She was a saint. A saint who loaded up a handful of girls into her sedan and drove us 30 minutes to ElderCare, a nursing home that smelled of urine and thrummed with a quiet panic of a hundred patients who either had no idea who they were, or knew and wanted to escape.
It was not a typical field trip. But then, Aunt Joan was not a typical field trip leader. She wasn’t even my aunt, but that’s what I always called her.
Her official job was to teach us about missions. Our little group, called Girls in Action, met every Wednesday night at church. She taught us about people living in far-away countries. People who ate funny foods and spoke words that sounded so unlike our own long, slow vowels and added syllables. We collected our change in little metal banks shaped like globes, and once a year donated the rattling coins to the Foreign Mission Board.
But that wasn’t enough for Aunt Joan. So on a sticky summer afternoon, she took us to the nursing home. Because feeding nickels into a dented bank wasn’t enough to teach us about loving others. She knew we needed something more complex, more tangible, than waxy crayons and coloring sheets.
We needed to walk down a hallway that smelled so strongly of ammonia that your nose burned. We needed to hold onto wrinkled hands and look into milky eyes.
Aunt Joan needed to teach us that giving and loving are not easy. That they are sometimes scary and sweaty. That sometimes loving your neighbor makes your stomach hurt.
My stomach hurt that afternoon. We were there to visit my grandmother. I felt a mix of pride and fear in that fact. I loved my grandmother in the confused way that a little girl loves a woman she is afraid of. My grandmother had Parkinson’s, a disease that had robbed her of any control of her body, and had also eaten away at her mind.
When I held her shaking hands, we were both out of control. I was too weak to hold her hands still, so together our hands moved in blurry motion. I was afraid of what the other girls would think of my grandmother. Would they laugh at her? Be scared of her?
Aunt Joan ushered us into a room where my grandmother was waiting. She sat in a cracked vinyl chair, her thin gray hair neatly combed by one of the nurses. Aunt Joan sat close to her, and spoke gently. She held my grandmother’s shaking hands, but didn’t even seem to notice the constant motion. She called us girls closer, and everyone spoke to my grandmother.
“It’s nice to see you Mrs. Crawley.”
“We’ve been praying for you.”
“I hope you’re doing well.”
Their words were kind–much kinder than I had expected. But I think we all wanted to be like Aunt Joan that day. We all wanted to treat this broken woman with kindness and dignity. I felt a softness toward my grandmother I hadn’t felt before. Joan taught me that.
At the end of our visit, we all stood around my grandmother to have our photo taken. I hung back, but Aunt Joan called me forward.
“Here, stand next to your grandma,” she said.
So I stood there, in the shorts and button-down shirt my mother had sewn for me, and smiled.
That visit to the nursing home was more than 25 years ago, but last week the memories of it came back to me with startling clarity. I remembered it as I drove down a muddy dirt road in a line of cars, our headlights burning in the misty morning gray. I thought of it as I slipped into a worn pew in the back of the church where Aunt Joan used to play the piano. Thought of it as I walked across a thick carpet of pine needles toward Aunt Joan’s house. And thought of it as I sat in her living room, acutely aware that Aunt Joan was not there.
She died peacefully on a Sunday morning a few days earlier, surrounded by her family. And even in her last days, her last moments, she was showing people how to love. She drew people around her, looked in their eyes and held their hands.
And in the end, she died just as she lived. Teaching others about loving and giving, even as they grieved her loss.
There’s a lot about Aunt Joan I will miss. I will miss her cards and her thoughtful gifts. I will miss her smile and the fact that she was Aunt Joan to every child she knew.
But I also know she left a legacy, that so many of us must carry on. Of helping when it isn’t easy. Giving when it’s uncomfortable.
Of loving others even when it’s scary and sweaty and makes your stomach hurt.