Volunteering 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.