Death and life

My birthday was last Thursday. July 28 is always a mixed bag of emotions for me, but not for the standard reason. I don’t really have a fear of growing older, partly because I have always wanted to look older (or at least my age), and partly because life seems to get more flavorful as the years add up. No, my birthday celebrations seem off-key because they share a date with my Nanna’s death, now eighteen years ago.

Nanna was one of the strongest, most generous people I have ever known. She was a stout woman with a hearty laugh and a hug that was so tight it made you squeak. She worked hard as a breadwinner and as the caretaker for my grandfather, who was paralyzed on one side for all the years his life overlapped with mine. She anchored a pew every Sunday and anonymously slipped money – not that she had much to spare – to people in need. She cooked for her extended family many Sundays (lunch wasn’t ready until the forgotten bread was burned!) and she delighted in hosting her grandchildren for sleepovers and playing whiffle ball with us in the yard.

Nanna earned her retirement after decades in sales. She buried my grandfather and great-grandmother. At last unfettered by the many responsibilities she’d shouldered for so long with little complaining, she really began to enjoy herself. She took bus trips. She got into trouble with her friend Mrs. Hannah. And then, without warning – she’d been to the doctor that day, in fact – she died.

I wish my Nanna could have met my husband. She would have loved his big heart and lack of filter. She would have adored our songbird of a son. She would have been proud of my ministry. But while she is gone, she isn’t. I have been and continue to be shaped by her in many ways, and three are especially significant.

Nanna gave me the best gift I’ve ever received. At Christmas one year, I opened a cardboard box to find craft sticks, macaroni, glue, pipe cleaners, fabric, glitter, and countless other art items. And, perhaps most significantly, no instructions. The box was a boundary-less invitation to create, and it unlocked a part of my brain that has been essential to my vocation and my personal life.

Nanna helped pay for my wedding, supplies for my son before his birth, and ongoing education for ministry, even though she wasn’t alive for any of these milestones. Every year she and my PaPaw gave each of their grandchildren a small savings bond. At the time, I was the typically ungrateful child: I’d rather have had a gift card to Waldenbooks <<nerdy flashback alert>>. But as expenses come up, I carefully consider whether Nanna would want to contribute by way of a bond, now worth at least twice as much as the purchase price. I trust my choices make her proud.

And Nanna supported my ministry. When I first discerned my call, she was unsure, though she never said as much to me. (She was, after all, a lifelong Southern Baptist.) But she secretly recruited a friend whose scripture savvy she trusted, and she asked him to walk her through texts about women in leadership. By the end of their study, she was able to trust what she already knew in her gut, that God could and does call women to ministry. Her desire to support me and her commitment to faith continue to encourage and guide me.

My Nanna loved butterflies. A few years ago I officiated a wedding at her church, and I was waiting in the narthex with the groom before the service. I glanced down and saw an abandoned butterfly pin on the floor. I tucked it into my Bible, as sure a sign as any that the dead are yet among the living, and that in the love of God, we are never lost to each other.


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