My mother died last week.
She was 85 years old and frail.
We’d watched her slowly diminish over recent years, like a flame tapering ever smaller.
On her last day, that flame barely flickered at all until at the very end it gently extinguished itself.
It was peaceful and natural, and she was surrounded by those who loved her. One of the nurses who was present told me it was a “good death”.
I spent her last day with her, sitting on her bed or beside her, telling her she wasn’t alone, that we were there and that we wouldn’t leave until she was gone. She wouldn’t have to make that transition alone.
At one point, I was alone with her for several hours, speaking to her, praying for her, reciting Scripture and singing hymns. During that time a nurse’s aid knocked on the door and entered reverently.
She whispered that she was finishing her shift and wanted to say goodbye. Everyone knew my mother wouldn’t make it through the night.
I’d met her before and seen her often on my visits to my mother’s nursing home. She’d delivered my mother’s meals or cleaned her bathroom. Her name was Naomi.
She sat on my mother’s bed and took her head in her hands and kissed her gently on her cheek. My mother’s eyes were open but she hadn’t been fully conscious for some hours.
“Goodbye, Betty,” Naomi said tenderly, looking into my mother’s glazed eyes. “We had so many laughs, didn’t we, dear? I’ll miss you. I love you.”
This very intentional act of compassion undid me. I began to cry. I feel like crying now as I type this.
To me, Naomi had just been the cleaner. And here she was telling my mother that she loved her.
Through my tears and my breaking voice, I said softly, “Thank you for your kindness to my mother.”
Naomi came around to my side of the bed and hugged me. She kissed me on the side of my face.
I sobbed. She held me. And then she left. I suppose I’ll never see her again.
It was a beautiful, deeply touching moment. An act of kindness by a near stranger.
You know there’s that line in the Bible about showing hospitality to others on the off chance they might be an angel? Naomi’s kindness was kind of angelic. Except she wasn’t the angel. She was the lady who cleaned my mother’s toilet. She had showed hospitality to me as if I might have been an angel.
If we give thanks this year, let it be for the kindness of strangers. Let it be for the myriad ways that ordinary people lavish kindness and hospitality, mercy and goodness, on others, deserving or otherwise.
And let it be that we find fresh resolve to be those kinds of people ourselves. The kind that tell other people’s dying mothers that they love them.
Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles. In fact, we are preoccupied with our own problems. We only sympathize with ourselves or with those close to us because we see our own difficulties so clearly. We see the fingerprints of God in the kindness of strangers. We see just a glimpse of the creatures we were intended by God to be in the first place. And we’re reminded of how far short we so routinely fall from that intention.
And so, at the risk of quoting a fridge magnet, I can’t put the words of Ian MacLaren out of my mind: “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”