The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
These lines from one of Robert Burns’ most famous poems (“To a Mouse…”) came to mind last week. Joy and I had planned to be in Melbourne from just before American Thanksgiving Day (which for some strange reason Australians don’t celebrate) until after the start of the New Year. But then we received word from Tillamook, my home town, that a dear friend from childhood was stricken with pancreatic cancer. Her days were limited.
We debated what to do. It’s a long, long way from Melbourne to Tillamook. To go or not to go, that was the question. Then we learned that JoAnn hoped I could do her funeral. End of discussion.
Bobbie Burns had it right, mostly. The best laid plans do often go askew, forcing the forging of new ones. Our new plan meant a three-legged flight to Portland, Oregon, via Sydney and Los Angeles. On arrival Velcro son Jeff Terrill met us at the airport and drove us to the Widmer home in Tillamook. There daughter Kim and her foster baby joined us from Seattle. Then followed days at JoAnn’s bedside alongside her attentive family. During this time we have also been treated to the always generous hospitality of friends and Velcro family Brad and Gretchen Jacob. (An unanticipated bonus: Brad and Gretchen’s home is an American Christmas haven: colored lights, beautifully decorated real tree, grandchildren’s Christmas program, creches in the living areas, fire in the fireplace every night–the spirit of Christmas everywhere. )
But in the last two lines Burns himself goes askew: And leave us nothing but grief and pain, / For promised joy! No, that’s not right. That grief and pain awaited us we can’t deny. We grieved to see this dearest of friends preparing to leave us. We grieved over our helplessness. We want to stem the tide of the inevitable. We are willing to do whatever, whenever, however to keep her with us a little longer, yet we are unable to do anything but pray and offer a little comfort.
And there has been pain. In this case, though, like a miracle, the pain is ours, not hers. JoAnn has been taking no medicine and feeling no pain. Her mind is clearer than ours. She doesn’t hurt, not physically and apparently not emotionally–and certainly not spiritually. She could sing, if she had the strength, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” Each morning she wakes up hoping not to be here. She is, as she tells us daily, ready.
But here is where Burns misses the mark: “And leave us nothing but grief and pain, for [in place of] promised joy.”
We’ve experienced exactly the opposite. The Widmer house has been filled with joy and, yes, laughter. When one is dying, some may ask how this is possible. There have been lots of tears, of course. There’s no denying that death hurts even the strongest believers in life after death. Where does this joy come from, then? Let me suggest some answers. It comes from–
* a rich “marriage of true minds,” as Shakespeare would have it. George and JoAnn started dating in high school and have been best friends for 70 years, married for 65 of those years. To all who know them, “George and JoAnn” is really one word: GeorgeandJoAnn. To think of one is to think of both.
* a devoted family life. All five children and most of the 22 grandchildren and 20-plus great-grandchildren (and more step-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren) have come from near and far during these last days. Daughter Beth and husband Jon are living full-time with George and JoAnn to provide care, joined by son Mark and wife Pam at least two days a week. Daughter Jill from Springfield has left her work to stay here also. Son Dennis takes time daily to drop in and son Steve checks up from Idaho. Then there are the grandkids… We’ve never seen anyone receive better around-the-clock care. They learn to give such loving care from GeorgeandJoAnn.
* a large circle of friends who are treated like family. Widmer love has never stopped with the biological relatives but has embraced countless others like us Lawsons. So many friends have wanted to visit (58 came one one day) that a No Visitors policy had to be adopted so JoAnn could rest. (George and JoAnn have lived in and given themselves to this same community all 85 years of their lives. They know no strangers.)
* a faith that includes rather than excludes, that is the source of confidence and strength rather than fear and enmity, that believes God is love and that those who believe in Him must express their faith through love. They’ve excelled at it.
* a sense of gratitude for the blessings of life. One thing you do not hear in this household is complaining about life’s unfairness, even though this family has had its share of heartache. Their thanksgiving is a constant in their conversations.
* a delight in diversity. Another thing you do not hear is racial or religious or for that matter any other kind of prejudice. In their Sunday School they learned to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” So George and JoAnn love them in all their variety, even after they’ve grown up!
* a sense of humor that sees the up side of everything, including the routines (that sometimes go awry) of care-giving all through the day and night. Both JoAnn and George have an irrepressible playfulness, as you can see in JoAnn’s ride in the tunnel-slide in this picture–and as you can hear in all the laughter in this house.
* an assurance that life is more than can be contained in a physical body, that death is more like a comma than a period, that God loves with “a love that wilt not let me go,” as the old hymn says. Life is lived forward, even as the number of earthly days grow fewer.
So we have been with this remarkable family, praying and crying and laughing and giving thanks for the gift of God named JoAnn Swett Widmer, one of God’s very best saints.