Sunday, August 21, 2016

For Helen

Last Sunday my family lost a very dear friend. She died of cancer at the age of 86, after living her last few months in my parents' home to receive hospice care. She was a unique and amazing woman, and there is so much I feel about her that can't really be put into words. But what I can, I will.

Helen was present for the births of most of my younger siblings. Since the 7 youngest of us were born at home, and only one with a midwife, her help and support were invaluable. That's the first thing I remember about her. We met her when I was too young to really remember not knowing her, and hers is the only church I remember attending. It may have been the only one we ever attended with any regularity. By the time I was 7 we had begun home church services, but Helen would often come on Sunday evening and present a lesson to us.

Her life represented much more to me than just the things she did. She was an accomplished artist, but that wasn't really something that was part of her identity in my mind. She used to make beautiful little drawings on the Sunday School papers she gave us, and her handwriting was lovely. Her backyard is probably the thing I associate the most with her. It was a beautiful, well kept, tiny place of peace and joy. Her hydrangeas were lovely, her roses fragrant, her birdbath full and usually busy when we weren't outside (sometimes even when we were). Her brick path seemed like a work of art in itself when I was small enough to run on it. It was a road into my imagination, and her backyard was the place where I could be anywhere and do anything. It was a magical place to me. Her porch swing was big enough to accommodate at least three of us, if we didn't fight. Her wrought iron gate seemed to set her yard apart from the busy street and sidewalk, like a little pocket in time and space where everything was peace and harmony.

She always kept books behind the basket in her living room, and we spent many hours poring over them on Sunday afternoons, even after we stopped attending the chapel her husband pastored and where she took over the preaching after he passed. I didn't realize until her funeral that she was married a comparatively short time out of her years on this earth. He was many years her senior, and died suddenly one day on a walk. I think I was around seven years old. He was a unique person as well, blessed with the gift of healing, according to those who knew him. I remember that he was someone who just seemed to make every one around him feel better. She always had a jar of hard candy in her front room as well, and I think we frustrated my mother as we got older by always pushing for a piece of candy as soon as we could get a word in. Hehe.

You would think that the home of someone like this would feel peaceful too, but for some reason, I never felt comfortable in her house. I always felt it was haunted, that something unfriendly watched me everywhere I went. Since I also felt that way in a couple of other places growing up, it may be the problem was with my own psyche. Be that as it may, the feeling was intense at her home - especially on the second floor - in a way that it wasn't anywhere else. I don't think it was something that came with her, and I seriously doubt that it left with her. What it was, I'll probably never know. As I grew older it ceased to frighten me quite so much. It never seemed to ruffle her, if indeed she was even aware of it.

Most of all, Helen's life seemed to be one of unquestioning faith during the time we knew her. She witnessed miraculous occurrences, and was absolutely certain that anyone else could experience the same. She also had hardships, of which she never complained, and most of which I probably don't even know about. She walked everywhere, and was fearless in a way that I wished very much to emulate. She was always kind to us children, and was at times the only kind person who had any real relevance in my life. She was a good listener, and to my knowledge never betrayed a confidence, but her advice always came directly from Scripture. There were many times I wished to ask it, but did not because I already knew what she would say.

My mother described her very well as being "Valiant... without being vicious." She did not believe in using harsh words, or giving in to negative thoughts and self pity. She was indeed a warrior without violence. Her life during the time we knew her was one of constant helping. The week before she passed, some of my siblings and I had it out with the woman who had been our cult leader growing up; and hearing some of the remarks at Helen's funeral drove home for me the reality that religious beliefs alone cannot fundamentally change a person - for better or for worse. Helen would have said she believed many of the same things that this other woman believed, although they were not in agreement on all doctrinal points. But their beliefs manifested in such different ways, directed by the heart inside. Helen loved all of God's creatures, no matter how fallen, and would lend a helping hand to anyone in need, even if she admonished them the while to change their ways. My own mother is much the same way, generous with her material goods as well as her advice. So different from the attitude that one is receiving their "just desserts" if they face insurmountable obstacles, and must first change their ways to be deserving of help or love. Helen was ever sorry to see others suffering, while the other woman seemed to rejoice in what she always perceived as justice being meted out.

I feel as though a chapter of my life has closed. I have to decide whether I will go on from here following in the footsteps of harshness and arrogance, for whatever reason - the reason isn't relevant - or in the footsteps of kindness and acceptance. I really, really hope I take Helen's path. I will never believe all the doctrines she espoused, but I want very much to be the sort of person that she was.

Memory Eternal, Miss Helen. May God grant you peace and rest, and the reward of your hard labors.

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