Excerpted with permission from Goins, J. (2013). The in-between: Embracing the tension between now and the next big thing. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
One year, we as a church buried two of our oldest members: Lois and Al. Within months these two pillars of our community were gone, leaving those of us who were left to wonder what it meant. It was a hard year. But just before these two left us, they taught me a lesson about life and death and what to do with the moments in between.
In the spring, we buried Lois, the matriarch of our church. Sassy but sweet, she lived a simple and inspiring life. With an infectious laugh, she had an edge that made her both fun and unpredictable—you never knew what kind of response you might provoke in Lois. It wasn’t uncommon for her to razz you, even from the comfort of her electric wheelchair with a tank of oxygen trailing behind her—a comical image that was also part of her charm.
Lois was spry and jovial and, even as her body weakened, always up for a laugh.
She left us gently and gracefully, but with flair that was uniquely hers. At the funeral, her son-in-law, Vince, eulogized her, telling stories of his mother-in-law’s love for antics. He recounted how she gave him a hard time while he was courting her daughter, and how he learned to give it back. The first night they had him over for dinner, she asked, “What do you like to do for fun, Vince?” expecting him to say music or hiking or something like that. Having been informed of her knack for teasing people, he said with a straight face: “Kissing. I like kissing.” The whole table erupted into laughter, and Lois loved Vince ever since.
Laughing through tears as I listened in the funeral home, I looked around the room, wondering how many others were recalling their own experiences. I thought of the woman I knew on a weekly basis who always greeted me with an ear-to-ear grin, followed by, “Hi, Jeff” in her unmistakable Virginian accent. Even if she did so from across the room, Lois never seemed to miss an opportunity to smile, to brighten someone else’s day.
When the family went to the beach together on vacation, Vince told me, Lois would leave rubber snakes under people’s pillows and hide them in their top drawers. “She loved to laugh and tease,” he recalled, “but did so in a very kind and loving way… She loved life.” What an inspiration, I thought. Of course, I’d seen this myself, but in bits and pieces and mostly from afar. So when Pastor Ron, her other son-in-law, asked me to carry Lois’ casket, I accepted. Part of me wanted to be closer to her and this life that she’d led.
In the early afternoon on a Wednesday, we drove down Highway 100, past Music Row and the busyness of Nashville, to the place we would bury Lois. The motorcade led us beyond the Natchez Trace and the Loveless Café, each turn of the road sending me farther away from civilization. Looking at the clock on my car’s dashboard, I started to sweat. I’d have to turn around at any moment to pick up my in-laws at the airport, who were flying in that day to stay with us for a few days. I had overbooked myself—too many commitments and not enough time. But I kept going. I had to see how this story ended.
For forty minutes, we drove through the countryside of West Nashville, under low-hanging trees and along creek beds, the city turning to suburbs and suburbs turning to empty, barren fields. It was hot and dry that spring, and we were expecting a drought that summer, if I remember correctly. As we crossed a river, driving over a bridge, I wondered if we’d passed into another state—maybe Arkansas or Alabama, even Mississippi. It seemed we’d been driving forever.
As we drove that endless stretch from funeral home to cemetery, I thought about this woman we’d soon bury. I only knew Lois for a season. Having met her shortly after we joined the church, it took months for me to get to know her and understand, even appreciate, when she was teasing me. She’d lived so much by the time I’d met her that it seems superficial to speak of the women she was; all I can share is the woman I knew. Every time I saw Lois, whether it was at church on Sunday, during one of our weekly Wednesday meals, or at a party, she was smiling—or perhaps more appropriately, beaming. Even through plastic tubes protruding from her nose, her visage shone. People say “the room lit up when So-and-so entered it,” and usually it’s hyperbole; but in Lois’ case, it was true. When she walked—or more often, rolled—in, you couldn’t help but take notice.
One Easter, Ashley and I went over to Lois’ house after church. We ate lunch with the family—her husband, daughters, sons-in-law, and granddaughters—as if we had always been a part of the group. It felt familiar, like going to Grandma’s house for a holiday, even though we’d never been there. I don’t recall what we discussed, but I remember hearing Lois’ intermittent laugh throughout the conversation and seeing that unmistakable smile from across the table, as someone passed the deviled eggs.
By the time we arrived at the grave site, the sun was resting high in the nearly-clear sky, puffy-white clouds filling the vacuous blue. We found little shade from the already summer-like heat. The midday sun beat down on our backs, causing the men who carried the casket to break into an immediate sweat as soon as we lifted up on the cold, metal handles. Our two-piece black suits were no match for the Tennessee sun.
