[A correction has been made to Joyce's age in this latest version of the post.]
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. —1 Corinthians 13:13
Right now my father-in-law is waiting at the hospital for Joyce to die.
Joyce is in her early nineties, and recently her brain hemorrhaged.
I only met Joyce once—at a wedding across the Atlantic. Even then, I remember how my husband pointed her out as a bit of a novelty in his family: Joyce, he had said, is a very observant Christian. (In other words, unlike most people in my husband’s family and unlike most Brits these days, Joyce actually has set her hope on that breathtakingly ridiculous story about a God who raised Jesus from the dead and will one day raise all those who call on that God’s name.)
I never really knew Joyce, although I did know she had one child, a special needs daughter who will survive her. Joyce and her daughter have lived together all these years because Joyce’s daughter has needed her help all these years; in fact, I venture to guess that right now Joyce is clinging to life for the sake of her daughter who has always needed her; and there have been times when I, also a mother to a special needs child, have shuddered just a bit, because truthfully I’m a bit afraid to end up like Joyce, still caring for a grown adult child when I’m in my eighties.
I’ve never really known Joyce; but the greeting cards and little presents for our kids that Joyce has faithfully sent on birthdays and at Christmastime throughout the years have become the furniture of our lives. Cozy. Familiar. Easily forgettable but also gracious, thoughtful little reminders that we are loved and remembered by a distant relative an ocean away.
Which is why the birthday card for my husband that arrived in the mail a couple days ago, while Joyce lies in a hospital still clinging to life (despite what the doctors say is inevitable), seemed especially poignant. This time the familiar chicken scrawl was barely legible, and it came with an apology for being hard to read. But everything else in the card was familiar: the typical warm wishes for our family coming with no mention or complaint of Joyce’s own challenges of late; unsentimental, stiff-upper-lipped, British.
Sometimes what we don’t say says as much about our lives as what we do say. Now I was reading between the lines about a woman who had selflessly lived her life for others in small deeds and would approach death in the same way. Joyce’s mark of greatness would be in her ordinariness lived stoically with faith, hope and love.
It’s funny how the reality of death has a way of recasting the familiar furniture of our lives in a new, almost brilliant light.
Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, as I put down that last birthday card we would receive from “Auntie Joyce,” I could make out the contours of a love that had been easy to take for granted but would now be missed.
I suppose it takes a whole lot of faith to “do little things with great love,” as Mother Teresa once put it. I have to believe that faith of this sort is more than a mustard seed and that the mountains such faith moves are things like my own hard heart.
It used to be that, in the spirit of what one is told upon graduating from an Ivy League university, I wanted to do something great. I wanted to make my mark. But life happens. Our limitations and circumstances happen.
And then one day you wake up to hold a birthday card in your hands scrawled out by an ordinary woman who did little things with great love, and you see that actually, when everything else has passed away, love of this kind matters most. Love of this kind makes the world go around, even if sometimes it takes faith bigger than a mustard seed to live like this is true.
Goodbye, Joyce. May your voyage to the other side be smooth and bright, and may we someday meet again on the other shore. There you’ll be, I suspect, still writing your letters…
in gold ink.