Unexpectedly, yesterday, and for the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege of keeping company at the deathbed of an elderly relative.
My aunt Margaret Harder, 84, was admitted to hospital from the personal care home on Saturday; yesterday morning, tests revealed she had a blood clot in her lungs. Her last years have been a continuing story of failing health and memory, an unhappy story of changes and losses of all kinds, and it was determined that the best course — and the one she wanted — would be to respond with palliative care. She died at just before nine in the evening.
My aunt was a teacher. Once, as a young student, her hair got caught in the teacher’s jacket button when he bent to look at her work. Was he cross? At any rate, he frightened her, and Margaret decided then that when she was a teacher, no student would ever be afraid of her. I’m sure no student ever was. She was not without authority, but above all, there was gentleness in her. She also lavished on us, her nieces and nephews, and our children in turn, great kindness and generosity.
For many years, my aunt taught special needs students — those with physical challenges like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. Yesterday afternoon, George, one of her former students with whom she remained in contact, came to the hospital. It was moving to watch him express his gratitude and affection for her and to see her lift her hand to his, the only time in the day that she made a gesture of this kind. He held her hand a long time.
During my aunt’s last hours, I couldn’t help but think of the next-to-final scene in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian and Hopeful must cross a cold, rushing river to reach the Celestial City. Margaret was not in pain, nor did she seem uncomfortable, but my, what a great deal of hard work it was to get across that last cold river! Yet she seemed to understand what it was for, and where she was going, and as far as we could tell, she was not afraid. And she got there, finally, resolute and well.
I thank God for the life and death of my aunt Margaret Harder.