Lillian lived a rough life. She had been married a short time, but she got out of it because she saw quickly that it had been a mistake. She made a living as a secretary, in an assembly line, and finally as a clerk in a package liquor store. She was a chain smoker for many years, so it was not a surprise when Chronic Pulmonary Disease took over her final years.
Her older sister, Margaret, on the other hand, lived a comfortable life, married to Bob for over fifty years, mother of two daughters, who were also married and raising families. With her husband, Margaret was active in her church and as a volunteer in the community, but she never had to earn a living outside of the home. Margaret always worried about her little sister, and when Lillian became sick and lived by herself, she made sure that her sister had a comfortable home near her own, had help when she needed it, and that her pastor would visit Lillian and, with the Elders, offer her communion as they did for other shut-ins in the community.
That is how I met Lillian. She didn’t resemble her sister, until she shared a picture of them together as young women. When I met her, Lillian was extremely thin, wrinkled, and leathery, while Margaret was plump, relatively youthful-looking, and often smiling. They were a study in contrasts in appearance, temperament, and life histories.
Underneath the obvious differences, they did share not only their childhood history, but other characteristics as well. They both had worked hard in their own ways and neither took an easy route when the harder route appeared better. Both were questioners and somewhat skeptical, not accepting a superficial answer, but digging deeper. In spite of the different paths their lives had taken, they shared many values underneath the surface.
Lillian did not respond immediately when I first visited her. She seemed a little irked that her sister had asked me to come. She was distant and unresponsive, but I persisted, saying that I liked to keep in touch with the people of our village, whether they were church members or not, just to see if there were needs that we could fill, which was part of our purpose as a church, and Margaret was one of those who made sure that we served that purpose. It was my usual spiel when talking to our non-member and indifferent neighbors. She allowed me to come and eventually to bring the communion elements that she had not received since she was a young woman.
Eventually her health deteriorated to the point that she no longer could stay at home and use oxygen there. She made several trips back and forth to the hospital and spent her final year in a nursing home, where I continued to see her about once a month. It was likely in her last trip to the hospital that she would not be discharged back to the nursing home. She seemed to be slipping deeper into unresponsiveness every day.
Then one day it was different, and she seemed to be unusually bright and alert. After a few light comments, she announced that she had a wonderful experience the night before. Jesus had come to visit her. She saw that I was taken aback, for she continued, “No, really. I know that you were here earlier, even though I didn’t feel like talking. And I know what you’re thinking—that I mistook you with your beard for him, but it really was him. I know the difference between you and Jesus! Don’t think I don’t!”
By this time we both were smiling, for this was the old plain-spoken Lillian that I hadn’t seen for a while. “Well, then, what did Jesus say to you, that made such a difference in you?”
“He said, not to worry, that I would be coming home with him tomorrow night, and I would be able to breathe again. We had a wonderful talk, and then I relaxed and fell asleep. When I awoke he was gone.”
I don’t know what else we said about that visit with Jesus, but soon I was praying a thank you prayer with Lillian, and telling her that, one way or another, I expected to see her again. That night she fell asleep for the last time.