Note from CM: I wrote this story and posted it almost a year ago. Yesterday, we buried George next to Mildred. While I was in Chicago over the weekend, he had an accident, went into the hospital, was admitted to hospice, and died.
At the grave site today, I listened as his family told stories, laughed and cried together. The military honor guard thanked George for his service to our country and saluted him with rifle and bugle sounds. Before we committed his body to the ground and ourselves into God’s care, I told his family two things in the light of not only losing a beloved family member, but also witnessing the passing of a generation.
First, I referred to a passage I often use in these settings: Genesis 25:11 — “After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac.” Though Isaac and his family had lost both Sarah and Abraham, God promised to continue to be with them. His blessing does not stop with the passing of a generation. I encouraged them to trust God and follow the good examples of those who had shown them the way of faith.
Second, I reminded them of this piece, which I had given them to read last year. I told the story again, and then encouraged them to remember that our loved ones are not far from us. George and Mildred are separated from this natural world by only a thin veil, dwelling in God’s presence, close by. We await the day when the veil is finally torn and earth and heaven are one in a new creation.
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George, Mildred, and the Thin Places
from September 2011
The three of us sat together and talked, as we had many times before — the old WWII vet, his daughter, his son, and me their pastor. They had designated me such, ever since I had been hospice chaplain for his wife and their mother Mildred, a lovely woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Upon occasion, when I visited, she would sing and “dance,” her body swaying to a melody in her mind the rest of us could not hear.
Her husband George, wheelchair bound, has had health problems of his own. He also has the most positive, sunny spirit of anyone I’ve met, despite having faced challenges I could not imagine. After two solid years of war zone action, hopping from island to island in the Pacific in WWII, seeing the majority of his companions killed, witnessing untold horrors, he came home to Mildred a broken man. It took him three years to stop having vivid nightmares, to be able to think, to be able to plan their future. With faith and sheer force of will he went into business for himself and became successful. They raised a family and experienced the post-war prosperity of middle America.
At one point, his business burned down. George turned to the insurance company, who called the fire suspicious and never did pay off. Somehow, they survived, rebuilt their lives, and went on. They had each other, loving children, a spirit of optimism, and Mildred’s music. She played the organ in church, and at home around the house was always singing. At times they had little more than that music to carry them through.
When they grew older and more frail, it became clear that Mildred had dementia. The songs in her mind were the only sounds that made sense. George was heartbroken. The two of them had been through so much together, and now she seemed far away. He could touch her, see her, talk to her, but Mildred was somewhere else. And so it it was George in his chair and Mildred swaying back and forth, a caregiver insuring her safety and supporting both of them in their final season of life together.
Mildred’s disease progressed and she became a hospice patient. I made several visits and we became friends. Though their faith was strong, they had not been able to attend church and it seemed like church forgot about them, hidden away in their senior apartment. So it was that I became a pastor of sorts to them, continuing to visit long after Mildred passed away and I conducted her service.
For the past two years, George has continued to amaze and inspire me. He has been through some heart problems and surgery. He has painful arthritis and has had to give up the idea that he might walk again. His hearing has steadily diminished, and the other day when I visited I discovered he could no longer see well enough to use his computer, even though he has a large flat screen monitor. It was his lifeline to the outside world, and now he has lost that.
Yet he won’t complain. In fact, when asked, he still goes out and speaks to groups about his military and post-war experiences, helps young people understand their history, tries to inspire folks to stay positive, to never give up, to trust God and keep going.
As we sat there in his living room the other day, he told me we could put the plastic surgeons out of business if we just kept smiles on our faces.
But George had a question for me that day, too. He had been having visions of Mildred. Lying in bed, he would look over at the bathroom door, and she would be standing there, dressed nicely, smiling. When he sat up to get a closer look, she began to fade and soon she was gone. One time she was lying next to him in bed. He wondered what it meant.
I asked him how it made him feel to see her. It made him feel good, he said, when she was there. He was a little bit confused about why she did not stay.
He had asked me about this once before, but I only had a vague recollection of what I’d said then. His daughter prompted me, “I think you said something last time about how maybe this was God’s way of letting dad know that mom is ok.” I nodded.
“But George,” I said, “I think there may be something more here. Most of us have been taught to think that ‘heaven’ is a place far, far away, out there somewhere. My understanding is that it is more like another dimension all around us, right here. There’s another reality surrounding us that we can’t see, but it’s here and it’s just as real as the things we can touch. That’s God’s realm, and we call it heaven. He and our loved ones are with us, they are close to us even when we can’t see them. And for some reason, at some times, it seems like God opens the curtain a little bit and gives us a glimpse into that unseen world. There are several stories in the Bible that lead me to see it that way.”
“Maybe it’s like that verse that says, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,’” his daughter suggested. “Mom is just in a different room, and God cracks the door open once in awhile to remind us of that.”
I wasn’t sure about her exegesis, but she was right!
“So George, Mildred didn’t come to you from far away when you saw her those times,” I assured him. “She is here, close to you all the time. But every once in awhile, God has given you the gift of seeing her presence.”
I asked him what he thought about that, and he liked it.
His son asked, “Why is it that we’ve never seen her?”
“I wish I knew. These are great mysteries and I am only giving you my thoughts based on what I understand from my reading of the Bible and experiences I’ve had as a chaplain. I would guess that God knows who needs to have these glimpses, and he grants them to those people and not to others.”
“You know, there’s another thing,” I continued. “The Irish Christians talk about what they call ‘the thin places’ — sacred spots here on earth where it seems like the veil between heaven and this world is thin, where God makes himself known and gives special manifestations of himself.”
“George,” I said, “maybe you are a man who lives constantly near the ‘thin places’.”
We closed our visit by praying together. George smiled that steadfast smile. And somewhere close by, Mildred was dancing.