“I’ve had a good life,” is her mantra. During my visits with Ellen, a striking 85 year-old woman dying of cancer, she repeats those words throughout the hour. “I am grateful to God and to Jesus for everything that has come my way,” Ellen tells me, her piercing blue eyes focused on mine.
The first time I met Ellen about six months ago, in my arrogance, I mistook her expressions of gratitude for evidence that she had lived a “charmed” life. After all, here she was in a beautiful assisted living in one of the tonier suburbs of the Twin Cities. Surely her existence was a bed of roses compared to some of my other patients (who often spend their final years in warehouse-like places not necessarily fit for human habitation), right?
Wrong. As Ellen began to share her life with me, she revealed story after story of tragedy: her mother dying when she was two; being raised by an emotionally broken (and likely alcoholic) father and older sister; enduring emotional devastation when that sister had to leave the home when Ellen was 14 in order to work in another state; experiencing the birth of a child with disabilities and then the death of that beloved child from cancer thirty years later.
There were other tales of suffering and loss. Whenever Ellen told me of them, though, she unfailingly got around to saying that she knows that God was somehow with her every step of the way. “I didn’t always feel Jesus, and I wanted the pain to end. But I knew that it’s not God’s way to throw us to the wolves,” Ellen said.
Once more I had been quick to put someone in a little box and then compelled to eat humble pie when grace- in all of its grandeur, outrageousness, and ability to surprise – collided with my pinched, fearful, judging mind. Ellen’s long life has been punctured by traumas and trials. And yet she sits in her little room, a picture of serenity and acceptance about which many us can only dream of experiencing.
When I began praying with Ellen this afternoon, one of my favorite quotes danced from my lips:
“The night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, Thanks. For all that shall be, Yes.”
Dag Hammarsjkold, the United Nations General Secretary who was killed on a 1961 peace-keeping mission in the Congo, composed that prayer in his spiritual journal shortly before his death in a suspicious plane crash. To me, those few words express beautifully the spirit of open-hearted gratitude with which Ellen has lived her life and is now approaching her death.
Tonight as I walked into the chilled but crisp November evening, I began to cry because I know that my time with Ellen is coming to an end. Her body grows increasingly frail and her voice more distant as the disease takes its toll. I realized just how much this woman inspires me, how many things she has taught me, and how greatly I will miss her. Sensing my sadness, Ellen grasped both of my hands in hers and said, “I have had a good life. God is here, and Jesus will take care of the rest.”
May I be able to begin and end my days with even a mite of the spirit of gratitude demonstrated by Ellen- yet another of my teachers on this pilgrim Way of Jesus. The night IS most certainly drawing nigh. For all that has been, let us be thankful. For all that shall be, let us say, Yes.