I only knew her as a widow in her eighties. I met her, my wife’s grandmother, during a trip to her home in Pittsburgh not long before my wife and I were married. Increasingly blind, her senility became more apparent while my wife and I were living abroad. She was to the very end always gentle, kind, and loving. Thousands of miles away, we saw pictures and watched videos of her, uploaded to social media by her loving extended family. She passed away about six months after we returned to the States.
My memory of her will always be as that old woman. Born in 1929, she lived through the Depression, married a World War II veteran, started a family, and helped her husband manage the small grocery store he inherited. They were a cornerstone of the community, which dedicated a day of the year in their honor. The town even named a 5K after her husband. They raised nine children, who themselves matured and succeeded.
But I didn’t see any of that. Just an old, friendly woman capable of simple conversation.
We Know the Dead, But Only Partly
We knew the dead at a particular point, frequently when they are no longer young, beautiful, and full of dreams. We don’t know them when they are children or teenagers, newlyweds, or parents with children. We don’t witness that long trajectory that would prove their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturation, or those times they showed heroic virtue. Only God knows who people are really like, “all the way down.”
When I see pictures of my wife when she was a teenager, I’m tempted to mourn the years I didn’t know her. I can ask her and her family questions, but those days can never be mine. Maybe, I hope a very long time from now, I’ll die before her, and she’ll continue on, again living days I cannot share with her. Her life, in its totality, is for God alone.
Only God has known us since the beginning: “Before I knew you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). He alone knows our every day, every moment. He also accepts all of it, including the days that shame us, that we wish we could wipe out of memory. He sees us as those He created in His image, beautiful, glorious, eternal creations of His divine wisdom. We won’t be aged, wrinkled, and senile. With resurrection bodies, we will be far more glorious and beautiful than in our very best years on earth.
The gospel reading on the day of my grandmother-in-law’s wake was the story of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus, a ruler of a local synagogue, begged Jesus to heal his twelve-year-old daughter, who was close to death. Coming into Jairus’ home, Jesus took the girl by the hand, and said to her, “Tal’itha cu’mi”: “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” She rose and walked about, and Jesus charged the family to give her something to eat.
When God called Angela home, he called her, not only as that eighty-eight-year-old great-grandmother, but as that little girl taken by the hand of her Lord. For as much as she was the former, she most certainly was also the latter. In Heaven, she will be both, and everything in between. And like that little girl, she will have something to eat, an eternal, final meal with Jesus her savior.
Casey Chalk is s a graduate student in theology at Christendom College, and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion.