This month, my message focuses on the passing of a member of our family, and an old, arthritic black labrador retriever that had her own "ministry" to sick, dying patients. I believe you will find this letter touching.
On December 2, 2006, my wife's aunt collapsed in her home. I will call her "Alice" to protect her privacy and her memory. She was 90 years-old and legally blind, but managed to care for herself independently since the death of her husband in 1979. She was incredibly resourceful and rarely complained or asked for help. She still baked a cake for me every time we came to California. It would have taken a team of 24 Clydesdale horses to pull her out of her cozy house, but the ravages of time eventually brought her down.
Shirley was with me in New York at the time. So, she took the next plane out to be at Alice's bedside. I joined her shortly thereafter. Alice went through an endless series of diagnostic tests, all the while longing to go home. She eventually decided she had been prodded and poked enough and began refusing to cooperate. Even after it was determined that she was suffering from a fatal illness, Alice denied it. She told her doctor, "It's not true. I'm fine." For weeks, she had been treating her symptoms with over-the-counter medicines by guessing at dosages she could not see on the bottles.
After the diagnostic work was completed, we transferred Alice to a fine skilled-nursing facility, ManorCare in Fountain Valley, California, where the staff provided loving, professional care. Nevertheless, she lost ground every day. We did everything we could to make her comfortable and happy, but it was a tough assignment. This independent, strong, highly intelligent lady found it difficult to be told what to do by anyone. One of her physicians was brusque with her one day and, according to Alice, treated her rudely. She told the doctor to leave and not come back. Shirley went to the physician and explained how Alice felt, and to the doctor's credit, she came back and apologized to Alice. They were friends thereafter.
Shirley and I were praying for Alice during that time and asking for the Lord's healing touch, but we were also praying for her spiritually. Alice told us she had given her heart to Jesus when she was a little girl, and we didn't question that. But she never went to church, never read the Bible to our knowledge, and only talked about spiritual matters when we raised the subject, which we did often. Clearly, she was not comfortable discussing it, which is characteristic of her generation.
As Alice's condition worsened and death seemed imminent, we wanted to leave no stone unturned. There is nothing in life more important than knowing that the names of our loved ones are written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and that eternity in heaven is assured. Therefore, we called Rev. Lyle Williams, the pastor who had led Shirley's 90 year-old stepfather to the Lord during his last days on earth. We went to visit him in the hospital the next day, and he told us, "I'm saved! I'm saved! I feel so clean." He is in the presence of the King today.
Rev. Williams agreed to visit Alice as her physical condition waned. He sat at her bedside, talked to her about heaven, and led her in a prayer, which she repeated. Alice was ready to die. That was the last day she was lucid enough to understand the message.
Her condition became desperate after Christmas. She was suffering terribly and struggling to breathe. Shirley was on one side of her bed and I on the other, as we told Alice it was okay to go, that there was nothing to fear, and that Jesus was waiting for her on the other side. Shirley talked lovingly about the family members who were already on the other side and assured her that she would see them soon. Then I prayed and asked the Lord to release her from this terrible suffering.
On the way home from the nursing facility that day, we prayed again and asked the Lord to spare Alice further agonies. The physician had told us that she could live as long as 25 more days, and our hearts were burdened by that prospect.
Two hours later, a nurse called to tell us Alice was gone. We reached her roommate at the facility by phone, a godly woman named Mary, to ask her how Shirley's aunt had died. Mary has many physical problems of her own, but she loved Alice like a member of her family. She said, "Her breathing became more irregular and I went to her bedside and told her, as you did, that it was okay to release her spirit. I pointed at the light and said, 'Go toward it, Alice. Jesus is there behind it.'" Then her breathing became peaceful and quiet. Mary went into the restroom to get a wet cloth and came back 30 seconds later. Alice had slipped into eternity like a stately ship pulling out of time's harbor. Then Mary told us that there were tears in Alice's eyes. Who knows what she saw at the end, but I believe it was the Savior welcoming home one of His own.
Thank God for the promise of eternal life for those whose sins are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ! We will see Alice again, standing with so many of our loved ones and friends. My mom and dad will be there too, along with members of four generations of my family. As we read in the book of Revelation, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)
Let me share one more aspect of Alice's story that will warm your heart. There was a 10 year-old black lab named Bella that lived at ManorCare. She had arthritis in both hips and could hardly walk. Sometimes she fell over when her hind legs gave way. Bella was about to be put down by the Humane Society before she was rescued and adopted by one of the assistants at the Manor. Bella was given access to the entire hospital, and her "job" was to comfort elderly people. All the residents loved Bella. This lovable dog knew when patients were approaching death. She could apparently "smell" their deteriorating conditions and stayed in the rooms of those particular patients. Because of her nurturing instinct, she would sleep on the floor close to the beds of the dying until they were gone.
Bella had a special love for Alice. It was probably because the dog knew intuitively how seriously ill her friend was. The nursing home staff pulled Bella's bed into Alice's room, because she would not leave except for quick trips "outside." Like with the other dying patients, she lay near Alice's bed observing every move.
Whenever Alice was having a tough night, Bella watched warily and panted. Dogs do that when they are anxious. She also reacted somewhat aggressively when anyone came near whom Bella didn't trust. Sometimes, she blocked the door with her body and more or less ushered that person out of the room. Before I made friends with her, she watched me suspiciously. One day, I was scolding Alice mildly because she had not eaten in a week. I told her emphatically that she couldn't get stronger if she wouldn't take nourishment. Apparently, my tone did not please Bella, because she looked at me intently and uttered a sharp "Woof!" I said, "Okay, Bella, I get it."
There were times when Bella was so upset by the medical procedures being performed on Alice that the dog lay down close by and then from underneath the bed. She was panting. It was eerie to see how perceptive this old dog was, while suffering her own discomfort. I am certain she knew the end was near and almost seemed to be grieving over it. When it came, she took it hard.
The day after Alice died, Bella sat close to the empty bed all day. Who knows what sadness she was experiencing, but all indications were that she mourned the loss of a dear friend. She had been through it before. Don't tell me that a dog can't teach us humans something about compassion. I saw it with my own eyes. And I believe the Lord sent this loyal animal to comfort a woman who desperately needed encouragement through her long and difficult ordeal.
We will miss you, Alice. You were a great lady, and we will be with you on the other side.
Thank you, everyone, for letting me share a highly personal story with you this month. Occasionally, there are just some things that need to be said. May I suggest that you make time for someone in life's final chapter, offering emotional support and spiritual counsel? The need for that loving touch is enormous. There were numerous patients in Alice's nursing home, and in every such facility, who were never visited by anyone. They had outlived their contemporaries, and their families were too busy to care. These sad people, who once brimmed with life and laughter, now have no one to help them get through the long days and lonely nights. Some of them had to depend on a sympathetic old dog for comfort. Could you be a "Bella" for a needy person in your world? The Lord will bless you for doing it.
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