In Memory of a Whole Life

DSC02794Volunteering in an assisted living community means you go to a lot of memorial services and funerals. It’s not that you enjoy going, it’s just that you can’t stay away because your life was somehow enriched by the person who passed away, and you want to both honor and learn more about him or her.

That’s what drew me to an afternoon service for Penny, an assisted living resident who faithfully attended my weekly Bible study for over five years. I didn’t know her family so I just quietly entered and found a seat. Soon a very elderly couple, both with canes, made their way to my row and sat next to me. In almost whispered tones the woman and I struck up a conversation, and she told me that she and Penny had worked together in the Physics Department at the U.S. Air Force Academy for 20 years. I had no idea Penny had that sort of career.

What I did know of Penny was that whenever I found her lying on her bed watching TV or reading a book and I asked, “Do you want to come to Bible study?” she would say, “Sure!” and hop up to come with me. I knew that no matter what question I asked in class, her response would be the same: “I raised five kids, and I couldn’t have done it without Jesus.”

As people were gathering I noticed five well-dressed, attractive, middle-aged adults receiving hugs and condolences. Oh sure, I thought to myself, the five kids. My gaze turned to the table in front of the room where a few stunning photos of Penny in her younger years were displayed between bouquets of flowers. In the most prominent position was a glass of ice and a small bottle of wine. I was curious, but it wasn’t until Penny’s niece delivered the eulogy later in the service that I learned the significance of this unusual display.

Evidently white zinfandel over ice was Penny’s celebration drink of choice, and that was just the beginning of what I didn’t know about her! I didn’t know she was born and reared in El Paso, Texas, in a small house bursting with people and love. I didn’t know she’d survived a difficult marriage. (“He was a real louse,” my seatmate leaned over and whispered.) I didn’t know just how much she loved books and movies. And I certainly didn’t know that while living in Cripple Creek, CO, for a while she had commuted to her job in Colorado Springs in a big Cadillac with longhorns attached!

The service closed with a slideshow of images of Penny through the years. Oh my goodness—the meals she served, the people she hugged, the babies she rocked, the outfits she wore! I could see why her niece said of her, “She gave us all unconditional love before it was a term.” And, “She was a hippie before it was a thing!”

Toward the end of the collection of photos was a picture of Penny in a purple sweater. I knew that sweater. She had it with her in assisted living. Here’s where I came in, I thought, as I dabbed my eyes for the fourth or fifth time.

Walking to my car after the service, a favorite adage kept playing in my mind: Don’t judge my story by the chapter you walked in on. None of us wants to do that to an older person we meet, but circumstances can make it difficult to discover the whole person. When I got in the car I broke into sobs thinking, Penny, I barely knew you.

And so I bring you more of Penny’s story—because her whole life is worth remembering, not just the chapter I walked in on.

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  1. Oh, Nancy, now I must dab my eyes. Well done. I love the “don’t judge my story by the chapter you walked in on.” That is profound. Penny was well-loved and well-lived through so many of her chapters. What an honor for us to review a few chapters of Penny’s life with you.

  2. Sues Hess says:

    Nancy, We all have a story to tell, don’t we! I, too, love your “don’t judge my story by the chapter you walked in on” statement. Something to mull over… I’m so grateful that God can change the course of our futures, redirecting us from hard chapters. Thanks for this reminder of that. So glad He allowed our stories to cross! – Sues

    • I’m glad he allowed our stories to cross too, Sues–and that hopefully we still have a few chapters left!

  3. Jim Brummett says:

    Such a touching and heartfelt tribute . . .

  4. Love this – very moving! I will remember not to judge a life by the chapter I walked in on. Beautiful!

    • Thanks, Kelly. Even when we try, it’s sometimes hard. Especially with older people with dementia. But there’s always so much more to their story!

  5. Marylou Gonzalez says:

    Thank you, Nancy, for that touching narrative. You have given me a lot to think about. Appreciate your words very much.

  6. Sue Finger says:

    Nancy, thank you for sharing these lovely thoughts!

  7. “Don’t judge my story by the chapter you walked in on,” is an important reminder, Nancy.
    Your friend Penny was a special lady, and I know that she enjoyed your Bible studies and your friendship.

    • Thanks, Marylin. She was a good one. It’s ironic but white zinfandel is the only wine I can drink now without getting a headache. I look forward to trying it over ice with Penny in heaven–God willing! 🙂

  8. Elizabeth Van Liere says:

    Once again, Nancy, thank you for a great message. I believe we would all like to leave such memories behind when we take the next step, one into heaven. I’m sure, too, that the elderly people you care about feel so loved by you.

  9. Dear Nancy, I spoke to Jim today by phone and told him how much I learned from your recent post, “In Memory of a Whole Life.” With God’s help, I will be forever careful not to judge a person’s story by the chapter I happened to walk in on. What a wise lesson, one I am going pass onto my children and grandchildren. I will also tell them that I haven’t done a very good job of heeding this wise lesson, to my loss. Thank you for sharing the epiphanies you have had being a patient listener to many.

  10. Thank you, Rolle! I think we’ve all fallen short on that one a few times. Hope you are healing well and almost pain free! Love to you and Carol.

  11. Nancy,
    Your post put into words what I have felt at so many services. I, like you, volunteer at facilities and have likewise found myself learning things about the person at the memorials I wish I’d known long before. Thank you for sharing this from your heart!
    P.S. I met you at the Christian Eldercare conference last year in CO.

    • Thanks, Rachel! It’s always good to know someone else connects with our feelings. God bless your volunteer work, too!

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