maw Maw's sparkling eyes glistening like raindrops. I thanked her for always believing in me and for encouraging me. She continued to thank me. Then she said something that shook me to the core. This woman who had been my mentor said "I have to go. Thank you for everything. I love you forever." Somehow my promise to take care of her oldest daughter, my mom, had given Maw Maw permission and freedom to both "let go" and to "go" where she longed to be - with the One she loved most who had given her what she needed to "live well" these 97 years. Maw Maw was also free to see the love her life soon. In return, she gave me the greatest gift and treasure I could've ever asked for. She chose to give me a message of love and hope and final encouragement through all that I am facing in life. Maw Maw was telling me, and even more, showing me one last time how to "live well" - for even in dying she was thinking of others, doing what was right even through the pain and fear.
Maw Maw lingered for three more days. How? I imagine it was only through the love of a mother and supernatural strength because she had not eaten or had any water to drink for six days. Tonight around 7:15 p.m. Maw Maw went "home." She didn't go however, until my mom finally decided to let go and go home to her house to rest and be with Daddy. Maw Maw didn't go until my Uncle Randy's wife, Hope arrived in town to be with him in the Hospice room those last moments. She didn't go until my Aunt Jo was home caring for her husband who has his own health issues. Maw Maw didn't go until I had promised her to take care of Mom. When everyone was with the one they loved, when Mom - her caregiver for the last several years had finally let go and taken a step to take care of herself again, Maw Maw released her hold on those in this life for those who had gone on before her. Even in dying Maw Maw showed us how to "live well."
My hope in sharing a glimpse into this incredible heart of the most loving woman I know, is that each of my readers will understand more about what "living" truly means. It is not in getting ahead, living it up or living a little. It is in "living well" no matter what you face in life. It is in stepping outside of yourself to understand what and who truly matters. It is realizing that joy is not in the things you possess, the success you achieve, the pleasures you pursue. It is often in the simplest of things that you will find joy and experience living beyond what you could imagine.
Thank you Maw Maw. I love you too - forever...