Today I am going to say goodbye to my friend.
Just a week ago, I sat in the hospital with my little brother, anxiously awaiting news on each of the tests they were running, hoping for answers to what was wrong in his body. After two days, no immediate answers arose, and he was sent home. As we pulled out of the hospital driveway, I read on social media of a friend whose son had been delivered by helicopter to the same hospital, with his neck broken in two places. We texted back and forth, and I offered her encouragement and prayers.
And now I’m about to embark on a 300-mile road trip to hold the hand of my friend near the end of her life.
It is ironic and interesting how God seems to prepare you for some of these moments in life. Three years ago today (yes, really. Weird, right?) I shared an overnight vigil in the hospital with a student/friend as his mother, surrounded by her friends and family, was sweetly ushered her into heaven. I remember keeping the night hours, waiting for a last handful of family members to arrive from the airport-a four hour drive away-to be able to give their in-person goodbyes. It was an honor and a humbling experience to be given permission to share such a raw, intimate moment in a family’s life. Despite the pain of loss, this precious lady drew her last earthly breath with at least 10 people in the room, at least as many in the hallway, while Chris Rice’s voice sang the simple melody of his song Untitled Hymn;
“And with your final heartbeat…kiss the world goodbye…Then go in peace and laugh on Glory’s side…Fly to Jesus…Fly to Jesus…Fly to Jesus and live.”
I know how I hoped and prayed that this friend, finally set free from a body that refused to function normally since high school, was comforted and at peace about making that transition to heaven with those she loved encircling her in body, mind and spirit. It was a learning experience, and a tearful but beautiful one at that.
Fast forward two years, with a very different scenario. Another friend, very independent and somewhat estranged to her biological family, but not to her church family. When my best friend shared about she’d been caring for our mutual friend to fill the gaps that were left by hospice, I was blessed to be able to work remotely and spent much of those last days filling in so my bestie could get sleep, food and a shower. Together in that last few days we stayed, caring for our mutual friend in her own home, giving pain medications every two hours, ensuring our friend’s dignity, contacting relatives and friends. Several friends came to visit; they sat and talked quietly, read the Bible aloud, or sang hymns. When it was apparent that Jesus was beckoning her homeward. the few of us there just sat around her bed, holding her hands, reassuring her it was OK to let go of this life and step into the arms of her Savior. A privilege, to be allowed to serve someone in their most raw and vulnerable moments on this earth.
And now it is my turn. My close friend. The one who encouraged my relationship with my husband of 21 years. The one whose grandson played with my son for hours while we two talked and played cards. The one who screamed excitedly in the foyer with me moments after I became Mrs. James Shown. The one who labored with me to choose just which shade of Miss Clairol was appropriate for my hair. So many memories of dinners, shopping, laughter, tears, support, love. Precious to me. Even more so to God, I know.
I know my heart with be wrung with grief all of the 5 hours of the drive north. I know that when I arrive, I will talk, and laugh, and hold her hand. I will remind her of that funny things we’ve done, no matter if she’s confused from all the medications or if she is peacefully resting. I will kiss her cheek and touch her hair-the hair she was never happy with. I will want to linger, but other responsibilities will drag me away, back to my schools, back to my family. I’ll leave a huge piece of my heart there. And I will cry all the way home, I’m sure. But I will be grateful to say goodbye. Grateful that her biological family and her church family is at her side to care for her. Centered in the peace that knows she’s just a few breaths from Heaven. And that Jesus is there with her, and will hold her hand across the divide when mine can’t be there. Especially that we share the eternal hope, and that we will see each other again, in a place far better than this.
Fly to Jesus, my friend. I love you so.