By mid-December, Ruth’s liver cancer and massive chemotherapy had diminished her into a fragile shell of woman waiting for collapse.
I wrote up lengthy lists and shopped as usual between visits to the nursing home to be with this otherwise estranged sister. Every day the crowded stores full of Christmas music seemed incongruous with Ruth’s lonely room that echoed with sadness.
A measure of peace also surprised me, however. Perhaps the Christmas season might be the perfect time to witness the travailing process of re-birth into eternity: God’s ultimate expression of creativity.
One afternoon I peeked around the doorframe of Ruth’s room to find her staring blankly at acoustical dots in the ceiling tiles. “Hey! Guess what! I brought you a Christmas tree!”
Ruth feebly tried to lift her head from the pillow as I plopped the long box on the foot of her bed. “My own tree?” A hint of old characteristic playfulness crept into her faltering voice. “You mean … I’ve been … a good girl … this year?”
I erected the four-foot artificial tree in the corner beside her bed, branch-by-branch, and then draped it with rainbow-hued mini-lights and strands of tiny red beads. Colored glass balls provided the finishing touch. It sparkled with an air of bold festivity amidst the antiseptic sterility of Ruth’s otherwise dimly lit room.
“There! What do you think?”
Ruth laboriously turned her head to one side to study the tree. “It’s … perfect.”
“Except there aren’t any presents underneath.”
“Do you think I care?” Her sideways grin - inspirational in its unapologetic childlikeness – seemed profound.
“I suppose not. Still, maybe I’ll bring a tree skirt tomorrow to cover that awful streaky-gray linoleum.”
Later in the evening an anonymous Christmas elf slipped quietly into Ruth’s room while she slept, leaving a CD player and several CD’s tied with ribbons underneath the tree. Of course I noticed them first thing when I arrived early the next morning.
“Did you hear reindeer on the roof last night, Ruth? Santa must have come! Look what’s under your tree!”
Ruth’s eyes seemed glazed by a thick fog that refused to lift. “Santa?” she mumbled through chapped lips.
“Yes! There’s a CD player wearing a big red bow, and CD’s of some of your favorite contemporary Christian artists!”
“Oh …” A tiny glimmer shone on one cheek, a teardrop-shaped jewel shed from some hidden wellspring. “Can you … play one for me?” Heavy lids closed over marble-eyes; her chest rattled with a sense of urgency. “That one … about imagining … being with Jesus … in heaven. Is it there?”
Later that day an ambulance moved Ruth to the local hospital’s intensive care ward. Toxicity prevailed, overwhelming her swollen body even as a respirator chugged away and various tubes monitored, hydrated, and fed her.
I made sure Ruth’s new Christmas gifts accompanied her to the hospital.
A compassionate nurse with an angelic face offered encouragement. “We’ve sedated Ruth with morphine since her pain levels are mounting rapidly.” The nurse looked me straight in the eye. “But she still may be able to hear, so be aware of that when talking in her presence. Remember to be sensitive.”
The timing seemed perfect when a few friends from Ruth’s church showed up and joined me to circle her bed, hand-in-hand.
We clicked the CD payer “on.” Ruth’s song, the one she’d requested earlier, poured forth to fill the aseptic environment with melodious questions framed in unspoken assurance. We sang along with tears streaming down our cheeks.
I can only imagine what it will be like, when I walk by Your side ...
I can only imagine, what my eyes will see, when Your Face is before me!
I can only imagine. I can only imagine.
Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?
Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing 'Hallelujah!'? Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine! I can only imagine!*
A dark, silent tear formed in the corner of Ruth’s closed left eye to stealthily trickle down her face and disappear into her pillow. In that moment of conscious surrender we shared with her the best Christmas gifts of all: commitment, honesty, reverence, faith, love – and most of all, hope.
copyright 1999: MercyMe
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