The day we buried Lois, Ron shifted roles from son-in-law to pastor and with open Bible open in hands read us the Scriptures and spoke briefly about comfort and grief. Before he began, he pulled a white handkerchief from his jacket and wiped the perspiration that was already beading on his brow. Then he began. The verses he read reminded us that death was the “last enemy” and would one day be defeated, comforting those who had once grieved. As he read, the words coming from his mouth were slow and clear, articulate as always, but when he arrived at the section about enemies being defeated, he raised his voice as if a sword in battle. And for a moment I thought I heard him shift back to son-in-law:
“But,” he said, his voice strong and clear, “death is still an enemy…”
Yes, one day every tear will be wiped away and all things sad will be swallowed up, but until that day, what do we do? How do we process death and grieve the loss of what and whom we hold so dear? Is it okay to feel heartache, to hurt and mourn for the things we miss? Ron said this was not how it was supposed to be; we weren’t made for such pain; this was a byproduct of living in a broken world and how things were originally intended. One day, he assured, there would be no more pain, no more death. No more tears on a hot spring day. But until then, we had each other and the comfort of knowing some losses cause even a heart as big as God’s to grieve.
Huddled around the casket as we watched it descend into the dirt, the worry of picking up my in-laws vanished. For a second, I thought of Lois’ smile, and I missed it. How do you not miss a light that shines so brightly? Nobody said a word as the long wooden box disappeared in the darkness of the earth. Offering platitudes seemed disingenuous and superficial, an affront to the life this woman lived. What Ron had said was perfect: Death is still an enemy. It felt like a battle cry. On that dreadful day in April, when most of the world was being reborn, it felt for a moment as if this enemy had won. But as I looked around at the swollen red faces—some from the heat and others from the tears—I saw the beauty in the pain. In the company of those who loved this woman and were loved by her, I found the consolation of community. Though she was gone, we were still here, and we had each other; and maybe that was enough. Death had not won. For us, the sting of the wound was fresh, but Lois, as usual, enjoyed the last laugh.
Pastor Ron once told me a story of Lois and her husband Jim leaving town for a spur-of-the-moment fishing trip to Virginia Beach. Lois, whose health was starting to decline, wanted to enjoy what she loved most maybe one last time.
One morning before dawn, they stopped at a gas station. As Jim stood at the pump, filling up the RV, the man at the adjacent pump said, “Wow! I bet it costs a fortune to fill up that thing, especially in this economy!”
Watching the dollars tick by on the pump, Jim shrugged. Then he looked at the man to say, “I suppose. But my wife’s health hasn’t been that great and she wants to go on a trip. So we’re going.” That was it, done deal. Didn’t matter how much it cost or what they had to sacrifice—they were going to enjoy the last remaining morsels of life they could share together. And enjoy them they did.
This was how Jim and Lois lived their lives. And this is their legacy—their loving sacrifice for one another and their endless example for people like me.
Lois had loved everyone like family. And maybe without realizing it, she became a sort of surrogate grandma to me. A grandmother is not always someone with whom you have the closest relationship—at least, not in my family. She is someone sweet and loving, gracious and kind—regardless of how rotten you are. A grandmother is someone who sends you cards on your birthday and gives you money for getting good grades on your report card. But other than that, you may not see her very much; you may not understand or appreciate the role she plays in your life, but she’s there, nonetheless, assuring you that all is still right in the world. Most of all, a grandmother delights in those whom she loves, regardless of whether or not that love is reciprocated.
For a brief but significant period in my life, Lois filled such a space. Away from the familiarity of home and family, I found a woman who had but a few moments of life left to live and spent some of them loving me, sharing her life with anyone she could. I didn’t know her well—not as well as I would have liked—but she loved me, anyway. We didn’t spend a lot of time together, and much of what I knew about her came second-hand, but her presence left an impact, nonetheless. Sometimes all I would get was a wink from across the aisle, and that would be enough. Then I would know that everything would be all right.
We don’t get to choose how many days of life we have left, but we can choose how we spend them. Lois taught me that. She was the one who by her very presence reminded there was still good in this world and, maybe, in me. Through her steadfast spirit and constant love, she showed me the goodness even in the worst of circumstances. In her, I saw something I wanted—something bold and beautiful that demanded the most of every moment life was willing to give.
Thank you, Jeff, for this awesome memory of Mom!