Her name was Edna. She was a black woman raised in a multi-ethnic home, had a daddy with a wooden leg who died cradled in her arms, spent the first part of her adult life helping people heal and raising 4 children; and, in her later years, when others had their sights set on retirement, chose instead to help people in their final days of life. It’s a job she told me she still wrestled with doing some days. She said she had a conversation with God when she was first approached about becoming a hospice nurse. “I don’t want to do this, God!”, she shouted up to Him. “I help people get better! I don’t help them die, God!”
For more than a week, we sat knee to knee, speaking in hushed tones in a small bedroom in my grandparent’s home. Across from us, my Peepaw lay dying in a hospital bed brought in for his final days, the raspy sound of his labored breathing our only companion beyond our own voices. We spent a week in that room, whispering until we found too much excitement in a story to keep quiet; then stepping out into the hallway to release our poorly stifled guffaws.
We had an instant connection to one another because of her daddy’s missing leg and my missing arm. She had as many stories about life with someone’s prosthetic device as I do. She was a grace to me and to my family as we traveled down the bumpy road of watching someone die. I think about her often. Today, as I have tended to my sick children, I’ve thought about her a lot. I always do when someone takes ill. I’ve thought about her a great deal today, too, because of the man we honor on January 16 each year and because of this one moment that occurred while she was caring for my Peepaw.
She and my mom were talking about their childhoods, about the oddities of living in the shift of a steep racial divide and their perception of it all as young children, when one of them brought up the water fountains. They were labeled “white” and “colored” (a fact most people know these days, but just in case you’ve never heard…that was a real thing). My mom had spent her childhood longing to drink out of the “colored” fountain, never understanding why the grown ups were so against her drinking rainbow-colored water…and Edna had spent her childhood longing to drink from the “white” fountain, never understanding why the grown ups were so against her drinking water the color of milk. I remember watching them walking around the house with arms around each other, talking over the things they had lived through together but separately, thoughtfully listening to each other relay their stories, their viewpoints, their lives; giggling at their many childhood misinterpretations of the racial divide. They got to say things to each other that it seemed had long been held inside, kept tucked away until they found a soul to speak them to who could hear their heart mixed into their words. Simple words. Lovely words. Healing words. “I didn’t know.” “I didn’t understand.” “I wish things had been different.”
“Well, we get to be friends now!”, Edna excitedly told me one day with a contented chuckle. I am so grateful for her. For her voice, for her sensitivity to our wounded spirits in those final days. For the confident way that she spoke about race, assured that some day we would see the end of this “judging each other over the tint of our shells” business. She went to be with Jesus several years ago now, but pieces of her still linger here in the memories of the ones she loved without hesitation…
“God loves us all, you know. Every race. Every ability. All of us.”, Edna whispered across his bed to me one afternoon, a broad grin on her face. “And He sees us. And He knows our pain. And He is with us in this very room. Isn’t it amazing?”. She turned and gazed knowingly at my grandfather, holding his hand, speaking soft and soothing, barely audible whispery words with a lilt to his cancer-wrecked shell. I watched her from across his bed, tending to him as if he was her very own person; and I choked out a stifled, strained, “I know…it is…He is.”, in response.
I don’t have answers to the racial divide that still plagues our country. I wish I did, but I truly don’t. But what I do know is this. I strive every day to be like Edna, because Edna was so much like Jesus. She saw the color of my skin and the condition of my flawed form just as surely as she saw the prevalent Native American in my Peepaw’s face and the sickness in his body…And she loved us where we were, as we were, as we needed. Not in spite of the way the Lord made us, but because of the way He made us…all different and yet uniquely the same. “God loves us all, you know.”
I am also grateful for the man we honor today, Martin Luther King Jr. His words and actions still spur us all onward toward a path of true, complete understanding and reconciliation. Because of the life he lived, I was allowed the privilege of meeting a bright light of a human being, and I was allowed to see his dream “that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” lived out in the moments that my mom and Edna shared. One pale and one dark, hands clasped firmly around each other in the embrace of new found sisterhood, voices raised in celebration of unity…and of freedom to drink whatever shade of water they pleased. 😉