“When a 92-year old woman looks at you and tells you she wants to make peace with God, you don’t argue.” That’s what the bedside nurse told me when I arrived. Gertie was lying facing away from the door when I came in, and when I told who I was, she said, “Bless you, thank you for coming.”
I sat down and she asked me to pray for some peace. She was anxious about misunderstandings with God, and she couldn’t rest. There was a prayer, she said, that had brought her peace, and she wanted to hear it again. But she couldn’t remember it. I prayed with her, and then I read the 23rd Psalm. “Such a beautiful, peaceful psalm,” she said. “I almost know it by heart.” “Shall I read it again?” “Always,” she said, “Always read it again.” So I did. By the time I left, I must have read it a dozen times.
As I read and prayed with her, I noticed that her hands wandered a lot. They could come up to her chest, where her gown was open at the neck, and they would stroke the skin there. Then they would move to her stomach and feel her belly. I wondered if she was thinking about leaving her earthly body behind – this body that had borne children, nourished and comforted them. She kept asking where her kids were. I wondered what year it was for her. Were her kids still grown, or babies in her mind? She continued to run her hands over her body, preparing, I thought, to leave it behind, to say good-bye to it.
Then she asked to pray the Our Father. I just spent the spring teaching Grace this prayer, and as Gertie and I prayed together, I prayed, too, for Grace. I gave thanks that I had taught my daughter a prayer that she will carry with her all her life, a prayer to use when she doesn’t have words for prayer. I was grateful that the prayer we teach at the beginning of life sustains until the end of life.
I continued to think of Grace throughout the time I spent with Gertie. Gertie’s anxiousness and restlessness were keeping her from sleeping. “I just want to lie down and rest,” she kept saying, “why can’t I rest? Why can’t I just go over there and lie down?” I read the psalm again, and then stroked her forehead as she tried to sleep, making the sign of the cross on her brow and stroking her hair back from her head. I do this for Grace as she sleeps, sometimes, or when she’s tired and resting on my lap. Gertie’s mother used to do this for her, when she was a little girl, and Gertie did this for her own daughter, and probably her granddaughter. I thought of them, and I thought of Grace, and I was moved by the circle of care that we are part of, the comfort that we give each other from cradle to grave. I was glad to have been a part of Gertie’s circle of comfort.
That night, as I tucked Grace into bed, we read a story from her children’s Bible. Then I asked her if she wanted to pray with me. Together we said the Our Father, call and response, one line at a time. Then I brushed the hair back from her face and gave her our special kiss. One cheek, then the other, then chin, nose, forehead, then the corner of her right eye, ending at the corner of her left eye, making the sign of the cross in kisses all over her face.