When Steve and I finished our walk down the long hall and entered Smiley’s room, we saw that he was out of bed and sitting up in a wheelchair. Since he spends much of his time sleeping, we were thankful we had caught him at a more responsive time.
After we had greeted his wife, Juanita, Steve knelt beside Smiley and said, “Smiley, it’s so good to see you. I know how much you’ve always loved to sing; would you like to sing Amazing Grace with us?”
Smiley’s head slowly turned and his eyes fastened on Steve’s face. Then he nodded his head and whispered, “Amazing Grace.”
With a quiet glance between us, Juanita, Steve and I joined our voices to sing that most beloved of hymns. And as we did, Smiley’s face brightened. He sat up a little straighter and every so often, his mouth shaped a few of those timeless words, murmuring them along with us.
We followed that song with the Lord’s Prayer and once again we saw flashes of animation cross Smiley’s face. He remembered a few of the words and tried to say them with us; when he couldn’t remember them, though, he just sat quietly and listened. His eyes were fixed on our faces while his spirit and memory drank in the ancient words that have comforted countless people throughout the centuries.
During the whole time we were there, Juanita stayed busy, rearranging a blanket over Smiley’s knees, touching his skin to see if it was hot or clammy, rubbing his hand, and listening intently to the few words he managed to communicate despite the haze that Alzheimer’s had spread across his mind.
At one point Juanita leaned in close and said, “Smiley, do you know who I am?”
He looked at her for a long moment and then said simply, “Please tell me your name.”
She gently said to him, her husband of many decades, “Juanita. My name is Juanita.” And I saw tears come to her eyes.
It seemed to me at that moment as though no one else existed—not in the room, not in the building, not in the world. No one except for Smiley and Juanita. They sat across from each other, knees touching, eyes locked onto each other, memories and love and exhaustion and fear and faith all vying for space on their faces.
As I took an involuntary step backward away from that holy, intimate scene, the thought crossed my mind that if I were going to capture that picture with a camera, I would do it in black and white.
Simple. Stark. Life and marriage stripped to their essence. Black and white.
It would be a snapshot of life. A snapshot of peace. A snapshot of a man approaching the end of his journey, tended to by his wife, sung to by his pastor, cared for by His Creator.
I knew that in that moment I was getting to witness the truest nuance of the word marriage. I knew that I was getting to witness the deepest meaning of the words, “In sickness and in health.” I knew that I was getting to see the lived-out truth behind the words, “‘Till death do us part.”
I was grateful for the privilege of standing with my husband in a place where old hymns and old vows kept afloat two people who have lived their promises to each other with honor and faithfulness and stubborn, stubborn love.
When we finally left that afternoon, Steve and I were both subdued, our eyes and souls full of what we had experienced—not just in Smiley’s room but also up and down the halls as we saw men and women waiting for their last breath, their last morning, their last day.
They were waiting for the day when their faith would become sight. They were waiting for the day when Amazing Grace would become more than a song and would instead become the first step out of the last moment of their lives—the first step into the brand newness of forever.
But the moment I remember the best from that afternoon was that after we had sung our songs and after we had whispered our prayers, Smiley sat silently in his wheelchair, gazing out toward eternity. And then he said very simply, “I want to go see Jesus.”
I know it won’t be very long until that day comes.
And when it does, we will gather to remember his life. We will gather to celebrate the love that he and Juanita shared. And we will gather to remember all of his moments–the joyful moments that he lived in color and the the painful, tender, sacred moments that he lived in black and white.
Postscript: Smiley was able to return to his home shortly after I wrote this piece and he died there a few days later–surrounded by the love of his family.