Peg was the last person I expected to see at the grocery store today.
No, let me rephrase that for greater accuracy. I never expected to see her at the grocery store again. Period. Just hours before seeing her, I had written the parish advisor indicating a willingness to be one of the readers at her funeral Mass if the family asked for volunteers from the parish.
Truthfully, I was feeling a little sorry for myself because I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.
When I moved to Custer a year ago, I felt God at work in my life. First of all, everything fell into place even though I was halfway across the country helping Sara move with six-month-old twins when most of the arrangements were made. Katie found my apartment, which is conveniently located across the street from the Catholic Church, and folks in Lake Preston helped me with the actual packing and moving. In many ways, I’ve never had an easier move.
I also felt God at work in the inexplicable joy I experienced for weeks. I say ‘inexplicable’ because unpacking is not fun, because starting a new job is always stressful, and because I was aware of the disconnect between how I felt and how I expected to feel under the circumstances. I found myself remembering an article I read at one time which said euphoria inappropriate to one’s circumstances was one indication of a brain tumor. I started to wonder if I needed to do some research to see if my life was exhibiting other signs.
However, the third reason I felt God at work had everything to do with Peg. On my second day in town, I walked across the street to attend Mass. “I’m going to start this enndeavor right,” I said to myself. I had just knelt down in a pew to thank God for this new phase in my life when a woman with a radiant smile introduced herself to me. Upon learning I had just moved to Custer, she introduced me to everyone present.
That set the tone for my experience of parish life in Custer. When the parish advisor called to set up a meeting for me to register in the parish, it felt like another hospitable hand had been extended. In the following months, I met others and experienced a similar sense of welcome. I remember tears of gratitude pouring down my cheeks one Sunday during Mass when I realized I knew everyone around me. I realized I knew more people after four months than I had known in my previous church after four years.
It was awesome, and Peg was part of it. Not only did she greet me on that first day, but she continued to show an interest in me and in my life. When I was unemployed, her weekly prayer group invited me to join them, so I had companions for that journey in my life.
I was stunned when I learned that Peg had cancer. Yes, there was something fragile about her, but she was also radiant. Whenever I saw her, I would think of the verses in Galatians which list the fruits of the spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodneses, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).
When I saw Peg, I would see a woman whose example inspired me — especially after I learned she had cancer. Faith is an easy path to walk when life is good. When God allows us to be tested, as he allowed Job to be tested, it’s not quite so easy. But, in watching Peg, I did not see that. If she ever stumbled, if doubt ever wormed its way into her heart and mind, it was not evident.
Instead, love poured through her into the lives of family, friends and strangers like me. Instead, her smile radiated joy and in her presence, those who knew her experienced peace. I saw Peg’s patience and kindness in the compassion she showed during our prayer meetings when people would talk about difficulties in their lives. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. They were all there in her self-effacing humor.
If the fruits of the Spirit indicate God at work in a life, Peg’s life was surely an example of God actively at work in our world today. When her son told me last night that she was expected to die within the next day, I was stunned. I hadn’t realized her health had deteriorated so much. How could I have been so blind?
I prayed for her off and on for the rest of the night, and off and on during the morning, asking God to grant her and her family peace in this difficult time. When I went out to run errands, she was in my thoughts. I imagined her much as I had seen my dad during his final hours when I sat with him, praying the rosary over and over because it seemed to comfort him.
I was shocked and momentarily disoriented when I parked in the grocery store parking lot to see her and her husband leaving the store. Granted, she was pale — so pale I realized the cliche “pale as paper” can actually be true in some circumstance. And she appeared more fragile than ever, but when she saw me, she smiled and her arms opened to embrace me as they always have.
“The doctor said I could die the night before last. He said I could die last night, but I’m still here and we were out of groceries,” she said, explaining her presence at the store. She did confess that she would like God to make up his mind — to either heal her or to take her home.
The waiting, I imagine, is difficult, but I didn’t ask. I was just so grateful for that opportunity to see her one more time that I allowed her to lead the conversation. I tried to tell her how much she meant to me, how grateful I am to have known her, but I don’t know if I managed to say it or to say it right.
I do know that in dying she continues to touch those around her with love. As we embraced for the final time, she said, “It’s been a privilege to know you.”
No, no. The privilege was all mine.