Thanks to my friend Michael for inviting me to share a story at the Tenx9 event at Wild Goose Festival last weekend. This particular story has been mulling around in me, looking to be told for the last 7 years.
I had just finished exams, may of my junior year of college, and was living in those sweet days when the work is done but no one has left for summer break. We all played, enjoying all the best things of being 19. I was going on lots of late night drives to the mountains for star-gazing and late morning coffees with my best friend, lots of dancing and movie watching and philosophizing over secret beers. And here’s the best part. As part of my major in theology and ministry, studying community and small group models, I was getting ready for a trip to England—solo!—to go stay at a Christian intentional community. I had my passport, a fat reading list, and a marked up train schedule I printed off the national rail website. This cluster of people in the English countryside had some secret to what it meant to live together in Christ, something different and deeper than a Sunday morning church service. And I was going to go over there and see it for myself.
Then I got the call.
Granny, my mother’s mother, had been fighting cancer, making it through the brutality of chemo and radiation with the help of her quirky humor, her faith, and a whole lot of vodka. But just then she suddenly collapsed, and after my grandfather, known as Buddy Bob, got her to the hospital, the doctors told her that it had spread so rapidly—just since that last set of scans!—that her organs were shutting down.
My plans changed. Instead of playing for a month before England, I chose to go with Mom down to Eutawville, South Carolina and help take care of Granny.
That’s right, Eutawville. Population 350. You just drive right up there and get of 95 at Santee and hang a right. You can’t miss it. We bump down off the Old #6 Hwy onto a dirt, no, a sand road into the veil of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks. Hospice had beaten us there, replacing Granny’s pretty four poster with the automatic hospital bed. That smell of home health was there, too, that mix of antiseptic and sick, and it competed with bacon grease and magnolia blossoms and the enduring stale cigarette smoke that had caked into the wallpaper before Granny finally made Buddy Bob quit lighting up at the kitchen table ten years earlier.
So we kept the busy vigil of the dying-but-not-dead, trying not to see how quickly her tiredness was taking over, trying not to wonder about the new bulges we saw on her back and sides, trying not to consider whether the nonsensical talk was from the cancer or the pain meds.
There was also sweetness to it. We gave her pedicures and looked through every photo album. We turned away nosy church ladies and welcomed the true old friends, gatekeepers for the queen. I climbed the most precarious branches of that old magnolia in the side yard to keep the blossoms fresh on her bedside table. Each day I rubbed lotion on her hands and helped her take small sips of cold water.
One day Granny got a craving for pineapple. You’d better believe I was lickety split in two minutes driving down to the Piggly Wiggly for a pineapple. You want a bloody mary for breakfast? You got it! (Although, let’s be honest, that had been a time honored tradition in Eutawville) On another afternoon Buddy Bob got in his head that a good steak might help her energy, give her some strength, so he sent me running off with $100 cash to the steak man, who worked from the back of a convenience store/butcher shop. Four of the best filets you can imagine, grilled rare and served up with tomatoes and corn from the garden and her own pound cake recipe.
But so soon she could no longer manage steak, much less sit at the table for a meal, and would doze off by dinnertime.
One day I sat next to Granny, reading while she napped, when I heard, “Booop. Boop boop boop boop!” I looked over. She was awake, smiling at me, wiggling her fingers overhead. “Hey Granny, what’s that?” She laughed. “These are my antennae.” “Oooooh, you’re antennae. Ok.” She closed her eyes again. Man, those meds… After several minutes of silence Granny said, “Listen.” Ok. I’m listening. “There are so many wonderful, beautiful things in this world. And if you don’t have your antennae up, you just might miss them.”
Granny died only a few weeks after I got the call, and we buried her in the holly hill cemetery, just like she’d wanted. Her church lady friend sang, “I Can Only Imagine,” just like she’d wanted. Back at the house we ate poundcake and strawberries, just like she’d wanted.
And a few days later I went to England. It didn’t occur to me not to. After all, I was 19 years old and I had an adventure to find, the heart of Christian community living to discover. I hopped on a plane for London, then a train for beautiful green Hampshire, to the manor house turned dormitory, down the little road from the quaint village—they say Jane Austen did some writing there. For two weeks I spent my mornings reading Henri Nouwen and drinking PG Tips. I spent my afternoons doing farm chores, cooking simple food for 50 people, and talking about God and life and art with all the other strange stragglers who’d shown up to this community for a few days or a longer sabbatical. England in June has 15 hours of sunlight each day, all the beauty and time you could hope for. I was ready with case study questions, ponderings that had come up during my college studies, and carried them around in a little notebook. With eagerness I attended every lecture in the great hall, morning prayer in the little worn chapel with hay bale pews. I was at every church service and lunch dialogue. I interviewed the full time community members, watched everything and jotted notes obsessively. I soaked in as much as I could, trying to understand, analyze, and qualify: what does it mean to be a person of faith living in community? I watched and listened. I tried to be a part of the common life, but really, I was there to study it. I never really talked to the others all that much about Granny and all that I’d just seen and lived. It didn’t occur to me to.
One evening I went to hear a talk by one of the full time community members. Prior to working in the community, he had worked in palliative care—a hospice doctor. He spoke about Jesus’ incarnation and what it might mean for Christians in community to be God incarnate all over again. He said that the world is full of wonderful, beautiful things-pay attention! They are signs of God at work around us. And doggone. You know what? That doctor said that most of all, we meet Jesus and we are Jesus any time we live into his teaching, any time we practice the beatitudes, any time we give someone so much as a sip of cold water.
The next morning I walked to the village. I went straight to the phone booth around the corner from the pub. I shoveled pence out of my pocket and into the slot, dialed international, and heard myself say, “Mama? I think I have to come back home.”