A tiny little woman of eighty-four when I first met her five years ago, my mother-in-law had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease a few years earlier. And physically, Al has explained, she'd been deteriorating over the past decade. She'd been an energetic woman, never slowing down, a fireball, I think he called her, for eighty years, and now she was tired. Al was the eighth and final live birth of Carrie Bell's ten pregnancies. His arrival made the fourth boy, with three older brothers and four sisters waiting for him at home. He'd been two months premature, born weighing only two pounds, in rural South Georgia in the early 1960s.
Carrie Bell told him often it was a miracle he'd survived. That God had a mighty purpose for his life. She fed him oatmeal every morning for five years. To make him strong!
Over our thirteen years of friendship and marriage, Al has slowly shared favorite memories of his Mom. Like all the times she sent him out to choose a switch for his own backside when he'd been naughty as a child. She still kept him in line as an adult, too, and I could picture her, just as he described, storming up and grabbing a beer can out of his grown-man hand and scolding him in front of God and everybody at a cocktail party. Most of all, though, Al recalls so fondly the evenings he spent at home with Carrie Bell after his siblings grew up and left for college, her drinking coffee and him hot cocoa, there at the kitchen table, just talking.
She listened well, he wistfully remembers.
And she was wise, he tells me, over and over. She knew what was really important. Never asked for anything from anyone, but made her life about taking care of others. To anyone, her life would look like suffering, but for her, joy abounded. She loved Jesus and quoted scripture and listened to the gospel hour on the radio every day, her feet patting to the rhythm, her hands busy baking cakes and pies commissioned by the neighbors and three hot meals a day for her husband and children. They were poor, and Carrie worked hard and tirelessly cleaning houses and cooking and watching school teachers' young kids to help provide. Her husband didn't believe in accepting any sort of assistance. No charity. No hand-outs.
I've listened as Al described the times his father would get drunk and rage against him and his mother, and how she'd sit quietly with just one foot swaying purposefully, refusing to ever say a word to her husband in anger. And Al wasn't allowed to speak up to or against his father, either. When the man became violent, Grandma Carrie would barricade herself and her small, innocent son in the dark, back bedroom and cradle that child's head in her lap, telling him everything would be alright, not to worry.
Carrie valued education, and insisted that all of her children finish college. Most of them rewarded her tenacity by following college with post-graduate degrees. She'd married at fourteen and never completed high school, and wanted so much more for her kids. And she saw them get it, too.
Just before we walked down the front stoop to the circular driveway and climbed into our car for the journey home after each visit with Grandma, she'd hold our hands in hers and pray very, very quietly - so softly that I couldn't even hear what she was asking on our behalf - and I felt lifted and loved and safe. I know this: My mother-in-law's prayers have blessed my husband, my children, and me.
God listened to this woman. A moment in her presence and you knew, without a doubt, she belonged to Him.
And now she was with Him. I held Al tightly and cried. He stood strong and warm against me for a while, then pulled me away from him to look into my eyes, "It's okay. It's good. She's in heaven, Megan."