Ritual surrounds us, and the best rituals often happen outside of churches. My cousin’s mother-in-law died in June. I had known her for over forty years, a woman quick to laugh, to help, to forgive. During her final illness, Juanita had surgery to remove a gangrenous big toe. I cautioned her to be sure and get a discount the next time she went for a pedicure. “And not just ten percent,” I told her. “After all, they took the BIG toe. You should hold out for twenty.”
Jesus’ words were broken open for me there, the shell of familiarity pierced to reveal the pulsing life beneath.
She laughed. She had the blessing G.K. Chesterton asks for the whole Body of Christ,“Sow in our souls, like living grass, The laughter of all lowly things.”
When I got the call that Juanita realized it was time “to go home,” I drove out to the hospital. I opened the door to her room and she smiled and held out her hand to me. “Melissa,” she said, “I knew you’d come.”
And then she said, “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you.”
I cannot remember when I first heard that scripture, John 14:2. I know I heard it long before I could read it. But I’ve always heard it in church, from the pastor. It is Church Talk, the words of Jesus, printed in red. I had never heard those words from a dying woman lying upon her deathbed.
Jesus’ words were broken open for me there, the shell of familiarity pierced to reveal the pulsing life beneath. They were no longer the beginning of “The Last Supper Discourses,” or the memory verse for which I’d win a ribbon, but a simple statement of the simple truth from a woman who had no time for anything less than the truth.
Juanita knew where she was going. And, because she knew I would follow her there, she was showing me the path, giving me directions, from one traveler to another. We are on the way to our Father’s house. It has been made ready for us. God is waiting. If it were not so, Juanita — a woman I knew to tell and live the truth — would have told me.
Some weeks later I had lunch with a neighbor, this woman a full generation younger than Juanita. Some of our children — her seven, my five — had grown up together. Naeda had breast cancer many years ago. Now the cancer is back, and it has metastasized. Her youngest daughter is weeks away from delivering twin boys. My neighbor wants to see the babies born. She longs to watch them grow up. She said she “hopes to buy some time.” But Naeda is a hospice nurse and she knows. She knows.
She wanted, she told me, to say some things. Naeda put her hand on my arm. When she spoke, she told a story. It was a story of gratitude. She began to thank me, for Christmas cookies and affection for her children, for all the small acts that weave a neighborhood and its neighbors together.
I can remember my mother making divinity candy and chocolate-dipped cherries for our neighbors long before I learned to cook. Those gestures, what “was done, is done,” were broken open for me there, the shell of convention pierced to reveal the pulsing life beneath. Naeda remembered kindnesses I had forgotten, kindnesses I may well have begrudged at the time, lamenting my over-filled and over-tasked days.
Naeda stored those kindnesses against the days to come, and they have fed her, feed her still. She is a woman who gathers goodness, and it keeps her, even on this hard way.
“In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” I know the shed in which I store my memories of losses and wounds. I can close my eyes and see them hanging, rusty cans filled with an assortment of hurts, nailed to the rough, unfinished walls. It is dark in there, the air rank and close with the smell of spilled gasoline and leaking pesticides.
Then I think of the houses Juanita and Naeda have furnished, where each delight is welcomed and given a place, the windows opened, the doors wide. This is what Naeda means to do in the weeks ahead: ride her horse in the mountains, throw a party, kiss her grandsons.
I know what the Lord has for her. “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.” If it were not so, Juanita would have told us.
– Melissa Musick