Few people outside Central Georgia would recognize her name. She never made the news. She never made a lot of money. No one will ever name a building for her; her face will never be on a postage stamp. Fame and fortune were not her lot in life. She never wanted them. Nonetheless, she touched hundreds, even thousands, of lives in a deep, personal way, and those people remember her and honor her.
For nearly 45 years, she worked as a Registered Nurse, 33 years with the same hospital. Most of those years, she worked the graveyard shift, so she could have time to spend with her family after school. From the first day of her career, she developed a reputation as a vocal advocate for her patients, not just providing but demanding the very best care possible. In a time when doctors reigned supreme and nurses were regarded as little more than hired help, few doctors crossed her more than once, though there were a few who took on the challenge as a way of crosschecking their decisions. Charge Nurses and Nursing Supervisors quickly learned to tread lightly and think carefully before speaking. The nurses she worked with and the patients she cared for so deeply gave her their respect and love wholeheartedly.
Through 54 years as a minister’s wife, she never put herself forward as better than anyone else. She did not take and did not want a leadership position in the church. She always said that there were others better suited for the job and gladly yielded that place. She preferred to work behind the scenes, giving her skills in sewing and cooking and whatever time she could make for the church’s benefit.
She was born into a family that would have had to rise several rungs on the social ladder to be considered even poor. Though clothes were scarce and luxuries unreachable, she learned to value of love, hard work, and self-reliance. Marrying a preacher was not a path to fortune, and they lived in abject poverty through the early years of their marriage, gradually working their way up to a degree of security. She never preached her values to others, but her actions and example said more than words ever could. Though she was small in stature, her spirit stood tall and strong. She dared life to do its worst and took on and triumphed over the challenges thrown before her.
Their was only one enemy she could never defeat: diabetes. After a pancreatectomy in 1962, she was insulin-dependent for life. She determined early on that diabetes would not rule her life. For 43 years, she fought the unconquerable disease to a draw, giving ground only grudgingly. But diabetes is a devious and ultimately unbeatable disease. First, it nibbled away at her sight, slowly leaching away her ability to drive at night and to read without magnification. After a sextuple cardiac bypass, followed shortly by an aortal aneurism that was found and repaired just in time, she knew her active life was over.
After her retirement, she threw herself into sewing and church work, but her time was now running out. In 1997, her first serious stroke took half the strength from the right side of her body. Only 2 years later, a second stroke took her left side and condemned her to life in a wheelchair. Although being an invalid was hard enough, the stroke also stole her eyesight to the point that she could no longer read. For an active, self-reliant woman, this condition was close to unbearable, but still she would not give up. For 8 years, she fought against a slowly decaying body, keeping her mind alert and defying the doctors that gave up on her.
Not even the strongest live forever. On December 24, 2005, Christmas Eve, at 5:30pm, she drew her last breath. She died in her living room, with her devoted husband of 54 years, who had been her caregiver for the last 8 years of her life, holding her hand. It was what she wanted. No resuscitation, no mechanical life support besides an oxygen tube and a feeding tube. No fuss, no heroics, no hysterics. She was not afraid to live, and she was not afraid to die.
As her youngest son, I am proud of the lessons she taught me. I am proud of the life she lived. Though her death has left an enormous void in all our lives, we harbor a relief that her long struggle is finally over and a satisfaction in remembering a life well lived. I think the scripture chosen by her minister for her funeral is an accurate summing up of her life:
I have run the great race, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. And now the prize awaits me, the garland of righteousness which the Lord, the all-just Judge, will award me on that great Day; and it is not for me alone, but for all who have set their hearts on his coming appearance.
–2 Timothy 4:7-8