By Heart


Cleaning out the car after a long week.
Jackets.  Potato chip crumbs.  Water bottles.
A hymnal.
Oh, right – a hymnal.
Buried under the clutter, I forgot it was there.
It must have ridden around with me all week.

I put it in the front seat Tuesday.
I must have moved it to the back
when my daughter got in the car after school.
Dark like the car floor, it just blended in,
for days and days.

There have been innumerable times –
literally innumerable –
when I have not been there for other people.
Slowly emerging from the fog of intense child-rearing,
I have not moved outside my own family circle much
when it has come to meeting the needs of others.
It has been all I could do to meet the needs under my own roof.
Many times I have not visited, not called,
not sent a card.
I try not to dwell on this,
because it is difficult to admit and I feel bad about it,
and heaven knows I have been busy —

but on Tuesday this week,
I went to see Al.

I did not know him well,
but I had eaten with him several times
at Wednesday Night Together at church,
specifically because he was not together,
but alone.

My this-person-is-by-themselves radar went off
the first time I saw him sitting there,
and I took my meal over.
I can’t remember what we talked about.
I asked him about himself,
and he told me,
and I introduced him to my kids as they went striding by,
plates in hand,
heading for second helpings.

I sat with him a number of times,
I can’t remember how many,
and I don’t remember exactly when he stopped coming,
and then I saw him on the prayer list and was sorry,
but my life surged forward at top speed and I went about my business …

until the pastor announced last  Sunday that Al had stopped dialysis
and it would not be long now.

This was the cold shot of reality I needed,
but I was uneasy –
what do you say to a dying person?
and I didn’t want to go alone.
So the pastor and I met there,
and together
we visited Al.

Immediately upon seeing him,
I wondered what I had been afraid of.
He was still the same grandfathery man I had sat with on Wednesday nights.
It required very little overcoming of shyness
for me to kneel in front of him, right in his line of sight,
and take his hand.

He was surprised and glad to see me.
He told me over and over how beautiful my family was.
He said he missed church,
that he was sad he couldn’t go anymore.
I asked him what he missed about church,
and he said,
the people.

I do not have words that leap to mind
when speaking to a person who is near death.
I am not trained in that way.
And my singing voice is average.
But lately, by reason of having moved firmly into middle age
and realizing my time is actually not without limit,
I have become by-God brave when it comes to singing what is important,
and I asked Al if he would like us to sing some hymns.
He named two of his favorites,
and I encouraged him to join in.
You sing, he said – I don’t sing –
but the minute we began “Amazing Grace,”
he sang along.
Every word.
For four verses.
And then we sang the first verse of “How Great Thou Art,”
which is all I knew of that one,
because my hymnal was still in the car –
but in the middle of the first verse a nurse came in with morphine,
so maybe it was just as well.

I have missed a lot.
I deserve no kudos for anything at all.
But I am thankful I did not miss this.
I am thankful there are hymns I know by heart
so I can sing while holding a hand instead of a book.
I am thankful for the holy words and phrases
that have provided comfort and shelter
for so many people over so many years.

Hymns are vessels that keep souls afloat.
I am grateful for the sacred privilege of singing them
with someone sailing so close to home.







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