They were something beautiful.
Her nails- bright red and perfectly painted with a shiny lacquer. Making her long slender fingers look like they belonged on a movie star. It’s what I noticed first- what I made a point of looking at before anything else, when I saw her for the very last time.
She was dying, and my mother called an esthetician to come. We often hear of doctors being called, but how many women have the bittersweet joy of being treated to a massage and manicure the day before the die? She wasn’t responding as much anymore, although her eyes were open. She could still see. She could hear. And I believe she knew what was going on around her.
But she was dying, and dying quickly.
Mom wanted her to be comfortable, but she also wanted her to be touched. To be touched is to be treated humanely. To be treated tenderly. To be recognized as being alive. As living. When we are not touched, we begin to curl inward. We retract. My mother wanted to keep her close, so she constantly held her hands. And she brought those in to her bedside who were not afraid of touching. Not afraid of death.
The esthetician massaged her arms and shoulders and she massaged her scalp- something that always brought great pleasure to my aunt when she had been able to express such. And when the young woman had finished the massage, she painted her nails in the most vivid colour she could find. Red. Something warm and cheery, to show the world that there was still light and colour in her life. Even in death.
It was something beautiful to behold.
Those nails were the first thing I noticed when I saw her lying there peacefully in the casket. The fact her nails were painted brought me courage. Because we are alive as long as we are living. We are human as long as there is breath. We can’t believe otherwise. Even those we keep locked away inside those brick-faced institutions- they are living. They are story, they are song. Their life- a work of artistic splendor, brushstrokes painted by a master storyteller’s hands. Their story told in myriad ways, counts for something beautiful.
Their life, it is beautiful even up to the very last breath.
For thirty-one long years she lived life paralyzed and motionless. Virtually mute and unexpressive. And while she lived in the various manors and hospitals, she waited. We stood by and watched, wondering if she would ever come back to us. Wondering if she would ever be healed. I am forty now, but I was eight years old when that pick-up truck plowed into her little car, leaving her motionless. The spark in her eye snuffed out. Emotions snatched away. A fateful trip home on a snowy night which left her to sit and wait all those many years, left her only able to moan out the occasional word. A few repetitious verses and phrases retained from childhood her daily mantra. Left constantly rubbing at her crusted eye, often swollen shut from irritation. Her lifeless hands and legs. No animated gestures to light up a room. They were nearly all but gone, but for the sudden reflexive movement.
There were times in those years when one could see it in her face- a knowing. A deeper sense. There was more to the story than we would ever know. The way she sometimes looked at you, as if she understood. And in that knowing was where we found the deepest wounding – that was where proverbial knife meets flesh and gouges. It cut to the heart. And as she sat year after year after senseless year in that chair by the occasional window, looking outward, we all wondered. Do thoughts of everyday miracles ever fleetingly pass through her mind? Does she know? Does she ever question why? And does God care? Is He with even her, there in the dark recesses of her mind?
It’s what I really wanted to know for sure.
Sometimes what we really want to know, but are afraid to voice in more than merely a whisper, is our craving- our desire for a miracle. Our desire for a sign, for an indication of hope. A sense that there is a God who truly does care. That He is truly with us. That He’s not dead- that He’s alive. That His voice can still be heard over the bellow of our everyday noise. Heard in the dead of night when the only sound is the lone cry of a newborn, a doting mother’s gentle lullaby heard softly in the still of a quiet summer night. Heard and believed. Because God is with us- truly here among the people. In the messy, complicated jumble we call living. He is present. Right beside us in the here and now. This is our miracle. For that is all we truly ever need know in the stark reality of everyday living.
To know that we are not alone. That there is a God and He is with us.
It is truly something beautiful.
But so very easy to forget the truth of this promise when faced with the pain of loss- when faced with the pain of separation. When facing death. And while it is easy to forget such when in the midst of great trouble that is marked by betrayal and rejection, marked by the tragedy of disease and unexpected loss of both minor and grave proportions. While it is easy to forget when those harsh realities so peculiar and perplexing to as human beings are forced upon us. We know: that there is One who stands among us in our midst, even in the midst of all that trouble and distress.
And we can find something beautiful even in the brokenness. We can cling to something beautiful, as beautiful as is the promise of forever. Even in the desolation. Even through the hurt. We can find something beautiful.
For even pain brings beauty for the living to behold. There is something beautiful for our hearts to uncover, even then.