Continued from Part Two…
“When Virginia’s mind began to suffer and Alzheimer’s set in, I felt confused and hurt. ‘Why, God?’ I asked. ‘Why, after all this time and all their faithfulness to you and to each other, does it have to be like this for them in their last days?!’
It made no sense to me, and I was plagued by the questions that often assail me as a woman of weak faith…
Is God good?
Is God even real?
And, as such, are we completely wasting our lives here in this tiny church in this tiny town?
One Sunday afternoon with Kenneth would change everything.”
It was the visit of a lifetime.
Standing there in the guest bedroom of the home they had shared for over thirty years, I instinctively knew that I might never hear words like he was speaking again, I might never encourage a Christian brother in such an important way again, I might never be the recipient of such an enriching and humbling experience again…
Virginia had died just yesterday, his wife of 66 years.
In twelve short days, they would have celebrated their 67th.
And here we were in the sacred space where their lives had played out, cradling his heart and his memories with our ears.
The words just poured from his lips, and in every sentence, the love he had for her was palpable.
But then, it always had been.
Kenneth and Virginia.
For six-and-a-half decades, there had been no Virginia without Kenneth, and there had been no Kenneth without Virginia.
Married at a young age and never bearing any children, it had always just been him and her.
And “him and her” was such a beautiful thing to watch.
Approaching their driveway before that Sunday afternoon visit, I had taken a couple of deep breaths as I wondered how I could face one without the other. How long had I dreaded this day, spending many silly moments playing out the different scenarios of how their story on earth would end; as these daydreams always go, the only one that ever brought me any satisfaction was the one where they departed from this world at the exact same time.
But that hadn’t happened, and now, in the breadth of one second and in the rise and fall of one last breath, it was just Kenneth.
He greeted us into his home as cheerfully as he always had, hugging us, patting us on the back, asking about the kids…
but it didn’t take long to see that his world had shifted immeasurably.
Their entire home was a reflection of his devotion to her.
On the kitchen table, he had already neatly laid out everything he needed to take to the funeral home: a portrait of Virginia, the baby doll her mama and daddy had given her when she was two years old, and important papers and family histories.
On the counter nearby lay four notepads in a tidy row, scribbled upon with telephone numbers, dates and notes.
In the living room, her medical supplies were stacked in organized piles next to the wall, ready to return to the home health care nurses who had been stopping by every day for months.
“I’m sorry about this mess,” he apologized, gesturing to the notepads on the counter.
Discreetly, Mr. Gore and I looked at one another with amusement. If this was his idea of a mess, his skin would surely crawl upon entrance to our topsy-turvy house.
And then our conversation naturally turned to Virginia…
“God has just worked everything out perfect in our life,” Kenneth mused in his unique and peppy tone as we stood near the kitchen table. “It wasn’t always what we had planned, you know, but we shouldn’t have had those plans in the first place. Yes sir, He had it all perfect.”
His words, as usual, both put my heart at ease and pricked my ears to attention; the Spirit beckoned me to listen closely and to do whatever I could to follow in this man’s footsteps.
You see, as a wet-behind-the-ears minister’s wife who has spent more than four-fifths of her life petrified of death and all of its distant cousins, I was starving on that day to receive confirmation from my friend that life would go on.
I needed to hear him verify that God’s plan was good, even in his greatest sorrow.
My eyes, as they had been for these last fifteen years, were glued on him, and I was desperate to see that he meant the words he was saying.
And this is the very thing I received from Kenneth on the day after the love of his life departed.
As he recounted to us dear Virginia’s last moments, I was filled with a peace that can only be categorized as supernatural.
“I had her for a moment before she left,” he said, referring to her recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Though they had remained one of the most compatible and gentle married couples I have ever been around through her entire sickness, things had become very difficult near the end.
“She was looking at me and she couldn’t talk, you know, but her eyes were following me everywhere I went. I finally walked up close and touched her hair and said ‘Your hair looks real pretty today,’ and she just gave me this little smile. Right there at the corners of her mouth, you know, she smiled right at me. It was real cute”.
Her passing couldn’t have been easier, he said, and he was there beside her to the very end, holding her hand as she took her last breath.
“It was just so peaceful,” he kept saying, “it was perfect”.
“Perfect…” I mused.
That’s exactly what I had hoped to hear.
It was what I needed to hear.
And then we cried together.
God had been so good, but we were going to miss Virginia so very much.
And all of these moments and days, all of the sadness and the trials and the comings and the goings, and the church split, and the fallings out, and the hurt feelings, and the continual personal fight against bitterness, and the call to serve our home church, and the life we’ve built here since…
it all seemed to swirl together in a beautiful portrayal of meaning and purpose as I walked beside Kenneth to the front pew of the church we’ve attended together my entire life to lay sweet Virginia to rest.
“Have I been created for this moment?” I thought, my heart flooded with awe as my fingers grasped his arm. “Did God place me here, in this church, married to this pastor, so I might be a friend to this brother during his hour of greatest need?”
It was one of the most awe-inspiring, bowl-me-over instances of clarity I’ve ever experienced in my entire life as everything, finally, made sense. My love for senior citizens. My friendship with Ken and Virginia. My admiration for WWII vets. My obsession with yesteryear. My “old soul”. My marriage to Mr. Gore whom God would call to love the church I loved. My lifelong desire to be a part of this church. All those trips to Cracker Barrel. The parties. The love. The unity.
