A few months ago, in the late summer, I went into the War Veterans Home and came out again with Mrs. Ruby’s suitcase. Mrs. Ruby followed behind ever so slowly, and she laughed the slowest deepest laugh you’ve ever heard, like a beautiful mother Ent. A beech tree, she would be, strong and white and golden, the last standing of a generation cut down.
We were going to Mrs. Georgia’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina, on just a finger of solid ground in a bay called Land’s End. We made a party of six women, with three widows, Georgia, Marie and Ruby, and three single girls, Annie, Laura and myself. Six women bound by friendship and sea-changes, bound by death and life again, bound by love for the sweet green marsh and the rhythmic tide.
We were grieving. Each felt the other’s. Sorrow was our seventh guest there in the old house. There is freedom in grief’s company, not a morbid shunning of suffering or a worship of it either, but as an honest word among many words, like love and beauty, and certainly not the last one. In this place you could let it go a while. Let it take care of itself. You could think about your friends. You could find yourself comforting them in the bearing of your sorrow. You could say, “Look at that shrimp boat!” and “How about lunch?” and you could, like Laura, laugh at something silly you read and read it out loud so they can laugh at you instead.
In Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, one of my favorite novels, it is prophesied among a group of friends that the war they found themselves in would cost the best of them, and you know the character Peter will have to die before the end. We brought Mrs. Ruby to the sea because some such prophesy was made concerning her. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. She was having strokes. She was sleeping too long. So she would have a holiday. She would have a long car ride down dark roads of mossy oaks, and over precarious narrow bridges. She would eat good food all the day. She would sleep in a real home. She would be surrounded by windows. She would take a shower outside, with a bird’s nest in the beam of the stall, a “million dollar shower” she would say. She would laugh her deep, slow laugh again and again at the young girls. She would see the ocean, one last time.
One evening this autumn, Mrs. Ruby fell.
“Well, that’s not exactly true,” she told me from the hospital bed, “It was really more of a slide.”
Mrs Ruby broke her hip. She has been in bed for two weeks. They have done all they can. She is dying, slowly. She is dying like many do. She wakes up sometimes and tells us about the new birth. They call it her preaching, and it offends many, like that Stone of stumbling she was built into.
“Why have you come?” she asks. And the answer is love. Her eyes light up when you say it, and not until you do. And then she points that lovely narrow finger up to the ugly drop ceiling and says, “This is how we know what love is… Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Maybe you don’t like it and don’t want to hear it, but Mrs. Ruby doesn’t care. She is way past caring. But you will never get over her, nor will I.
Nor will I. She is standing on the shore. She is clean from her shower. She has tasted the goodness of the earth. She is happy like always. She is laughing her laugh. She is telling us goodbye. For just a moment, her eyes opened yesterday on Mrs. Georgia. “I’m okay,” she said. Just two words laid down beside grief and pain and death. Two words from a dry mouth, sent to comfort her friend.
“We have traveled this day to the bounding sea, O Lord, to the far edge of the habitable land, as to the utter end of our own measure and ability and strength…”
Douglas McKelvey, from Every Moment Holy