By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
Maxine Murphree took a bite of her stir fry and smiled as she said that her lunch companion, Clyde Hathorn, had a Methodist minister for a husband and a son who stood more than seven feet tall.
“This is the Methodist table today,” said Murphree, gesturing toward Hathorn and their other lunch companion, Margaret Creekmore.
Murphree didn’t speak proudly, and she wasn’t excluding anybody. She was just describing a thread of common experience, a bond linking her to her tablemates like a string of flowers tied by little girls.
The three women had all lost their husbands and, now in their mid-80s, the simple tasks of life weren’t simple anymore.
As their time on earth grows shorter, the women are becoming more reflective, and at the lunch table, each day, they look back over their years and look forward to the hope they share in Jesus Christ.
The women sat amid the clinking of silverware and the polite murmur of conversation at AvonLea Retirement Community. White sunlight flooded the dining room.
They sipped their iced tea and talked about Easter, flowers and the hope of being reunited with their loved ones who’ve passed on.
“I miss Sam every day,” said Creekmore, speaking her late husband’s name so softly, and with such with intimacy he seemed to be sitting next to her.
“But then, I think of the goodness of heaven, and the fact that I’ll see him again,” she said. She patted Hathorn’s hand as it rested on the table beside hers.
“I don’t fear death at all,” said Creekmore. “Thank God we’ve got heaven to look forward to.”
Holy Week begins Sunday – Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus started his final walk toward the cross and toward the resurrection.
The week is heavy with dramatic tension. Christians know how the story ends, but each year, as they walk with Jesus into the hands of his betrayers, the faithful hold out hope of Easter morning, the end of the suffering and the dawn of peace.
For people who might be making that walk with Jesus for the last time, such as the sick and the old, the power of the Easter story splits open like a stormy sky.
As they face death, they live the experience of Christ’s passion and resurrection as nobody can.
“The best way I can describe it is to say that the power of God is all around us. We live in it,” said James Christian, describing how it feels to await his 101th Easter.
Buster, as friends call him, has lived both the pain and the glory of the paschal story.
Some days, he just can’t get past the pain, and it’s those times when Christian feels his age like the bite of the whip on Jesus’ back. Heart, kidney and prostate problems are just part of the litany of agonies he’s endured as the years have rolled by.
“I’ve suffered a great deal,” said Christian as he recalled losing both of his wives, Marie and Olis, to illness. “At times it has seemed like a wall of darkness.”
The Rev. Robert Jenkins has not been spared the whips and scorns of time, either. Some days the 78-year-old retired Methodist minister gives out just walking across the room.
As he looked out across his yard, a sadness crept into his voice when he said he wouldn’t try to plant a garden this year.
For 30 years Jenkins’ joints have ached from arthritis, and a pacemaker now keeps the muscle in his chest on rhythm, but his heart is wrapped around a lifetime of memories.
“God never promised us a life without suffering,” said Jenkins, who wonders why Christians don’t usually make the connection between Jesus’ passion and the hardships of life.
Jenkins considers his wife of 57 years, Pat, as a gift placed in his hands directly from God, and said he could see death as a friend when he considered that it would, one day, reunite them.
“When the first of us goes, I hope the other can be there to say, ‘By the power of God, we made it,’” said Jenkins.
In his room at AvonLea, Christian, too, remembered his wife, who died 10 years ago, as the one who put suffering into perspective for him.
Wincing in pain from a recent fall, Christian struggled to carry any one thought to conclusion but, with the curtains drawn, he remembered a Bible verse Marie used to quote, and he recited it as if reading from a cue card.
He thinks of the verse more as Easter draws near, and as his century’s worth of life draws to a close.
“All things work together for good to them that love God,” he said. “Marie used to say that all the time.”
An end of suffering
Good Friday marks the end of Holy Week and beginning of the holiest three days in the Christian faith. It’s the time when Jesus’ suffering finally, mercifully, ended.
For the very old, and the very sick, the end often comes, in Jenkins’ words, “as a friend.”
“I’m ready,” said Frank Wicker, who is spending his last months at AvonLea as a patient of Sanctuary Hospice House.
Stomach and liver cancer might well make this the last Easter for the 91-year-old, but his faith, and a lifetime of happy memories, are making the journey into the next world easier.
“I sleep well at night, and I’m enjoying what I’ve got left” he said, sitting next to his wife of 67 years, Faye. The World War II veteran enjoys knowing that he doesn’t owe anybody a thing and, as his daughter added, every dollar he’s ever earned has been tithed on.
Wicker had recently endured a tough spell. He wasn’t eating well and he’d been spending a lot of time in bed, but he was roused at the mention of Easter and the chance to speak well of friends at Harrisburg Baptist Church.
He even spoke of his final arrangements with a kind of mirthful detachment.
“There’s a spot waiting for me in that cemetery over there by the Joyner school,” said Wicker, looking at his wife. “We’ve got the headstones all ready, and we wrote the newspaper piece last week.”
Faye looked sad, but not depressed. As death drew one day nearer, she simply sat by her husband’s side, and listened.
“I’m ready. I’m not scared,” said Wicker.
After their lunch, Murphree, Creekmore and Hathorn were talking about their favorite Easter songs, and someone mentioned “Roll Away the Stone.”
“Oh, I like that one,” said Murphree, brightly.
In the courtyard outside the dining room, spring seemed to be emerging before their eyes.
The sun had risen high and white in the sky, shining at a noticeably different angle than in winter, and the soil inside the flowerpots and planters was turned over and raw, awaiting new flowers. A wind chime swayed without making a sound, and Hathorn spoke of feeding the birds.
“Easter makes me think of hyacinths and roses, new, beautiful life,” she said. Murphree and Creekmore nodded. Creekmore couldn’t help but show a little emotion.
“I’m just so glad Jesus would accept us,” she said. “We’re not going to die. Not really.”