None of it was me.
None of it was just “my nature”.
None of it was a coincidence.
It had all been God, all along, and all for a beautiful purpose. And so I have seen it with my own eyes: God loves His Church and He takes care of it, even when it is flailing about and broken, even when it seems like a waste of time and effort, and even when it is so small it would never show up on a map.
And, oh! Our tiny, unimportant, unpopular church was abounding in beauty that day. Starting with a potluck lunch where the ladies truly outdid themselves, we feasted with this father of our congregation, filling up his belly with the best food in Oklahoma and filling up his soul with the tangible reminder that he would never be alone. There was laughter and there were memories and, most of all…
there was love.
And friends, it is without contestation that, anything I could have been in this life, any notoriety I might have achieved, any of my childish and fanciful dreams that could have possibly come true…
they paled in a ghostly comparison to my walk down the aisle with Kenneth.
Our brothers and sisters were seated and waiting for us as we stood at the back of the sanctuary with our arms intertwined.
“I hope I don’t fall down,” he confided.
“You’re going to do great,” I assured him.
He was nervous.
I was watchful and so sad and somehow joyful and my eyes were all his.
And then he returned my gaze.
“It’s an honor to have you here with me today. It’s what Virginia would have wanted,” he said. “We always thought of you as a daughter.”
“Believe me,” I quietly replied with a breaking voice, “I feel the exact same way”.
And then the music started to play, and we walked.
And here I am, several weeks later, still reeling from that moment.
Virginia’s loss is deeply felt.
While I am so happy to have Kenneth back among us every Sunday morning for worship, when I look at him, I see who is missing. My friend is now a widower, and the woman who defined half of him is no longer with us.
It’s like walking without legs.
Sitting without a chair.
He is handling his loss in his persistently chipper manner and has been a hero in my eyes, packing up his life, selling his house, moving to a retirement community and entering this uncharted chapter with all the pluck that you’d expect from a World War II veteran; in other words, I’ve seen with my own eyes that Kenneth is going to be okay.
But before the world moves on and Virginia’s memory fades like the pink carnations Kenneth gave me at her graveside service, I can’t help but feel compelled to send out a plea on behalf of my beloved friends.
For the churches that are floundering, for the congregations that are immersed in overwhelming conflict, for the members who feel restless and long to start somewhere fresh and new, please, before you take another step, stop for a minute and look around you.
I am by no means an expert on church polity, I am in no way blameless in my church’s messy past, and I would be a fool to pretend that these are simple matters that are easily resolved.
But none of that changes the fact that this body of believers is your life.
This is your family. The people in your pews, the Kenneths and the Virginias, they are as bound to you as your own flesh and blood and should be cherished as the infant who sleeps in the bed next to yours, the child who lives in the bedroom down the hall, the spouse who is curled up beside you, the mother who bore you, the father who raised you, and the brother and the sister who were your dearest and most lifelong companions.
Would we, the called-out ones, leave our flesh-and-blood children to find a family that suited us better?
Would we build a new house and take half of our kids with us and leave the other half with our spouse?
Would we allow tertiary matters of how we spend our free time and the type of music we prefer to rip our home in two, putting asunder what God has sacredly brought together?
Or would we battle it out? Would we compromise? Would we choose to love, even if we had to die in the process?
Would we find a way to make it work?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: we have to start finding a way to make it work.
The American church is in peril and God cannot be amused by the way we have represented His gospel.
Looking back through the tangled maze of years in my home church, I see infinite beauty in our story and I see glorious hope rising out of the ashes, but those things only strengthen my resolve to share what I have had to learn the hard way: the world will know we belong to Christ not by our programs, not by our worship music, not by our doing all the things that we think must be done to be successful or doing away with all the things that we feel harbors our success…
but by our love for one another.
God used a little man and a little woman with snowy white hair to teach me that lesson, and it is my honor to pass it on to you today.
Learn from our mistakes. Weep with us. Pray for us, please. And then join us, in a Church where every life counts and where the family blood pulses through our veins so vibrantly that we would rather die than walk away from each other.
Grant Lord, that with Thy direction, “Love each other,” we comply
Aiming with unfeigned affection thy love to exemplify
Let our mutual love be glowing, thus will all men plainly see,
That we, as on one stem growing, living branches are in Thee.
O that such may be our union, as Thine with the Father is,
And not one of our communion e’er forsake the path of bliss;
May our light shine forth with brightness, from Thy light reflected, shine;
Thus the world will bear us witness, That we, Lord are truly Thine.*
Me and Kenneth, after Christmas Eve communion. It was his first Christmas without Virginia, but he was safely and joyously surrounded by family. <3
* “Christian Hearts, in Love United” by Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf
Thank you to everyone who has given an ear to the story of Kenneth and Virginia! Your encouragement has blessed me this week, and I cannot thank God enough for the kind audience He has gifted me with at Mrs. Gore’s Diary. I honestly don’t think there is a sweeter readership on the internet!
If you are new here, my blog policy is that all comments are welcomed, but when it comes to sensitive subjects like today’s, extra discretion will be used when moderating. To send a private message, feel free to find me on Facebook! Although I cannot usually respond to messages at this point in my life, I am happy to offer a listening ear.
God bless us all as we strive together to build a Church that glorifies Him!