Janet and Maureen were British octogenarians, each widowed, each living alone in the small Kentish village of her birth, both within walking distance of my home. There, however, the similarities seemed to end.
Janet was thin, quiet, her grey hair and mismatched clothing untidy and not particularly clean. Her little house was ancient, damp and dingy, and smelled of coal smoke, while her kitchen window looked out upon a vegetable plot, dilapidated garden shed, and rusty trash barrel.
Maureen was large and loquacious. Neatly dressed and coiffured, she reigned from a leather recliner over a comfortable sitting room. Family photos, knick-knacks, hymnals, and piano flanked an enormous picture window that overlooked her quiet street and the country park beyond.
Janet lived opposite the Anglican Church, which for decades she had opened for visitors who came to pray or look around. She had led them up to the bell tower, sold them post cards and souvenirs, tea and cakes on Sundays, collecting a pittance for the church and nothing for herself.
Maureen and her husband had been pillars of the Baptist church all their married life. She had taught Sunday school, played organ and piano at services, and faithfully organized all sorts of church functions. She was well known by most in the village, having taught in the primary school until she retired.
Janet collapsed suddenly one night, and although family was summoned, it was hours before they arrived. “But every time I woke up there was someone else from the village sitting beside me!” Years of loyal service to her church and neighbors were now rewarded as loving friends tended to her every need in her final weeks.
Maureen’s macular degeneration hit unexpectedly and progressed swiftly. All of a sudden, she was blind, and the accompanying decreased activity brought on back pain, limiting her even further. However, her days were quickly – and constantly – filled with a stream of friends, former students, and old colleagues who came to read her the newspapers and mail, write her letters for her, and assist her through each day from breakfast to bedtime.
I was reminded of these two dear friends as I read Johann Christoph Arnold’s book Rich in Years. Arnold gently and reassuringly walks with the reader, whatever their age, toward the event that awaits every one of us: the end of our life.
Many people end their days lonely, afraid, and forgotten. Not Janet and Maureen. How they lived determined how their lives ended. Both lived by the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When their days of loving ended, they found themselves richly repaid with the kindness of those very neighbors.
My brother’s wife, who’s been ill all summer, was recently diagnosed with cancer. She’s only 43, a few years younger than me. Will she have another 40 years to prepare for her death? For that matter, will you or I? None of us knows. But if we can live as these two friends of mine did, our lives will be richer for it.